by Stephanie Lynch
The formation of the female body image is a complicated process. Cultural values, media representations, opinions of friends and lovers; all these come together to create the woman’s impression of her body. Far too often, that image is a negative one. Women will do anything to correct flaws that are often imperceptible, carefully applying makeup, exercising and dieting relentlessly, and sometimes resorting to cosmetic surgery. The beauty culture is so pervasive in America that women spend hours every day attempting to achieve that ideal. And when they fail, the body image takes another blow.
Most women can remember a time as a child when they were teased over some minor aspect of their appearance. Perhaps it was her Jewish nose, or the color of her skin, that didn’t fit the perfect picture. Regardless, for women a negative body image often has its basis in childhood. Even at this early age, girls realize that there is a standard of beauty they are expected to live up to. They are like tiny adults, applying makeup to already-smooth skin, begging for padded bras and borrowing older sisters’ clothes to look more grown-up. Like adults, they create their own hierarchy, with the prettiest, tallest, thinnest at the top of the ladder. At a time when they should be most concerned with school and friends, young girls are worried about their weight and looks before they even begin puberty.
This concern with appearance among young girls is not a new phenomenon. As early as the turn of the century, girls were writing in diaries about their troubles with acne, nervousness over beginning menstruation, and newest techniques for “slimming.” Cultural changes gradually brought about new concerns with appearance. Girls went from lacing themselves into corsets to binding their breasts to worrying about how well they would fill out a sweater. Ironically, as culture moved from physically restricting women’s bodies, it placed new requirements on those same bodies. Women today no longer wear confining corsets, yet they wouldn’t think of stepping into a bikini without removing excess body hair from their legs and bikini line. The preoccupation with appearance is also more prevalent than in the past. Girls today are more likely to journal their hatred over imperfect hair or teeth, while girls of the past wrote more often about character and personality. The perfect body is more a part of our culture than ever.
The body image is formed by hundreds of different features, with a perceived imperfection in any of them opening the door for self-criticism. It is impossible to list them all. Every woman is unique. She has dark skin, an “ethnic” nose, and single eyelids. She is heavy, or thin, or short. She has tattoos; she has lost a breast to cancer. Her teeth are crooked and she has acne. And hovering before her is the picture of the tall, thin, white model with a beautiful smile and glowing skin and full breasts, seeming to taunt her shortcomings. It may have been created by the media, a “well-meaning” relative, her own mind, but it is always there.
Today’s women have plenty of resources for their quest to rectify this negative body image. Beyond makeup to cover flaws and diets to slim down, women can now choose from hundreds of different creams to smooth wrinkles and cellulite; doctors can prescribe harsh medications to clear acne and pills to reduce the appetite; excess body hair can be removed with tiny jolts of electricity or a searing laser. More and more women find themselves turning to cosmetic surgery than ever before, and for different types of treatments. No longer limited to nose jobs and liposuction, women can have their bodies reshaped, with surgeons able to go so far as to create “double eyelids” in Asian women.
Cosmetic surgery is not the only extreme way women control their bodies. Body image often comes down to an issue of perfectionism, and for the victim of an eating disorder, this is doubly true. Although the exact cause of eating disorders is not known, and is probably different for every girl, a common thread among them is a poor body image. Girls feel as though they lack control over their own bodies, and in response they relentlessly starve themselves, or binge and then purge to rid themselves of the unwanted food. The eating disorder victim often says she hears two voices in her head, with the overwhelming one telling her she can’t eat, she’s too fat, she’s not worth taking care of, on and on in a flow of negativity. Another common characteristic is a distorted body perception. An anorectic who weighs 70 pounds and is clearly emaciated can still show someone places on her body where she feels as though she needs to lose weight.
Ironically, all of these efforts to improve the hated body, all the makeup and exercise and starving and surgery and relentless preoccupation with fixing every perceived flaw, very rarely results in an improved body image. Many women who undergo cosmetic surgery are unhappy with the results, and report wishing they had never bothered with surgery in the first place. Makeup does not work miracles; diets do not work overnight. And the eating disorder victim, the most heartbreaking example of this negativity, does not like herself more as she wastes to nothing, or vomits everything she eats. Instead, her thoughts grow more and more negative and out of control. The beauty myth is a double-edged sword. Women know the image is impossible to attain, but they still chase after it, feeling guilty if they eat too much or don’t do everything possible to look their best.
