Jan 25, 2018 in Analysis

The Skinny Culture


The Western view of fashion and style has become obsessed with thinness.  Dubbed the skinny culture, this social view maintains that aesthetic beauty and attractiveness coincides with an emaciated form.  There are few limitations to the extent of thinness; in fact, for many, the attitude is the thinner, the better.  This attitude is particularly prevalent among young women. 

This paper examines the phenomenon of the skinny culture, tracing its development and influence within the 1950’s and 1960’s to the present day.  It begins with a section defining the skinny culture and then discusses the historical development of this cultural movement.  Then, the paper explores how skinny culture manifests within the modern day and the impact of skinny culture upon society.  In particular, the fashion industry helps to support the skinny culture and its values within the minds of Western youths.  The skinny culture endorses exercise and helps individuals to avoid the negative health consequences associated with obesity.  However, the skinny culture also risks the long term development of significant health problems associated with eating disorders and these negative consequences appear to be a significant threat to Western adolescent girls.

What is the Skinny Culture?

The discussion of the skinny culture should begin with a unified definition.  The skinny culture associates the status of being thin physically with many positive, desirable characteristics, particularly for women.  These include physical attractiveness, intelligence, self-control, health and sexuality (Miller et al., 2000).   The skinny culture drives many to diet and participate in strict exercise regimes.  However, the demands of the skinny culture cannot be achieved by everyone and this helps to maintain the status of skinny as being both enviable and difficult to obtain.

The skinny culture similarly associates being overweight with negative characteristics.  Individuals who are not skinny may be viewed as lazy, unattractive and weak willed.  They may be viewed as being less sexually attractive and less fashionable.  Obese women in particularly tend to be viewed as less graceful.  The heightened understanding of the negative physical health effects associated with obesity further emphasizes the social desire to be thin.

There are many potential advocates for the skinny culture

First of all, the fashion industry promotes the skinny culture through its advertisements in order to boost sales in an efficient manner.  Also, the media industry promotes the skinny culture because the camera tends to add weight; because of this, normal sized people may appear less attractive when in movies and commercials.  This technological problem highlights the need for more skinny individuals.  Furthermore, medical and health experts may promote the skinny culture because of the health benefits associated with being thin and avoiding obesity. 

The development of new technologies has resulted in a lifestyle that requires significantly less levels of exercise in order to survive.  As a result, individuals who fail to engage in regular exercise are likely to gain weight.  The skinny culture helps to create a social need for thinness since physical requirements no longer ensure that society’s members are thin.

The Development and History of the Skinny Culture

The skinny culture is a relatively new historical phenomenon.  Many cultures have associated physical beauty with being normal or even a bit healthy.  A woman with a heavier frame would be considered voluptuous.  Her ability to be well fed would demonstrate her family’s wealth and further reinforce the idea of weight physically demonstrating social status.

The history of skinny culture in the United States begins in the 1960’s.  During the previous decade, time, voluptuous women such as Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe had been regarded as the epitome of beauty.  Hairstyles were frequently teased and very controlled, demonstrating that a woman was expected to spend a considerably degree of time and effort into the maintenance of her appearance.   Jackie Kennedy’s incredible style and charisma further solidified the dignified appearance of women in the 1950’s.  At that time, a beautiful woman was one who had prominent curves that were carefully displaced through meticulous grooming.

However, many women found that they could not fit such a difficult and ultimately expensive beauty mold and by the end of the decade, the nation’s women, particularly its younger women, were looking for alternatives.  This search for alternatives coincided with the growth and development of the feminist agenda.  Women did not want to have to commit considerable time to maintaining a perfect exterior.  At the same time, they wanted their bodies to be accepted as beautiful even if they failed to live up to stars like Marilyn Monroe.

