Miss Indiana USA Mekayla Diehl became an impromptu symbol of female health for many after she walked on stage for the swimsuit portion of the Miss USA pageant Sunday night. Twitter users immediately commented on Diehl’s size — which was considered by some to be a bit curvier than the average contestant.
But according to Renee Engeln, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, the glamorization of Miss Indiana USA’s comparatively “normal” size in the days since is ironic and borderline damaging.
“It’s [being treated as] a feminist revolution that she doesn’t have an eating disorder, which says something about how far down this path we’ve gone,” Engeln says. “It’s a step just because someone doesn’t look like they’re starving to death.”
Diehl, who has told several outlets she is 5-foot-8 and a dress size 4, is significantly smaller than the American average (5-foot-3, size 12). That is an obvious problem. However, it doesn’t address real reason Englin says judging women’s bodies can be harmful.
“If we continue to do things in which the primary worth of a woman is how pleasant she is to look at, we’re never going to have the discussions about real bodies,” Engeln says. “We don’t even know what they look like.”
Not seeing a range of women’s figures on TV contributes to our shock at shows like HBO’s “Girls,” she says. “People are outraged because Lena Dunham has cellulite and still has sex. In a way it was radical.”
A wide range of shapes can be healthy, though we are not exposed to diversity, says Leslie Goldman, a Chicago-based body image expert and health writer.
“The body we are used to seeing has changed over the years, and it is all but impossible to get it. A very large chest and very slim hips, and very slim honed, tight abs and a more voluptuous rear end. These are all things that are very hard to cultivate all on the same body because the genetic components of a voluptuous chest and butt aren’t generally those of slim athletic hips and washboard abs.”
One of Goldman’s tips for improving body image is to make a mental inventory of television shows, magazines and catalogs and ask, “do these forms of media make me feel better about myself or worse?”
But seeing more bodies, even curvier, fuller bodies, is not the answer for Engeln.
“Every time we have one of these conversations about how women look, we have to ask what’s the other kind of conversation we could be having? There is a real cost here of our obsession with women’s bodies. I’m glad to see women fighting back and demanding something different, but I am not sure that is the way out.”