Sizing up the female body

Your choice...

On the subject of health beliefs and prejudices, I’ve been looking at research showing that women who drink alcohol may be less at risk of becoming overweight.

Being a woman who enjoys the occasional half of real ale, my initial response was an insightful ‘Ha! That’s because we’re out enjoying ourselves instead of sitting at  home watching TV and eating biscuits.’

Which makes me realise 2 things: (1) we all like a bit of validation of our own choices and (2) I assume that eating too much is worse than drinking too much.

I might not even have noticed this assumption, had it not been for last week’s History of the Human Body class, where we looked at the uncomfortable topic of obesity. Our tutor made a fascinating point about how the way we think about our bodies has changed.

Before the 20th century, we didn’t have standard sizes. You didn’t identify yourself as ‘size 10’, a ‘plus size’, or, heaven forbid, ‘size zero’. If you wanted a dress, you had it made to fit your individual shape. Or you made it yourself, to fit your own idiosyncratic contours. Your body was your own, not something to be categorised by clothing manufacturers.

It got me thinking. Does this explain the popularityof cosmetic surgery, as well as diets that promise to help you ‘drop a dress size’? My essay for the course is about 19th century devices that promise to ‘improve’ a woman’s bust. Yet they don’t talk in terms of ‘becoming a C cup’ like modern women might. There was no such thing.

In the Daily Mail, I read about some poor woman whose breast enhancement surgery went horribly wrong. She’d ‘wanted a pair of 36C cups for her 40th birthday’. But why? Because she’d been told that was the ideal, or the standard, or the average?

In a world where clothing and other consumer goods are manufactured to standard sizes, are we really being asked to cut our bodies to fit our clothes, instead of vice versa? And if so, what on earth does that say about where we, as consumers, fit into the scheme of things? It’s enough to make you reach for a half of real ale.

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