Radical Psychology
Volume Eight, Issue 1



Full of power: The relation between women's growing social power and the thin female beauty ideal

Avigail Moor [*]

 
Women have made considerable strides in their social standing and power over the past several decades, breaking through many of the barriers that have subordinated them over the centuries to male supremacy (Wolf, 1992, 1993). They have entered  positions of authority and power in government, industry, and academia in unprecedented numbers, positions that were previously closed to them and occupied almost solely by men (Kahn, 1984). Yet, paradoxically, at the very same time, they have been losing the war on another front, the freedom to live comfortably in their own natural bodies. In what would appear to be a direct inverse relationship, the more social power women have gained over the years, the tinier the body dimensions they have been mandated to adhere to (Orbach, 1978; Wolf, 1992).

Accordingly, recent decades have witnessed a substantial decrease in the body size and weight of the female beauty ideal that has shrunk in size to entirely unrealistic dimensions, removing it further and further from the natural female physique. Essentially, almost all cultural representations of women's beauty reflect this unnaturally slender ideal. From commercials to movie stars, from catalogs to actual clothing sizes in stores, this image is inescapable (Ahern and Hetherington, 2006; Becker, 1995; Bessenoff, 2006; Engeln-Maddox, 2006; Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Orbach, 1978). Today's fashion models are considerably thinner than their counterparts of just a decade ago, weighing over twenty percent less, and looking increasingly less like actual grown women (Wolf, 1992). What's more, this ultra-thin female beauty ideal has been repeatedly tied to the serious rise in the incidence of eating disorders among women and girls, as well as the steady decrease in age of onset (Bradford and Petrie, 2008; Striegel-Moore and Bulik, 2007). It has also been shown to negatively impact women and girls' body image and self esteem (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Wolf, 1992).

Yet little attention has been paid to the socio-psychological origins of this beauty ideal. Why has contemporary culture made this image the one and only standard of female beauty? Why have full-figured women been banished from prevailing cultural representations, with social sanctions befalling women of natural body size, at the very time of growing female emancipation? How are these factors related? Might the rise in women's social power be the very reason for the cultural demand for extreme slenderness in women? Several theoretical accounts have proposed theses along these lines (e.g., Bordo, 1993; Orbach, 1978, Wolf, 1992), and the present study seeks to empirically investigate this hypothesis by examining the meaning that the natural full-figured female physique carries for both men and women at the present time.

The excessively thin female beauty ideal

Female beauty is constructed within current Western society almost exclusively in ultra-slim terms (Ahern and Hetherington, 2006; Becker, 1995; Bradford and Petrie, 2008; Engeln-Maddox, 2006; Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Frith, Shaw and Cheng, 2005; Orbach, 1978, 1994; Striegel-Moore and Bulik, 2007;). Such slim representations of female beauty pervade almost every form of expression in contemporary culture (Bessenoff, 2006; Ward, 2003). The media is saturated with anorectic depictions of very thin female models in body-revealing clothing that blatantly underscore their super boney figures. At the same time there is a complete absence of alternative representations of differing body sizes or shapes, to the point that exposure to attractive, average-weight models is rare (Engeln-Maddox, 2006; Fister and Smith, 2004; Frith et al., 2005; Orbach, 1978, 1994). The excessively thin images are presented as the epitome of female beauty, reducing women solely to their slim appearance above all else (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Moradi, Dirks and Matteson, 2005).

Constant exposure to the thin media images and other cultural trends that promote thinness as the sole beauty ideal  have been shown to translate into unyielding social pressure to be thin, resulting in a constant attack on women's sense of worth and value as they fall short of the beauty standard (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Ward, 2003; Orbach, 1994; Wolf, 1992). Hence, Western culture's female beauty ideal of extreme thinness and objectification of the female body is now recognized as a threat to women's wellbeing. It operates as a core construct in body dissatisfaction and as a specific risk factor for the development of eating disorders, (Ahern and Hetherington, 2006; Striegel-Moore, et al., 2004; Striegel-Moore and Bulik, 2007). The rising incidence of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in girls and women, coinciding with the decreasing body-size ideal for women, attests to this connection. There is also considerable evidence that exposure to attractive, thin female models increases depression, guilt, shame, and stress among women and girls (Henderson-King and Henderson-King, 1997; Pinhas et al., 1999).

