"Perfect Woman" Weighed 171 Pounds

Who can be called "the perfect woman"? It's an endlessly debated and loathed topic today, but the world seems to have had its answer a century ago: Elsie Scheel, a 24-year-old Cornell University student who was deemed to have the ideal body size.

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The clincher? Scheel was 5-foot-7-inches and weighed 171 pounds, and would have surely been advised to lose some weight today.

Scheel's story ran in the New York Times this week, a follow-up to the newspaper's original 1912 article headlined "Elsie Rebecca Scheel the 'Perfect' Woman," which recounted how the "medical examiner of the 400 'co-eds' " at Cornell described her as the epitome of "perfect health." She received worldwide media attention, and wound up inspiring comparisons-not all so positive-to the Venus de Milo because of her curves.

The Times referred back to Scheel in its Jan. 2 story about a new study that claims having a slightly overweight Body Mass Index might actually lead to a longer life; it then ran a longer "whatever happened to…?" piece, discovering that Scheel lived a long and healthy life before dying of a perforated bowel, at just shy of 91, in 1979.

That gave some heft to the new study, since Scheel's body size would have given her a BMI of almost 27-firmly in the "overweight" category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A "normal weight range" for a person that size, according to the site's adult BMI calculator "would be from 118 to 159 pounds." People who are overweight, it goes on to warn, "have a higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other chronic conditions."

But Scheel, by all accounts, was hale and hearty. And her lifestyle doesn't seem to have strayed much, if at all, from those called healthy today. According to the Times report, she ate three meals only every two days, enjoyed a good steak, and avoided candy and caffeine. She was never sick, according to her granddaughter, Karen Hirsh Meredith, of Broken Arrow, Okla.

"She never took an aspirin or a Tylenol," Meredith told the New York Times, adding that her grandmother drove until very late in life.

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She was active and athletic, playing basketball at Cornell ("I play guard, where my weight helps," she said), and told the New York Times that "the average girl does too much of the wrong sort of thing- too many dances and not enough good bracing tramps." She married architect Frederick Rudolph Hirsh, who supervised the building of the New York Public Library, and was also a nurse and suffragette.

Still, Scheel's "perfect" status could not protect her from the flurry of media attention, in 1912 and 1913, with articles stating she was "too large" and "all out of proportion" (The New York Herald) and "looked as if she weighed 195 pounds" (The Duluth News-Tribune), and pointing out that Scheel was actually larger than the Venus de Milo.

Today, little has changed when it comes to messages about the ideal size of women.

Men's Health ran a piece in December, "The Anatomy of a Perfect Woman," with an illustrated formula including "narrow hips," "bigger breasts," and "longer legs." A 2011 New York Post article headlined "Here's the Perfect Woman" laid out the hottest looks according to a pair of L.A. plastic surgeons: Natalie Portman's nose, Scarlett Johansson's lips, Halle Berry's jaw line, Amy Adams' skin and Penelope Cruz's body. Just this week, the country of Israel instituted a law banning too-skinny models in an attempt to slow the growing cases of anorexia among young women.

Lucky for the BMI study that inspired the recollections of the "perfect woman" in the first place. Its lead author, Katherine Flegal of the CDC, told Shine! she couldn't really comment on Scheel's size in terms of healthiness, since she knew nothing about the woman. But, she said, "She seems to have had a long life." Amen to that.

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