An astonishing number of models and Hollywood stars have been hit by a new virus. The symptoms are a carcass-like physique combined with the sudden ability to tuck into what they want without putting on an ounce. Once smitten, their metabolisms go into overdrive, and in some cases already very skinny girls have lost anything up 10 to 20 kg.
Normally, you’d think the prospect of young girls starving themselves to death in public would provoke an outcry. But this is different and remains within the realms of the acceptable given the context it is taking place in. Ultimately, what counts here is not that the occasional girl falls victim to starvation chic and dies, but rather the vogue for seeing models as human canvasses for ‘artistic’ expression. The situation would have been familiar to Leonardo da Vinci, in whose lifetime small children where known to die pitiful deaths from suffocation after being covered in gold paint for royal performances.
Anorexia has not only lost all the horror usually associated with a life-threatening illness, but has even won public acceptance. It is no longer concealed beneath thick pullovers and layers of trousers, but flaunted on catwalks and red carpets.
And, as if that weren’t enough, the super-skinny look also affects how most 'normal' women — the non-celebs and non-models — perceive themselves. Despite having felt themselves to be ‘slim’ enough for years, women no longer accept themselves for what they are. What is more, perceived ‘ideal’ body weights are currently dropping, with some luxury boutiques now classifying 38 as a 'large size' and sizes 30 and smaller now available outside the US.
As with other addictions, rational arguments make little headway: We are aware of the harm being done but remain fascinated in spite of it. Needless to say, not all women have caught the super-thin bug – but, nevertheless, for many women accepting their figures as ‘normal’ is becoming increasingly difficult.
So why is it that exceptionally skinny women are considered beautiful nowadays? And body weights of 43kg or less felt to be desirable rather than as being symptomatic of illness as they once were?
rheingold has identified four key reasons for why super skinny has become so attractive.
1. Mental drift
Modern women can be anything they want to be – throughout the history of western culture, no previous generation of women has ever been able to access such a broad range of potential roles. They lack role models however – and don’t know how to translate ‘what they want to be’ into action. Unable to settle on any one particular role, they partake of numerous simultaneous actions without really committing to anyone in particular. Physically, since they are unable to commit to becoming 'real women’, this ‘mental drift’ finds expression in childlike, unfeminine shapes. By going on ‘starvation diet’ they’re able to reverse the process of maturing into ‘real women’ and, as such, start reverting back into girls. And in theory at least girls, unlike women, can still be anything that they choose. They don’t have to decide.
2. Luxury super thin
Right now super thin possesses a powerful association with luxury – with Hollywood, with models and wealth. Indeed, super thin is seen as beautiful by many women for this very reason. But beauty has always been and continues to be seen as luxurious – in essence as something that not everyone can afford and to which one has to devote time. As long as a direct link existed between hard work physical work and tanned skin, having a white complexion was regarded as beautiful. However, the minute luxury became associated with being able to spend time outdoors, having a tan determined the new ideal of beauty. Therefore, in a society where food exists in abundance for everyone, luxury starts to equate with being super thin. However paradoxical this sounds, eating little, lowering your calorie count and doing a lot of sport, i.e. being able to devote yourself almost exclusively to your body, implies that you have time to spare. And time — alongside job, family and other obligations — is something that not everyone can afford to possess.
3. Sorrowful sensuality
Women who want to be beautiful have always had to suffer. Countless examples exist – Chinese bound feet, African tower skulls, Burmese giraffe necks, teeth mutilation in southern Sudan and silicon breasts in the US and Europe. There is nothing unique therefore about the propensity towards self-destruction that goes hand in hand with the new addiction to thinness. Voluntary starvation offers women the opportunity to re-experience something in their lives, to feel themselves once more – to feel something physical again. Against a backdrop of contemporary desensitisation, air-conditioned rooms, standardised food and a lifestyle devoid of sensory challenge, hunger signifies a form of immediacy that most people have lost.
4. The delusion of control
More than ever women feel themselves responsible for their beauty. Likewise, they are becoming increasingly unwilling to face physical 'facts', and are fashioning themselves according to existing notions of ideal beauty. In order to do so, they are resorting to current medical and cosmetic capabilities more and more. Physical realities are subordinate to what is theoretically and practically feasible. The new yearning to be thin heightens control fantasies to the extent that women are now pushing at the boundaries of life. 'Playing’ with death can be regarded as the last unconquered bastion of creation's delirium. Size-zero women are not only controlling their hunger, they feel powerful and inviolable. Whilst other models die of 'malnutrition’, these women prove that they are able to 'conquer' death on a daily basis.