The realization that such psychological damage affects women precisely at the time in history when they should be enjoying the psychological fruits of their social gains clearly necessitates a serious inquiry into the socio-psychological origins of this paradox. It would seem that this social process might be related to a collective unfavorable reaction to the rise in female social power, which might best be interpreted using the theses set forth by several feminist theorists (e.g., Chodorow, 1978; 1989; Dinnerstein, 1977/1999, 1987; Orbach, 1978; Orbach and Eichenbaum, 1995; Wolf, 1992) who have addressed the fear of female power from various angles.

Men's reaction to female power

Recent decades have witnessed a puzzling paradox. Just as women have steadily gained greater equality in most realms of life they have simultaneously faced an uncompromising attack on their psychological wellbeing in the form of the ultra-thin beauty ideal. As it appears, women's pursuit of equal rights has signified a monumental threat to the male hegemony and a challenge to men's superior power and domination (Kahn, 1984). The result is collective unconscious male anxiety. In this vein, "the cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but rather an obsession about female obedience" (Wolf, 1992, p.187), and the fear of women's fat a fear of women's power (Bordo, 1993; Orbach, 1994).  The ideal of slenderness may have actually come into being to counter these fears.

Hence, the thin beauty ideal is seen along these lines as part of a backlash against women's growing desire to be treated equally and to take up more space. It is intended to provide a defense against the collective male fear of this new reality as it curtails women's quest for public power and independence by narrowing and circumscribing the public space they are allowed to take up (Wolf, 1992). In this process, restrictions are imposed on the physical presence of women and the anorectic female body is upheld as the ultimate symbol of these limitations (Bordo, 1993; Orbach, 1994). These visual images of female belittlement satisfy the need to squelch women's growing emancipation. By making the thin beauty ideal's unrealistic standards the primary determinant of women's value, the thin ideology strips women of their growing power by eroding their self-confidence and turning them into their own jailers and torturers (Wolf, 1992).  

Early maternal power and its ramifications

Another similar yet distinct explanation for the co-occurrence of women's growing social equality and the social demands for their extreme thinness, as expressed by the thin female beauty ideal, might be found in the universal early life experience of being mothered primarily by women, and the psychological ramifications of this reality for both men and women. Several feminist theorists have described these early experiences (Benjamin, 1988; Chodorow, 1978; 1989; Dinnerstein, 1977/1999, 1987; Orbach, 1978; Orbach and Eichenbaum, 1995), viewing the child's engagement with and separation from the mother as central to the understanding of the psychology of both men and women.

More specifically, these theorists have linked much of the psychological development of early life to the dynamics of experiencing the first deepest bonds of love in the context of a relationship with a female figure, namely, the mother. As a result of ubiquitous cultural norms that assign the primary child care responsibilities in early life to women, mothers thus become the site of the child's first love, but also disappointment, first joys but also longings (Eichenbaum  and Orbach, 1995). The unconscious meanings and ramifications of mothers' dominance in these early relations may very well have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences (Benjamin, 1988; Chodorow, 1978, 1989; Dinnerstein 1977/1999, 1987).

Most relevant to the question at hand are the power dynamics of these early ties, typified by maternal dominance and utter dependence on the part of the child. This experience of being completely at mother's mercy cannot but turn her into an all-powerful entity in the eyes of the little child. Feelings of helplessness and anxiety, associated with her almightiness, often ensue (Dinnerstein, 1977/1999, 1987). To counteract these reactions, the child is driven to minimize mother's power in every possible way. This might take the form of rebelliousness, fits of stubbornness, tantrum throwing, and the like. Being such a powerful need, it likely never completely subsides, even as the child matures, and instead simply changes its manifestation. In adulthood it presumably takes the form of minimizing women's worth and creating a system in which women are subordinated and controlled, so as to get the magical provider under control. According to Dinnerstein (1977/1999, 1987), women's necessity in patriarchy to be the single source of power in children's lives is the very root of all patriarchal systems. In other words, men's rule of the world is the result of women rocking the cradle.

How might this archaic fear of female power be related to the thin ideal? It is suggested that this fear may actually take on a physical dimension, such that big-bodied women may awaken these early anxiety provoking representations. In other words, being a substantial physical presence, full-figured women may symbolically represent the "huge" mother of infancy, with all the ambivalence that she evokes. Accordingly, there would be a need to restrict them in space to defend against this anxiety, particularly in the context of women’s rising social power. It is postulated that such defensive needs may indeed be among the root causes for the current cultural demand for extreme thinness in women.

In sum, be it the archaic fear of the early maternal rule or plain fear of losing power and control to women, a thread common to these various theories is men's need to ward off their anxiety over women's growing power by finding new ways to restrict them, put them under control, and reduce them in space to the bare minimum. The present study seeks to investigate this postulation by examining whether full-figured women do indeed produce anxiety in men, in contrast to slender women who do not.

