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As women have grown larger, Victoria’s Secret models have shrunk

The much-hyped Victoria’s Secret fashion show was canceled recently amid declining ratings.TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images/file 2018

If it seems like the standard of beauty set by Victoria’s Secret models is becoming more and more remote, you’re not imagining it. As American women have grown larger over the past two decades, those models have become ever skinnier, according to a new study from the Boston University School of Medicine.

Researchers tracked the size and shape of Victoria’s Secret models over the past 20 years and found that they have become more svelte, with a decrease in bust, waist, hips, and dress size, even as the average woman’s waist and dress size has grown.

Today, the average woman wears a dress size of 16 to 18, whereas a Victoria’s Secret model is a mere size 4 — perpetuating an unrealistic standard of beauty, the researchers say.


Yet one measurement among the glitzy lingerie models has remained constant: their waist-to-hip ratio, better known as that classic hourglass shape. This ratio has remained an idealized trait that has stayed constant over time and across cultures, the researchers found.

“That ratio is very innate in what we perceive to be beautiful,” said Dr. Neelam Vashi, an associate professor of dermatology at the BU School of Medicine and the study’s lead author.

Even in cultures without social media, Vashi noted, this hip-to-waist ratio is found to be beautiful, even among larger women.

The age-old ratio, for those who are wondering, works out to about .7, which is calculated by dividing a person’s waist size by the size of their hips. The average Victoria’s Secret model has a 23.6-inch waist, down an inch from 20 years ago. Their hips average 34.4 inches.

“I have a 4-year-old daughter and I always think about what she sees and how she is going to grow up,” Vashi said. “A lot of these things are unattainable.”


The researchers noted that as the models became thinner and the average woman larger, hordes are seeking cosmetic surgery to make their midsections more model-like.

The numbers have sky-rocketed, with buttock and lower body lift procedures increasing by 4,295 percent and 256 percent, respectively, since 2000.

Victoria’s Secret did not respond to a request for comment.

One other notable finding from the study is that Victoria’s Secret models have become much more racially diverse since the mid-1990s. Two decades ago, nearly three-quarters were white. Today, a little more than half, 56.5 percent, are white, with the percentages of black, Asian, and mixed-race models growing considerably.

Dr. Kamryn Eddy, codirector of the eating disorders clinical and research program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the increase in diversity is encouraging, but it also has the potential to carry a more potent, and undesirable, message.

“The increase in racial and ethnic diversity represented also means that the scope of influence is now even greater — this has the potential to be good, but only if the message being sent is one we want the world to hear,” Eddy said. “If the message is you need to be super-skinny to be beautiful, that message is harmful.”

Eddy’s eating disorders program evaluates and treat patients as young as 10. She said most battle “significant body dissatisfaction” that fuels their eating disorder.

“Women, and men for that matter, of all ages are influenced by the ideals we see represented — in 1995 it was in magazines and on the runways, and now it’s more likely to be delivered via social media like Instagram,” Eddy said. “It would be great if those ideals were much more diverse — in race and ethnicity, sure, but also in body size.”


What do “average-sized women” think about the BU researchers’ findings?

Many who were out shopping downtown Thursday nodded knowingly when asked about Victoria’s Secret models and said they had no interest in trying to emulate their size-4 stature.

“It’s unrealistic, so I don’t care about it because that’s not how women look,” said Anna Gikas, 32, who was strolling in Quincy Market.

But she acknowledged the voluptuous hourglass curves, a la Khloe Kardashian, are appealing.

“First it was skinny, skinny was in, but now it’s the skinny, curvy,” she said.

Kendra Osobase, a thin 21-year-old with an ice cream cone in hand, said she used to want to be thinner, four or five years ago. But now she is more swayed by “influencers” on Instagram, people who have a large number of followers who engage with them via social media. And the influencers Osobase pays attention to are curvy with small waists and larger hips and buttocks.

“Sometimes that gets to me,” said Osobase, who envies that look.

The much-hyped Victoria’s Secret fashion show, a razzle-dazzle TV extravaganza that spotlighted the company’s models, was canceled in November amid declining ratings. The company said at that time it would divert its focus toward digital marketing.

If its Instagram account is any measure, that’s quite a market — with over 68 million followers.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.