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May 31, 2012

Bodies Then vs. Bodies Now



Readers, here's a quote from Tim Gunn from his recent book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style:

Look at any photo taken at a nightclub in the forties and fifties; many a flabby upper arm can be seen going to town on the dance floor, no doubt its owner feeling just fine about her appearance.  Today we gasp because we are constantly told that unless a body part is toned it should be kept, like the crazed wife of Mr. Rochester, locked away to keep from offending the new governess."


And this, from Adele Margolis's, How to Make Clothes That Fit and Flatter:

At the moment, the ideal figure is young, younger, youngest -- a cruel blow to those beyond the first flush of youth.  As long as the world continues to be swamped with young people....and as long as the great portion of the earned, accumulated, and inherited buying power is in their hands, just so long will the fashion industry (among others) continue to design and produce for youth.

Margolis was writing in the late Sixties, Gunn in 2007, but has anything changed?  For the past forty years or more -- certainly since the "youthquake" era of the mid-Sixties -- the ideal body type has been a young and slim one.  To quote Margolis, "The stylish stouts went out of fashion a long time ago."

Today, however, it's not enough to have a "youthful" figure.  The ideal body is a fit body.  And not just fit.   For men at least, it must be well-muscled.  Compare the vintage Jantzen bathing suit ad up top, with this contemporary ad for Dolce & Gabbana underwear.  These are very different bodies.



Consider some matinee idols of yore (Gable, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Steve McQueen, William Holden) -- attractive, yes, but nobody looks like they work out daily at Gold's Gym. 











Today, we're constantly hearing about celebrities and their trainers and it's the rare actor/actress who isn't pin-up ready.



You could say the same thing about women's bodies today and the expectation to be gym-fit at every age, but I think we've been down that road already.

Friends, what is this about, in your opinion?  Here's some of what I think is going on:

1) In our media-saturated world, we're constantly bombarded with images of beautiful people.  Once upon a time your frame of reference would be limited to the people who lived in your community or, later, a famous person in a magazine or a movie actor/actress.  Nowadays, bodies are everywhere: on TV, the Internet, billboards, magazines, even our phones! -- and it influences how we see ourselves.

2) Not only do we see more bodies, but also we see more of these bodies.  Cole Porter wrote, "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking/Now heaven knows, anything goes."  Well today that glimpse of stocking is pubic hair, butt cleavage, and whatever we might be downloading in the privacy of our cubicles.  There's very little we don't see and, again, it's hard not to be affected by it and compare ourselves to it (especially if you're young and impressionable).

3) After WWII, increased prosperity and less physical labor meant a) more leisure time to focus on physical fitness and, paradoxically b) fewer opportunities to stay fit without going to a gym or working out in some other way.  Commuting by car, picking up a fast-food meal, sitting at a computer at work -- all of these are part of the sedentary lifestyle that has become the American norm.

Now that we have washing machines, vacuum cleaners, even gas-powered leaf blowers, our bodies are no longer the tools we use to survive, but rather another way we express who we are in the world, much the way clothes served (and still serve) to let others know who we are and how we stack up against others.

4) I believe that anxiety about modern life gets displaced onto our bodies, which we can control more effectively than the increasingly complex world around us.  It's easier to obsess about losing five pounds than about losing our job, the value of our 401(k), or the safety of our children.  A look at the news headlines today is enough to turn anyone into a compulsive eater or, conversely, an obsessive gym rat.

5) For men, a rite of passage into manhood used to be marriage and family, or going to war (or both).  With men marrying later (if at all) and the end of military conscription, muscles have replaced medals and mortgages as symbols of manhood.

Readers, what have I missed?

Do you agree that the shape of our bodies has become more important than ever as a symbol of health, youth, and, affluence (it costs money to join a gym, after all, and working out there implies leisure time)?

Is this something you experience in your day-to-day lives as well or is it just a media/celebrity thing?

Jump in!



