Body Image: Bigger Can Be Beautiful

Tyra Banks' swimsuit comeback shows you don't have to be thin to be a knockout.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Do you have to be thin to be gorgeous? Not at all. Just take a look at supermodel and TV talk show host Tyra Banks, who recently showed off a healthy body and a healthy body image.

Banks has gained some weight over the years (she is thought to be 30 pounds heavier than when she posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1997). And after some tabloid criticism and a paparazzi photo of Banks wearing a swimsuit, she returned fire -- by proudly posing in a swimsuit for People magazine. And on her popular talk show, wearing nothing but high heels and the swimsuit in question, she gave a powerful speech targeting people who have hurtful things to say about women's bodies.

Her message seems to be that she still feels hot, thank you very much, and she's thankful for her great support system and ample self-esteem. If she didn't have this, she said on the air, she would probably be starving herself right now. The most impressive thing about all of this is that Tyra seemed to be fighting back not just for herself, but for all women.

What has her weight gain gotten Tyra, besides some fabulous curves? Well, let's see ... her talk show is very popular and entering its second season. And the most recent season of her other television show, America's Top Model, has brought home its strongest ratings thus far. You go, girlfriend!

"Tyra is more beautiful than ever. She's gutsy and has put her career out there -- I applaud her," says Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.

Ultra-Thin Models

One wonders why the modeling business seeks out ultra-thin girls to model clothes for a society that is anything but ultra-thin.

"Clothes seem to be designed to sell clothes, not to celebrate the woman wearing them," says former Calvin Klein and Sports Illustrated model Carre Otis, who also added some healthy weight after a successful modeling career.

According to Bradley Bayou, a renowned fashion designer who is the author of Science of Sexy, it's more difficult to design clothes for full-figured women. "It's more challenging because of the curves. You have to think more," Bayou says.

Further, says Bayou, there are a few key people (like some magazine editors) who are power brokers in the world of style. And as long as they decide extremely thin is "in," it will be.

"The designers are trying to please the editors. They just want to get their designs in the magazines," says Bayou.

He points out that as our models have gotten skinnier, our country has gotten fatter. In our culture, "thin" has come to mean "rich" -- and women have been led to think they will be happy if they are skinny.

When plus-size model Emme Aronson started her career in the early 90s, many photographers were unwilling to shoot pictures of full-figured women. It took everything she had to complete her first big photo shoot when a well-known photographer walked out after seeing her.

Now, Emme (who goes by her first name professionally) has her own line of clothing and is the author of True Beauty. But all these years later, models are still unrealistically thin -- and American women are only more dissatisfied with their bodies.

Shaping Our Body Image

Indeed, about 60%-70% of American women are dissatisfied with their weight, and 50%-60% are dissatisfied with overall appearance, Linda Smolak, PhD, a psychology professor at Kenyon College, tells WebMD.

Bayou, Otis, Emme, and Grefe all say that the ultra-thin standards of the fashion and magazine industry influence girls and women, in terms of their body image and vulnerability to developing eating disorders.

"We know that it encourages erratic and dangerous dieting and poor body image," says Grefe, who particularly worries about children "growing up in the culture of dangerously skinny."

While some of these size 0 and 00 models are naturally that thin, it has been reported recently that some may be maintaining this ridiculous ideal via starvation, purging, and/or drug use.

Says Emme: "It is also known that models have died maintaining this ultra-thin standard -- it's a loaded gun that needs to be dismantled."

"The one thing that could really save lives is to require models to have a physical that includes an eating disorder assessment twice a year," says Grefe.

Promoting Healthier Body Images

Beyond Tyra Banks in a swimsuit, what will it take to change the "ultra-thin" obsession in the fashion industry and society at large?



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