What’s Your Number?: How Self-Esteem Gets Trapped Inside A Number

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[quote]Don’t let them call you skinny![/quote]

---Eva Six

Recently there was quite a buzz over “plus-size” model Jennie Runk who was featured in H&M’s summer beachwear campaign. Jennie Runk is size 12, and was featured in a clothing line that also included curvy singer/entertainer Beyonce. Runk shared that at the age of 13, she was given the choice between two dress sizes to maintain progress in her modeling career: size 4 or size 12. At the height of 5’10” she chose to actually gain weight and maintain a size 12.

With such a focus on the contrast between a model choosing one number over another, it begs the question: why is beauty quantified through numbers such as weight and dress size?

vintagead1gfdhgdfgn_thumbIt seems for women, fitting a certain number has been an ongoing struggle for decades. While the modern American woman is content to lose the magical number of 10-15 pounds, women in the 1940s and 50s were shamed into gaining weight. But while the number on the scale may have little to do with universal standards of beauty, there does seem to be a universal ratio in determining beauty. That is, the hip to waist ratio in women considered attractive is consistently between .067 and point .08. So while your BMI number may be helpful in considering your health, it is not a scale for attractiveness. Perhaps a tape measure to your waist and hips may be more helpful in measuring your raw sexual attractiveness.

This is illuminating considering that in the US, weight seems to be anything but relative in defining beauty. But studies show that size is actually quite relative in relation to cultural standards of beauty, and is actually tied to the amount of food available to a culture. No wonder the land of plenty prizes skinny thighs. I grew up hearing tales of my grandfather’s Depression Era childhood, when sometimes for days he only ate turnips for dinner. It’s therefore no surprise his generation prized the “pin-up” model look over the less voluptuous Twiggy.

When featured on the Oprah Show, singer and Weight Watcher’s spokesperson Jennifer Hudson shared her weight loss story. Part of her strategy was to focus on healthy habits, rather than the number of pounds lost. Oprah asked Hudson if she would like to share how many pounds she lost. With the approval of her Weight Watchers trainer sitting in the audience, Hudson reluctantly shared that she lost the magic number of 85 pounds. Hudson’s weight loss counseling through Weight Watchers shows the importance of not basing progress on numbers alone. The danger of number-based self identity doesn’t go unnoticed by health experts, and organizations like Weight Watchers. The Weight Watchers website also encourages those on a weight loss journey to not take dress sizes too seriously, and wear whatever size fits best.

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Another problem with defining your beauty on a dress size is that they tend to change from store to store. At a high-end Marc Jacobs store, a dress size for a 27-inch waist is 8 to 10, whereas the same waist size is a triple zero at Chico’s. The drastic difference is because of “vanity sizing” by brands, and (like the name suggests) caters to the vanity of women in order to sell their products. Marilyn Monroe is often cited as an example of how our culture used to value more curvy women, when in reality, her famous size 12 dress was actually probably closer to a 2 or 4 by today’s standards. So if a woman uses the number on her pants to determine where she lands on the mysterious standard of beauty, it’s actually quite useless.

Sometimes it feels good to acknowledge a number, especially when you’re trying to reach a weight loss goal, but it’s not helpful to put a number on self-worth or identity. So what are some of the other options?

Here are a few tips on how to become more comfortable in your own skin, and less reliant on a number:

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Join a movement: Check out Operation Beautiful, and online community that empowers people to value themselves, and pass the message on to others.

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Learn: The struggle for self-esteem is interwoven with how we view our looks. Read The Woman in the Mirror to learn about the dangerous tie between body-esteem and self-esteem.

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Click: Confused on what size you are? Find out by putting in your measurements, and a chart will show you what size you are at stores like Zara, Gap, and Banana Republic.