57 comments:

  1. Image enhancement? Photoshop (or even the ab-shadow makeup job above) can make unreal beauty, which we still see, think realistically possible, and strive for.

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    1. Yes, although photo retouching has been around since the beginning of photography. Why are we doing so much more of it today? Just because it's easier to do?

      Delete
  2. Excellent points. I'm snuggling up to 40 soon so my opinion might be tainted, but I'd rather have a man with a vintage body any day.

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  3. In my opinion it is all about marketing of some product. I am torn, when I see obesity and the medical problems that are caused by it, it is upsetting. Also upsetting is the need to be 'perfect' in body. We are CRAZY!!! I don't know what the answer is.

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    1. That's the weird flip side: the average American is reportedly heavier than ever despite all this "body beautiful" stuff.

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  4. This was my FB status yesterday:
    Body flaw? How dare the media, the fashion industry and those selling body 'enhancing' products, etc. call a part of the body flawed. I am so tired of commercialism doing their best to make us think we are not good enough as we are so we will buy their product, clothes....

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  5. The ultra pumped up bodies of today aren't that attractive. I guess somewhere in between would be good. The images of the women seem to have fared better than the men, although the women back in the day were just tiny beyond belief. The shoes at Graumen's Chinese Theatre appear to be sized for small children.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Can't stand the ultra-pumped look either, and PLEASE grow some body hair, guys. I agree women's bodies fared better than men's but not by much. The anorexic look ring a bell?

      The fact that Women are simultaneously more affected by body image issues, and more aware of the sociopolitical problems that entails leaves men somewhat more at a loss. It is not considered 'manly' to admit to being a victim in any way, much less to marketing.

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    2. Regarding hairless men trends:

      http://www.eatthedamncake.com/2011/03/03/leave-hairy-men-alone/

      I love that post.

      Delete
  6. I, too wonder when our body perceptions got so skewed away from reality. Many people don't feel like they look good unless they look like a porn star - all over. I'm seeing women who are working out until their appeal is completely buried under a mass of sinews and veins. Many of our female stars today look like adolescent boys who have had breast implants. I have a nephew who wouldn't go swimming when he was in high school, because he did not have a six-pack like the "cool" guys did.

    I wish everyone would relax a little - there is nothing wrong with a woman having curves in places other than her bosom. A man does not have to have bulging biceps - and he's still a worthwhile human being if he doesn't obviously bulge in other places.

    We're people, people, and when we're born, we get what we get and it's not all perfect. Many guys are genetically incapable of packing on the fashionable amount of muscle. Many women cannot get rail-thin without recourse to extreme dieting and obsessive workouts.

    I have often wondered if the current ideals are not part of what's fueling the obesity epidemic. Used to be, if you weren't perfect, you could still be considered pretty nice to look at. Now, if you don't conform to the media norm, you're so unacceptable that I wonder if many people don't just give up and opt out - figuring that since nothing but perfection is acceptable, they might as well have a good time eating whatever they please.

    It's a sad situation, that's for sure.

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  7. I find the emphasis on being "sexy" at all times equally disturbing. The Pink line at Victoria's Secret is aimed at teens, but recently was flogging the "sexy t-shirt bra."
    I'm almost 41, and feel relieved that there was no overt emphasis on being sexy when I was a teenager. It's a bizarre world where Kim Kardashian's mother can spin her sex tape into the Kardashian empire. I don't know what message that sends young women about how they are perceived and valued.

    It is utterly bizarre. My sister worked for Vogue in the 90s, and her biggest regret was not stealing a mock up cover where Anna W. had circled Carmen Kass's slender thighs and written, "FAT FAT FAT!"

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    1. Your sister's anecdote has hit the nail hit squarely on the head.

      Priceless!

      Delete
  8. "Unless a body part is toned it should be kept, like the crazed wife of Mr. Rochester, locked away to keep from offending the new governess" - as if I needed more reasons to love and adore this man! In my humble opinion - people aren't happy. We live in a very superficial, commodified world these days. We are meant to be sated and satisfied with material things but ultimately it's all empty promises. So people have an unnamed hunger to feed - the search for meaning and belonging replaced with porn, obsessive body image, fundamentalism, materialism etc. I think the obsession with youth, our reverence for impossible and unattainable bodies is all part of our feelings of dislocation and meaningless.

