Mmm hmmm. You read that right.
And here’s how I know it's true:
See, I’m the author of a book on celebrity culture and how the beauty ideals it helped create impact girls and women. (It's called All Made Up: A Girl's Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty). And on November 20th, I’m speaking at an important forum called Children and Hypersexaulization, which is being hosted by the Canadian Federation of University Women. So I’m updating my presentation (which incidentally is called “Don’t Believe the Hype: The Impact of Celebrity Culture on Girls, Women...and Everybody”).
Part of my presentation delves into the history of contemporary beauty ideals—and to do that, I spend some time examining the heyday of the supermodels in the 1980s and 1990s. Because in my opinion, they represent the pop culture moment when we started celebrating and idolizing women who look good over women who do good. And newsflash: we've never recovered.
Okay sure, there have always been famously beautiful women. (And yes, of course, there are other women portrayed in the media besides actresses and models. And I'm psyched about the recent significant changes we're witnessing.) But until the supermodel era, famously beautiful women were also most often famous for something (acting, singing) other than just being. Then came Cindy, Claudia, Naomi, Linda, Christy and later Kate (See. No last names needed and you totally know whom I’m talking about) and our relationship to and expectations regarding women’s appearance totally changed.
Take for example these images of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington:The most striking thing about these shots is not the models' beauty. Nope. It's sheer size of their thighs. Not because they're too big to be attractive. I don’t think that at all. (<- That's important. So please take note.) But no top model today has thighs this big. (Except Beyoncé. But she's not a model, and even she might be using technology to slim down before posting selfies.
In other words: I think these girls look great. In fact as a culture, we all thought they looked great. But since the supermodel heyday, a shift has happened. Over the last thirty years, the difference between models' weights and the weight of the average American woman has grown from 8 percent in 1975 to over 23 percent today.
Today, the women who are idolized are so thin, they make the original supermodels seem fat. And I guess they must have been since we now aim to be skinnier than any supermodel ever was. Today's idea of beauty is heavily influence by "Thinspiration" tumblrs (no links to those here now or ever), extreme photoshop and rib-baring models who fast before fashion shows (I’m giving you the evil eye right now, Victoria’s Secret Angels).
Today, models the size of Cindy, Naomi and Christy (at least as they're pictured above) would be laughed right out of their agents' offices and off the runways. Heck, they'd be laughed at--and most likely called fat--by all of us, too. And if images like those above actually ever made it to print, every extra ounce of flesh would be photoshopped away. And their thighs would be shaved down by half. At least.
So yeah, next week I'll be speaking to teen girls and their mothers about celebrity culture and how it impacts all of us. In part, I'll deliver good news. I'll tell them how Vogue magazine pleged to ban the use of overly thin models in its pages and how Seventeen actually had a sit-down with teens who protested the magazine's use of extreme photoshopping. I'll point the audience to great new resources like the book Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, From Birth to Tween by my colleague Melissa Wardy and the cool website called Beauty Redefined, which is fighting to change our culture's llimited definitions of beauty. None of those things existed when I wrote my book and started advocating for change...and I'm thrilled that young women today have such great resources to look to for inspiration.
But I'll also be talking about today's beauty ideals. And putting up pictures of the women who personified the ideal just 20 years ago. Those images and the impact they had were enough to inspire me to write a book and travel around the country to let teens know that despite the fact a bunch of women were recognized, celebrated, lusted after and had obscene amounts of money thrown at them for looking good...girls didn't have to look like supermodels to be beautiful. The problem, I told them at book signings and school presentations, was with our culture and its demands, not with their bodies.
Yet despite the amazing recent progress made on some fronts of the battle over beauty ideals, the takeway I'm going to be sharing with teen girls and their parents next week is isn't all that upbeat. Because there's still a problem with our culture's demands and expectations when it comes to girls' and women's appearance. Beauty ideals are more unrealistic and uttainable than ever (hat tip to media images and technology for that!), and our culture still celebrates and rewards women (both financially and with high social staus/desirabiltity) in professions that rely appearnce more than any others.
So of course girls want all that for themselves. And it won't change until we--as a culture--get really excited about (and by that I mean celebrate and reward) other options for women.
And as for the supermodels: I never thought I'd say this but we sure do miss seeing you ladies (and your larger thighs) around these days...