Thanks to fashion magazines, fast food and size-0 actresses, American women live in a crazy funhouse mirror -- the more the obesity rate rises, it seems, the tinier and more unrealistic our idealized standards of beauty become. But is it that way all over the world?
That's the question journalist Julia Savacool wanted to answer when she embarked upon a world tour of body-image issues that became her new book, "The World Has Curves: The Global Quest for the Perfect Body
," and discovered that, globally, for most women, what determines beauty comes from more meaningful influences than Cosmo. We asked her to tell us about five countries who don't idealize the Keira Knightley physique -- though they each have their own set of body issues.
For the women of South Africa, there was a brief moment in the post-Apartheid 1990s where the emulation of Western culture meant a distinct rise in eating disorders. But since then, a radically different, pro-body-image movement has arisen, due in no small part to the fact that the spread of AIDS has caused thinness to be associated with illness.
"When you lose a lot of weight there, people immediately start asking if you're sick," Savacool said. An interesting consequence of this is that Levi's have begun selling a special cut of jeans to flatter curvier South Africans; the style is not yet available in the United States, but does well overseas.Fiji
The Fijian nation's leaders have striven to connect the once-isolated island with the rest of the world, but the influx of American and Australian television and films has begun spreading an unhealthy body image in a culture that has always embraced eating -- to the point where every visitor to a home is immediately greeted with a gift of food. There are pro-curves movements afoot, but the culture has been compromised by Western society.
For young women of this Caribbean nation, it's socially essential to have a little junk in the trunk, as the dance styles most popular in the country rely heavily on being able to shake what you got. As a result, curves are most definitely embraced, but naturally thin women are occasionally driven to consuming high-fat "chicken pills" in an effort to gain weight.
Savacool is quick to point out that the body-concealing burqa used to be a personal choice for women, but is now a matter of national law. Beyond that, curves are definitely embraced. Additionally, a woman's face and hair are given equal emphasis when judging her beauty. The longer a woman's hair, the better, it's believed, but it is often true that Afghani beauty is more defined by a pretty face that a toned body.
A woman's relationship with her body has taken an extreme cast in modern-day China. While in the early years of the People's Republic, even owning a hairbrush was forbidden, today the country's ultra-rich indulge in plastic surgery with no shortage of regularity. In fact, there's even a contest to reward such efforts -- the Miss Plastic Surgery beauty pageant requires that contestants prove they've undergone procedures like nose jobs, breast augmentation or limb lengthening.
Where might the healthiest bodies be found? Of the countries she profiled, Savacool was quick to point out Jamaica as an example, as the culture's clear embrace of heavier women is definitely a positive step forward. Of course, thinner women there are still occasionally driven to pack on the pounds -- proving that the one thing all these different countries have in common is that, in Savacool's words, "You always want what you can't have."