Sarah Downing, Contributor
Pressure To Be The “Ideal Woman” (Low Weight)
When a chronic illness such as thyroid disease and/or thyroid cancer strikes you down, it changes the way you see yourself, the way you look and your ability to live a normal life. Unsurprisingly, all this can be a heavy blow to your self-esteem. Today’s “ideal woman” is not only expected to look good, but take care of her family and home and enjoy a successful career. Subsequently, many women put themselves under pressure to achieve this ideal. However, it is important to realize that such ideals are ever-changing fickle whims and it is therefore much more important to be the person you feel able to be. Of course, the same applies to men, but I have noticed that men are subjected to less societal and media pressure to fulfill a certain stereotype. As a result, many examples in this article are from a female perspective, but no man reading this article should feel excluded and in fact I’d love to hear about your opinions on this matter.
Stereotyping Through The Ages
The Wasp Waist
Such pressure and stereotypes are nothing new. Let’s take a look at the Victorian era when women were obsessed with obtaining a fashionable 12-inch wasp waist. As a result, some women wound their corsets so tight that they broke ribs and crushed their internal organs. Expiring was a frequent occurrence as women had a reduced lung capacity like today’s asthmatics, long-term smokers and lung cancer and emphysema sufferers. Forget about sitting down or even bending over! Just like Sir Mix-A-Lot, the Victorians liked big butts, hence their penchant for layered petticoats, hoops, and bustles, which often added as many as 15 pounds of additional weight. The awkward hoop or cage truly lived up to its name – a steel frame placed under the outer skirt, it could have circumferences of up to eight to ten yards. This bulky contraption made it difficult for women to move and some women even caught fire by standing too close to candles. To complete the humiliation, the skirt had an embarrassing habit of blowing up to reveal the woman’s undergarments.
The Hourglass Body
At the turn of the 20th century, what is considered to be the first ideal of American beauty was created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. The Gibson Girl’s hourglass body and aristocratic features were considered the ideal for American women of the day and this persisted until 1914 when World War I broke out in Europe. Previously considered a forward, uneducated gold digger in European countries, Gibson gave the American woman a makeover by combining the spunk and wit of American youth with traditional female beauty. Amazing to think that Gibson’s pen and ink stories could give birth to an entire feminine ideal!
Hemlines Rise In The 1920s
Then came the 1920s when hemlines rose and Coco Chanel introduced the little boy look. Waistlines were dropped and some women even bound their breasts with strips of cloth to look less like women. Elastic webbed girdles replaced corsets for the look of a flat boyish abdomen. The loose flapper dress silhouette became en vogue and such de-emphasis of the womanly silhouette (perhaps in line with women finally getting the vote) stood in stark contrast to the years that had gone before.
The Toned Look
Things changed from the 1930s to the 1950s: the era of the Hollywood screen siren. Women became more body-conscious and began lifting weights to tone their arms and legs that were accentuated by the cuts of the day. The padded cotton stretch bra was introduced and designers such as Chanel, Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli began bringing out glamorous attire for women to flaunt their curves. Once again a turn-around compared to the androgynous 1920s.
Girdles Used For A Small Waist
In the 1950s, women continued to emulate their favorite movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner. Women were under pressure to look good at all times – sloppiness was not tolerated. Dressing to allure and attract a suitable suitor, women subjected themselves to girdles to hold in their stomachs and cinch their waists. Petticoats were all the rage as the wider skirts were thought to make the waist look smaller.
Thin Equaled Sexy In The 60s
Whilst curviness was “in” in the 1950s, just one decade later, the influence of skinny models such as British model Twiggy planted the desire in women’s brains to become rake-thin. This craze continued throughout the 1970s. Thin equaled sexy and women such as singer Karen Carpenter sometimes starved themselves to achieve this ideal. In Karen’s case, she starved herself to death due to anorexia, which resulted in heart failure at the age of 32.
Women Expected To Watch Weight, Look Toned, But Not Be Overly Muscular
In the 1980s, aerobics reigned supreme and women were expected to watch their weight, whilst appearing toned without looking overly muscular. All these demands gave rise to a skyrocketing of eating disorders. The obsession with fitness and watching your weight continued in the 1990s, the era of heroin chic (a strung-out, emaciated appearance), which was ushered in by super skinny supermodel Kate Moss.
