Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Sylphs in Passing

{Philadelphia Sylphs}
Philadelphia Sylphs

It requires only one brief tour of any large Art Museum to become convinced the world's definition of feminine beauty has passed through many styles. Obesity of Titian proportions seems to be making a come-back at the moment, so being slender might not persist as the standard of feminine beauty indefinitely. However, at the present moment, slender seems to have it. It has been claimed with authority the average woman is fifteen pounds overweight, so that became the basis for the old English weight measure of a stone, fourteen pounds. Some fierce feminists have even legitimized this factoid as an invention of domineering men. Establishing ideal weight as one stone less than the average weight would fiendishly condemn womanhood to eternal torture by hunger trying to achieve ideal proportions, achievable perhaps but seldom achieved. If so, the two chief fiends would turn out to be William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, who is chiefly responsible for at least a poetic glorification of that slender woman, the sylph.

We return a little closer to the world of the probable when we notice that girls are typically a little too thin before the age of reproduction, and a little too heavy after the menopause, almost disregarding race, ethnicity, religion, or changing fashions in beauty. Physical activity and muscle tone have something to do with this age-related phenomenon, adding issues of pot bellies and poor posture to the aging mix. In any event, it's fairly factual that the average woman really is about one stone heavier than the current standard, for whatever reason and of course with notable exceptions.

It also happens that sick women, especially those affected with cancer, lose weight effortlessly. Their outgrown clothes, usually the expensive pieces, have been saved in a closet for that promised day when they can summon the grit to lose fifteen pounds. And sadly, when deathly illness approaches, they do. For a few months, the flash of returning beauty can be quite striking.

The doctors of their acquaintance notice it first, but for the most part, do not comment aloud about it. A quick sober glance toward a doctor friend silently confirms the observation, while each somberly recognizes yet another example of being sorry to get what you wished for. A few even know the famous aphorism of the father of the specialty of Neurology, Silas Weir Mitchell: "Those who have not known sick women, do not know women."

Originally published: Monday, July 25, 2011; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019

I just found your blog today searching for info on Delaware - cant stop reading it - your thoughts are like the thoughts of the folks I used to have and entertain as friends - probably better - but as one a contemporary of your young man, who declined a sail due to his mother? - I sure would not decline any sail, but my mother would never go, not even at 20!....I do think that younger people think in a very different way - with a certain urgency for the goal and impatience for reflection - anyway, I am having a wonderful time reading all of your posts - and I may get around to asking you some questions about relocating to PA, DE or MD later on! thanks Kara
Posted by: Kara   |   Feb 8, 2015 2:05 AM