Whether you’re a seasoned body image activist or an average consumer of Western media, no doubt you’ve heard the battle between “curvy” and skinny. After decades of being bombarded with images of extremely thin models and starving ourselves to fit the waif-mold, some women and organizations (such as author of Fat!So?, Marilyn Wann, movements like The Body is Not an Apology, and, of course, sites like Adios Barbie, along with countless others) have worked to bring back body- and fat-acceptance.
However, despite the push for variety, we’ve been left with little in the mainstream media for representation and acceptance. “Curvy” has become the new ubiquitous term to define anyone who doesn’t fit the skinny definition, while still promoting a narrow ideal by highlighting specific features and rare hourglass figures. Meanwhile, popular catchphrases such as “Real women have curves” have pitted women against each other in a definition of who is “real”, who is desirable, and who isn’t. We’ve fought to see a wider variety of body types in the media, and to accept that some women are fatter, flatter, and shaped in innumerable ways, but have we actually made progress? Is the promotion of “curves” a legitimate backlash against an industry with a narrow and thin definition of beauty, or is it yet another highly unattainable standard in the guise of caring about women’s self-esteem and body image?
In the mainstream media, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez have been the most famous poster-ladies of “curvy”. Beyonce touts how she rebels against traditional beauty standards by having a voluptuous figure, Kim states she knows she will never be a size zero but loves her butt and thighs anyways, and Jennifer responds to criticism by saying “I have a butt, I have boobs, and I have a woman’s curves”. Even petite Scarlett Johannson has been classified as a curvy womanwho needs to fight criticisms against her body.
Commonplace online conversation and memes such as “When did this become hotter than this?” pit skinny celebrities of today, such as Nichole Richie, against bombshells of the past like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page in an attempt to show that larger women can also be attractive, but unfortunately at the expense of other women deemed less “hot”.
However, when we look at photos of women highlighted as the curvy alternative, are they really representing a huge rebellion against mainstream female ideals? True, they carry more weight on their bodies, but in societally-acceptable areas that are most sexualized. Although curvy celebrities are quoted saying loud and proud that they have curves and have nothing to be ashamed of, their fat stays in all the “right” places. Flat stomachs, no sags, no stretch marks, just a fuller hourglass figure than the overly-thin models, singers, and movie stars before them. In fact, a study referenced in The Independent found only 8% of women fit the hourglass figure. The majority of us are either top-heavy, pear-shaped, or ironically, rectangular; 47% of women are actually shaped the opposite of curvy, with a waist less than nine inches smaller than their hips or bust.
While it’s important to address the overwhelming push for thinness purported by the media, the current curvy ideal can also bring up its own feelings of inadequacy. The movement of “loving your curves” has been spearheaded by images that refuse to acknowledge societally-unacceptable fat. Women in the US and UK are increasingly lining up for breast enhancement procedures because we are told only certain shapes of fat are sexy. Butt lifts and implants have also seen a jump, with some unfortunately losing their lives in the chase for the perfect curvy figure. We are seeing that our curves are allowed to be sexy, but only in specific forms. What if we are flat-chested with a belly? What if our arms are flabby with stretch marks? What if our fat doesn’t form an hourglass figure? What if we are not thin, but not “curvy” either? Where are the celebrities and spokespeople openly admiring their round bellies, cellulite, and sags? The few larger women who fit the more typical rectangular body type (such as Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids and Shannon Beiste from Glee) are rarely represented as sexy and desirable.
“Curvy” was meant to be about loving your body AGAINST the media norms. If women who are literally the closest living thing to the Barbie ideal are continuously portrayed as body outlaws, what does that say for the rest of us? If women who have a more average, fatter body type are rarely shown as sexy (if they are shown at all), how does that affect our ability to appreciate our own bodies?
In Hollywood and mainstream media, being anything over 110 pounds may cause a few comments, blog posts, and headlines; I applaud these women for widening the body acceptance realm. However, the depiction of what it means to be beautiful still leaves much to be desired, and we should refuse to pretend that our modern understanding of “curves” is entirely inclusive. Bodies come in an amazing variety. We can curve out at our waists, arms, legs, as well as our butts and chest, or we might not curve much at all. Simply increasing the acceptable inch limit for bust and hips, and calling it an alternative for skinny, does not do us justice. We’ve taken a step in the right direction… lets keep moving forward.