There are many things that make anorexia seductive, and many of them coalesce into the outlines of the underfed body. A recent reader’s question made me wonder: is there really beauty in thinness? What do we feel when we see a thin person? Are thin people really more attractive?
The reader’s question was a response to my claim that undereating and thinness have, in themselves, no aesthetic qualities. In my post about the title of this blog, earlier this year, I said:
For the record: not-eating is not an act of artistry. Neither it nor the changes not-eating may cause to the body or the mind have any aesthetic qualities. The beauty present in human forms has nothing to do with thinness, nor can any aesthetic qualities perceptible in a human life ever be enhanced by inadequate energy intake.
My reader suggested that on the contrary,
The body and facial expressions of an anorexic person are influenced by their anorexia in ways which I often find beautiful, whether that beauty is of a poignancy-tinged type, is a form of beauty from fragility, or simply arises from physical symmetry and straightness of lines. In short, to say that there is nothing beautiful about starving yourself, or nothing beautiful about anorexia, flies in the face of my own feelings and perceptions, and from what I have observed, the feelings and perceptions of many other people as well.
Is this true? It matters whether or not it is, because anorexia and less overtly pathological forms of self-starvation will have more power the more we perceive beauty in them or their consequences.
As my first paragraph already intimated, there are so many angles on this question that it risks dissolving into a whole questionnaire before I even get started. For a start, what do we mean by thin? Do we mean emaciated and obviously ill, or just the thin side of average? Does the answer depend on whether we’re talking about men or women?
I don’t pretend to answer everything here, and my focus will be on the female form, but I’ll try by this route to get to some of the fundamentals.
Two kinds of thin
Let’s take two possibly prototypical cases.
Both fill out their clothing with the soft folds of generous warm flesh.
Ha ha, no they don’t. One is all gaunt cheekbones and angular elbows. The other has a small round bum and defined abs and quads: very low bodyfat but relatively developed muscle mass. We might label them Thin and Thin 2.0. The former is coming to the end of its cultural lifespan, I think. The haunted hunger of the eyes is too easy to legislate against (as recently in France), the links to ill health and misogyny are too easily drawn. The pale and vacant high-fashion model is more easily resisted, by most people (though perhaps not by people with anorexia), than her fitness video sister. Her sister pulls off the trick of linking her body size and shape to the kind of health we’re all supposed to aspire to. Now, you’re not meant to starve yourself to be beautiful, you’re meant to crunch and squat your way there instead (obviously while counting out every gram of protein powder and grilled chicken breast). And thus as women we’re meant to empower ourselves. Instead we prostrate ourselves, with yogic flexibility, to the same old self-oppression in its latest disguise.
Thinness disguises itself as beauty
How does the disguise work? Like all good disguises, it relies on its surroundings.
Let’s take a closer look at what I feel as I sit in the traffic jam or watch that video. In contemplating both the photo and the film, I probably feel a kind of aesthetic admiration (isn’t she beautiful). This is maybe tinged in the first case with a mixture of fascination and distaste (she’s far too thin), in the second perhaps with envy (I wish I were that lithe and stretchy). So the first thing to note is that there need be no internal consistency in my response. The law of noncontradiction — the law ‘that A cannot also be B at the same time, that an apple cannot also be an orange’ (Detrixhe, 2017, p. 7) — does not apply to the human mind. Indeed, ‘when applied to human feeling and thought [it] yields absolutely nightmarish results’ (p. 8). I can feel revulsion and attraction, boredom and fascination, desire and distaste, all together with no trouble at all. The nightmare begins when I deny that, because then I prevent all possible understanding.
The other important thing to draw out here is that there’s no such thing as a purely aesthetic response — or, that what ‘aesthetics’ means is always an embedded sensory reality. This applies to our reactions to my stepfather’s rustic woodwork, and even more profoundly it applies, of course, to the human body. What we call beauty — especially the beauty of a human being — is not an abstract matter of symmetries, complements, and contrasts. If we prefer symmetrical faces (Little et al., 2007), there are evolved reasons why, just as lower waist-to-hip ratios have tended to be preferred by males and therefore aspired to by females (Kościński, 2014; though with some interesting historical variations: Bovet and Raymond, 2015). Beauty is neither arbitrary nor a wholly cultural construct. There are reasons for all our preferences, from eye and hair color to skin tone, and many of them stretch way back into our evolutionary history. But those reasons to consider some things (and people) more beautiful and some less should be understood as influences, not imperatives.
