6. Female Body Image Ideals in the Music Industry

A running theme I am attempting to portray throughout the history of women’s involvement in American music is the power and potency of female images in the media. The polished perfection of women in music, often succumbing to men’s sexual preferences and desires, and later rejecting patriarchal ideals, portrays the shifting landscape of femininity sexuality, and gender relations over the course of history. Women in society, even today, are subject to being utilized as decoration for males and thus must transfigure their bodies to appeal to patriarchal standards to be accepted by mainstream media and heralded as attractive and therefore sexual. This societal pressure to conform to unattainable standards of unrealistic beauty has been a mental and physical battle since the concept of aesthetics has originated within American culture. These cultural expectations are especially heightened for women in the music industry, who have larger audiences of critics and must attain perfection in their roles as sexual icons for consumption within society. These insurmountable pressures are not only psychologically damaging but relentlessly perilous to women tormented by society’s standards of beauty, commonly resulting in irreparable damage to women’s physical states or in untimely deaths, and no demographic was more susceptible to these dangers than women even more obsessed with their bodies and roles as icons than their audiences were. Cass Elliot, of the Mamas and the Papas group of the 1960’s, discussed in my counterculture article, was especially sensitive to the slimmed down body ideals for women, the figures of which were closest to young prepubescent girls or men’s figures altogether. Cass Elliot’s large figure in contrast with these unattainable images caused her to experience extreme self-criticism, further resulting with in rapid fluctuations of weight. As a defined leader among her musical group, Elliot felt she did not receive appropriate credit for her musical work, being disregarded for her less than ideal figure and constantly compared to fellow female partner Michelle Philips, who fit the era’s notions of thinness as beauty and was regarded as “the pretty one” in comparison with Elliot. Elliot resorted to crash diets and unattainable levels of exercise, leading to her body and voice’s frailty and a lack of ability to preform musically, and sadly leading to her untimely death at the age of thirty-three due to her body’s inability to adjust to such unnatural weight transitions. The sad reality of body ideals for female artists is thus realized during the 1960’s in a viciously confrontational manner. Despite Elliot’s immense contributions and leadership to the Mamas and the Papas, for reasons as superficial as body weight and image Elliot’s musicality is diminished all in the name of beauty. The 1974 New York Times article memorializing her death is scattered with euphemisms that are downright offensive and trivializing to Elliot, such as the physician suggesting that Elliot had died from choking on a sandwich, a completely false notion hardly close to the actual cause of death, which is linked to her heart. The article describes her as the “largest, most visible member of the Mamas and the Papas,” serving as the “large, homey foil to the ethereal beauty…of Michelle Philips.” The author further insinuates how Elliot represented how “one didn’t have to be beautiful or thin to be successful and idolized…retaining her earthy image to the end.” I would think at the time of her death, as an established and celebrated musician, Elliot would be celebrated for her work instead of critiqued and recognized for her weight and physical appearance.

The seventies brought about one of the most heartbreaking and strongly felt losses within the female music community due to eating disorders: renowned singer Karen Carpenter of brother-sister duo The Carpenters. Karen Carpenter easily has one of the most recognizable and illustrious voices of the 1970’s, bringing intelligence, heart, and unusual integrity to popular music of the time period. While Karen initially began behind the safety of a drum-set when she and brother Richard started their famous musical duality, after substantial encouragement her voice was brought to the forefront of the project and forever remained the highlight of The Carpenters. Karen’s voice blends easily when needed, but is unavoidably focused upon for its smooth, effortless fluidity that transports and envelops the audience in its richness. Hits such as “Yesterday Once More,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “Close to You” beautifully highlight Karen’s remarkable voice in its ability to captivate audiences with its delicate power (can you tell I’m a huge fan?). Behind her unparalleled voice however, Karen Carpenter harbored deep rooted insecurities as a result of pressures to lose weight instilled by society’s obsession with beauty and the idealistic, yet severely unrealistic thin body type. Anorexia consumed Karen’s personal life, her past scattered with painful heartbreak and a lack of a solid sense of identity. Instead of ignoring it, Karen let the media and American consumer culture define her worth through its outrageous notions of beauty. In the 1983 People magazine article describing her death, the article’s author executes a much more respectful attempt in honoring Karen’s death as opposed to the article describing the death of Cass Elliot’s, giving a detailed and troubling depiction of her life and the constant struggle with anorexia that Karen faced. Karen’s life decisions were largely dictated by her brother and musical partner Richard, an ex-employee of A&M saying that, “It always seemed as if she were under Richard’s thumb,” displaying how stressful the patriarchal control was over her perception of herself as an artist and a person, contorting her self-perceived image and driving her to a dangerous eating disorder. Karen’s anorexia exponentially expanded over time throughout her life, becoming an insatiable addiction to losing weight and resulting in a sudden heart failure at age 32 with the inability of her frail, skeletal body to handle new weight gain, her body collapsing as a direct result of her eating disorder.

