Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Evolutionary Arguments Against Being Thin
Here in the West, we live in an environment where the predominant body image ideal for women is to be thin- being skinny is considered the Holy Grail for many of today’s women and images in the media reflect this idealization as most popular models are ultra thin and further enhanced through post image processing to look even thinner than they already are. The ultra-thin look unfortunately embodies a certain degree frailty and lack of physical ability, with low to no muscle tone and a body weight to height ratio that falls far below recommended standards for healthy body composition. It is somewhat ironic that only a very small percentage of Western women meet the ultra-thin ideal  and that over the past few decades women’s body sizes have increased while societal ideas of ‘beauty’ call for thinner and thinner looking bodies. Exposure to the ultra-thin ideal is practically unavoidable as advertisements, television, movies and magazines constantly bombard us with images of tall, (usually white) thin models and actresses with an almost anorexic BMI of under 18.5- one that is far below that of the average American woman. The discrepancy between the unattainable sociocultural ultra-thin ideal and the average Western female’s body has had far reaching effects on the female Western population. So much so that Western female concern over their physical appearance is termed ‘normative discontent’ since the overwhelming majority of women today harbor some degree of insecurity regarding their body image.[44, 45] Such body dissatisfaction is a major is a major risk factor for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as well as mood disorders such as depression.[3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8] While there are many discussions about the root causes of body dissatisfaction and the fact that attempting to be ultra-thin is unhealthy both physically and psychologically we seldom stop to consider that the idea of being thin goes against our evolutionary past and possibly against our genetic makeup. In this article we look at the ultra-thin standard of beauty from an evolutionary standpoint and show that it not a universal ideal, but rather a path towards shame and misery and that ultra low body fat is not healthy. Thank you for reading my work and do be sure to share it with someone who would benefit from reading it!
Being Skinny Isn’t Ideal- Conflicting Ideas Of Beauty in Other Cultures
While millions of women in Western countries believe that being skinny as an ideal, the models, actresses and celebrities who embody this standard of beauty would have a very difficult time being perceived as attractive by the standards of most non-Westernized inhabitants of our planet.  One of the problems is that we like to think that our standards of beauty are somehow ubiquitous, and all women should aspire to be as thin as possible, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Cultures differ widely in their attitudes towards female body fat levels [9,11, 12 13] and most undeveloped countries associate having a considerable amount of body fat in certain parts of the body with high status.  The exact opposite of how body fat levels are perceived in North America and Europe where millions of women are diet obsessively in a bid to become as thin as they possibly can- often with adverse physical and psychological consequences. There are exceptions though, as minorities in Western countries (who typically have lower incomes) tend to identify with a heavier look as an ideal, while white women see a far thinner look as being the epitome of what it means to be beautiful. The standard explanation for these different perceptions of beauty has always been that people in poorer countries and those of lower socioeconomic status in developed countries have far lesser access to food. Consequently, a woman who is a bit on the heavier side would be assumed to have an abundant food supply and thus more likely to be both fertile and in good health. A practical ideal that those of lesser means would logically strive to attain. 
As reasonable as this may sound, the food supply hypothesis does not stand up to closer scrutiny, as men who are fatter in developing countries are often perceived as lazy and not hardworking- negative traits that make them undesirable as mates. More significant is the reversed notion that being thin in affluent countries is a sign that you are affluent enough to know where your next meal is coming from so you can afford to control your caloric intake. On the surface this certainly sounds does plausible, but thinness cannot logically be a symbol of status because it is impossible for an outside observer to know whether someone is thin because they choose to be thin or because they are impoverished and have a limited food supply. ‘Pro-skinny-as-a-sign-of-wealth’ explanations also do not factor in how being thin would have been an evolutionary advantage for women and how it could ever have been an aid to the continued development and survival of the human species.
