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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16. Or did she?

August 9, 2011 16 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

“The body is meant to be seen, not all covered up.” – Marilyn Monroe

{image credit :: joshua mellin}

Walking down the street to my office the other morning, I was more than a little surprised to see a 22,000 pound buxom beauty staring me down. To be honest, she was staring far above me, standing over 26 feet high with her iconic dress shading onlookers like the tree of life.

The immortalized woman in question is Marylin Monroe, or at least a statue of the beloved starlet. Recently unveiled in Chicago, the steel and aluminum piece overlooks the bustling street below with that coy smile made famous by the 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch.

I might have been the only one to catch the irony, but I found it interesting that the woman that body image advocates have long pointed to as the exemplar of curvaceous womanhood was now overtaking Michigan Avenue like Godzilla.

Pointing out Marilyn Monroe’s dress size and weight has long been a body image warrior’s battle cry. Reportedly between a size 12 and 14, Monroe is frequently referenced when we talk about the evils of the media and the increasingly unrealistic standard of beauty in our society.

“But did you know that Marilyn was a Size 14?” we say, incredulously. “If she were alive today, she would be considered fat!”  And then we puff out our chests and raise our eyebrows expectantly, hoping these facts will knock some sense into the masses that we think are deluded by the Kate Mosses and Calista Flockharts of our day (Okay, so I clearly need a bit of celebrity updating. Miranda Kerr, perhaps?).

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly recognize just how distorted our perception of thin has become. And pointing to Monroe’s slightly larger frame can give an attention-grabbing reason to think twice about our cultural norms.

But what if history was wrong? Does our argument fall apart?

For better or worse, Monroe likely wasn’t a Size 12 or 14 or 16 – at least not by today’s sizing. In a witty piece on NPR, writer Jessica Siegel (who wears a 12) tried on a Marilyn original dress… and couldn’t zip it up. There was apparently over a six inch gap.

So if Monroe wasn’t a Size 12 – if we can’t point to a beauty icon to show how these standards have changed – where does that leave us?

Ironically, maybe it leaves us in a better place than where we started. I’m not so sure that using a sixty-plus year old statistic about another woman’s dress size really helps the cause of creating our own body size appreciation.

What I’ve found is that while facts like this one are interesting, they rely a bit too much on our left brains. They make sense, we nod our heads in agreement, but don’t change much about how we feel about ourselves – at least not substantially. Attention grabbing? Yes. Life altering? Not so much.

And maybe the point is not to be life-altering, but rather to remind us that cultural ideals do shift and change, and thus enslaving ourselves to them is a futile effort. Even more interesting, in my opinion, is learning about the way that Monroe’s own body changed in the course of her life. According to historians, her weight fluctuated by about 20% in her adult life – not a huge amount, but enough that it made a difference on her 5’5 frame. And through that Monroe remained poised and confident, proud of her beautiful curves.

So perhaps Monroe’s Size 16 doesn’t hold water anymore, but there’s still plenty that we can learn from the bombshell. One of my favorites? ”I want to grow old without facelifts. I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I have made.” Now that is truth.

Do you think the Marilyn myth keeps us too focused on others? Has is helped you in feeling better about your body?


 

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16 Comments

  1. Jessica Benjamin
    3 years ago

    I always figured she was about a size 8. Size inflation has been quite dramatic since the 60s. I don’t think her dress size or anyone else’s has any relation to my self image.

    Reply

  2. Jen
    3 years ago

    She may very well have worn a size 12, or whatever, of the time. Sizes change. Women of her era wore girdles and other armor-plated undergarments that no one would wear now except for a special occasion. Women also were not expected to do a lot of physical activity, so their frames were probably more delicate. My aunt had a pair of size 14 pants from her teens or twenties, and my then-size-8 sister could not zip them. Images of beauty were a little more realistic, though, when women could not augment an ultra-thin body with big fake breasts. I think you’re right that it ultimately doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t want to bring back the beauty ideals of the 50s if it meant bringing back the gender roles from that time with them.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      3 years ago

      It’s hard to imagine wearing an armor-plated undergarment, but you’re right! The way in which that would constrict us – both physically and psychologically…

      Reply

  3. Kat
    3 years ago

    I think part of Marilyn’s mystique or appeal is the fact that she created her own body image ideal. If you compare her to Ethel Merman, Natalie Wood, and Grace Kelly she was quite a different shape (a more sexual shape). She embodied that and when accompanied with her personality and charm became a larger than life person (now in a very literal sense apparently)

    That’s what’s to be gleaned from Marilyn. As you said, not her size and what that means today.. but rather how she embraced her size during that period of time. I actually think another star of the time did something similar – Katharine Hepburn (who embraced her more boyish figure). I think the concept of creating your own body image ideal is a powerful one. Not having a society create one for you. But creating your own, based upon how you are… your body knows what’s ideal for itself.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      3 years ago

      Thanks for pointing out those other great points of reference. It is amazing to think about Marilyn in context.

      Reply

  4. Lori Lieberman
    3 years ago

    Kat beat me to the punch with the Hepburn reference! Popular in the same years, these two women represented two very different visions of beauty–and I don’t think either contributed to any movement, size, or eating-wise. As for how “poised and confident” she appeared, let’s not forget that appearances can deceive; she did, after all, die from suicidal drug overdose.
    But as a side note, Marilyn Monroe apparently was the first famous woman to lift weights, although she was not known to be out there with this, and it was certainly not in vogue at the time. Just an irrelevant side note!
    Thanks for this interesting piece!

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      3 years ago

      The first famous woman to lift weights? That’s a really cool fact!

      Reply

  5. Lisa
    3 years ago

    I read Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata just the other day and she was speaking of Marilyn. I don’t remember exactly the figures but aparently her BMI was quite low, so much so that today she would be considered normal to slightly underweight.

    So definitely not a size 14.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      3 years ago

      Lisa, is that a book you would recommend? It sounds like it could be interesting.

      Reply

  6. Vi
    3 years ago

    I have many of my grandmother’s pieces of clothing from 1956-1967 all in size 10-12. The only time I am able to wear any of these items is if I am a a current day size 4-6. At 5’7″ that puts me at about 124-130lbs.

    By creating vanity sizing (even more prevalent since 2000), clothing manufacturers are just as guilty of feeding the body hate machine as the media.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      3 years ago

      The change in sizing certainly has thrown many women (and men) for a loop.

      Reply

  7. Fab Kate
    3 years ago

    I think the part that gets over-looked is the statement that Marilyn’s weight fluctuated about 20% during her career. That’s the difference between a size 8 and a size 14 or so right there. So the dress that was tried on, from what stage in Marilyn’s career was that from?

    And the fact that at both extremes of her size she was considered beautiful and sexy could (and I believe should) be held up as an example of just how warped our idea of “thin” and “beautiful” has become.

    Reply

  8. Nicole
    3 years ago

    I love this picture and quote. It’s like we need to be reminded of it everyday. Great self confidence booster :)

    Reply

  9. Dianara SHERRY
    2 years ago

    Actually, in the photo that is used in the “Before Anorexia & Bulemia there was a thing called sexy” post that is going around the internet: she was pregnant in this photo and that is why she weighed about 140 lbs (a size 10 back then and a size 14/16 now-a-days. Sizing has become less forgiving now then it was back then. In fact, back then there wasn’t a size 0 – 4 back then. At her average weight of 115 – 120 lbs, Marilyn was about a size 6/8 (which was a size 12 back then).

    In this photo, she was 80 lbs lighter than I am right now, & I am a size 16/18.

    Reply

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