Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tuberculosis: It's all the fashion rage!

In last night's epidemiology class, my professor said something very insightful. We were talking about Victorian era public health, and somehow beauty standards were tossed into the equation. To paraphrase, he said:

The Victorian beauty ideal, at least for Caucasian women, was thin, frail, and waif-like. This, coincidentally, described a woman with tuberculosis.
That comment sparked a massive internal dialogue for me. So much that I could barely even focus during the rest of class. It was as though all of the ridiculous beauty standards to which women are upheld were suddenly flashing before my eyes, bolstered by historical precedent. Painful beauty routines for women are ubiquitous throughout cultures and geographical distributions. These aesthetic requirements even cause us to compromise our health.

Women's pursuit of beauty could very well kill them.

The Victorians thought you looked great if you had a deadly respiratory disease. Really. That's what they considered "hot." Is it so different in other countries? Not really. The implications of this statement, aside from the obvious eating disorder concerns (which may or may not be related to "beauty," but that's another topic), are massive!

I thought about
  • Foot binding: crippled women
  • Genital mutilation: dehumanizes women
  • Permanent makeup: tattooing our faces! ouch!
  • High heels: cripple women still
  • Corsets: caused us to faint and put unnecessary pressure on our internal organs
  • Waxing: self-explanatory pain. Also, makes us look like pre-pubescent girls if performed on certain body parts (which is creepy!)
  • Hair products: exposure to potentially carcinogenic chemicals
  • Parasites: to help us lose weight (yep, seriously)
  • Lysol: to make our vagina smell fresh (also, yes, seriously)
This list doesn't even include the weird devices we use:
Anyway, maybe you all already knew everything I'm writing about, but the enormity of this topic really just sank in last night. It was like getting hit with a brick wall.

I think those of us in the public health professions have a responsibility to promote healthy beauty ideals, not those that harm us. In light of the recent obesity freak-out, I think it's critical for us to maintain a skeptical perspective about what's "good for us." I'd rather be killed by Teh Dethfatz than an intestinal tapeworm designed to keep me slim and trim. Just saying.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this post. It's very interesting how our standards of beauty are affected by health. In areas where food is scarce larger bodies are often considered more attractive (there are cultures where the word for "fat" is the same as the word for "wealthy"). It happens to men as well...during the early years of the AIDS crisis younger looking gay men became the "beauty ideal" because they were thought to be less likely to have the disease. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, it's a shame that we don't see beautiful bodies the same way!