    I try to take it easy on myself - I prefer my body with curves and I'm about 10 pounds over my baseline happy body weight but I'm not losing sleep. Primarily because I realize it's all arbitrary, and also because i know I am attractive more or less by our current standards. However - I think it must be very difficult to live in this world if you are not very aware of these issues. If you aren't aware of the intersection of materialism, capitalism, fashion... how very hard it must be to try and squeeze yourself into shapes your body is simply not designed to go. Which further perpetuates people's feelings of alienation and insecurity. What a horrible, vicious cycle we have created....

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  9. Great topic, Peter.
    As an over 60 chick, I am at a crossroads. While I still desire and struggle to be thin, I realize I have more years behind than ahead....so 'yeah I'll have fries with that'.

    But the invisibility of dumpy older women stops me. I'm not yet willing to be written off. So trim & fit says 'I don't take myself for granted so neither should you'. However, excessive fitness and muscularity(?) can say 'I'm rather self-obsessed' or (ironically) 'I'm a touch fearful of your opinion so I'm going to make your conclusion for you...fear me.' The later of which, excessive tatoo-ing also says.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I agree. At a certain age, everyone, not just women, has to work harder just to avoid disappearing. The trick is to try without looking like you're trying. But I won't blame this on an age-obsessed world (point #1). I think it has long been the case that the older generation becomes invisible.

      And I agree with your point about tattooing, although I'll bet that's not a popular opinion here.

      Delete
  10. Every age has its own body-image tyranny. When I was a teenager, I was an athlete and was considered unattractively muscly. These days, my old self would probably fit right in - although as a swimmer I've always had shoulders that are too broad to be attractive. So, for a women, there's a right way and a wrong way to be toned. Look at the flac Madonna gets for her toned arms. I'm not sure if that's ever a problem for men.

    The wonderful thing about being 50+ is that I really don't have to care. I still do Master's swimming and am still unattractively broad-shouldered. But at my age, there's bound to be *something*, maybe many things, that are unattractive about me anyway, so who cares? I get to do what I want without worry. As Bonnie Raitt sang "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Janis Joplin sang that.

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    2. Kris Kristofferson sang that.

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  11. I like the vintage picture better. The D&G spread kinda scares me. My two twenty something daughters don't like the muscle guys either. To each his own is suppose. I just got back from the gym, and did my normal cardio/ weights, just for health and to feel good. I'm a loooong way from being toned up and hard body. I just like moving around, and feeling energetic. My doctor told me to do the weights because of course when you age you loose muscle. I go to the Y where it is mostly old people, and not the normal gym rats, so it isn't as threatening.
    The key is the American diet! That needs to change I'm always shocked at what people eat, and how defensive they get when you have an opinion about eating healthfully, by calling us health nuts or food nazis. If people ate better, it would reflect their health much better than all this other nonsense! This concludes my lecture for the day ;)

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  12. After WWII, increased prosperity and less physical labor meant a) more leisure time to focus on physical fitness...

    Before WWII, too. Specifically, the Nazi era. As Susan Sontag famously wrote in "Fascinating Fascism":

    "All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader."

    ...

    "Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1975/feb/06/fascinating-fascism/?pagination=false

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  13. Interesting how the eye gets retrained. Monroe looks enormous. Yuck.

    I remember being shocked to see a 1960s movie with Frederic March, an actor I like, in which he took off his shirt to show floppy man boobs. (Seven Days in May? He played the U.S. president.)

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    1. Pictures are deceiving.