These seeds of cultural discord helped to generate the public’s decision to embrace women who helped to pioneer the skinny culture.  The two most influential skinny icons were Audrey Hepburn and fashion model Twiggy.  The innocence and youthful appeal of these two women contrasted with the more put together style of Jackie Kennedy.  Audrey Hepburn “became a fashion icon for thousands of American girls who longed for something a little different, a little less worldly” (Rollin, 1999, p. 220).  Hepburn was perfect as a pioneer of the skinny culture because she demonstrated that a woman could still be fashionable even if she was thin.  Hepburn was thin and lanky.  However, she had an impeccable style and helped to establish several major fashion icons including the little black dress.  Her leading characters in “My Fair Lady” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” highlighted her slight build as an integral component of her overall aesthetic beauty. 

Similarly, Twiggy revolutionized the fashion industry with her boyish haircuts and her very thin frame.  Twiggy was significantly smaller than her peers and she helped to usher in a new era of thin models within the fashion industry.  These very thin women were used for advertisements and demonstrated that a woman did not need curves to be charismatic or fashionable.

The Skinny in Everyday Culture

How has skinny culture become a part of Western culture?  The most obvious answer is advertising.  Because of the prominence of thin models within advertising, the fashion industry is often blamed for the perpetuation of the skinny culture. Twiggy demonstrated the usefulness of young models and her influence to the fashion industry continues in the present day.

Several practical concerns lead to the increased pressure on fashion models to be thin.  First of all, the prevalence of the skinny culture and the desire to use beautiful models to attract consumer attention is strong within the industry.  Thin models have an easier time finding consistent work because they are generally regarded as more beautiful.  A thinner frame is also believed to more effectively show off the quality of the garments.  Fashion designers and show coordinators prefer thin models because their small size makes them easier to dress.  When clothing is too large for a model, it can easily be pinned.  However, if a model is too large for the intended outfit, this can cause major problems.  A smaller size also requires less fabric and materials.  As a result, it is often more cost effective for fashion designers to hire and dress thinner models in the long run.

The fashion industry is important not simply because it impacts the size and weight of its models but also because its advertising impacts the whole of human culture.  Men and women who read magazines and watch television are constantly bombarded with the image of thin, beautiful people.  “Personal ads are one place in which the thin values promoted by sources like the media are echoed. Research on these ads attests to the importance placed on obtaining a thin, attractive partner” (Miller et al., 2000, p. 133).  The media’s reliance upon the use of thin models as a mode of promoting advertising had led to the increased acceptance of the skinny culture and the popularization of the idea that beauty requires thinness.

The Impact of Skinny Culture upon Society

The skinny culture certainly has some potential to generate positive societal benefits. In particular, the skinny culture helps to support a healthier lifestyle that promotes good eating habits and exercise.  In fact, obesity has become one of the most serious health problems facing individuals living in the United States.  The Center for Disease Control (2007) explained that “during the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States” (p. 1).  In fact, in a survey of the 50 states’ populations, the CDC found that nearly half reported obesity rates in at least one fourth of their total populations (CDC, 2007).  Western children also face an increased risk of obesity.  “The prevalence of overweight and obesity among American children has been increasing at an alarming rate” (Story et al., 2006, p. 109).  Childhood obesity is a problem that is occurring at an alarming frequency and obesity is one of the most serious health risks facing children today (Story et al, 2006).  The skinny culture helps its adherents to avoid the negative health problems associated with obesity, including an increased risk of heart disease.  Therefore, if the skinny culture helps to reduce the rate of obesity in the United States, then that should be regarded as an important advantage of the culture.

Unfortunately, the dominance of the skinny culture is likely to lead to significant problems because the culture has the potential to become excessive.  In particular, many individuals suffer psychological problems associated with their failure to conform to skinny ideals.  “Individuals are constantly receiving unclear and often harsh messages about attributes deemed important by society” (Miller et al., 2000, p. 140).  Overweight individuals face an increased risk of psychological problems such as depression or low self-esteem.