Not all of the influences at play need to be traced so far back: alongside the evolutionary category there are three more proximate ones. The first is the category of factors relating to the person you’re looking at: how thin (s)he is, how otherwise attractive, how clothed and contextualized. Then there’s you: what kind of relationship you have with your body, now and in the past; how similar or different you are to the person you’re looking at (bodily and in other aspects you might infer, like nationality or upbringing or wealth); what you’re feeling like right now (cheerful, tired, anxious, relaxed, hungry, full…). Then there are all the contextual factors that shape this one-way perceptual interaction right now. There’s the medium — photo, video, high-resolution or grainy; and the physical, temporal, and social context of your viewing — alone, with other people, sitting in bed or on the crosstrainer, first thing in the morning or in a mid-afternoon slump.
Once we start to pay attention to some of these factors, it will become clear how wrong we are to attribute a particular response solely to the person being looked at. You envy Ms. Yoga (if you do) not because she is meaningfully enviable, but because the right combination of those thousands of boxes just happens to have been ticked. If you’d slept a touch better last night, you might well have felt differently now.
Let’s zoom in on the category that relates to the person we’re looking at. Think of our two far-from-fat women. What do they have going for them? Pretty much everything else we learn to value. They’re both young, symmetrically delicate of features. Our perfume model wears extremely expensive clothing designed for people as thin as her; our yoga tutor wears clothing which accentuates her sexuality. Ms Perfume has the backing of a multinational conglomerate with a track record in persuading people they should smell of alcohol, spices, flowers, oils, and other extraneous compounds rather than like themselves; i.e., she has a definite whiff of money. Ms Yoga has the more populist kind of cool: the approbation of many followers and the proffering of an encapsulated essence of a lifestyle we’re meant to aspire to. So, what is the role of their respective levels of body fat and muscle in the responses we have to them? If we didn’t learn from birth to value thinness (in one or both of its variants) would we appreciate my fatter versions of these two women just as much?
The point is: What you find beautiful if you find (pictures of) thin women beautiful is not some kind of disembodied thinness; it’s the whole package. It’s whatever you also get when you get thinness. You might say, well maybe, but if what all the people I tend to think beautiful have in common is that they’re thin, or at least slim, isn’t that likely to be the simplest explanation of my aesthetic response? Well, not necessarily. Think of the things that in post-industrial early 21st-century societies tend to correlate with thinness, and you get all the good stuff: wealth, prestige, genetic advantage. The causal links are hard to untangle: Wealth gets you access to good genes, good genes get you wealth, wealth requires and attracts prestige…
An important linking factor between all these and thinness may be self-control, or ‘delay of gratification’. Performance in a classic experiment (Mischel et al., 1972) on children’s ability to wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows instead of one correlated with subsequent school performance and stress resistance (Mischel et al., 1989), and predicted BMI 30 years later (Schlam et al., 2013). And in a major longitudinal study self-control predicted important health and wealth measures (Moffitt et al., 2011). Because food is such an easily measurable thing to resist, or not (marshmallows!), and because the consequences of resisting or not are so visible, thinness ends up serving as a vehicle and proxy for all these qualities. Finally, because status is more closely linked to physical appearance for women than for men, for women all these ties are tighter.
Entwined with thinness as the marker and attractor of all these forms of status is perhaps the single greatest confounding factor: youth. Thinness is always sold to us through young people. It’s easy to forget that increasingly, beyond extreme youth, what thinness does is not heighten symmetry but reduce it. Lose fat in the face and you tend to look older, as the skin loses what fills it out from the inside. Lose fat in the rest of the body and if you haven’t always been thin, the skin will not be elastic enough to take up the slack. Lose fat (or overall body mass) beyond a certain point and all kinds of things will deteriorate, directly visible and less so. Youthfulness and thinness are our age’s two great aesthetic monoliths. The choice between them is blurred by the availability of cosmetic procedures that encourage you to try to have them both. And of course, associating youth with beauty is just as problematic as associating thinness with beauty, and is even more evolutionarily understandable (youth = fertility). But the conflict reminds us from yet another angle that thinness is beauty not in itself but in the company it keeps — or not.
Maybe the closest we could get to a controlled experiment would be to add or remove thinness to/from an otherwise ‘beautiful’ or ‘unbeautiful’ person and see what changes. Does the perfume model who gains weight become less beautiful? Is the yoga vlogger more beautiful now than before she launched her channel, when she weighed 10 kg more? The answer won’t always be yes, though sometimes it might be. But remember the answer might equally be yes to these questions posed the other way round: Does the perfume model who gains weight become more beautiful, and does the yogin lose something when she diets down to her hint-of-a-sixpack? All the exposés of photoshopped lies are one way of seeing this in action: When you quietly affirm the photo-tinkerer’s choice to lengthen those thighs or round out that breast (oh yes, that looks better), you are choosing to affirm a certain version of what counts as beauty; when you choose not to, you are rejecting it.
