History of Single Life

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History of Single Life

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If you’re like me, my girlfriend, or most of the rest of America, you’re wrestling with a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Even those of us who aren’t medically overweight (a mere 44% of Americans, according to recent surveys) want to sexify ourselves by dropping some excess poundage. Our cultural penchant for thinness has given us a $46 billion diet industry, and such cultural abominations as the Olsen twins, TrimSpa ads and voluptuous, late-’90s Christina Ricci morphing into


waiflike,early-2000s Christina Ricci.

Conversely, seventeenth-century aesthetes thought the dimpled asses of Rubens’ cellulite-thighed Graces were cute; many Polynesian, Asian and African cultures associate chubbiness with status and sexiness; and my Russian great-grandmother, who was too busy fleeing from Cossacks during her teenage years to put on much poundage, was always castigating my mother for letting me lose my prepubescent chipmunk cheeks. While no culture, as far as I know, has ever been turned on by morbid obesity, it’s readily apparent that our association of extreme thinness with desirability is something learned, not inborn. Where did this come from?

One of the biggest myths about our obsession with being slender is that it began with the flapper fashions of the 1920s. Supposedly, what had been necessities because of wartime factory work — women wearing their hair short and abandoning their corsets — continued after the war as a statement of female emancipation from stays and laces. Another popular theory is that the new mode came about because many of the fashion designers of Paris were gay men who preferred to design for models who looked like adolescent boys.

The truth, however, is not so simple. Long before the war, George du Maurier’s 1894 fictional artist’s model Trilby, a poor, unaffected Parisian, had shocked and inspired readers with her mannish clothes, short hair and unconventionality in falling in love with an upper-class English bohemian painter. These new Paris styles were introduced to America even before we entered

For centuries, long, thin figures have been associated with otherworldliness, reverence and awe.

World War I, by such fashionable and well-traveled women as the famous ballroom dancer Irene Castle, who appeared with her slim waist uncorseted

and her hair bobbed on the New York stage in 1914, and then went on with her husband Vernon to popularize the new "modern" mode of dancing. Nor can we blame gay fashion designers. To be sure, the renowned designer Erte (born in Russia in 1892 as Romaine de Tirtoff) was gay, but Paul Poiret, who had "modernized" women’s wear with his invention of the chest-flattening brassiere and the hobble skirt as early as 1908, had five children with his wife Denise. And Coco Chanel was, of course, a woman.

So what really caused this change in aesthetics? Perhaps we should look to a centuries-old motif in Western art: the association of long, thin figures with otherworldliness, reverence and awe. Part of the standard iconography of medieval images of saints, for instance, is a long torso and limbs, which lend an air of supernatural grace. Likewise, Botticelli or Titian’s figures of Venus, despite their rounded curves, are impossibly tall and long-limbed. Growing up in a Catholic country like France, such images would have been an unconscious part of Poiret or Chanel’s visual repertoire, and Erte’s sketches, for his part, look like Byzantine icons.

Placing tall, thin models in garb that emphasizes their angularity didn’t do much for real women, but it did raise fashion to a spiritual level. The subliminal message was that by acquiring the clothing, one attained a state of angelic grace. Consuming became a spiritual act. The department store acquired the air of a church, and the high priests of fashion preached that women should have slim figures, like classical columns or beatific saints.

Thus, just as tanned skin became a sign of upper-class leisure once we started living most of our lives indoors, thin got popular because it is an external sign of social capital. And so, like medieval martyrs, women began to fast to meet these new expectations of beauty. Dieting and exercise became mandatory, and women, for the first time, began to count calories, regulating their gustatory habits with science.

Today, worrying about extra poundage is a chic neurosis everywhere from network television to Bridget Jones’ Diary. We associate extra weight with things that we consider low-class: fast food, dietary ignorance and lack of gym membership. The rich, on the other hand, can shop at Whole Foods, go on the South Beach diet and cultivate enough Protestant work ethic to deny themselves dessert. If an archaeologist digging up a Barbie doll some 40,000 years into the future hypothesized the artificial Aphrodite was part of our religion, he wouldn’t be far off the mark.

In contrast, the burlesque stars of yesteryear, such as Blaze Starr — whom no one would have accused of being a member of the aristocracy — were quite zaftig, and today, the dichotomy between respectable waifness and voluptuous infamy remains. The most successful women in pornography, such as Vanessa Del Rio and Jenna Jameson, tend to be much curvier (one is tempted to say "earthier") than the models who hawk clothes, perfume and cigarettes from the pages of Cosmo. The fact that women like to emulate waifs while men masturbate over T&A tells the real truth of the matter: thin may be classy, but curves are sexy.

©2007 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.