Weighty Matters

Weighty Matters

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?

31 Responses to Weighty Matters

  1. I am glad that “plus” size models are gaining more popularity and hope that a healthier look becomes the norm for modeling. As for Elizabeth, despite watching many film versions of P&P, I always picture Jennifer Ehle.

  2. It,s interesting to note that although Jane Austen gives no clue as to how tall Elizabeth is, she’s almost always described as small to tiny height-wise in JAFF. Darcy is definitely described as tall by Austen but did that mean the same then as it does now? Being from a wealthy family, his standard of nutrition would be considerably better than the average, meaning that during the important period for growth as a child, his height genes would be able to maximise their potential.

    The same would go for Elizabeth, albeit her family wasn’t as wealthy. I’ve always imagined her as about 5ft 6″, which is how tall I am and Jinnifer Ehle is 5ft 7″, so that fits quite well As to build, probably heavier than I was at 20 but nowhere near what I am now. Again, Ms Ehle fits that image too. A back problem for over a year has prevented me undertaking much in the way of exercise, apart from walking, but guess who didn’t take that into account when eating? So my weight ballooned and I’m only now starting to shed some of it. I think of it in terms of bags of sugar. Here in the UK, granulated sugar is mostly sold in bags weighing 1kg (2.2lb to you guys in the US). So far this year, I’ve lost 4.5 bags of sugar from a starting point of 88.9 (195.6lb) which is about 5% of my body weight. Sometimes, sugar is also sold in 5kg bags and when you pick one of those up, it’s a substantial weight to be carrying around on these old bones.

    I’ve no time for the magazines aimed at young women that give them an unrealistic idea of what an “ideal” body shape is. Sadly, I’ve come across a number of them who suffer from bulimia or anorexia and it’s so sad to see them and hear them talk about their loathing of their body image.

      • Thanks Elaine. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the 5:2 eating plan? On five days a week, you eat normally but healthily – occasional treats ARE allowed. On the other two days, also known as “restricted days”, it’s a very low calorie intake – no less than 600 and no more than 800 in the day and absolutely NO carbs whatsoever. You need three portions of protein, three portions of dairy and seven portions of fruit and veg, but only one of those can be fruit. The dairy has to be as low fat as possible, preferably 0%, no added sugar in drinks or anything else. If you use oil for cooking then it has to be the spray kind that you use very sparingly. I lost weight with it a couple of years ago, then my back problem happened and I kind of lost my way with the weight loss. Hubby did it too and he’s managed to keep his weight off.

        I’m on a restricted day today, it’s 3:45 in the afternoon and I could kill for some carbs right now! As an example of what I have on such a day, I had a banana and some very low fat yogurt for breakfast, some left over home made curried vegetable and fish stew for lunch (tastes much better than it sounds!) and I’ll be having home made chilli for dinner that’s made with very low fat beef, mixed pulses and loads of veg, served with a dollop of very low fat natural yogurt on top. Oh, forgot to say that if you want, you can swap one dairy for a portion of fruit so I’ve done that and had a glass of orange juice with my breakfast. I don’t take milk in my tea, so I have to make sure I get my dairy portions from something else, usually yogurt or a portion of reduced fat cheese. You also need to have something a bit salty during the day, so I usually put a splash of soy sauce in something, or you can have a couple of rashers of very low fat bacon occasionally.

        Sorry for waffling on, but I thought it might be of interest if any of my friends out there are struggling like me right now.

  3. I agree Elaine, go for healthy. Very few women can be size 0 by nature. You practice challenging sport, and muscles weight more than fat. 🙂

    I love Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, but I believe that Elizabeth Garvie was the closest to P&P Lizzy’s size.

    • Thanks Kate! I don’t want to be a size zero, necessarily, but I do have a specific Jane Austen-based reward in mind for myself when I finally reach my target weight!

  4. I hope you write a modern story in which Lizzy holds a black belt in karate – that can be her accomplishment, and it would make Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine apoplectic. I’m happy you are losing weight and becoming healthier and more active. Congratulations on the weight loss!