Furthermore, the over-emphasis upon thinness as a necessary component of beauty has contributed to the increased incidence of eating disorders.  Eating disorders are a serious health problem.  While being too overweight can cause significant health problems, being too thin can also cause health problems.  Golden et al (2003) explain that “potentially irreversible medical complications in adolescents include: growth retardation… loss of dental enamel… structural brain changes… pubertal delay or arrest and impaired acquisition of peak bone mass” (p. 496-497).  Eating disorders also have the potential of killing their victims because those who suffer eating disorders exhibit weakened immune systems and are more likely to succumb to fatal secondary conditions.

Teens of both sexes are particularly likely to be impacted by the influence of the skinny culture.  This is because of the physical and emotional challenges with adolescence.  This stage of human development is very challenging and often teens seek outside approval in order to boost their self esteem.  This pressure to meet established norms regarding physical appearance increases the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.  These young people are particularly vulnerable to being influenced by media messages that support the skinny culture.  Over five percent of all teenage girls develop an eating disorder (Golden, 2003).  Teenage boys also face a high risk (Golden, 2003).  Eating disorders are particularly damaging to teens because their bodies are still developing.  The damage caused by an eating disorder is likely to be permanent and life altering.

Some members of the population appear to face greater risks associated with thinness than others.  For example, many studies and news articles have focused upon the fashion industry as one which cultivates an unhealthy skinny culture.   The British Fashion Council reported that “up to 40 percent of models may have eating disorders, compared with an estimated 3 percent of the overall population” (Satter, 2007, p. 1).    Fashion models are likely to suffer from eating disorders because they work in a professional field that glorifies and requires thinness. 

Conclusion: The Future of the Skinny Culture

How long will the skinny culture continue to dominate the Western world?  Some evidence demonstrates the likelihood that the popularity of the skinny culture is in a decline.  First of all, some would continue that the skinny culture will inevitably decline because, as was the case with being voluptuous, not all people are capable of meeting skinny norms.  Furthermore, the heightened concern over eating disorders creates societal pressure to stop emphasizing being thin as a necessary component of aesthetic beauty.

In fact, even the industries that appear to be most influential in the perpetuation of the skinny culture appear to be less thrilled with the culture.    Even members of the fashion industry recognize that the fashion industry is at least partially responsible for the perpetuation of the skinny culture.  As one Italian official noted, “it’s true that anorexia is not born on the catwalk but the fashion industry could not stand by as an indifferent spectator” (“Italian fashion” 2007, p. 1).  Individuals look to images in magazines, television and movies as the idealized forms of beauty.  They naturally seek to emulate these examples.  The underweight models inspired by the skinny culture have increased the risk of others developing an eating disorder.  “The thin models that we have seen on the catwalks have been a cause of the increase of this illness which has also caused numerous deaths” (“Italian fashion” 2007, p. 1). 
In many nations around the world, the fashion industry is banning models who are too thin from working.  These men and women are being required to gain weight for their own health and well-being.  In the United Kingdom, the British Fashion Council recently decided to screen models for potential eating disorders as a pre-emptive health strategy (Satter, 2007).  The UK has also recommended that the fashion industry begin to carefully screen teen models to ensure that they were not being exploited (Satter, 2007). 

In nations such as Italy and France, the restrictions against underweight models are even more stringent. Italy has an even more strict policy that requires its working models to maintain a BMI (body mass index) of 18 or higher.  “Under the new self regulation code drawn up in Italy by the government and designers all models in future shows will be “full bodied, healthy and radiant Mediterranean types” (“Italian fashion” 2006, p. 1).  These nations have become known as being integral components of the fashion world and their actions are severe and send a very clear message.  The fashion industry is not willing to tolerate the negative publicity associated with deaths associated with eating disorders.

The days of the skinny culture’s domination of Western society appear to be numbered. The banning of underweight models is important to the future of the skinny culture because the fashion industry helps to construct society’s views of beauty.  If heavier models become the established norm, then society is likely to change its views on beauty.  The change is likely to be gradual.  However, the change will mean an end to the skinny culture as society once again shifts to develop its views regarding aesthetics and sexual attractiveness in the human form.


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