But still we don’t have anything like a controlled set-up here, because we can’t add or subtract thinness in a real live human being and leave everything else constant. Adding and gaining weight (whether muscle or fat) is a process, physical and psychological. And those processes have multiple consequences. For example, because these two women live in a society that prizes their two variants of thinness, they are likely to change their ways of acting as they lose or gain weight. Because all their lives they have associated thinness with desirability, their bodily self-confidence may increase with their thinness. And because many clothes are designed for thin bodies, they’ll look less good in them once less thin. And so feedback loops emerge in which thinness creates confidence and confidence is in itself appealing, and so the thinner people get more confident and the less thin people less, and that makes the former more attractive and the latter less…
But there is feedback in the opposite direction too. A body undernourished loses its strength, its self-cohesion, its intrinsic functional confidence in itself. Whichever one of these potential effects win out, though, all this has nothing much to do with the visuals of ‘thinness itself’ (the amount of fat covering muscle or bone) and everything to do with gesture and eye contact and fluidity of movement and whatever else makes you want to keep looking at someone.
These feedback loops are almost infinite in their complexity; we cannot hope to conduct a fully controlled experiment to assess the aesthetic force of ‘thinness itself’. It helps to remember this when thinness seems a worthy ideal: It will not change, in you or anyone else, without changing other things too.
What about the limit case of the pathologically thin? Can there be beauty in illness? Does illness attract illness?
Ms. Perfume may or may not have anorexia. She may or may not have to exert such crippling limitations on her diet to maintain her figure that she should be described as physically and mentally ill. Let’s say she’s far enough along the spectrum that she is suffering for her thinness; she has anorexia. For someone observing her who is healthy and happy, the otherness of severe self-starvation has a richly contradictory fascination that’s often equal parts fear, revulsion, envy, incomprehension, and sheer captivation: not being able to stop looking, not quite knowing why. Then, maybe especially if it’s a man looking at a woman, or an older woman looking at a younger man or woman, instincts to protect and nurture may be woken by the fragility of anorexia.
For someone who also has anorexia, or used to, the ingredients and the proportions may well be different: less fear and incomprehension, more sadness, maybe more nostalgia-tinted envy, maybe whole reams of other associations between the appearance and the lifestyle required to sustain it. Or it’s also possible that such clear associations, which would help the viewer resist the appeal of the old familiar lines and lies, may remain unarticulated. Instead, in the long amorphous moment of seeing this other person who shares your suffering, that deep swell of emotions may feel impossible to interrogate, and more than can be borne.
The broader question about this case is: What kind of beauty can there be in illness? Denying there can be any is a pointless kind of self-policing desire for protective correctness: Claiming that health is necessary for beauty has as many potential dangers as acknowledging beauty in illness. But we need to remember, as throughout this exploration, that correlation isn’t causation; that people have beauty for all kinds of reasons which illness will probably interact with but may not overwhelm. Thus, often, the beauty is there not because of illness but in spite of it. Perhaps what we often perceive as beauty in illness is what the illness throws into sharper relief: what is there of the human despite it. The light in the eyes despite the weakened body, the patience in the limbs. Or maybe there’s what illness teaches but is not illness itself: all the traces of the deepened knowledge of life and oneself that comes from suffering, and enduring. The person with anorexia may speak some of that knowledge with their eyes and voice and movements and hard contours. On the other hand, the person recovered from anorexia may well speak more of it, through what (s)he has not only suffered but overcome.
Whatever else it also involves, the response of the person with anorexia looking at the person with anorexia is full of pain: the pain of compassion, of self-pity, of competition, of understanding, of not understanding. And this brings us again to the simple fact we’ve been circling round ever since we began: that beauty (and its opposite) is not merely of the body. But we’ll return to that at the end. For now, we need to spend a little more time with the experience of viewing. And in this, I’ll return to the general case, which I think also covers much of what happens when the person viewing or being viewed has anorexia.
This is more than enough for one post, so I’ll give more attention to the viewing experience itself in a sequel… here.
Bovet, J., and Raymond, M. (2015). Preferred women’s waist-to-hip ratio variation over the last 2,500 years. PLoS ONE, 10(4), e0123284. Full text here.
Detrixhe, J.J. (2017). In celebration of Father Schreber. Presentation at Schreber Live!, 20 May. Full text here.
Kościński, K. (2014). Assessment of waist-to-hip ratio attractiveness in women: An anthropometric analysis of digital silhouettes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(5), 989-997. Full text here.
Little, A.C., Apicella, C.L., and Marlowe, F.W. (2007). Preferences for symmetry in human faces in two cultures: Data from the UK and the Hadza, an isolated group of hunter-gatherers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 274(1629), 3113-3117. Full text here.
Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E.B., and Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204-218. Full text here.
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., and Rodriguez, M.I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938. Full text here.
Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H., ... and Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 108(7), 2693-2698. Full text here.
Schlam, T.R., Wilson, N.L., Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., and Avduk, O. (2013). Preschoolers' delay of gratification predicts their body mass 30 years later. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162(1), 90-93. Full text here.