During the 20th century the desire of many to lose fat was coupled with the quest for an ideally proportioned body. For some New Zealanders, this was initiated by the 1902–3 tour of Prussian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, who in his stage performances advocated a system of exercises to reshape the body. Soon, mail-order muscle development programmes and gyms were signing up both men and women, who entered local competitions where they flexed and posed.
Pressures on women
Pressure on women to shape up was particularly strong as clothes became more revealing, beach culture developed, and exacting standards of female beauty were promoted vigorously through Hollywood movies, beauty contests and fashion magazines. The notion of perfection changed over time, with the ideal woman becoming taller and thinner. In the 1920s the Greek statue of the Venus de Milo was regarded as having the best possible figure; she was said to measure 33–26–38 inches (84–66–97 centimetres) and stand 163 centimetres tall. The winner of the 2011 cycle of the television contest New Zealand’s next top model, Brigitte Thomas, was 178 centimetres tall and measured 32–25–35 (81–65–89 centimetres).
Foundation garments such as corsets, and by the 1920s brassieres, were widely used by women to either flatten or draw attention to breasts and control the stomach, hips and thighs. The fashionable silhouette changed during the course of the 20th century, from a dramatically curvy Edwardian shape, to a flat-chested straight look in the 1920s. A renewed emphasis on the bosom in the 1950s was followed by a very thin silhouette in the 1960s.
Once corsets went out of fashion in the 1960s, many women believed that strictly reducing food intake was the surest way to reshape a flabby or overweight body. Often they aimed to be very slim but buxom – an unrealistic goal. Commercial ‘dieting clubs’ offered support: New Zealanders began weighing in at Weight Watchers meetings in 1972, and similar programmes followed. From this time, a welter of radical diets began to be advocated in magazines and books, with notable examples including the Israeli army diet, the Atkins diet, the liver cleansing diet, the lemon detox diet, the hip and thigh diet and the Paleolithic diet. Many of these were later discredited as nutritionally unbalanced and likely to lead to rebound weight gain. Some women took ‘diet pills’ which contained amphetamines to try and lose weight.
The rise in anorexia (life-threatening restriction of food intake), bulimia (bingeing and then purging) and other eating disorders, mostly among girls and young women, accompanied the craze for dieting. Although these serious mental illnesses had complex causes, including genetic factors, low self-esteem and a desire for control, they almost always began with a diet. The value that society placed on appearance, especially for females, was undoubtedly influential.
Feminist commentaries showed how the dieting industry helped to perpetuate the idea of women as ‘sex objects’, but soon men, too, were starting to feel insecure about their appearance.
Smoke and mirrors
In the 2000s, some women (and men), recognising the futility of trying to change a genetically determined body shape, turned to fashion consultants who offered to show how clothes could disguise ‘figure faults’. One Wellington consultancy summed this up in the phrase ‘know how to dress for your shape’.1
From the 1970s gym exercise regimes targeted both men and women who wanted the perfect body. Aerobics classes and workouts with various types of exercise equipment promised tighter stomachs and buttocks, broader chests and more defined muscles in the shoulders, arms and legs.
When these measures did not work, some people – women, but increasingly men too – resorted to cosmetic surgery. In the early 2000s New Zealand psychological medicine researchers suggested that TV reality shows about dramatic weight loss and appearance change were behind a significant increase in surgical procedures. In 2013 the main body-shaping procedures available were female breast augmentation or reduction, male breast reduction, tummy tuck and liposculpture (the removal of excess fat, mainly from the abdomen, thighs and upper arms).