Being Skinny Isn’t Ideal- The Importance Of Fat
Fat has a very unfavorable connotation in this part of the world, but it does nonetheless play an important biological role in human females. Fat acts a as a storage mechanism for calories in the event of reduced food supplies, it provides insulation against cold temperatures and plays a major role in endocrine function by regulating the onset and maintenance of ovulation. [14,15] By storing calories, in our ancestral environments were there wasn’t always ample supplies of food, fat enabled our survival in times of famine and the allowed for the continuation of the species by allowing women to bring a baby to full term and keep the infant alive through successful lactation. Before the invention of effective baby formula in the 20th Century, all human newborn infants who were not breastfed would die of starvation as they are unable to consume any other calorie source besides human milk, so it was imperative that mothers had adequate body fat stores to support the high caloric demand that breast feeding imposes or have the child nursed by another lactating female.  Keeping that in mind, from an evolutionary point of view, those who were underweight (sporting the highly coveted skinny look that is idealized in the West) would have difficulty conceiving much less being able to bring a baby to term or breastfeed. Models and those who strive to be underweight today regularly struggle with amenorrhea and very seldom are able to lactate. 
Being ultra-thin, would reduce estrogen store and limit not only fertility, but also increase incidence of osteoporosis and the woman’s ability to survive food shortages and the constant physical demands of the pre-agricultural age. Consequently, women with higher body fat levels would have higher rates of survival than thin ones and ancestral males would logically favored ‘fatter’ women as they would increase the likelihood of successful mating and child bearing. Consequently, not having an ultra-low body fat percentage can be thought of as a universal human standard of beauty, one that may have been warped in the same way the human diet has been negatively and radically changed as a result of industrialization and the social and physical changes that come with living in today’s world. That said, if our ancestors emulated today’s Western standard of thinness it would have guaranteed the demise of the human race in our food scarce ancestral environments. 
Being Skinny Isn’t Ideal- Changing Historic Standards of Beauty
To support the prehistoric ideal of women not being thin, we have more than enough evidence of the idealization of a rounded female body in prehistoric art [21,22] and as a recurring theme in Western art as well until relatively recently. Our obsession with thinness came hundreds of thousands of years after the origin of our species and the early civilizations that did embrace a skinny ideal did so at a price.  Egyptian art for example, shows the idealization of a linear, thin and skinny physique for women of higher status- a look indistinguishable from the underweight, ultra-thin ideal of today. Our earliest records of lactation failure and the need for wet nurses come from historic Egyptian records dating back to 1500 BC as women emulating the thin ideal were apparently unable to breastfeed and we can surmise would have had difficulty conceiving as well. [23,24] In China a rounded, soft belly was an ideal for women as it was believed that a woman’s ch’i or vital energy resided in the lower abdomen. Women were ideally slim, but never to the degree of modern Western standards as they always had some fat in the abdominal region.  Ironically, from the fertile looking female portrayals of early prehistoric art to the busty and rounded women of the Renaissance period the idealized female in the Western World was somewhat voluptuous in nature as well. In fact, a certain degree of body fat has been a societal Western ideal from the beginning of recorded Western history up until the 1960’s when Marilyn Monroe’s curvaceous figure was very much the standard young girls aspired to emulate. 
In the 70’s, the popularity of Twiggy, an emaciated fashion model signaled a turn in the feminine ideal in print as her image and that of slimmer women sold more magazines compared to those with models whose body composition was more in line with that of the average woman. These changes happened in the arts as well, early photographs and paintings of ballerinas show them as being rather robust in build, but in the mid-20th Century this changed when choreographers such as George Balanchine, (often referred to as the father of classical ballet), envisioned a hipless and streamlined, (one could say boyish) figure as the ultimate expression of feminism in dance. An ideal that did away with the larger and more average sized dancers with healthy BMI’s and replaced them with the new standard calling for performers to be somewhere in the range of 5’7 weighing at or about 95 lbs. A body composition that falls well into the range of being under a healthy weight.  It is hardly a surprise that researchers have found that 15% of female dancers are anorexic and that over half display anorexic type behavior,  which many credits as a direct result of Balanchine’s standard.  Just as models are in magazines, ballerinas in Western societies are also often internalized as an example not only of perfection, but of what the feminine norm should be. Reviews of images in women’s magazines from the early 20th Century to the 1980’s and from 1959 to 1999 reveal that featured models have become significantly thinner over time  and one of the ways that this thin standard is achieved is by using younger and younger models.  As an unfortunate result, underage girls who should not be engaged in sexual activity are regularly used as a models, dancers and performers representing a societal sexual ideal.  One that creates an undesirable pressure on young girls as they are also forced to identify themselves as sexual objects at an early age- and thus are more likely to strive to embody the ultra-thin ideal. 
Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Who Is To Blame?
The knee jerk reaction is to blame the media for the unhealthy idealization of the skinny, mannequin look- but it would be a mistake to do so as they are more a reflection of the problem than the actual cause, a problem that has been in existence among upper class European women since the 1500’s, long before the media had a firm hold on our collective consciousness. While some studies do find evidence of negative effects of media exposure to thin ideals on female body image[29,30,31], those studies have never been conclusive and when reviewed are regarded as correlational at best. Equally important is that a considerable number of studies have contradicted the idea that media images are the genus of the ultra-thin body ideal. Research that has shown that media exposure to ultra-thin portrayals of women have no effect or in some cases, even positive effects on women without pre-existing issues of body dissatisfaction or eating disorders.[32,33,34,35,36] The disparities suggest that something far more complex than media pressure drives the female Western desire to be thinner, Another common misconception is that women manage the way their bodies look to please men, but (as many men can readily attest) research shows that the preference for thinness is one usually imposed on women by other women. In fact, several studies have found that the average North American male tends to prefer women who are significantly larger than the skinny ideal. [37,38]
The facts of the matter require us all to look a little more closely at the issue, as like so many societal problems, it comes perhaps as a result of several social issues rather than one simple causative factor. The role of women in influencing the thin body ideal, for example, is seldom discussed, but studies have found that a young girl’s body image is influenced almost exclusively by their mothers and female peers. [39,28] Other studies find that the strongest effects on female body dissatisfaction are not from distal influences such as the media, internet, movies, magazines and television but from comparisons to close associates or unfriendly females. Dissatisfaction that increases significantly in the presence of an eligible male. The most interesting finding though, is that body dissatisfaction is reported as being consistently lower in the presence of an eligible male among girls whose BMI fall within in the normal range and actually higher in underweight girls. While being ultra-thin may be a societal ideal, women who embody that much coveted look tend to feel the most degree of discomfort in the presence of other females and a desirable male. This particular study was done with women who were mostly Hispanic but it does call for more research into the subject with other ethnic groups.
Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Why Ideals Tend To Be Unattainable & The Importance of Self-Acceptance
The fit look is becoming more and more popular among women and it can be achieved by simply following a healthy lifestyle as Christine Coen demonstrates.
It’s an extremely complex issue- with several other possible economic and child bearing related motivational factors, but there is one common thread between our current Western preoccupation obsession with thinness and our ancestral glorification of the rounded fatter look among women. Both ideals where just that- ideals. Ones that represent an idea that is for the most part unattainable by most of the population in both eras. To illustrate this point, we need only look at the limited food supplies and active lifestyles of modern hunter gatherer ancestors to see that actual obesity or even being overweight (and the chronic problems that can accompany it) was improbable among pre-agricultural humans. [40,41] We need only look at the women of modern hunter gatherer tribes to see that obesity is not a norm even though it may be thought of as being favorable. Women from hunter gatherer tribes tend to be what we would consider ‘athletic’ by today’s standards- with good muscle tone and muscle definition,  with a look that many Western women in the fitness world strive to attain. In fact, many routinely subject themselves to unhealthy and restrictive diets while over exercising in the name of attaining that particular ‘fitness look’ as an alternative to the ultra-thin ideal, a look that often focuses on the realization of a certain look rather than a healthy lifestyle. It does not have to be this way as it can be attained without extreme measures, but unfortunately the extreme approach is the one most common in our society. All the while the ‘athletic’ looking hunter gatherer women look westward to the curvier and rounder looks of typical of Western women as an ideal that they would love to emulate.
