What is your mental image of Elizabeth Bennet? Do you picture her as she was portrayed by Jennifer Ehle, not terribly slender but definitely not heavy either?
Or do you see her more as the waif-like Keira Knightley, with more of a boyish figure?
Austen gives us little physical description of her most famous heroine. She mentions her “light, pleasing figure” and, through Darcy, speaks of her “fine” eyes, whatever that means. Caroline Bingley describes her teeth, nose, and hair. But in Austen’s day, the ideal female figure was definitely “curvier” than what we would admire today, so it’s safe to say that Elizabeth would have followed that trend. Elizabeth Bennet of the Regency period probably would not be on the cover of any fashion magazine today. She simply wouldn’t meet our standards.
The “ideal” female figure constantly changes according to the whims of society. When I was a teenager the ideal woman’s shape was noticeably thin. Not starving-thin, but definitely slimmer than the average woman on the streets. Barely two decades later the ideal had morphed into the starving model look, aka “heroin chic,” — young women with concave cheeks and visible ribs who looked like they belonged in a fund raiser for starving third world children, not selling designer underwear. Sadly, this was our society’s ideal for many years, and it pushed young women to dangerously unhealthy obsessions with weight and body image.
We still struggle today with how a woman is “supposed” to look. We step on the scale in the morning, curse silently at the number that comes up, then promise ourselves the number will be better tomorrow. We avoid being in pictures and cringe in front of mirrors. We try the latest fad diet that promises to make us drop pounds fast, then become frustrated when that diet, too, proves inadequate. And in a lot of cases, we do all these things just to meet an arbitrary, ever-changing standard of beauty.
I have had a battle with my weight for many years. As a teenager and in college, I was actually underweight, but after marriage and two children my hormones finally caught up. The pounds started to pile on. As the number on the scale went up, it was harder and harder to imagine having a figure that looked anything close to those waif-like, airbrushed models on the magazine covers. It also didn’t help when I was diagnosed with a hormone disorder that makes me weight-loss resistant. Little changes in my lifestyle made no difference at all. Even taking up karate didn’t help. Any other major changes likewise seemed doomed to fail, and if I couldn’t possibly look like those models on the magazine covers,then what was the point in trying to lose any weight at all?
Last summer I finally got serious about weight loss and started seeing a dietitian. She has helped me to focus not just on the number on the scale, but on my overall fitness. With her help, I have now lost 37 pounds! But more importantly, I have been reminded that being thin is not as important as being healthy, and that I should strive for a final weight that is good for me, not necessarily what society wants to see.
My current goals in health management include losing thirteen more pounds, improving my resting metabolism by weight and resistance training, and lowering the time needed to complete the fitness test administered every two months in our karate school. It’s already been an amazing transformation, and I plan on keeping on!
I may never be what our society currently thinks of as ideal, but I do hope to have a “light, pleasing” figure at the end of this journey. And like Lizzy, I hope to hold myself to my own standard of beauty and fitness, not to the latest fads in popular culture.
How about you? What do you think of today’s standards of beauty?