What Happens When Women Start Taking Up Space?
When I was a teenager, I dreamed of being “discovered” by a TV casting agent at the mall. I dreamed of being welcomed into the Ivy League. And I harbored another, more private dream, one that felt just as enticing: I longed to become the smallest version of myself possible.
I didn’t probe deeply into why I aspired to physical smallness. It seemed obvious: Nearly everyone I knew idolized diminutive women, from Rachel and Monica on Friends to the newly and triumphantly svelte Oprah. I hoped someday to be as lithe as the models whose baby-tee-covered bodies filled the pages of my YMs and Seventeens. When Kate Moss proclaimed, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” I took notes.
I was average-sized, but I believed that once I became a leaner me — through conviction and discipline — I would be a better me. A fully realized me. Like so many ambitious girls, I wanted to be big and small at the same time — to live a big life in a small body.
I didn’t yet see that aspiration for what it is: a cultural trap.
But now, after years researching women’s body ideals for a forthcoming book about the history of exercise culture, I understand why this fantasy of bodily transformation flourished alongside my dreams for a life of name-in-lights success. Like one of those Magic Eye posters sold at 1990s mall kiosks, once you learn the history of how women came to believe we needed to take up as little space as possible in the name of femininity, it’s impossible to unsee the picture: Whenever American women have collectively achieved social and political gains — the right to vote, the freedom to forge a life outside the home, the ascent to leadership positions — we have been bombarded with the message that our bodies must remain as physically small as possible.
Like so many ambitious girls, I wanted to be big and small at the same time — to live a big life in a small body.
In her seminal book The Beauty Myth, published in 1991, author Naomi Wolf identified this pattern, arguing that powerful women pose such a threat to the country’s social order that culture and capitalism respond by creating punishing beauty…