Today, There Is Still An Obsession With Weight
Today, women are still expected to be impossibly thin. Some even have cosmetic surgery (including bleaching of armpits and anuses) or swallow dangerous diet pills to achieve this aim. Sadly, gone are the days when curves were celebrated. Size 0 models parade along the catwalks and Size 0 clothes hang in our stores. Over the last century, women have gone from hourglass beauties with uncomfortably cinched waists to androgynous rebels to curvy manhunters to slimming fanatics. No wonder that women find it difficult to keep up and feel as if it is impossible to conform to each decade’s standards of what is considered beautiful. This entire progression merely serves to illustrate how fickle and meaningless such standards are, particularly as they can be ignited by an illustrator, ethereally beautiful screen stars, a rake-thin model or today’s fashion magazines and media.
Practices Worldwide To Fit Women Into The Mold For “Beauty”
As I’ve mainly focused on European and American fashions, I’d like to say a few words about the rest of the world. From the 10th to the early 20th century, Chinese girls and women were forced to undergo the barbaric ritual of foot binding to achieve the desirable and “sexy” “lotus feet”. In a way, this could be considered a counterpart to the era of the restrictive corset as it also led to health risks such as gangrene, serious infections, and severe pain. Indeed, the process itself involved curling under the toes and breaking them without any pain relief whatsoever! The feet were then bound and rebound as often as possible and each time they were bound even tighter without paying heed to the girl’s screams of pain when the toes were sometimes broken in several places or even dislocated. After this torturous ordeal, the girl was then forced to walk around to crush her feet into the desired three-inch shape. Like women with corsets, women with “lotus feet” suffered limited mobility. As a result, they were unable to take part in politics and social life, became dependent on their families and their men and were considered an attractive symbol of chastity and male ownership. Similarly, certain African and Asian tribes subject their women to earlobe and lip stretching, female circumcision and the wearing of neck hoops to make their necks look longer. Such practices may seem bizarre, barbaric and unattractive to us, but we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t all that long ago that we were putting our women through similar tortures and although women are no longer trapped by a corset, the corset of societal expectations is still omnipresent.
Hurtful Comments About Weight After Hypothyroidism
With the helping hand of my very own hypothyroidism, I gained around 63 pounds between the ages of 18 and 31. I used to be a slim and slender size 6, but gone are those days – in fact, my mother would tactfully remind me of this by telling me what a lovely figure I used to have. Without a doubt, such comments hurt every time. I used to dread visiting my parents as my dad was overly eager to weigh me so we could track my progress and my mother felt the need to ration my desserts because obviously my weight gain was due to overeating and lack of exercise. The sad thing is it wasn’t. It was my thyroid wreaking havoc throughout my body. In retrospect, I think that it is often not us who are insecure about our weight, but others (friends and family) who are obsessed with it and thus make their well-meaning but hurtful and interfering remarks. I grew up with a sister who was sometimes asked if she was anorexic because she was so skinny. She was also compared to Ally McBeal. She was definitely hurt by the anorexic remarks, but she didn’t mind the latter comparison one bit. I felt like the fat sibling who was doomed to be left on the shelf. She married at the age of 26 and it took me until my 30th birthday to meet my Prince Charming. Another thing that thyroid disease has done to my body is to give me a pair of thyboobs. I am naturally busty, but since the onset of thyroid disease, I have gone up to a DDD cup. My sister once remarked that my new boobs looked like the airbags of a car.
Accepting Myself Despite Weight Gain
The thing is, despite all this weight gain I think I learned to accept myself. I came to like my curves – I was never larger than a US Size 14 anyway, but when you have a family who is super skinny and live in a country where women simply aren’t as busty – I used to live in Germany where it was tough to get a bra larger than a D cup at times – you don’t exactly feel like you fit in. Indeed, I once spent a whole depressing afternoon in search of summer tops only to find one single one that “the girls” would fit into because it happened to contain a stretch fabric. Shopping in Germany made me feel like a fat freak. A US Size 12 is considered big (in fact, the equivalent Size 42 seems to be rather smaller than the US Size 12) and I often had to go to special stores for “chubby women” (I even saw a store entitled just that: “Fashion For Chubbies” and sadly I am not kidding!) On top of that, whilst the department stores did occasionally stock ranges for “larger women”, the one time I saw this there was a huge sign that might as well have been in flashing neon lights and of course there was no one over there. I stopped shopping after a while. I never even tried to look for jeans. One time my mother told me she didn’t think that I’d be able to find any jeans in my size. That made me feel like a beached whale. One of my other hang-ups was having photos taken with people who have more petite features. I’m not unphotogenic, but on those photos, I would always look big in comparison.
