My Prison of the Perfect Size: Culture and Body Image

By Angela Noel Lawson

May 2019

Simone de Beauvoir, French author and philosopher, wrote, “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.” Put another way, to have confidence in one’s body is to have confidence in oneself. Like many women, I have a complicated relationship with my body. For years, I viewed it as a criminal, and sentenced it to a prison-like existence. But then, after almost a 40-year term, I began to set it free.

The early years

As a teen in the 80s I worried about being ‘fat.’ The Sweet Valley High books told me heroines are blond and a ‘perfect size six.’ I believed it, and I’m not alone. In 1985, the Sweet Valley High series was the first young adult paperback title ever to make the New York Times Bestseller list. Then, in 2008, some of the books were re-published. But this time, the twin teen heroines had shrunk from a ‘perfect size six’ to a ‘perfect size four.’ Adrienne Day, writing for Entertainment Weekly magazine had this to say about that, “Kudos, Random House, for not only introducing body-image issues to a whole new generations of young fans, but proudly trumpeting this point in the press release.”

Now imagine for a moment if Frank and Joe Hardy from the The Hardy Boys had been described like this: “Along with solving mysteries, Frank’s perfect 32-inch waist was the envy of all his friends.”

Size matters?

Bodies are different. An international standard for clothing size doesn’t exist. For example, a UK six is equivalent to a US two. Clothing designers employ fit models whose body shapes and sizes conform to that particular brand’s conception of how its clothes should look. Though generally within some parameters of height and weight, these fit models, like all humans, have more inches here and less there. Whereas an ounce of cheese weighs the same as an ounce of gold, a size six from one clothing line will not necessarily fit a size-six-wearer in another.

To illustrate this, in 2016, the Huffington Post published an article about a 27-year-old woman demonstrating the arbitrariness of sizes. She showed how the very same human at a particular point in time could easily own a host of pants, all fitting generally the same, but labeled with widely varying sizes from six to 12 or beyond.

In that same year, after a dust-up involving comedian Amy Schumer and Glamour magazine, USA Today ran a story titled, “You’re fat in America if we say you are.” The author, Alia E. Dastagir, wrote,

“Glamour is trying to celebrate larger women’s bodies, but it’s still part of a cultural apparatus that connects women’s worth to their appearance, rather than to their skills, talents, personalities and intellect.

America is not close to a size-agnostic utopia, and we may never be. History has shown us that while the standard of beauty has evolved, there’s always been a standard.”

The Sweet Valley High effect

Ignorant to the size-crazed world I’d inherited, I spent my childhood making up dance routines and reading fairy tales. I wrote short stories and played for hours alone in my room. Neither sedentary nor active, I valued imagination over exertion. But puberty changed that. When I was 13, I started working out to stay skinny. By 16, I had a gym membership paid for out of my minimum wages as a cashier at the local Souplantation.

As I wrote in my essay, “The Problem with ‘Pretty Girls’ and Princesses,” we affirm what we value. Being pretty and being the ‘perfect’ size were (and arguably are) the thing we most value in girls and women, and what girls and women come to value most in themselves. I call it The Sweet Valley High effect.

The books are not the root cause of this cultural phenomenon. But they are emblematic of a culture capable of imagining these books, publishing them, reading them, lauding them, and then re-publishing them with skinnier versions of their ‘perfect’ protagonists more than 20 years later.

The means to which end?

For most of my teen and young adult years working out was akin to a criminal doing time; I didn’t want to, I had to.

Though I didn’t develop an eating disorder, people I love did. Research connects exposure to the types of body-image modeling evident in books, television, and the internet to the development of eating disorders. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt Health System, note a study done in 1998 about the effects on young women in Fiji when exposed to Western television. “This new media exposure,” according to the study, “resulted in significant preoccupations related to shape and weight, purging behavior to control weight, and negative body image.”

According to Eating Disorder Hope, an organization founded to support individuals and their families grappling with these issues, eating disorder sufferers have the highest rate of mortality among those with psychiatric disorders. Developing an eating disorder and courting death by suicide depends on many factors, but if even one of them can be mitigated by counteracting negative and ‘suffocating’ societal messages, shouldn’t we try?

Some organizations around the world are trying. The Body Positive, for example, strives to teach “people how to reconnect to their innate body wisdom so they can have more balanced, joyful self-care, and a relationship with their whole selves that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humor.” For myself, I found a type of body-positive point-of-view in an unexpected place.

Finding my own body-positive focus

In my late-thirties, after divorce and single-parenthood, I met the man who’d become my second husband. He, by virtue of simply enjoying physical activity as a good in itself, helped me see beyond the chore of fitness to the joy of it. He introduced me to others, women and men, who weren’t after skinny or the size of a pair of jeans. They wanted to be active, to DO things. Through this lens, I began to break free of the prison of body image. Only in the past six years has working out become less about my physical appearance and more about what fitness buys me in quality of life.