    • Thanks June! Lizzy in P&P and Zombies probably does have a black belt in . . . . something, considering how she kicks butt! And I do have a plot bunny for a modern P&P in my head right now, but it’ll probably be awhile before I have the time to start writing it. 🙁

  5. At my age, focusing on getting healthy again is where it’s at. I started really focusing on it again in December and while I really do like the number on the scale moving down instead of up, having my clothes feel a bit looser and seeing improvement in my blood pressure along with other health indicators is what really excites me these days. I’m a fan of Jennifer Ehle as the sort who would line up with Austen’s vision, although I think Elizabeth Garvey fits the bill too. Fun post!

    • Yes, the looser clothes and lower blood pressure is a definite plus! Although nearly having my pants fall off at work, as was the case a couple weeks ago, is certainly a hazard! I’m glad you liked the post.

  6. Elaine… go with healthy. There is no tried and true standard… because they keep changing it. Back in my day ‘Twiggy’ was the rage [OK… look it up]. For years anyone with a pear shaped body was made to felt less than beautiful. And now [I swear I saw this on Dr. Oz], due to those ‘booty’ songs and stars flaunting their behinds… there are booty enhancing drugs and procedures on the market. I swear… Dr. Oz was cautioning his viewers against these dangerous practices to enhance the posterior. Many of the proposed ‘perfectly safe’ enhancing drugs were full of seemingly innocent herbs… however, they were also full of plant estrogen. Some people are estrogen sensitive and that can cause a whole lot of problems. Others are seeking injections that are dangerous as well. So… healthy looks pretty good to me. Be healthy my dear.

    • You are SO RIGHT, J.W.! I hope and pray that we do a good job teaching younger women that what they see on the covers of magazines is not real, that standards of beauty change over time, and that they need to worry about being healthy instead of being thin (or curvy).

      I used to get so frustrated when the doctor would tell me that my BMI was too high, because BMI does not take muscle mass into account. Likewise, the number on the scale does not tell the whole story. My dietitian taught me to think of weight, BMI, waist measurements, etc., all as tools to see how I’m doing, and not as a primary goal in themselves. It makes a difference in those frustrating times.

  7. Good for you Elaine! I love that you want to be healthy, not to mention, don’t you do Karate? You’ve done really well. I love to think of pounds in terms of butter. One pound = 4 sticks! Yikes and you lost 37 pounds! That’s a heck of a lot of butter! 148 sticks and counting. You’re doing great! Oh as for those Lizzy pictures, I like parts of each, but one of my favs was Elizabeth Garvey, since she had large eyes and sang beautifully. Jen ?

    • Thanks, Jen. Yes, I do karate, and now that I’ve achieved my goal of 3rd degree black belt I can just go to class and focus on getting a really good workout. And I do, with a vengeance! Here’s to 200 sticks of butter!!!!

  8. To hell with society Elaine!! I too struggle with my weight. I’m not huge but just trying to keep it maintained is a struggle. My daughter is a big girl. She was always on the chunky side but in her early twenties she was afflicted by a mental health illness. Most of the medication for this illness increases weight and this she didn’t need. However, six years on and she’s in a really good place. She’s a size twenty but being five foot nine helps. Being well mentally is far more important than being stick thin. She’s quite comfortable in her skin and it’s great to see. We’ve had some really dark days as a family so it’s marvelous to see her so well. Try to be happy is what I say no matter what shape.
    Jennifer Ehle is my preferred Elizabeth. She’s a more normal shape I think. Keira Knightly hasn’t a curve in the world and could easily pass for a man.
    Very interesting post.

    • Thanks Teresa! Can you imagine what Elizabeth would say if she saw the way we obsessed over looking perfect? Not just with our weight but with our hair and make up? She’d probably tear the front cover off of every glamour magazine in the house and throw the scale out the window, then go for a nice long walk. Which is probably what we should do.

  9. Jennifer Ehle is my vision of Elizabeth Bennet as well. I too thought Kiera was too waif like. Just look at the women who were painted by the masters. You were considered wealthy if you had some weight on you! Men considered you healthy, especially for child bearing. Have you seen the commercials for Addition Ellle? The plus size models look amazing! My favourite would be Ashley Graham.