What creates this pressure to look perfect? There are several theories, and each probably holds its own truths. Many women report feeling pressure when they were young from parents, especially mothers who dieted and expressed hatred over their own bodies. Molly Jong-Fast started taking diet pills at 13, and Marya Hornbacher, in Wasted, began her descent into bulimia at the tender age of 9. Being surrounded by women who are self-critical of their bodies fosters an environment of insecurity, and pressure to be perfect so as not to elicit the same response. Another, obvious source is media portrayals of the perfect women. Women are told to love their bodies, yet shows such as “Ally McBeal” and models like Kate Moss showcase an impossible standard. One Glamour reader wrote, “The pressure is on to be stunning like Uma Thurman, thin like Kate Moss, exotic like Naomi Campbell, romantic like Kate Winslet, tough like G.I. Jane, a mother like Andie MacDowell, successful like Cindy you-know-who, gutsy like Sigourney Weaver, and also a female Einstein. And on top of all that, still be ourselves.” Not only are women supposed to draw their characteristics from a virtual who’s who of Hollywood, but they are to be more perfect than these, combining the best of what the media has to offer into a tight package. Yet, no matter how apparent the ridiculousness of that quest is, society still punishes women for failing to live up to it. For example, a Harvard study found that, even with education and all else being equal, heavy women end up with incomes averaging $6,710 less per year than thinner women. Women are still rewarded on the basis of their looks rather than merit.
Changing this negativity must start with each individual woman. Before society can be convinced to stop placing impossible images in front of women as representations of the ideal, women need to stop accepting those images as truth. It is essential that we teach our girls that they are beautiful, regardless of their shape and size, and what they may see as imperfections merely makes them unique and special. By standing against the cultural norm of unobtainable beauty, we can overcome the negative body image that haunts so many women, and keep from passing it to another generation.
Chapkis, Wendy. Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance. Boston: South End Press, 1986.
Wendy Chapkis uses stories told by real women to address several issues of appearance. She includes narratives on transsexuality, dwarfism, race and ethnicity, punk culture, and mastectomy, among others. Each section of the book begins with an essay by Chapkis about a specific topic, which the narratives then address. Her writing is very personal, and does an excellent job of providing an overview of the issue at hand. The book itself is probably one of the most straightforward examinations of body image available. The women in the narratives seem to have healthy views of their bodies; they are uncomfortable with certain aspects, but have learned to accept them and feel good about themselves as whole people. Photos of some of the women, including a beautiful shot of a pregnant woman, provide a further glimpse into their lives. Even though Beauty Secrets is 12 years old, it has not lost any of its timeliness. This book is valuable in its honesty.
Claude-Pierre, Peggy. The Secret Language of Eating Disorders. New York: Random House, 1997.
The Montreux Clinic, run by Peggy Claude-Pierre, is one of the most prominent eating disorder clinics in the world, with a two year waiting list for admission. This book chronicles the beginnings of Claude-Pierre’s experience in eating disorders, with the illnesses of both of her daughters, and her view on the cause of eating disorders. Claude-Pierre believes that the “negative mind” is behind anorexia and bulimia, continually telling the victim that he or she is not worthy of food, care, or love. She asserts that these feelings begin in childhood, and slowly eat away at the healthy person. Her approach is one of unconditional love and acceptance, and caring for the victim 24 hours a day, taking the pressure off of the patient. The book lays out her five steps in treating eating disorders, and includes stories of Montreux patients. It provides valuable understanding into the mindset of many people suffering from eating disorders.
Edut, Ophira, ed. Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity. Seattle: Seal Press, 1998.
This book is a collection of interesting essays from young women who are comfortable with and proud of the fact that they bear little resemblance to a Barbie doll. Like Beauty Secrets, they address a plethora of issues having to do with appearance. These women also have generally healthy views of themselves. Some of them previously had a negative body image, then learned to accept themselves as being more than their appearance. This book challenges many commonly held stereotypes, such as only middle-class white girls get eating disorders. The story from the Latina model proves this assumption false. A common theme in this book is that of weight; several of the authors are overweight, yet don’t seem to allow that fact to keep them from enjoying their lives. Adios, Barbie is excellent reading for any young woman struggling to find her place in an image-obsessed world.