In the end it seems that we are almost hardwired to idealize what we are not, however, it is important to not compare ourselves with others or any standards about how we should or should not look as ultimately, it’s what you can do that determines human fitness and longevity, not what you look like. Imagine how much more we could accomplish as a society if issues of low self-esteem were reduced by a societal shift from it being all about how you look to a communal idea of self-acceptance with a priority placed on being healthy and about how you feel? Just imagine? A healthy lifestyle with a proper diet and regular exercise may not make you look like you should be on the cover of a magazine, but it can make you feel that way- and that’s far more important.
Please note that all material is copyrighted and DMCA Protected and can be reprinted only with the expressed authorization of the author.
🇺🇸 Celebrity Trainer/Nutritionist 🇹🇹
🏆Natural Bodybuilding Champ
🏋🏿 High Intensity Training ⬇️
Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to network TV, Kevin Richardson is the international fitness consultant for UNICEF, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the top personal trainers in New York City.
References For Being Skinny Isn’t Ideal:
1. Center for Disease Control & Prevention Health United States 2013
2. Thompson, J. K., Heinberg, L. J., Altabe, M., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. Exacting beauty: Theory, assessment, and treatment of body image disturbance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association 1999
3. Kluck, A. Family influence on disordered eating: The role of body image dissatisfaction. Body Image 2004
4. Mora-Giral, M., Raich-Escursell, R. M., Segues, C. V., Torras-Claraso, J., & Huon, G. Bulimia symptoms and risk factors in university students. Eating and Weight Disorders 2004
5. Shaw, H. E., Stice, E., & Springer, D. W. Perfectionism, body dissatisfaction, and self-esteem in predicting bulimic symptomatology: Lack of replication. International Journal of Eating Disorders 2004
6. Keel, P.K., & Klump, L.K. (2003). Are eating disorders culture-bound syndromes? Implications for conceptualizing their etiology. Psychological Bulletin 2003
7. American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved June 15, 2010 from www.apa
8. Kostanski, M., & Gullone, E. Adolescent body image dissatisfaction: Relationships with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression controlling for body mass. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 1998
9. Furnham, A., and Alibhai, N. Cross-cultural differences in the perception of female body shapes. Psychological Medicine 1983
10. Anderson JL, Crawford CB, Nadeau J, Lindberg T. Was The Duchess of Windsor Right? A cross cultural review of the socioecological of ideals of female body shape. Ethology & Sociobiology 1991
11. Ford, C.S. and Beach, F. Patterns ~ (Sexual Behavior. New York: Harper. 1952
12. Sobal J, Stunkard. A.J Socioeconomic status and obesity: A review of the literature. Psychological Bulletin. 1989
13. Brown, P.J., Konner, M. An anthropologic, al perspective on obesity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1987
14. Frish RE. Body fat. menarche, fitness, and fertility. In Adipose tissue and Reproduction 1990
15. Nimrod, A. and Ryan, K.J. Aromatization of androgens by human abdominal and breast fat tissue. Journal of Clinical Endocrinological Metabolism 1975
16. Dittmar, H., & Howard, S. Professional hazards? The impact of models’ body size on advertising effectiveness and women’s body-focused anxiety in professions that do and do not emphasize the cultural ideal of thinness. British Journal of Social Psychology 2004
17. National Institutes of Health U.S. Department of Health & Human Services 2014
18. Hatsu IE1, McDougald DM, Anderson AK. Effect of infant feeding on maternal body composition. Int Breastfeed J. 2008
19. Cosins JM, Frederickx Y, Yousif A, Hamoir M, Van den Eeckhaut J.[Mannequin syndrome] [Article in French] Int Breastfeed J. 2008
20. Tooby J, Cosmides L. Evolutionary Psychology and the generation of culture part I: Theoretical Considerations. Ethology and Sociobiology 1989