    I have been fortunate in my weight for the most part. I never really lost much of my 2nd pregnancy weight so I blame it all on my son! I am petite in stature but I have a ‘healthy’ chest size and am short waisted. So any weight gain makes me ‘pleasantly plump’! I go to to workout (weights and piloga) 4x a week to maintain my weight as my metabolism has slowed down now that I am older. In the spring-fall, I walk alot and weather permitting go kayaking. I think I am more fit now that I was through my younger years! I always wanted to be tall and willowy when I was growing up…never happened. There is not much one can do about it when ‘genes’ come into play but make the most of who and what you are. We should be teaching kids today to be confident in their abilities and proud of their accomplishments…not in how the fashion society says you should look. However, social media and the disdainful attitude of today certainly chips away at ones confidence…

    Thank you for this insightful post and congratulations on ‘fighting back’!

    • Thanks Carole! I have found walking to be an under-appreciated form of exercise that does wonders for the metabolism. When I hit a plateau, a nice long 60 – 90 minute walk, without stopping, has proven effective in starting the weight loss again.

  10. I think Jennifer Ehle’s stature is more apropos with the time period and the standards then. The actress herself, is not my favorite but Keira Knightley is just too waif like to be period correct IMO.

    I was a fat kid and an even rounder and fluffier adult with no worries about it until I had my stroke at 33. My weight was a contributing factor and I lost 165 pounds with a combo of Weight Watchers and running. For the first time in my life I could see muscle definition and my hip bones and was no longer taking 11 pills a day. I then had a total hysterectomy and with no hormones, I gained 60 of those pounds back (over 7 years) no matter what I do. I have learned that I am now healthy. I am still considered “significantly overweight” but I walk 3 to 5 miles 3 times a week and do yoga the other 4 and eat vegan. Incredibly I have no meds and am considered healthy. I just have to be happy in my skin. Would I like to see a smaller person in the mirror? Absolutely, but this is what I’ve got so….society standards be damned, I’ve got to be happy with me. 🙂

    • 165 lbs! Holy cow!!!!

      Your loss and then subsequent gain is proof positive that weight loss is NOT always a simple matter of weight loss, as fat shamers like to assert. You certainly sound healthy to me!

      And I agree that overall health is what matters, not just the number on the scale. Years ago when my son had just been born, I only weighed 160 lbs but I couldn’t run across the lawn without gasping for breath. Now, at 170 lbs and considerably older, I can do 30 pushups and 50 situps with out stopping. Which version of me is healthier and happier? The answer is obvious!

      • Oops, I meant to say, above, that weight loss is NOT always a simple matter of will power, as fat shamers like to assert. On paper it’s just calories in vs calories burned off. In practice it’s a lot more complicated than that.

  11. The dress of the period certainly flatters a fuller figure. My husband and I have historical costumes and the dresses are OK but not great on a person with skinny arms and a less-than-ample bosom, and the up-hairdos look better on a round face. I do appreciate that short stays and no hoops are much easier to wear than, say, Victorian hourglass-shaped corsets and giganto hoops, but when my husband looks like a milliion bucks and I look meh, it’s a tad disheartening. As such, when I wrote up a rather petite heroine I had a bit of a hard time getting a focus for the hero’s sexual attraction to her. No idea how anyone’s going to react to his being entranced by her lovely throat!

    On the flip side, the empire waist nicely hides my expanding belly, which seems to be the result of some combination of hormones, moving to a foody office, and several years of belly dance (which gives you a muscular midsection). I still recommend belly dance as a very enjoyable exercise. If you don’t dance hard enough to lose your curves, you’ll learn to love them.

    • Belly dancing! I’ve actually been fascinated by belly dancing for a long time and I can well imagine how it builds up those ab muscles. If we ever get to meet in person I’m counting on a quick lesson from you!

  12. The biggest blunder of P&P1995 was casting Jennifer Ehle in the critical role of Elizabeth Bennet. She looks significantly older than Mr Darcy and certainly older and far more worldly and jaded than a “not one-and-twenty” maiden. I’ve never understood how the rest of the roles were cast so brilliantly … and then there’s Jennifer Ehle, who nearly ruined P&P1995 single-handedly and who, I have become more and more convinced, got the part due to her ample bosom. After all, it is clear that Mr Darcy’s first attraction to her is lust, as is Mr Wickham’s and even Mr Collins’. And perhaps the casting director’s?

    When I read P&P or P&P/JAFF I picture one of the more appropriately-cast Elizabeths: Elizabeth Garvie, Keira Knightly, Gemma Arterton. Yes, it has some to do with being petite, but more to do with looking and acting like a 20-year old maiden.

