The hashtag #A4waist was recently trending online. In a bizarre skinny craze, women in China were posting images of their waists completely hidden behind a vertical sheet of A4 paper (which measures 8.27 inches wide and 11.69 inches long). Even by today’s obscenely high expectations for slimness an A4 sheet is a daunting standard for a waist, considering the circumference of a normal weighted 13-year-old girl is 22 inches.
The narrow silhouette has been a standard of beauty in China since the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago, along with a protruding collar bone and a fragile long neck. Legend has it that the King of Chu who ruled in 540 BC had a penchant for very small waists and apparently half his cabinet starved to death. The aesthetic ideal of the Chinese has always verged on the impossible. Even now, the country’s most famous luxury brand Shanghai Tang caters to a scandalously slender frame; most of us can only gaze longingly at their gorgeously subtle designs. However, the truth is that women everywhere in the world secretly put a huge value on extreme thinness. This is evident by the thousands of bemoaning truisms on weight that abound, my personal favourite being: “God, if you can’t make me thin please make my friends fat.”
The A4 fad is comparatively less weird than a well-known 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, where a majority of women polled said they’d prefer to be alcoholics or depressed, than be overweight. One in six women said they would prefer to be blind than obese. I randomly quizzed a friend who said she’d definitely prefer feeling low to being chubby (“because if I’m fat I’ll be unhappy in any case”). Mercifully, she drew the line at losing her vision but not before asking whether it meant both eyes. Maybe a solution to this alarming overreaction is to forcibly blindfold them for a few days, just to keep their kilos in perspective.
Fashion brands have cashed in on our collective desire for sylph-like waifness after figuring out that the smaller the size that fits, the more likely a consumer is to buy it. So the good and bad news is now, anybody can be a size zero. Many European high-street brands have simply (or deviously), changed sizing numbers to make people feel better about themselves. Size S in Zara is a 0 in Gap and a 38 in Mango. The answer to the age-old question, does size matter, is a resounding yes, but only in a superficial sense in the twisted interiors of our heads. At the same time, body image is a hot topic and there have been many determined efforts to change beauty ideals. As the world gets larger, fat has become a politically incorrect word. Even Barbie comes in three different sizes now: petite, tall and curvy to more accurately reflect the differences in peoples’ sizes. In the swimsuit edition of the latest Sports Illustrated there are a few plus-size models in bathing suits, a somewhat reluctant acknowledgment that big can be beautiful. But we’re a long way away from when people will not laugh in ironic agreement to lines like the ones Emily Blunt speaks in The Devil Wears Prada: “I’m just one stomach flu away from my ideal weight.”