Hornbacher, Marya. Wasted. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
Wasted chronicles Marya Hornbacher’s descent into anorexia and bulimia in a way that few books have been able to capture. She goes beyond the stereotypes associated with eating disorders to tell her story in a clear and moving way. She doesn’t rely on self-pity or pat answers to explain the mystery behind her illness. Instead, she looks for a deeper thread of meaning. She also understands that there is no easy answer or “miracle cure;” for many women, eating disorders will be an issue they will struggle with their entire lives.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House, 1997.
This book explains how women have responded to their maturation over time Brumberg uses diaries of young women dating back to the turn of the century to look at menstruation with its increasingly early onset, slimming, obsession with body parts like breasts and thighs, and virginity. She notices some interesting markers for when young women began to change their focus from inner to outer beauty. For example, as mirrors became more common in American homes, girls began to pay closer attention to their skin and its flaws. She also discusses the history of products such as tampons, bras, and acne creams, and the way the beauty industry continually manipulates young women into conforming to whatever may be the current standard. The photos included were a perfect accompaniment, giving a visual history lesson in the shifting nature of body image and culture. The Body Project looks carefully at the issues leading up to the current body obsession by examining their source.
Jong-Fast, Molly. “Will I Ever Be Happy With the Way I Look?” Marie Claire. April 1999.
The author of this article tried everything in her quest for visual perfection: diet pills, tooth bleaching, electrolysis, waxing, Accutane, hair color, voltage facials. From the time she was 7 until now, at 20, her life was consumed with her looks and with fixing the numerous imperfections that consumed her. Jong-Fast believes that her negative body image grew from watching those around her. “I learned to hate my body from having people around me who hated theirs,” she says. She draws on the writings of Naomi Wolf to support her theory of hereditary self-loathing. After years of image obsession, she has finally learned to love her body. Jong-Fast ends by explaining that “beauty is self-acceptance, and through that comes power.”
Van Buskirk, Sarah. “He Loves Your Body-Why Don’t You?” Marie Claire. September 1998.
In this feature, the magazine asked six men to draw a sketch of their partner’s body. They then asked the women to draw the way they saw themselves. The sketches were displayed along with pictures of the couples and comments from each about how they saw the woman’s body. The sketches were the best part of the article; it was interesting to see the differences between the way the woman perceived herself and the way the man saw her. Often, the two pictures were pretty close to the same. The woman usually drew herself with larger hips and butt than the man, reflecting an almost universal concern with that area. The sketches themselves were also pretty close to the actual pictures of the women. None of them had such a distorted body image that they drew a figure completely out of proportion to their own body. The comments reflected the generally healthy body image, although the ones from the men were always more laudatory than the women’s.
Fergus, Jill. “What Makes Me Different Makes Me Beautiful.” Marie Claire. March 1999.
The six women in this article each have a distinctive feature that they once hated, but have learned to love. One of the women is six feet tall, another has a wide gap between her front teeth, and another has one eye that is half hazel, half blue. Most of the women now say that, if given the opportunity, they would not change their features. However, they all talk about feeling uncomfortable as younger women. Many were teased, or had well-meaning loved ones try to “help” them correct their flaws. They don’t give “miracle fixes” to help women feel better about their bodies; most simply grew into their current state of contentedness. However, it is still encouraging to read about real women who know they don’t have to look like models to be beautiful.
Frasier, Laura. “Body Love, Body Hate.” Glamour. October 1998.
In 1984, 14 years ago, Glamour magazine surveyed readers about their bodies. 41% of the respondents reported unhappiness with their weight and looks. Since then, that number has risen to 52%. This new survey, conducted in 1998, collected responses from over 27,000 women. It also utilized focus groups with athletes, mothers, college students, and professional women. The results were not surprising. Although women are heavier than ever, they are also more obsessed with their weight. 43% said they spent more than a third of their time trying to control their diets. The survey also included questions such as “How much more could you weigh and still like yourself?” and “What do you like most/least about your body?” The article accompanying the numerous charts and graphs summarizes the results and attempts to track the reasons for the decreasing satisfaction with the body. No solid conclusions were reached, but it does touch on media (which is ironic in a women’s magazine such as this) and competition with peers. It concludes with tips to help women move past their bodies and stop obsessing over imperfections.