    How nice to hear that you walk with your dog, Mary Anderson! We’ve never been able to take our rescue Shiba Inu on long treks as he was the product of a backyard breeder, born with a leg and hip weakness that required extensive surgery and rendered him unable to walk long distances. Now at age 11-1/2 he has developed extensive arthritis — he was making good progress with physical therapy but we had to discontinue it when he developed colon cancer.

    I don’t think of Elizabeth Bennet, or any of JA’s main characters, as being excessively thin or heavy, altho’ Elizabeth would certainly be fitter than most of JA’s ladies — which is not necessarily a matter of body weight. And I imagine that most Regency-era gentlemen, like most contemporary gentlemen, prefer women who are neither underweight nor overweight, but well-proportioned and healthy-looking. Which a young lady ought to be if she possibly can! The only characters I picture as being overweight are the older ones: Mrs Bennet, William Lucas, Lady Catherine. And possibly Mr Collins.

    Personal fitness goals? Just getting out and doing more. Following injuries sustained in a car crash nearly two years ago I’ve been doing less, and my weight has been creeping up. I’m not as concerned about the weight numbers as I am about fitting into my favourite jeans!

    • I loved Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy with the exception of her age. She did not look 20. She didn’t act like 20 either, but then neither did Lizzy as written in P&P originally.

      One of the best things about losing all this weight is being able to fit into clothes that have sat at the back of my closet for ten years or more. Now I’m even shrinking out of those!

    • I recall that Ms Ehle was only 23/24 when she did the role. There are a lot of other factors which can contribute to an impression. She is wearing a wig. Personally, I do not find this styled hair flattering at all. In addition, that brown bonnet is the ugliest thing imaginable! The clothes are also worn (remember, they can’t get new clothes every year). The whole picture shows someone worn down, thus older than they truly are.
      I believe that she is closer to the body ideal of the period than Ms. Knightly, even though she gave a beautiful performance.

  13. First congratulations on your weight loss. I too suffer from a hormone imbalance that causes weight gain and the medication just seems to hold it steady rather than reduce it (but that could be helped with more exercise I think, it’s just so hard when it is cold and snuggling up with a cup of coffee and a book beckons!)
    I loved Jennifer as Elizabeth when I watched the series in 1995 she does seem more of the type of beauty admired in that period but I also love Keira in the part – definitely her fine eyes! So I have to admit that I love whichever I am watching at the time. These are the only 2 versions that I watch regularly, I’ve seen the 1940 & 1980 versions but would never watch them again. The first is so unlike the book and the second one I really don’t think the actor chosen makes a good Darcy, certainly not for me anyway.
    Thank you for this post and good luck with the rest of your planned weight loss (I hope it doesn’t interfere with your writing though!)

    • Thanks for the congratulations! And no, the weight loss does not and will not interfere with more writing! Some things are just TOO important, you know?

  14. Jennifer Ehle is my mental idea of the perfect Elizabeth Bennett – figure, fine eyes and general smart impertinence. I see Elizabeth as strong and healthy with her own style and a love of nature and movement that compelled her to be outside walking while processing her day, her study and her stresses.
    Similar to many women, I too have fought the weight gain that several pregnancies and years of eating my teacher stress have piled on… but I do enjoy relative health and the ability to accomplish many physical tasks while I improve my weight and fitness. I can easily walk the 3 miles from Longborn to Netherfield daily with or without my Shiba Inu dog. I am strong and experience no pain. I enjoy hiking and kayaking as well as boogie boarding with a passion that would be no different if I weighed less. I love sailing and kayaking with our local Orcas, seals and otters. Would a modern day Elizabeth Bennett love these sort of activities, too – especially when she was a grandmother teaching her children and grandchildren to have healthy love of nature? I like to think so… Thanks for sharing… and for all of your writing – which I often use as rewards for getting my long walks on the waterfront in during the afternoons of my work week. Thank you for being part of my healthy choices!

    • I had to look up what a Shiba Inu is. What a great dog! Does he/she go with you when you’re sailing and kayaking! You sound like a VERY active person! I’m so flattered that you use my stories as a reward for activity!

Your thoughts are precious!