      "We should never again hear anyone declare that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, a size 14 or any other stand-in for full-figured, zaftig or plump. Fifteen thousand people have now seen dramatic evidence to the contrary. Monroe was, in fact, teeny-tiny."

      http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-24/hollywood-auction-ends-myth-of-zaftig-marilyn-virginia-postrel.html

      Delete
    2. I saw a display of Marilyn gowns. Some were tiny and some were big. The annotation said that her weight fluctuated greatly and she would range from a size 6 to a 14.

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    3. I've heard that the 14 number is not a true 14 by today's standards. Is that true?

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    4. That is absolutely true. Yesterdays size 8 is more like today's size 4. Marilyn NEVER wore a today's size 14, that would have made her very large at that height.

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    5. Yes, Marilyn wasn't as big as she's sometimes assumed to have been. She had a dramatic bust and hips, but her waist was pretty slim.

      Delete
  14. I'd still take Tyrone Power over those D&G guys any day.

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  15. Who Cares Peter...Your body is perfect...and mine as well!
    Cheers!
    Brett.

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  16. I think you have hit upon all of the key points, well done, worth more than a dime! :) Over exposure has definitely redefined 'normal' for us as individuals and as a society. This is why I refuse to buy anything with that kind of advertising in it or in any way contribute to it. I don't need it, humanity doesn't need it. Answer? Put Anna W on trial as a Fashion Nazi criminal? ;-)

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    1. Actually, Ms. W's eternal Dutch-boy bob (a blast direct from the 1964 past) is crime enough....

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  17. Your point 4) is absolutely true and an established part of the psychology behind eating disorders!

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    1. That's funny, I took so long in writing my remark that yours popped up in the meantime! so I repeated you without meaning to :)

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  18. Those are all really good points. I have nothing enlightening to add, but I'm glad that you're bringing up the issues.

    Excessive exercise is one thing that people w/ eating disorders do to feel in control. And when I say 'people w/ eating disorders' I mean it in the same way as people say 'alcoholics,' in that it can be a lifetime issue long after you've stopped drinking (vomiting, not eating, etc).

    So my question is, what is our society's standard for 'excessive excercise'? I think we have ridiculously schizophrenic food standards and I wonder if exercise is becoming (or has become) the same way.

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  19. But the reality is that most Americans are overweight or obese.

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    Replies
    1. It reminds me of the way a certain tier of Americans have more and better food options than ever before (greenmarkets, Whole Foods, organics etc.), while the vast majority are eating an ever-more-highly processed, high-fructose corn syrup-laden diet. Both things are happening simultaneously, just like the fitness/body fixation and widespread obesity.

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  20. Great topic, as always. Personally, I do appreciate a man with a little muscle, but there are some people who take it to a disgusting extreme. Also, it may be fine for a guy to dedicate his spare time to his muscles while he's single (I guess that means I agree with your #5 statement above) but no wife wants to lose out on spending time with her husband while he works on his pecs. It just isn't a realistic thing for most of us to acheive. Actors, models, and other celebs are paid for their looks, so it makes sense that they would spend their time working on acheiving whatever look seems to be fashionable at the time. I agree with other posters who are pointing out the consumeristic processes at work in the unrealistic ideals being presented as the symbol to strive to imitate. Along the same lines as your #1 and #2 statements, it seems to me that part of being a celebrity is being different, special, above others in some way, etc. With the ability for any average person to expose their "talents", beauty, style, etc. via TV or internet, the bar must constantly be set higher and higher in the celebrity world for them to acheive some version of physical beauty that sets them apart from what the average person can attain. If all it took to be considered beautiful was to avoid fast-food and pose happily in a modest bathing suit, there'd be nothing left for the entertainment, cosmetic, and drug worlds to sell.

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  21. Hi Peter, totally agree with you. As I said, I'm 62, and due to my life-long struggle with depression I must exercise. I have taken dance, and swim long distance, and much more. Now I walk Tica and swim and do dance stretches on my carpet. The exercise I do now is not an expense, but is essential for my health. The fun side is I have a younger shape, and so I have more fun with dressing. Cathie, in Quebec.

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  22. BTW, there's something very interesting going on in that Jantzen ad - all three of those men are professional athletes of the day.

