While diverse body types are becoming increasingly visible in beauty advertisements every day, when asked to picture a “model body,” a pretty specific (and unattainable) image still comes to mind. I asked the Byrdie edit team to name the physical qualities they associate with a model body, and among them were a tiny waist, long legs, and smooth skin. Despite the ever-expanding body diversity movement, this is still the image we most often see portrayed in beauty and fashion ads, and thus, the image we associate with perfection. It’s hard not to feel insecure in comparison.
Here’s the thing, though: Statistically, it is almost impossible to have the towering height, flat stomach, cellulite-free thighs, blonde hair, and bright blue eyes we see so frequently in magazines and on Instagram. We know because we consulted census data, crunched the numbers, and determined that objectively, no one “looks like a model.” Not even models. Read on to learn how impossible the perfect “model body” really is.
90% of Women Have Cellulite
Cellulite is a dirty word in the beauty industry. For how many products that promise to get rid of it, you’d think it was a fatal condition. And yet, judging by the models in beauty and fashion ads (even ones who claim not to have used Photoshop), cellulite seems not to exist. The truth, however, is that cellulite affects 80% to 90% of women. According to Scientific American, cellulite is particularly common in women in part because of our hormones.
Estrogen levels decrease as we age, and this causes the loss of blood vessel receptors in the thighs, which leads to decreased circulation and, thus, a depletion of collagen production. When fat cells protrude through the collagen, that’s cellulite, and because we have three layers of fat around our knees, butt, and thighs, that’s where we’re more likely to see it. “A women's body is basically … genetically designed to be a place for cellulite to develop,” says Scientific American. By the age of 30, the large majority of women have it, even models.
70% of Women Have Stretch Marks
The interesting thing about stretch marks, or striae, is that models, in particular, are even more likely to have them. That’s because stretch marks are actually scars that occur when the dermis (aka, the thick layer of tissue below your skin) stretches and tears, which inevitably happens after a growth spurt—something that someone of model height would be familiar with. “You don’t get six feet tall during puberty without having stretch marks,” a professional photoshopper told Refinery29 in late 2016.
Stretch marks can also appear after rapid weight gain, say, from pregnancy. In fact, 90% of pregnant women get stretch marks, which is why most products cater to them and why we flip out when we get stretch marks outside the context of pregnancy. In truth, though, 70% of women who aren’t pregnant also have stretch marks, and that percentage includes models like Jasmine Tookes, Chrissy Teigen, and all the models who appeared in the unretouched images recently published by brands like ASOS and Aerie.
Less Than 16% of Women Have Naturally Blonde Hair
The number of blondes we see in the beauty and entertainment industries is so unrepresentative of real human bodies that it’s crazy. Depending on what source you consult, surveys show that only between 2% and 16% of the American population is naturally blonde. And yet, a study conducted in the mid-aughts by the hair color brand Clairol revealed that 65% of respondents considered blondes the “most glamorous.”
Our obsession with light hair goes way back, literally to the days of the ancient Greeks, who depicted Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with long golden hair. Another Clairol study from 2008 reported that approximately 75% of American women dye their hair and that 88% feel that their hair color has a major effect on their confidence. That means statistically very few women sport their true hair color (and one can imagine that stat is even lower among models).
Less Than 17% of Americans Have Blue Eyes
Human beings have had a fixation on blue eyes ever since the Middle Ages, when light eyes were thought to be a sign of fertility (they’re not). Europeans brought their preferences for blue eyes over to America, where they were reinforced by Hollywood’s history of christening blue-eyed women like Marilyn Monroe the nation’s most beautiful. Katie Ford, CEO of Ford Models in New York, told The New York Times that Americans became so transfixed with the blue-eyed ideal that almost every big fashion model in the ’70s and ’80s was of Scandinavian descent. This came to represent the “all-American look” even though by then, blue eyes were largely on the decline.
A 2002 Loyola University survey in Chicago found that about 50% of Americans born at the turn of the 20th century had blue eyes but that today, only about 1 in 6 Americans do. That’s because 100 years ago, 80% of people married and reproduced within their ethnic group, so blue eyes (a genetically recessive trait) were passed down among English, Irish, and Northern European families. But by midcentury, immigration from Latin America and Asia increased, people started outbreeding (thank god), and brown eyes (a dominant trait) became the norm. In the 1930s, eugenicists even tried to use the disappearance of blue eyes as an excuse to curb immigration.
Over the past decade or two, as beauty standards have shifted from Farrah Fawcett to Alessandra Ambrosio and Kim Kardashian West, brown eyes have elevated on the hierarchy of idolized eye colors. Even so, blonde hair and blue eyes still symbolize the “all-American model” for many, even though this look naturally occurs so infrequently in the U.S. anymore.
Less Than 3% of American Women Are 5'10" or Taller
We see a line of six-foot-tall women parade down a runway and instantly all feel like goblins, but considering that the statistical equivalent of 0% of American women are six feet tall, it’s bananas that all the women chosen to model our clothes are (or at least close to it). Census data from 2007 to 2008 revealed that a 5’10” woman is in the 97.6th height percentile for American women between the ages of 20 and 29. It is, in fact, more common to be five feet even than 5’10”, and average height is more like 5’4”.
The Average American Woman Is a Size 18
Models’ waists average somewhere around 25 inches, but a 2016 study published in International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education sampled 5500 American women above the age of 20 and found that the average female waist size is 37.5”. That measurement is up more than 2.5 inches from 20 years ago, though models are still as tiny-waisted as ever. Moreover, while most models’ dress sizes are 0s, 2s, and 4s, the average American woman as of 2016 was between a size 16 and 18.
Feeling better about your “non-model” body? We hope so. Because as the data shows, that “perfect” image scarcely exists.
Luebberding S, Krueger N, Sadick NS. Cellulite: an evidence-based review. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2015;16(4):243‐256. doi:10.1007/s40257-015-0129-5
Casabona G, Marchese P. Calcium hydroxylapatite combined with microneedling and ascorbic acid is effective for treating stretch marks. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2017;5(9):e1474. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001474