Thus, the following hypotheses are tested:

1. Women of full-figures are presumed to produce anxiety in men. It is therefore hypothesized that these women will be characterized as threatening and intimidating, in clear contrast to thin women.

2. Slimness in women minimizes and resolves these anxieties. It is therefore hypothesized that slender women, unlike full-figured ones, will be seen as none-threatening, fragile and vulnerable.

3. Full-figured women will be viewed as domineering in the context of intimate relations as well, while the reverse will hold true for slim women.

4. The threat will be experienced primarily by men in contrast to women.

Method

Participants

Two hundred and forty four subjects, 101 men and 143 women, participated in the study. They ranged in age from 20 - 60 (mean=33). Their education ranged from 8-20 (mean= 13.5) years. Seventy-two percent were married, 18% were single, 2% were widowed and 8% were divorced. Subjects were recruited individually from the following sources: college students at Tel Hai College in Northern Israel who were invited to participate in the study on a voluntary basis, and employees at various workplaces and organizations in the same part of the country that were recruited through personal contact.

Procedure

Participants were recruited by announcements made in numerous classes and various workplace settings and participated in the study on a completely voluntary basis. The test materials were handed out and collected by research assistants. Participants were told that the study measured individual differences in perception and were given verbal as well as written instructions regarding the procedure. They were guaranteed anonymity and encouraged to respond as candidly as possible after being assured that there were no right or wrong answers to any of the items.

Participants were given a questionnaire that included demographic questions and two projective measures. Specifically, they were presented with one of two photos of women whose weight was varied, and one of two descriptions of a couple which varied in the relative body sizes of the spouses. They were instructed to rate the pictured woman on different dimensions of personality and interpersonal traits and the couples' power dynamics. The size of the target women in both the photo and the couple description remained consistent for each subject, such that subjects who viewed the photo of the slender woman also received the description in which the woman was the slim partner and the same held true for the full-figured woman. Subjects completed the ratings of the pictured woman before rating the vignettes.

Measures

Two separate, yet complimentary, projective measures were employed to tap into the unconscious processes under study. To assess the perception of and emotional responses to full-figured women in comparison to the thin type, subjects were presented with a photograph of a woman, either full-figured or slender, and were asked to assign her personality characteristics out of a predetermined list. The women in the two pictures looked remarkably alike, with the exception of their body size; one was pleasantly full-figured (not fat) while the other was very thin. Other than this difference they were quite alike. They had similar facial features, both being rather pretty and having long and full brown hair. Both had a gentle look in their eyes and displayed a warm smile as they looked directly into the camera. Their clothing was similarly attractive; each wearing a nice blouse and fashionable jeans. The photos were chosen based on current cultural norms of body size for women (e.g., Wolf, 1992, Becker, 1995).

Below each picture was a list of 18 personality traits which the subjects were to assign to the pictured woman based on their judgment of applicability to her. A number of the traits included in the list represented anxiety-provoking characteristics such as “intimidating” and “threatening,” some represented the opposite, non-threatening characteristics, such as “fragile” and “vulnerable”, several represented strength such as “strong,” “independent” and “assertive,” the rest were benign and served as filler items. Traits were picked based on theoretical expectations (e.g., Dinnerstein, 1977/ 1999, 1987; Orbach, 1978).  Subjects were asked to rate the target woman in respect to each characteristic on a 5-point scale ranging from 1= not applicable at all, to 5 = highly applicable.  Factor analysis performed on the 9 traits yielded three factors explaining   71.4% of the variance. Each of the 9 items had a loading of at least .77. Factor 1 was labeled "strong". It consisted of 4 items and explained 41.1% of the variance (Eigenvalue 3.69):

- strong (factor loading = .86)

- assertive (factor loading = .85)

- dominant (factor loading = .85)

- independent (factor loading = .82)

Factor 2, labeled "fragile" had an Eigenvalue of 1.76 and consisted of 3 traits explaining 19.6% of the variance:

- fragile (factor loading = .81)

- vulnerable (factor loading = .79)

- babe (factor loading = .77)

Factor 3, labeled "threatening" had an Eigenvalue of 1.05 and consisted of 2 traits, explaining 10.6% of the variance:

- threatening (factor loading = .82)

- intimidating (factor loading = .77)

The second means of assessment consisted of two descriptions of a couple in which all characteristics were identical except for the spouses' body sizes. The variation in the body size variable was intended to tap the interpersonal characteristics within intimate relations associated with women's differing body sizes and shapes.

