What does a 'normal' body look like these days? In fact, does it even exist?

It's a confusing topic.

07 Nov 2018

It’s almost time for the annual Victoria’s Secret Show, otherwise known as the day most women feel bad about themselves for not possessing legs that appear to inexplicably grow out of their armpits, or abs that could grate cheese.

These Amazonian gazelles are - no matter how unattainable their enviable physiques are frequently heralded - habitually posited as examples of ‘healthy’ body types. After all, these are not the emaciated children far too often thrown down high-fashion catwalks, but purveyors of boobs, bums and hips, however well behaved.

Size 22 model, Tess Holliday, is also championed as a body positivity icon, a woman who wears her curves, rolls, bulges and wobbles with pride and who created the inspirational, and hugely popular Instagram account and hashtag #effyourbeautystandards. Yet, Holliday’s Instagram feed is lambasted as any image of a skeletal size 0 model has been; for not promoting body positivity so much as, arguably, celebrating medical obesity.

But what does a healthy body look like and, more pertinently, does it even exist?

If we dissect the heavenly VS angels, it is easy to see how these women end up like this. Besides a certain degree of genetic predisposition; they are not so much ‘healthy’ bodies as sculpted, gym-honed frames. These bodies are products; products of rigorous exercise regimes done by women whose literal job it is to have that body. Let’s face it; if your job is to look this way, you’d be doing pretty badly at work if you didn’t have it.

Tess Holliday’s body may not have been achieved through daily squats and spin classes, but it is the body she has and that, many of her fans would argue, is the whole point of body positivity. We should love the skin we are in and, to aid us in this, our society should embrace bodies in all forms. VS angels' bodies are extolled as perfect, and Holliday’s is championing the notion that every body is perfect in its own way. But what is perfection? Where VS fans and Holliday detractors both miss the point, is that perfection is not the same as health. It is time to debunk the archetypal healthy body fallacy.

“There isn’t really such a thing as a healthy body shape,” says Jo Travers, registered dietician and author of the book, The Low-Fad Diet, “People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and health isn’t necessarily dependent on it.”

Perhaps we should be readdressing our concept of aesthetics and recognise that the health of our body does not necessarily correlate with a specific shape. Aesthetic ‘health’ is a myth, as Travers says “there is absolutely no room for a one-size-fits-all approach. ”Just think of those like Serena Williams; who may not be given her VS Angel wings any time soon, but can certainly win a tennis grand slam (or 23), or journalist and #effyourbeautystandards campaigner, Bryony Gordon, who lacks the taut abs of Lily Aldridge, but has run two marathons; one proudly in her bra and pants. It is here that Holliday’s hashtag really comes into its own, because we are not judging these bodies by the barometer of health but by our ingrained societal beauty standards.

So what is the barometer of health? Travers believes that a much more reliable metric is not what people look like, but what they put inside their body and how efficient it actually is; a push towards a healthy lifestyle over a ‘healthy’ aesthetic. Nutritional therapist, Emma Vanlint, however, believes there is in fact a healthy body shape.

“We should be focusing on the actual facts of a healthy body - which is simply where is your fat stored on your body and is it in a healthy place?”, says Vanlint, “It’s that middle area, around your organs that is the unhealthy place. You can be a size 18 and be super curvaceous and be healthy. It is the distribution that matters.”

Vanlint is cautious of the body positivity movement; praising its ideals but worrying that people will forget that there is, actually, a significant health risk to being overweight. Travers agrees, though sees the mental health benefits of the movement as hugely important: “I encourage people to at the very least recognise that our bodies do so much for us - no matter what our shape - and we should celebrate that.” There is, after all, a big difference between body positivity and promoting real physical health. Tess Holliday herself admits that: “My message isn't, 'Let's all be fat!'. My message is, 'Let's love yourself, regardless of how you look in your current body'.”

So, VS angel or size 22 model, when it comes to the health of your body, mental or otherwise, it is what’s inside that counts. And that kind of health actually does comes in all sorts of sizes.