21. Guthrie, RD. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. University of Chicago Press 2005
22. Power C. Women in Prehistoric Rock Art. In Berghaus G(ed) New Perspective on Prehistoric Art. Praeger: Westport/CT London 2004
23. Osborn MS. The rent breasts. Part II. Midwife, Health Visitor & Community Nurse. 1979
24.Wickes IG. A history of infant feeding. Part I. Primitive peoples: Ancient works: Renaissance writers. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 1953
25. Anderson JL, Crawford CB, Nadeau J, Lindberg T. Was the Duchess of Windsor Right? A Cross-Cultural Review of the Socioecology of Ideals of Female Body Shape. Ethology and Sociobiology 1992
26. Brumberg Jacobs, Joan. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House, INC, 1997
27. Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia; Josselyn Crane. “A Losing Battle: Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Thin-Ideal Images on Dieting and Body Satisfaction”. Communication Research 2011
28. Ferguson CJ, Munoz ME, Contreras S, Velasquez K. Mirror, mirror on the wall: peer competition, television influences and body image dissatisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2011
29. Birkeland, R., Thompson, J., & Herbozo, S. Media exposure, mood, and body image dissatisfaction: An experimental test of person versus product priming. Body Image 2005
30. Bissell, K. L., & Zhou, P. Must-see TV or ESPN: Entertainment and sports media exposure and body-image distortion in college women. Journal of Communication 2004
31. Halliwell, E., & Dittmar, H. (2004). Does size matter? The impact of models’ body size on women’s body-focused anxiety and advertising effectiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2004
32. Dalley, S., Buunk, A., & Umit, T. Female body dissatisfaction after exposure to overweight and thin media images: The role of body mass index and neuroticism. Personality and Individual Differences 2009
33. Heinberg, L.J., & Thompson, J.K. Body image and televised images of thinness and attractiveness: A controlled laboratory investigation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 1995
34. Trampe, D., Stapel, D., & Siero, F. On models and vases: Body dissatisfaction and proneness to social comparison effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2007
35. Clark, L., & Tiggemann, M. Sociocultural and individual psychological predictors of body image in young girls: A prospective study. Developmental Psychology 2008
36. Tiggemann, M. The role of media exposure in adolescent girls’ body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness: Prospective results. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2006
37. Mazur, A. U.S. trends in feminine beauty and overadaptation. Journal Sex Research 1986
38. Polivy, J., Garner, D.M., and Garfinkel, P.E. Causes and consequences of the current preference for thin female physiques. In Physical Appearance, Stigma. and Social Behavior, C.P. Herman, M. Zanna, and E. T. Huggins (Eds.I. Hillsdale, N J: Erlbaum. 1986
39. McCabe, M.P., Ricciardelli, L.A. A prospective study of pressures from parents, peers, and the media on extreme weight change behaviors among adolescent boys and girls. Behavior Research and Therapy 2005
40. Cohen, M.N. Health and the Rise of Civilization, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1989
41. Brown, P.J., Konner, M. An anthropologic, al perspective on obesity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1987
42. Diamond J. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?Penguin Books 2013
43. Spitzer, B. L., Henderson, K. A., & Zivian, M. T. (1999). Gender differences in population versus media body sizes: A comparison over four decades. Sex Roles 1999
44. Striegel-Moore, R., Franko, D. Body Image Issues among Girls and Women. In T. F. Cash & T. Pruzinsky (Eds.), Body Image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice. New York: Guilford Press.
45. Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. Thin ideals in music television: A source of social comparison and body dissatisfaction. International Journal of Eating Disorders 2004