Now, I love how strong I feel after a hard lift, or a billion and one squats. I love the rubbery feel of my legs after a long run. But that doesn’t mean I’m free from inspecting my butt in the mirror with a look of disgust. It happens less, but it still happens. As much as I want to enjoy the strength of my glutes, not lament the dimples in my skin, I still struggle. I still must fight the urge to see my body as criminal for all it isn’t, instead of seeing it as valuable for all it is.

Every body has abilities, not every body has the same ones. This realization brings with it the recognition that I am part of the judgement machine that created ‘The Sweet Valley High effect’ in the first place. It’s up to me to challenge the prisons I put others in, as much as I fight to free myself from my own.

As de Beauvoir said, my body should be a source of confidence, not the reason I lack it. I want the energy I have, the strength I feel, and the mountains I climb (real and metaphorical), to guide me, not the size on a label affixed to a waistband. I want that for girls (and boys) the world over. I don’t want the next generation to fixate on the ‘pretty princess’ narrative. Nor do I want any of us, men or women, to view our bodies as the perpetrators of the crime of never being good enough.

My body can hike fourteen thousand feet. It runs, practices yoga, and dances. It hugs, cuddles, and kisses. My body cooks, sneezes, and types. It smiles and laughs. It fuels my potential and my contribution to the world. It deserves my respect. I honor it when I reject the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect size. Building confidence in my body starts with acknowledging all the good it does for me, and goes from there.

Your turn: Do you remember the Sweet Valley High books? Have you found a body-positive point of view or are you still searching? What have you learned in your journey that you’d want to pass on to others struggling with body image?

Originally published on Medium in The Ascent.

Feature photo by Gesina Kunkel on Unsplash

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

15 thoughts on “My Prison of the Perfect Size: Culture and Body Image”

  1. Oh, the prisons we put ourselves into out of irrational fears or conforming to the “perfect” of anything. I once a heard a wise young person say that he didn’t want to be perfect because then he wouldn’t have anything new to learn. I grew up with Seventeen Magazine and Twiggy. Same story; different era. Vanity started in the Garden when the temptation to be perfect, like God, threw humanity into chaos. I do think that there is more awareness of the body image problem. We just have to keep at it. So, thanks for sharing your struggles and journeys with us. It keeps the conversations going.

    1. I know that wise young person! He uses a booster seat in the back of my car. 🙂
      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences too. We are all a product of our environments and all we can do is improve on the past.
      I just heard a wonderful friend tell me at times it seems like we’ve almost gone too far in trying to be ‘positive’ about our bodies. Doesn’t it matter if we’re healthy? Doesn’t it matter if we’re clean? And I think it does. We can’t eat ding dongs for breakfast everyday and wear smelly clothes because we’re too lazy to wash them and demand that society say we’re perfect either. What I’d like to see is a lack of judgment about the things we cannot change, and a supportive encouraging environment focused on health outcomes not just sexual attractiveness. I’d like to see a re-balancing of priorities.
      I think we can make that happen.

  2. Great, affirming essay Angela. However, I want to talk a bit about the Hardy Boys. Those books aren’t immune from their own body shaming. Frank and Joe’s best friend, Chet Morton, is incessantly referred to as stout, plump and chubby. I recognize that the Hardy Boys is from different era where people didn’t live on high fructose corn syrup, but Frank and Joe are drawn IMO unbelievably thin, given their athletic nature and their ability to knock out thugs with one punch. In drawings from the early series, I’d call Chet barely husky.

    1. Great point! I don’t know much about the Hardy Boys series–I probably only read one book. I think you prove the point that body shaming issue are not just a problem for women. For everyone there’s this ideal that just doesn’t represent reality for most of us. I think we’d be hard-pressed to never refer to bodies or beauty or standards of attractiveness in one way or the other, I just think we need a much wider (no pun intended) definition.
      But, I am curious–do you think you, from a male point of view, felt more pressure to look a certain way or to act a certain way? I’m just curious.
      I think for women, we’re socialized to focus on our looks first and our achievements second. For boys, I think it’s the opposite. But, I’d be curious to hear what you think.

  3. I wasn’t into Sweet Valley High, but I was a ballet dancer. So, it’s something of a miracle that I never developed an eating disorder. I sure saw it plenty in my friends. Conforming to an ideal, when it’s not the ideal for your body, is never healthy. Once I quit, I discovered my ideal weight, where I can eat what I want–maybe a slice of pizza!?–and not have my body reject it. It feels wonderful to be in balance. Do I sometimes long after my skinny dancer body? Sure. But I’m glad those days are over. Great essay. Thank you for sharing!