    At far left is Frank Gifford, at the time an NFL player for the New York Giants (and now boytoy of Kathie Lee, of course). In the center is basketball player Jerry West of the L.A. Lakers, and at right is Bobby Hull, who played hockey for several teams in the U.S. and Canada.

    Not one of them looks like today's pumped-up 'roid rats. And every one of them was a legend in his time.

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    1. Wear a smile and a Jantzen, wear a Jantzen and a smile...

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  23. I strutted around in barely there swimwear in my 20's and feel no need to return to those days. I've lived my life and yup, there are places it shows.

    Like many of the comments I'm reading, I find the vintage fellas far sexier than the Dolce and Gabbana boys. I like men who look like they have a life, a brain, yeah...a cute tushie and a sense of humor. To me, there's not much sex appeal in someone who appears self-obsessed.

    I learned along time ago that the unique package we each bring to the game is just that: unique. Unique looks, unique thoughts - everything. And Honey, there will always be someone, thinner, richer, smarter, batter at what-ever but it's the combinations that I find wonderful.

    Enjoy the life you've got while you got it.

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    1. Lorena:

      Whaddya tryin' to do, bring back common sense? ;-)

      Delete
    2. Nah, just had a moment there...

      Delete
  24. I recently read (apologies that I can't remember where) that a large percent of adolescent girls give up things they enjoy doing - like swimming or dance - because of how they think they look in a bathing suit or leotard. So, I don't just think this is a problem for those of us on the other side of youthful.

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  25. I don't worry about body image. I am 52. Doesn't matter what I do I will never be or look like a girl in her 20's. Nothing will ever take you back to that place. You aren ever going to have youthful skin on your legs, arms or any other part of your body. You can workout all you want, look slim but your legs and arms will have that look of age. I wouldn't have cosmetic surgery because it doesn't make you look like a younger you, but unnatural. However, if people want to get it done and it makes you feel good, go for it.

    I don't care what people think. I have wonderful children, a great husband and for me I look the best I can for my age and that is fine with me.

    Josette

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  26. Great topic!
    In fact, recently I have come to see this fitness craze even in my everyday life. Several male friends have recently joined a gym and follow a particularly rigorous work-out routine (cross-fit, just in case anyone's interested). They are pretty obsessed about it.

    I think all the points you make are very valid (in fact, I remember discussing food with a fitness-loving friend along lines very similar to what you mention in point 3. Some foods, like potatoes, are now fashionably described as 'empty calories'. I felt I just had to point out what a decadent notion 'empty calories' are. How far removed from the essence of eating: needing food in order to stay alive and be active.)
    However, I think I can add some and those are all related in some way to gender issues.
    1. With this extremely youthful, healthy and unachievable image projected by the medie, the male body image is finally catching up to the female one. Welcome to our world boys! We, women, have been seeing impossibly tall, skinny, curvy and young images held up as the ideal for decades.
    2. In the two ads you show, it's not just the difference in body shape that catches my eye. Look at the body hair. Natural variaty in the in the 9150's, bare minimum in 2012. Even while the male body cult prescribes hypermasculinity for muscles, it seems to promote a level of personal grooming which used to be thought of as feminine.
    3. This actually ties in with point 2: There has been some confusion about gender roles for at least a century, but, on the whole, emancipation of women has pretty much run its course. By law, women are equal to men, they can get the same education, the same jobs, the same station in life (reality may a bit stubborn on some issues, but looking at the big picture, those are details). This process may, at the same time, have eroded traditional male roles and behaviour. As a result, one could explain the male body cult in two very different, but probably equally valid (although a bit exaggerated) ways: A. Men, insecure about their role in society, reverting to a cavemen way of expressing themselves and showing strength: big muscles. B. No longer the natural providers and protectors and desirable for that very reason, men now have to try to be as fit as possible to attract a mate, shaping themselves into lust objects (and like women trying the same thing, they often fail when doing so by following the media example)

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  27. SeamsterEast@aol.comJune 1, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    Back in the 50's and 60's, "gaunt" in a man's body shape was considered "wealthy", much the same as a wintertime tan was considered wealthy. Then a shift came about where the "optimal" -- i.e. youthful -- shape for a man was that of a 19 year old boy, a woman a 15 year old girl. This continued late 60's to mid 70's with the wretchedly thin look (see some TV shows of the time to see how scrawny actors and actresses were).