The descriptions read as follows:

Group 1:

Yael and Ido have been married for 10 years. They have two children aged 8 and 5. Yael is a very thin woman and Ido is rather broad. They met in college and are currently pleasantly and satisfactorily employed.

Group 2:

Yael and Ido have been married for 10 years. They have two children aged 8 and 5. Yael is a full-figured woman and Ido is rather thin. They met in college and are currently pleasantly and satisfactorily employed.

The descriptions were followed by 6 items describing relationship dynamics and subjects were asked to rate the applicability of each to the target couple on a five-point scale 1= highly inapplicable 5= highly applicable. Two of the statements described relations based on the wife's domination and the husband's anxiety, and were based on theoretical assumptions (e.g., Benjamin, 1988; Dinnerstein, 1977/1999; Kahn, 1984; Wolf, 1992). The other four were filler items.


Results

A 2 x 2 analysis of variance (body size by gender) was performed on the three personality dimensions. The results appear in Table 1. Results indicate that the target woman’s body size yielded a main effect regarding all traits. On dimensions related to independence and intimidation, the full-figured woman was rated higher. This pattern was reversed for the fragility factor on which the thin woman was rated higher than the full-figured one. Gender also yielded a significant main effect in respect to the fragility and threatening factors.

To examine the hypothesis that the full-figured female physique carries a greater threat to men than to women, the body size by gender interactions was examined for factors 2 and 3. The findings show a significant interaction between gender and body size in the perception of the target women as "threatening" and "fragile". Men viewed the full figured woman as considerably more threatening than did women, and experienced the slim woman, in a similar fashion, as much more fragile in comparison to their female counterparts. The interaction between gender and body size in the ratings of the "strong" personality factor showed a similar pattern. However, it only approached statistical significance (p <.10). Table 2 presents the mean scores on each of the three factors by both men and women.

Table 1. Perception of pictured women's characteristics as a function of their body size expressed as ANOVA coefficients


Strong
Fragile
Threatening
Body Size
47.125**
16.435**
32.37**
Gender
2.626
12.747**
2.886**
Body Size by Gender
2.272
6.875**
8.561*

* Significant at the .05 level ** Significant at the .00 level


Table 2. Mean ratings of pictured women


Full Figured

Men
Slim

Men

Women
Women
Threatening
3.32

2.13
1.79

2.17
Fragile
2.95

1.94
3.73

3.31
Strong
4.15

3.66
2.78

2.95



A second 2 x 2 analysis of variance (spouses' body size by gender) was performed on the marital dynamics. The results appear in Table 3. Results indicate that the spouses' relative body size yielded a main effect regarding the power dynamics. When the wife was described as heavier than her husband she was viewed as domineering the relationship while her husband was seen as fearing her. This discrepancy was gender dependant, as indicated by the significant interaction between spouses' relative body size and gender in respect to both power dynamics. Men tended considerably more than women to assign greater anxiety to the slender husband of the full-figured woman who was seen, in turn, as having more power and control in the relationship than did her husband.

Table 3. Presumption of marital dynamics as a function of wife and husband relative sizes expressed as ANOVA coefficients


Wife dominates the relationship
Husband fearful of wife
Spouses' relative body size
7.15**
3.81*
Gender
10.16**
9.17**
Spouses' relative body size by gender
8.21**
12.17**

* Significant at the .05 level ** Significant at the .00 level

Table 4. Presumption of marital dynamics on the basis of partners' body size

Presumed marital dynamics
Full Figured Woman
Slim Woman

Men

Women
Men

Women
Wife dominates the relationship
4.00    2.88
2.71    2.7
Husband fearful of wife
3.22    1.71
2.09    2.03


Discussion

The findings indicate that men do indeed attach a threatening meaning to full figures in women (possibly unconsciously), and that this anxiety is comparatively absent in relation to slender female physiques. In all conditions men ascribed menacing attributes to full-figured women, while viewing slim women in contrast as vulnerable and fragile. Likewise, they based their inferences of relational power imbalances solely on the basis of body size differences between the spouses, viewing fuller wives as domineering their fearful slender husbands and vice versa. The finding of consistent association of large female body size with power and control in the minds of men is consistent with the theoretical postulations that tie full figures in women to male anxiety and fear (e.g., Bordo, 1993, Dinnerstein, 1977/1999, 1987; Orbach, 1994; Wolf, 1992). Moreover, this pattern of findings seems to lend support to the notion that the ideal of slimness came into being as a defensive response to women's growing social power (Bordo, 1993; Orbach, 1994; Wolf, 1992). The fact that men's anxious reaction to full figured women, as manifested by their perception of such women as threatening, intimidating, and domineering is alleviated when the female body is reduced in size seems to demonstrate that very mechanism. This would appear to be the precise collective male anxiety that has led to the present social demand for extreme thinness in women (Wolf, 1992).