    1. What an interesting experience you must have had. I definitely understand how it feels to find your “right” body weight. I’m so glad you found yours. Do you think you miss the thinness or the fitness level you had as a dancer (you may be just as fit now–I don’t know, just guessing it’s a different level of athleticism).

  4. That is horrifying about the modification of the twins’ size. I do remember finding their physical perfection irritating when I read this series (obsessively – all of our class did). I didn’t particularly identify with the Sweet Valley twins. It is something very superficial, but possibly protective: they were blonde and I was brunette! Throughout my childhood I remember being conscious that I would never be the Sindy/Barbie/Agnetha-from-Abba, and so I don’t think I set myself up to try! That said, even if you know you are never going to be the blonde image of perfection, these messages most definitely do harm. We really need diverse LEAD characters in books and tv. The success of quirky, individual characters when they do make an appearance is surely something that writers should tap into more.
    I completely agree with you about focusing on what a body can do and not what it looks like. The human body is amazing, and it is amazing in its diversity. I have been learning recently about anatomy for yogis. Different people have subtly different bone shapes and sizes, different bony processes, different joints, which mean that we can’t all do the same things. But each body is amazing in what you can experiment with, and how you can play with movement, and get joy from it.

    1. I’m so glad to read about the yogi’s and the bony processes. I think it’s so easy to forget that our bodies just simply aren’t the same. My husband is built for running, I am not. I can hold a plank for a really long time, but I’m rubbish when it comes to hand-eye coordination. Some things we can learn, but some things are just what they are. You articulated why I love yoga. In your studies, does “perfection” even exist for yoga? It seems to me that it’s the practice that IS the perfection and it’s solely individual and situational based on the day.

      1. That’s absolutely right about the practice being the perfection, Angela! You can have a perfect moment of peace, or a perfect feeling of flow. I have learnt that when it doesn’t feel perfect, then that’s ok too, because you can then tune in to what your body is asking for: it is communicating something important. I think we have such a masochistic attitude to exercise, like it is punishment, or a drill, to be endured. I love yoga for appreciating what we can do with our bodies, being present to it, listening to it, comforting if it needs some love, and celebrating those moments of feeling strong and capable and expansive.

        1. Wonderful! I think that’s a great point about the imperfection of a moment being an offering to curiosity. It asks us, both to listen to what it’s telling us and decide what to do next. Sometimes, perfect is simply the state of acceptance in being imperfect, I suspect.

  5. First, I’ve never read a Sweet Valley High book, which sounds like a good thing.

    Next, I am in my most body-positive space thus far in my life. When I was young I played sports year-round, so I hardly ever thought of my body throughout high school and college. It wasn’t until I got really sick from Celiac disease that I had my first body-shaming experience – it was awful.

    I had lost 30lbs due to the illness, and at this time my mother-in-law began making comments about how I looked gaunt, how sick I looked, how awful I looked, and she told me that other people were saying the same things. It was the first time in my life that I felt self-conscious about my body. Not only was I very sick, I was being attacked by a close family member – someone who should have been supportive. I started wearing several layers of clothes, I wouldn’t allow pictures to be taken off me, and I was miserable.

    After my diagnosis, it took me three years to get my body back to a healthy weight, but I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the shaming I received and how it made me feel. I have forgiven my MIL, but I am always on guard to make sure no weight comments are uttered to my children (I’ve had to stop a few).

    Now I eat and exercise to feel healthy, and my body image has followed. Great post, Angela!

    1. Wow. That must have been such a hard time for you. I know we’ve talked about it before, but I didn’t know about the shaming aspect.
      I am certain that when people like your MIL say the things we do, most of the time it’s not meant to wound. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t. That’s part of respect I think. How can we all be a little more conscious of how our words land with the listener, versus just hoping our intent is understood? I definitely don’t know the answer to that one, but I hope to.
      I’m so glad you’re happy and healthy and body-positive now! You deserve all the wonders of good health.

  6. Great article and I completely relate to reframing exercise. At the height of my body image issues and disordered eating habits, I only used exercise as a punishment for eating too much or to drive the scale down even further.

    It’s take a few years but I now seeing exercise as something that can be enjoyed, fun, social and even a new skill.

    Messages such as these are so, so important to society. More now so than ever.

    1. Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re finding a new path for yourself. Though I’m sorry to hear of your struggles. It means a lot to me that you found something of value in my story. Thank you for adding your thoughts and sharing a bit about your own journey.

  7. A lovely article, and so very important. I want my kids to love themselves and treat their bodies as the blessings they are, no matter how they look. It’s a lesson I need to remember that, too. xxxxxx

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.