    Still, young women looking for a some immediate playtime always tended to go for lumpy muscles, if only for a night or two.

    Young men looking for a night or two of playtime fun found lifting heavy things to be far less costly than buying a red Corvette or getting a wintertime tan. And frankly, it worked.

    Even today, old money tends to be gaunt of body shape. Still, lumpy muscles is the "go-to plan" for men looking for a playful night or two with youthful or youthful looking partner(s) without busting the bank buying high cost/maintenance automobiles. (The cost of owning a high end Mercedes Benz can be upwards of $60,000 a YEAR! A gym membership is rather a bit much less.)

    Lumpy muscles, however, typically require daily hard physical effort, not to mention time. Which means men don't stay lumpy for long. Even the professional gigolo's tend to be gaunt. It's easier to push away from a plate of food than it is to bench press 260 pounds (my best ever as a young man).

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  28. I want to add in that this not just the media but many corporations that have jumped on the bandwagon. I am now 50, with fluff, I look just like my great aunt did when I was growing up! I loved her so much, she was lovable, soft, fluffy, a wonderful German woman. When did it get to the point that aging meant more working out, Cougars, and no fluff? The corporation my husband works for actually has routine calls to us, asking us if we'd like a personal phone coach, helping us get into working out, cooking different, etc -- to lower our weight, our BMI. I seriously think that the next extra charge for my health insurance is going to be measured by my BMI. My husband and I are happy, a little extra weight, but not sedentary as our rural life actually keeps us busy -- animals, fencing, yard, etc -- can't we age gracefully like our grand folks did?

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    Replies
    1. That trend is already here, my employer doesn't charge more but gives a health insurance discount to employees who are not overweight and who don't smoke

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  29. Great discussion! Knowing that the guys in the Janzen ad were professional athletes really brings the point home. Many of the guys and gals with "perfect bodies" can't do much with all those pretty defined muscles. Give me a real athlete any day!

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  30. While the media might hype the "perfect body" ideal, looking at the people around me here in Colorado (the "thinnest" state in the US - last year we became the last state to have 20% of our population obese), it seems that most people aren't stressed by the goal to have that buffed look. In fact, it's hard to find anyone outside of an ad campaign or fashion mag that meets that ideal. Far more concerning are the health problems that are lurking under those rolls of fat of the people on the streets. And which we will all be paying for through our insurance premiums, whether we are fit or not. We shouldn't judge people based on appearance (although I do often privately question the clothing choices of people, large and small), but I think overall it's better to be healthy and overly muscular than to be a "free flowing" stroke waiting to happen. -Ellie

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  31. "our bodies are no longer the tools we use to survive, but rather another way we express who we are in the world" -- I need to mull that one. It's so true. When REAL crises hit, like draught/famine/civil war/alien invasion, all the fluff falls away and people focus once again on survival. Well, I'm guessing that's what we'd do in an alien invasion. ;-)

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  32. Joining the discussion a little late ... the status side of things has to be taken into account. In our Western culture, poverty goes hand in hand with jobs that keep you inside all day (out of the sun) and doing work that, while taxing, does not create a toned body. So our cultural baseline is (relatively) pale and untoned, or if one works in construction, dark and toned in patches. Moving from that, being able to tan the whole body just so and being able to exercise the whole body just so are symbols of wealth and leisure. The ideal body is always shaped by economics: in areas where food is scarce, roundedness is attractive, in times when industry was outdoors and active, paleness and delicacy were signs of wealth. What we're seeing is new, but really not new at all.

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