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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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Obviously, I didn't realize right away that contrast effect was why I felt pangs of insecurity about my size-6-sometimes-8 body after arriving in Los Angeles. It's not that I wasn't used to seeing super-skinny women, mind you. I had moved from Manhattan, where models slouched by me all the time. But they were about as human as springboks—and most were still teenagers—so I didn't even bother to compare myself with them. In Los Angeles, it wasn't just the young actresses who looked amazingly taut. Fit salesgirls, baristas, and 40-something moms capered around me in yoga pants and tiny tank tops. Even West Coast weathercasters on TV wore tight, low-cut dresses that showed cleavage and slim legs.

For the first month or two in the city, I scoffed to my then boyfriend about the collective vanity and lack of modesty. I tried not to flinch when a swizzle stick of a salesgirl at the boutique Fred Segal informed me that a size 8 was considered a large. But eventually, all that supple, glowing skin got to me. I began to scowl at my upper arms and berate my midsection. I felt, well, larger.

"Your ideal is based in part on your visual 'diet' or the bodies that you see," says Martin Tovée, Ph.D., a psychologist at Newcastle University in England who has studied how different environments affect our body image and preferences. "If you're in a culture or society that places importance on a thin body and it's considered attractive and high-status, you suddenly think, I want that!" A couple of years ago, Tovée and his colleagues traced what happened when women from an area of rural South Africa—where curves were highly valued—moved to the U.K., where the ideal body mass index (BMI) was much, much lower. Within 18 months, the South African women had modified their body preferences to thinner physiques, a pretty seismic cultural recalibration. Tovée adds: "Your ideal shifts as your environment changes."

My preference skewed skinnier once I was settled in L.A. I couldn't deny it. I took up Spinning, worked out almost every day, and smoked too many cigarettes, hoping they would quell my appetite. Eventually, I went down a couple of dress sizes and acquaintances would squeal, "Oh, my God. You look ah-ma-zing!"

On visits back East to see my family, I felt like Kate Moss. Incidentally, the sitcom Hot in Cleveland is really about contrast effect: A trio of attractive middle-aged women decamp cutthroat L.A. for the Buckeye State to be thinner, prettier fish in a kinder, gentler pond. And you might even recall the episode of 30 Rock in which Liz Lemon visits Ohio and a passerby stops her on the street to say, "Are you a model? You are so skinny!" When she returns to New York City, her coworker Jenna Maroney tells her, "Yeah, we're all models west of the Allegheny." Lacey Stone, a bicoastal personal trainer who has worked with actresses like Jessica Alba and Amanda Seyfried, sums it up this way: "Thin is relative. I have clients who are trying to slim down, but when they go home during the holidays, everyone says, 'You have such a great body!'"

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