What's the skinny with triple zero?
A look at why thinness is the ultimate ambition.
Published 06/08/2014 | 00:00
It's true: there's nothing quite like the feeling of squeezing into an outfit a size smaller than you usually buy. When it comes down to it, size matters and the number on the label of that new dress or top can make a world of difference to how we feel wearing it.
But now there's a new 'aspirational' dress size in town.
US shops such as Abercrombie & Fitch and J Crew are now stocking size 'triple zero', five sizes smaller than our current size 10 and the equivalent of a 23ins waist.
Considering that the average clothing size for women is an Irish 14 to 16, triple zero is a scary skinny size to have in a market that thrives on vanity sizing and female shoppers desperate to slim down into ever smaller clothes.
A new poll has found the most longed for size is a 12, but, in a separate survey, Gwyneth Paltrow's tummy was cited as women's most desirable midriff - the actress is reckoned to be a size six, which is the equivalent of a US size 2.
Other surveys show that a third of women have lied about their vital statistics and 77pc wish they were a size smaller, that most people would rather be thin than debt free or would chose losing weight over a significant pay-raise.
According to research earlier this year by Special K, two thirds of Irish women engage in daily 'fat talk', ruminating on our flab and longing for lithe limbs. In summary: we're obsessed with the idea of being thin - but why?
Back in the day, a bit of a wobble used to signify wealth and well-being. Certainly the during the Renaissance, painters liked a bit of meat on the bones of their models, with Boticelli and Michelangelo's muses sporting rounded, womanly curves that symbolised health, wealth and abundance.
Heaving bosoms and generous derrieres hung around throughout the Victorian era and hour-glass figures reappeared in the 1950s (absent during a brief craze for boyish figures during the 1920s flapper era).
But thanks to the super-fit gym bunny look of the 1980s and 'heroin chic' catwalk trend of the 1990s, the waif look has gradually cemented itself as the ideal. Being skinny has become the holy grail of body shapes.
The word itself is everywhere, from weightloss books like The Skinny Rules by The Biggest Loser personal trainer Bob Harper and Skinny Bitch by New York Times bestselling author Kim Barnouin to Skinny Cow low-fat ice cream. There's even a new app, SkinneePIX, that will shave 15lbs off your photos.
Part of the thin appeal comes down to its association with status. Dr Robert King, a lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology at the University of Cork, has done research into evolutionary thinking behind what's considered attractive.
"In Western democracies high socio-economic status (SES) correlates with low body weight -probably because keeping yourself thin in a sedentary culture indicates time to spare to do this," he explains.
"This is different from a hunter-gatherer culture - where it is easy to keep thin as you work hard all day - and high fat reserves indicate high status."
Interestingly, the female desire to be thin is more to do with one upmanship with other women rather than trying to attract a partner.
"Thin models may signal high SES to watching females…very few males find themselves sexually attracted to the extreme skinniness of fashion models," King says. "There is a similar story with males. Males find large, muscular males threatening and assume that females must find this attractive, but, when tested, females prefer more normal-sized males than extreme body-builder types."
But the desirability of being thin has also been hammered home through messages on social media, TV and magazines, where Facebook groups are set up to 'fat shame' women and glossy covers are dedicated to humiliating overweight celebs only to trumpet their 'flab to fab' makeovers in later editions.
This public chastisement of jiggly bits and the celebration of slimming places a ridiculous level of importance on the physical to the point where some women feel like their happiness is dependent on what the scales say.
Dr Deirdre Cowman works with Endangered Bodies (endangeredbodies.org), an initiative set up to challenge the culture of negative body image.
"There is a huge value placed on thinness in our society, to the point where it is seen as virtuous or good to be thin," she says. "We internalise this cultural message and in some cases people attribute their value to their weight.
"We're bombarded with digitally retouched images of a very limited version of beauty, generally represented by very thin models, actors and celebrities, which creates an unrealistic standard of beauty and comparing ourselves to these images contributes to sense of body insecurity.
"It's now so common to feel unhappy with your body that, in psychological research, it is referred to as 'normative discontent' - in other words, it is normal to feel unhappy with your body in our society."
James Murphy, a personal trainer with Zest fitness (zestfitness.ie), sees first-hand how ingrained the skinny message has become in the female consciousness. "When I ask female clients about their fitness goals, the main answer I get is that they want to be thin," he says.
His attitude is to try and re-educate clients about the importance of healthy diet, weight training and resistance training in building a strong, lean body.
"To me 'thin' is malnourished, skin and bones and bad health - no one wants this," James says. "But I think more people are starting to realise that being thin and being toned are two different things."
Further backlash against the thin ideal is evident in the emergence of campaigns like Fit Not Thin (fronted by model Daisy Lowe) and Healthy is the New Skinny (healthyisthenewskinny.com), which promote diet and exercise over extreme approaches to weight loss.
But there are also signs that the 'thin ideal' is getting worse. Super thin celebrities like Nicole Richie, Alexa Chung continue to command attention in the media.
Made In Chelsea's Millie Mackintosh recently came in for criticism from eating disorder campaigners after her husband, rapper Professor Green, labelled a picture of her as 'thinspiration' - a phrase commonly used on pro-anorexia websites.
Just last week the story of New Jersey teen Carleigh O'Connell made the news after the youngster bravely stood up to bullies, posing in a swimsuit on a concrete slab that had been cruelly graffitied with the words 'Carleigh's ass'. The rise of social media has also fed the thin obsession with websites dedicated to teaching the best way to look skinny in a selfie. Trends such as showing off 'thigh gaps' and 'bikini bridges' routinely garner headlines and incidents of body shaming would appear to be on the rise
Richelle Flanagan, dietician and interim CEO of Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (indi.ie), believes that there needs to be a concentrated effort by those in the media to put the breaks on society's skinny obsession.
"We need celebrities and the media to be socially responsible and reduce publicity for these super slim images, and we need the fashion industry to support the image of a healthy body and a healthy mind," she says.
"Fashion models are clothes horses but people see the body image too. Things like triple zero labels feed into the issues of eating disorders which are on the rise in Ireland, not just among girls but boys too."
And before you start beating yourself up about not looking like Gwyneth Paltrow when you pull on your swimwear, there's one more morsel of research to chew on - a poll last year found that size 16 women were the happiest and most comfortable in their own skin. Now surely that's a statistic that tastes better than skinny feels.
'It's time we stopped fixating on weight'
Model 'Miss Curvy' Karen Forde knows first-hand what it's like to come up against the pressure to be super thin.
"I'm lucky as I get regular work as 'Miss Curvy' but there are very few plus-size models in Ireland who can truthfully say that.
"There's only a small proportion of jobs compared to 'straight-size' models.
"I remember backstage at one event there was a divide between the 'straight-size' models and 'plus-size'.
"At the root of it were my own peers, who had been so influenced by what they read in trashy magazines about body type that they'd adopted an isolating approach."
At 5ft 9ins, the size 14 Andrea Roche model is a 34DD with 41ins hips and a 32ins waist.
Karen keeps healthy through hiking and weight lifting and by following a balanced diet.
"People need to realise obesity and 'plus size' aren't related," she says.
"Even the term 'plus size' puts unnecessary pressure on people who aren't super skinny."
To combat the idea that larger sizes are inferior, Karen, whose curvysalad.com website, launches this month, reckons it's time we stopped fixating on weight.
"Spend time with people you love and stop looking at images make you feel inadequate," she says. "Do what I do and stick on some Pharrell and dance naked in the living room - that'll make you happy, not what it says on the scales."