Sometimes I even found myself envying our cat Biscuit who is skinnier than I am and who I am sure does not have a thyroid problem! (update: ironically, she was recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism). My self-confidence finally turned a corner when I met my husband. It is evident that there is a huge market for women who don’t fit into the smaller sizes, but still have the right to look stylish and on our first trip to the US, I realized that the US malls were responding to this trend. It was no longer impossible to find nice clothes to fit. I could find Size 12 and 14 in almost every store, plus the clothes were cheaper and more my style anyway, so I took the opportunity to go on many shopping sprees at New Jersey’s malls. At the time my husband was still working in the US, so our trips over there were frequent. I realized that stores such as New York and Company did stock my size and they actually had clothes that made me look and feel good. One person who helped me in my journey to self-esteem is the photographer Anne Vogt. Anne is married to my husband’s friend in New Jersey and the first time we met she asked if she could do a free photoshoot with me to promote her business. I think for some women this is their dream and I was one of them. I enjoyed trying out different poses and generally feeling good about myself. It was amusing to watch as guys stopped their vehicles and tooted their horns. Truly, it was an unforgettable experience. My face is now featured on her homepage along with the photoshoot and it is also her I have to thank for many of my blogger/advocate profile photos.
Learn What Works For Your Body
The lesson to learn from this is: learn what works for your body personally and get clothes that fit well. If you are large, trying to hide it with baggy clothes is going to make you look larger. One hypothyroid friend whose weight has fluctuated her whole life told me how she began making her own clothes once she reached a certain size. She also recommended shopping online, as many of these stores feature a wider range of sizes. Another option is to ask a local tailor to make something for you or tailor one of your existing garments for a better fit. Possibly because I have hypothyroidism, I’ve never been underweight, but I know that many thyroid sufferers (particularly those with hyperthyroidism) experience the other extreme. That said, despite the fact that hypothyroidism tends to result in weight gain, there are actually hypothyroid patients who can’t gain weight and are afraid of speaking up for fear of being ostracized by the thyroid community. All too often society (and sometimes we ourselves) fail to realize that everybody is different. We can all be beautiful in our own ways and just because the media portrays a certain image does not mean that we have to adhere to it. Instead, we need to embrace the body that we have. I know it’s easier said than done, but societal pressure is something that we need to be aware of and realize that it is not to be taken seriously.
BMI Is Not Always An Accurate Indicator Of Healthy Weight
My whole life, I never fit into the narrow ranges proposed by the BMI. At 154 pounds, I was a slim but naturally busty Size 8, but BMI dictates that I should weigh much less at a height of 5’4”. The problem is that BMI does not take into account individual figures or big boobs and it was never meant to be used on individuals anyway. One trend that is nice to see is that certain companies and television programs are endeavoring to boost women’s body confidence. The cosmetics brand Dove makes a point of featuring women with “normal” figures and celebrities such as Gok Wan present shows such as How To Look Good Naked. Apparently, Gok was bullied as a kid for being overweight, so it is incredibly refreshing to see him turn this around in his efforts to help women who are unhappy with their bodies.
