Continuing the series of diverse talks at the HEF humanist confirmation course, Rannveig Svendby, a socio-anthropologist, lecturer and freelance writer, gave a whistle-stop, pictorial tour of the Story of the Perfect Body.
The typical pattern for a behaviour or look taking hold at a particular moment in time is Definition > Repetition > Imitation. All body ideals and fashions must first be defined, before they are repeated (marketing in the media or by influential peers) before being adopted by the individual themselves. Quickly flitting between the funny and the deadly serious, and covering Disney cartoons, fashion, dolls, and female genital mutilation, Svendby gave countless examples of where, using this formula, tradition, culture and the media work together to create unobtainable and often dangerous ideals for both men and women.
Here’s a sample of some of the most interesting examples, which will hopefully get you thinking and may be a springboard for your own research.
Constantly changing female ideals – and moobs
Beginning with a picture outlining how the most desired female body shape has changed in the 20th Century, Svendby talked about the growing trend for women to have more of what they’re ‘supposed’ to have – boobs – and for men to have less of what they’re not ‘supposed’ to have – man boobs (moobs). Svendby showed a great bit of Louis CK’s stand-up on moobs, which I would have loved to have shared here, but it’s been taken down by those kill-joys at Viacom. It’s not quite the same, but here’s Ricky Gervais flicking Louis CK’s moob instead.
Away from moobs, Svendby gave examples of traditional body idealism practices that have been around for centuries. The scarification practices of the Nuer people of Sudan, for example, for men consists of six parallel horizontal lines cut across the forehead with a razor. It’s an important rite of passage and those who do not undergo this mark of transition into adulthood (if you’ll excuse the pun) risk being ostracised from the community for being unable to display appropriate masculinity.
Old and new forms of foot-binding
Images and video of Chinese foot-binding drew tuts, winces and gasps from the audience, until Svendby pointed out that the modern, normalised form of this practice is the common high heel. Women wearing ‘extreme’ heels such as those in the video below are very rare, and it is certainly not the same as the practice of foot-binding, which left women permanently disfigured and occasionally led to death, but the painful contortions that women’s bodies are required to go through for the sake of adhering to the whims of social mores is similar.
Female circumcision/Genital mutilation
Svendby mentioned female genital mutilation briefly in her talk highlighting one thing I haven’t really heard mentioned before. She referenced Norwegian social anthropologist Aud Talle, a researcher of FGM practices, who made a point that I think is very important, and that is to think about what it must be like to live in a culture that prizes the circumcised vagina as beautiful and important and then to come to a country such as Norway and be thought of as mutilated slave to barbarism. This doesn’t mean we can’t condemn the practice, but just that there are many other things to think about in doing so.
Talles’s research has shown that many Somalis who live in Norway have changed their attitude towards female circumcision, but in her time Talle stood accused of cultural relativism. This is a big problem for those hoping to stop FGM, as in extreme cases it can lead to all kinds of apologism, with anthropologists defending it on the grounds that ‘harm’ is a ‘social construction’.
The talk briefly touched on the extent to which black women have their skin lightened in magazine photos. The most egregious example shown was the appearance of Precious star Gabourey Sidebe on the cover of Elle Magazine. It’s seems that the magazine wanted kudos for having a cover star that was the opposite of their traditional skinny white women, but whilst it seems you can’t be too overweight, you can be too black. The magazine’s fabulously slippery defense was that “… Gabby's cover was not retouched any more or less than the others …"
Bimbo dolls and boy’s toys on steroids
The physiological impossibility of Barbie is well documented, yet she remains, along with her many, many spin-offs one of the most popular toys on the planet. Here’s what she would look like if she was life-size (39" chest, 18" waist and 33" hips (left) and what a real human would look like with her proportions.
It’s not just girls’ toys that have grossly distorted proportions. A study in 2006 by Baghurst and colleagues found that over the last 25 years, action figures have become significantly larger and more muscular, with a much greater focus on a lean, muscular physique. The table of data below compares the average measurements for Batman, GI Joe, Hulk, Spiderman and Superman, showing how some body parts are now 70% larger than the original.
Table 2 from Baghurst et al., (2006)
These dolls have real effects on the ways children see themselves and what they aspire to be. A follow-up study of pre-adolescent males by Baghurst and colleagues in 2007 found thatwhilst current  action figures were perceived to be significantly larger and less normal than their originals, they were also deemed healthier.
Worryingly, a large significant proportion of the176 children studied preferred to resemble the current action figure, primarily because of its larger physique. The GIF on the left compares a Batman action doll to the proportions of an average 177cm (70") tall man.
Disney cartoons also came under scrutiny, not just for their crazy proportions, but for the behavioural ideals they set for children.
Whilst the Incredibles and Shrek attracted criticism, Svendby singled out Up (one of my favourite films) for special praise for showing people of many different shapes and sizes, which, whilst still very much stylised, were on the right side of outlandish and represented people of different ages and colours, too.
I’ve covered barely half of what Svendby talked about, and as the breadth and variety of the examples was overwhelming and terrifying in equal measure, I’ve barely done justice to them here. One thing is for sure, though: The story of the perfect body is one that is likely to be never-ending.
As an adjunct to my post on Åse Røthing’s talk on sexuality in the classroom, I would also recommend Svendby’s recent article on prejudice faced by those who have both a disability and a sexual orientation that is not heterosexual, and many of her other articles on gender and sexual equality issues for Science Nordic and Forskning.no.
Baghurst, T., Carlston, D., Wood, J., & Wyatt, F. B. (2007). Preadolescent male perceptions of action figure physiques. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 41(6), 613–5. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.07.013
Baghurst, T., Hollander, D. B., Nardella, B., & Haff, G. G. (2006). Change in sociocultural ideal male physique: An examination of past and present action figures. Body image, 3(1), 87–91. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.11.001