The male anxious reaction to female roundness that emerged in this study also resonates with the postulation that large physiques in women may constitute a symbolic visual representation of early maternal power. The fact that body size alone triggered such an uneasy emotional response appears to convey its substantial meaning. It suggests that gender disparities in body size may indeed trigger associations of the tremendous inequality between the early mother's relatively huge and often overbearing presence and the frighteningly tiny and powerless stance of the child, much in accordance with Dinnerstein's (1977/1999, 1987) theorizing. The need to shrink women in size, expressed by the thin beauty ideal, would thus be logically viewed as a means to ease this threat by reversing the direction of this imbalance.

Viewing the full female body as a source of intimidation and threat to the male psyche can help to explain why the social demand for narrowing women's steps by way of the beauty images of extreme thinness became particularly urgent as women obtained increasingly greater social power. For as long as women were subordinated by an oppressive social order that curtailed their power, the threat of their physical presence could be averted to a satisfactory degree. However, as these social mechanisms increasingly lost their effectiveness as a means of keeping women down, it likely became increasingly difficult to tolerate the visual representation of their power as manifested in their naturally round figures. Conversely, the ultra-thin childlike female physique of the current beauty ideal does not represent the huge almighty mother in any way. Rather, it signifies the symbolic as well as the literal narrowing of women's quest for public power and equality, which is grimly etched on their constrained bodies (Bordo, 1993). Thus, the threat of women's power is effectively removed in a symbolic yet highly perceptible and hence greatly reassuring way.

The fact that the ideal of slimness has serious negative mental health ramifications for women and girls, identified as a specific risk factor for the development of eating disorders (e.g., Ahern and Hetherington, 2006; Orbach, 1994; Striegel-Moore, et al., 2004; Striegel-Moore and Bulik, 2007) as well as depression, guilt, shame, and reduced self-esteem (Henderson-King and Henderson-King, 1997; Pinhas, et al., 1999) calls for preventive measures that may draw on the present findings. If the thin ideal rests, at least in part, on collective (possibly unconscious) male anxieties, we must recognize that and intervene on that level. To the degree that men associate the full figured female body with ambivalent fantasies of maternal power and female authority, they will likely continue to demand female slimness in a time of growing female emancipation, unless awareness of the archaic unconscious motivations is raised. Likewise, the need to reduce women in space to counteract the increasing and considerable space they have come to occupy will continue to require extreme thinness in women unless it is made visible and addressed.

The study is limited by the relatively small sample and comparative homogeneity. The findings should be replicated with a larger and more diverse sample. In addition, the exclusive use of photos and vignettes to tap unconscious processes, while excluding  self-report assessments of consciously felt anxiety towards full-figured women, limits the ability to make unequivocal statements about the primarily unconscious nature of the studied phenomenon. This is unfortunate because possible resistance to the present findings which may stem precisely from the unconscious nature of these experiences might have thus been better addressed.

Nonetheless, the findings underscore the importance of comprehensive consciousness-raising in this regard. If we, as a society, are to eradicate the ideal of slimness and to overcome the epidemic of eating disorders and other assaults on women's wellbeing that it produces, we must attend to all its socio-psychological causes. On a preventive level, this might take the form of promoting parental symmetry in child rearing as suggested by Dinnerstein (1977/1999, 1987), Chodorow (1978), and Benjamin (1988), which should do away with the fear of female authority rooted in early childhood. At the same time, there is an urgent need for a sweeping moderation of the thin ideal through the confrontation of the fear of female power that appears to underlie it, as well as an uncompromising insistence on equal rights and respect for women of all shapes and sizes (Bordo, 1993; Orbach, 1978; Wolf, 1992). It may be an uphill struggle, but it is one that must be won if women are to be permitted to occupy their fair share of space.


Acknowledgments


I would like to thank my research assistants Sigal Swissa, Rina Avigdor, and Anat Cohen for their help in carrying out this research.


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Biographical note:

Avigail Moor is a clinical psychologist and the head of the Women Studies Program at Tel Hai College, Israel. She is also on the faculty of the Social Work Program. She specializes in the treatment of women in general and survivors of sexual violence in particular. Her present research foci are the psychological effects of the current female beauty ideal, the aftermath of rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment, and social attitudes towards these phenomena.