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September 24, 2013

Scale and the City

If Lena Dunham is "thin for Detroit" and Jennifer Lawrence is "obese in Hollywood," then women's feelings about weight must have more to do with the numbers in their ZIP codes than the ones on the scale.

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It's Friday night and I'm on my fourth outfit change, surrounded by discarded rejects. The black maxi dress accentuated my big feet. My harem pants billowed too much around the backside—not flattering. Even my tried-and-true combo of vintage peasant blouse with flared white jeans has betrayed me. In five minutes, I need to be inching my way along Sunset Boulevard to a cocktail party at a chic hotel. I sigh and opt for a slouchy jumpsuit. This has nothing to do with my clothes. Or even my body.

Here's the deal: I live in Los Angeles, a city that makes me look fat. I'm not alone, either. Jennifer Lawrence recently said in an interview, "In Hollywood, I'm obese." That's a wry exaggeration, of course. And thankfully, my job as a journalist doesn't call for me to reveal my measurements or vie against size-0 starlets for work. But Lawrence and I coexist in a city where jutting hip bones and a defined clavicle are considered enviable accessories. Granted, not every woman in this vast, 500-square-mile metropolis looks more like a whippet than a Labradoodle. But the ideal body type here—thanks to the influence of the entertainment industry and the glut of Pilates studios—is toned and very, very thin.

"When I came to Los Angeles, I wanted to be really fit. I also wanted huge boobs and perfectly beach-tousled blonde hair," says Kjerstin Gruys, a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA who spent a year avoiding her reflection to write the book Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year. "The environment prompted me to have this more intense experience of self-judgment."

Basing one's self-image on comparisons with others is familiar ground for most women. After all, who hasn't sized herself up against a prettier friend or a more statuesque colleague? But imagine that multiplied a hundred times—it takes a toll on your self-esteem. In a study in the late '90s, psychologists showed women photos of thinner women, then gauged how they viewed themselves. Subjects reported feelings of body dissatisfaction and anxiety. In science terms, it's called "physique contrast effect." Since that study, all sorts of research on contrast effect and its kin, social comparison theory, have revealed that contextual self-evaluations can often lead to dissatisfaction with one's self.

You've probably heard these theories referenced, often inadvertently, more than you think. For instance, when fashion illustrator and blogger Garance Doré arrived in New York City from Europe a couple of years ago, she wrote a funny, insightful post about NY Skinny vs. Paris Skinny and noted, "New York skinny means thin to the brink, yet muscular from Pilates because it gives you those superlong, lean muscles. I feel like there wasn't that much pressure in Paris." Earlier this year, Girls creator and actress Lena Dunham applied the theory when she defended her size to Howard Stern after the radio host called her a "little fat girl who kind of looks like Jonah Hill." She shot back: "I'm not superthin, but I'm thin for, like, Detroit." (Needless to say, people from the Motor City weren't happy to be name-checked in that context.)

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