There are many legends surrounding the origin of Saint Valentine’s Day. My favorite is that of a young priest by that name who lived in the Roman Empire during the third century. At the time, Emperor Claudius II had enacted a law forbidding young men from marrying, because he believed it would make them more focused soldiers in battle. Valentine defied Claudius and performed marriages for young lovers in secret. He was eventually discovered, and of course killed. His martyrdom may have been what inspired Pope Gelasius I to commemorate a Catholic holiday in his honor, but it was what he did for the unnamed and uncounted lovers that so powerfully linked his name, and this feast, to the words: I love you.
Love, love, love. Love is one of the oldest human emotions; evidence of its existence has been recorded in every single population in history. We reportedly spend 90% of our waking energy thinking about it: finding it, giving it, receiving it, keeping it. The Harvard Grant Study and the findings of Dr. Gottman’s Family Research Laboratory proved it, but most importantly, the Beatles sang it: ‘All you need is love, love is all you need.’ It is so important we dedicated an entire day of the year to it.
Saint Valentine may have proven that love conquers all, even death, but the battle today is of a very different nature. When it comes to the perfect way of saying ‘I love you,’ the rift is between chocolates and roses, and it runs dark and deep.
A single red rose was the favorite flower of both Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Aphrodite, her Greek equivalent. In 2014, 257 million red roses were sold for Valentine’s Day in the US alone.
The Aztecs, whom we can also thank for the invention of popcorn and universal education, offered chocolate as a symbol of spiritual wisdom, energy and higher sexual prowess. In 1861, Richard Cadbury had the brilliant idea of putting them in a heart-shaped box, and on Valentine’s Day last year, 36 million of those were sold in the US.
Surveys have shown that, while for men chocolate is a no-brainer, most women prefer roses. The reason is a sad one:
‘Chocolates are fattening, roses aren't.’
Well I suppose it isn’t exactly a state secret that women are afraid of getting fat. We live in a society where burgers, steaks, and beer are commonly associated with masculinity, and salads, yogurts, and quinoa are as intrinsically feminine as spandex under a little black dress. Even back in the day when men hunted and women gathered, the former ate meat to make them big and strong, and the latter picked fruits and berries to preserve their slim little waists. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the pursuit of a healthy body and weight, and men and women do have different morphologies, metabolisms, and energy needs. But anatomy, gender, and genetics aside, when, why, and how on earth did women make the link between being loved and being thin?
A study published in the Social Psychological & Personality Science journal showed that women tend to be more conscious of their physical appearance because they believe that men prefer women with a thinner frame. In another study, brain scans of women who were shown pictures of overweight strangers recorded activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes identity and self-reflection. The signals suggested unhappiness, and in some cases, self-loathing; the overweight stranger made the women think of their own weight.
Just like men, women want and need love. But unlike men, they are bombarded with the idea that they will only be loved if they are beautiful. Read: if they are thin. Women are told, by the media, by society, by their mothers, by their significant others, by the little black dresses on magazine covers and the even littler size tags, that thin is ideal. Thin is beautiful. Thin will make you happy.
Take the woman with the most internationally recognized and debated body measurements, who for decades was held up to little girls all over the globe as the ideal of feminine beauty: Barbie. The beautiful plastic doll with the long glossy hair and doting model boyfriend Ken, whose sparkling smile and perfect lifestyle all seemed to indicate she was doing it right. There were series of Barbie skiing, Barbie shopping, Barbie winning beauty pageants and saving the world, and in 1963… a series of Barbie dolls on a diet.
Finally, Barbie’s secret: a book entitled ‘How to Lose Weight’ that said ‘Don’t Eat!’ in capital letters, and a pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110 lbs, or 49.9 kg.
The worst part of it all? Barbie’s perfectly proportioned breasts, slender hips and long fawn-like legs… cannot exist:
The probability of finding a real woman with Barbie’s proportions is 1 in 4.3 billion. Just as well, because if Barbie were a real woman, she would only have enough room in that tiny waist of hers for half a liver, would have to walk on all fours, and would be incapable of lifting her over-sized head.
This distorted image of a woman’s body was the ideal of beauty entire generations of women, including my own, compared themselves to growing up. Is it any wonder most women think they are fat...
I am not sure how or why this stigma came about. It is an overwhelming movement, one very lucrative I am sure to the global weight loss ($244 billion/year), cosmetic ($170 billion/year), and fashion ($1.5 trillion/year) industries. But what if this year we started our own little movement for all the truly beautiful girls and women in our lives?
In Italian, ‘I love you’ translates into ‘Ti voglio bene.' I want what is good for you. What if this year, we gave neither chocolates nor roses? What if we did things Italian style? What if we just said ‘I love you,’ and really meant it?