The deaths of Cass Elliot and Karen Carpenter are tragic, unnecessary deaths of two highly influential female musicians suffocated by American beauty standards. Not only were their careers robbed from them, their entire lives were in despair long before their actual deaths, forever consumed and judged by society for their “inadequacies.” The limelight of the music industry places unreal pressure on successful women and pushes them to their limits, often to the point of execution. These deaths, however, have brought to the surface the real dangers of eating disorders, leading to publicity among young girls and an ever increasing realm of scientific discovery, rehabilitation, and support. With the immensely important meaning of outward image in the music industry among women (and men as well), women used eating disorders to distort and manipulate their outward image, and therefore mold their identities within the public. Unfortunately, the reliance on the public’s interpretation of identity results in the depression of the female artist, as well as an unclear sense of self. It is a shame that these talented women lacked the ability to define themselves before the ruthless audiences and beauty standards did the job for them, a practice that continues on into the modern era among all women and girls, but is a heightened experience in the music industry. While the deaths of Cass Elliot and Karen Carpenter are tragic and reveal the ugly face of American beauty, the recognition they acclaimed has ultimately been for the betterment of society for women and shifted society’s thoughts on beauty towards a progressively more accepting and loving attitudes.


9 thoughts on “6. Female Body Image Ideals in the Music Industry

  1. I too think it’s horrible that talented women have died due to eating disorders. It’s sad to think that society has come to a point that no matter how well you sing, dance, run, if you’re ugly you’re pretty much worthless. This American beauty standard needs to change.


  2. I remember watching my pop icon as a tween Hillary Duff go through a similar struggle after she left Disney and began a music career. Because this story has repeated again and again, it makes clear that it is more than a personal issue. There are is structural violence within the media world acting against these women. There is a very narrow view of what women look like and it needs to broaden if people are to feel normal and natural with their unique bodies.


  3. I had no idea that Cass Elliot died from the effects of crash dieting. This post was very eye opening for me. It is so sad to me that females cant just be judged on the talent they have but in the mainstream media they have the pressure to fit a physical standard as well.


  4. This is sad and it’s interesting to compare and contrast these two musicians. Many people associate Karen Carpenter with eating disorders, and probably because she and her eating disorder were highly publicized after her death. She was seen as beautiful and her eating disorder was physically obvious because she was really skinny. The same is not true for Cass Elliot, however. Most of us had no idea that she died from the effects of disordered eating and dieting because she didn’t fit the “mold” for the type of people with eating disorders that society would recognize. I feel like this still happens today and people with eating disorders claim that it does too. People are much less sympathetic of “fat” (sorry for using that word) people who have eating disorders than they are of emaciated girls who look like skeletons, even if the disorder is having the same detrimental effects upon their bodies.


  5. The inequitable proportion of pressure placed on male and female musicians is highlighted by Karen Carpenter’s tragic disease and subsequent death. There was no scrutiny or even commentary on Richard Carpenter’s physique, but it was a focal point of the media’s perception of Karen Carpenter – the pressure was stifling, and in this case, fatal.


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