Hypothyroid Friends Talk About Weight, Acne, Family Relationships, And Attitude
I talked to various hypothyroid friends. One hypothyroid friend B told me how she suspects that her gastrointestinal issues may possibly be related to her hypothyroidism. One time she was bloated so badly that her shoes didn’t fit. She was desperate for the toilet and didn’t have time to go home, so ended up hobbling to a friend’s apartment and as she puts it “blowing up his bathroom”. B feels that it is vital to accept the fact that our bodies are out of whack and to stop blaming ourselves because we have no control over this. B explains, “I haven’t lost a ton, but the fact I know I can’t control the acne or the other body stuff – well, I think aside from all of that I have a hottie in here … and apparently that hottie is busting out (no pun intended). I’m getting hit on like whoa all of a sudden. I think it is really a matter of how we carry ourselves. Literally the day I accepted it wasn’t my fault and I was going to take ownership of only those things I had control over, that was the day guys started whistling at me and honking horns. Very odd. But if I am obsessed about my flaws then that is the only thing others will see too.” I think that B puts it very well. A large part of appearing attractive to others is our attitude to ourselves. B goes on to say, “My friends don’t care about how I look – just that I am happy.” D talked about how her thyroid caused her to gain over 44 pounds. She feels alone and saddened by her friends’ and family’s reactions to her weight gain and is ashamed to show them how physically and mentally exhausted she is. Her parents and husband assume she overeats and are unsupportive, telling her she “looks like a balloon”. She has experienced a surge of new hope since finding various advocacy sites. She is confident that now she may be able to overcome her problems. As a result of her wacky thyroid dehydrating her skin, R has more wrinkles and her skin condition keratosis pilaris has worsened. Excess protein in the skin causes bumps to form on the upper arms, side of the face, or forearms. This requires constant exfoliation and moisturizing. It’s a real battle. Her teeth are now more brittle and several have cracked since her thyroid quit, so she brushes, flosses and uses ACT Restoring Mouthwash to strengthen them. Her once thick hair is now thinning and she has a thinning spot in the front portion, at her forehead, so she alternates her parting to prevent if from getting even thinner. Taking kelp has also helped her hair. She also lost hair on her eyebrows, arms, and legs (the last two she is not exactly sad about). R is thankful for the love and acceptance of her family and friends. She enjoys bright colors to flatter her figure and spending time with her loved ones in the sunshine: “I would tell everyone that is having issues to get out into the sunshine. It really does help! Staying inside makes it easier to wallow in the depression and the sunshine is free, kicks the blues and helps to promote vitamin D in our bodies for happier moods and stronger bones!” J misses her active teenage years when she biked and rollerbladed, swam and ran. She feels as if everything has gone downhill since her diagnosis in 2000. Her energy has been zapped, so she is no longer able to be as active as she once was. Subsequently, she struggles with weight gain and the impossible battle of weight loss despite diet changes and exercise. This makes her feel very anxious. She takes the vitamins and prescriptions her doctor recommends, but as she is on Medicaid she is limited in terms of what is available and can’t afford to see another doctor. J recognizes the importance of believing in yourself and doing your own research: “I just have to tell myself that I am beautiful, that it isn’t my fault no matter what people and even doctors have said about my weight and that I AM worth being treated correctly. Just sticking with it until I find the answers. I’m so new to everything and I’m still learning about it all, so the more info I find, the more I can take to my doctors to help me.”
We Should Learn To Love Ourselves
In summary, I believe that we need to learn to love ourselves, realize that we are not alone (advocacy communities are particularly helpful here), wear clothes to flatter our figure whether skinny or curvy, tell ourselves we look good and enlist the help of loved ones to do this and, last but not least, focus on our health. At the end of the day, we may not (yet) look the way we would like, but our first priority should be to get to the point where our bodies are healthy.
About the Author
Sarah Downing was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in 2009. This represented a turning point in her life because she realized that she no longer had to feel guilty for symptoms such as tiredness and weight gain that she’d previously blamed herself for. She also realized that her writing gave her the ability to help and encourage others in similar situations, as well as to cathartically heal herself and learn from past experiences by putting pen to paper and sharing them with others. In addition, she believes that sharing positive experiences is immensely important and inspiring because it gives people hope. Visit Sarah’s website for more of her writing.
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Questions or anything to add about loving yourself at any weight? We want your thoughts, please. You might just help someone else in need.
-Beauty through the ages -A photo collage of female body shapes in the 20th century -A timeline of sexy defined through the ages -Fashion through the ages -The Gibson Girl -Corsets and body modification (the wasp waist) -Chinese foot binding (lotus feet) -Earlobe stretching -BMI illustrated -Interesting blog post on healthcare and overweight patients -Fat-friendly health professionals