Body Image and How We Haven’t Progressed as Much as We Think
This guest post is by Katherine Forrest. Based in the New York area, Forrest recently returned from Morocco after service with the Peace Corps in Small Business Development. She holds a degree in Computer Information Systems, and a personal interest in the continued discussion of women’s issues globally.
There needs to be a new discussion on body image. Feminism once rallied against the binding of a woman’s body for the sake of achieving aesthetic perfection in the hopes of attracting the best in a male companion. I rarely hear talk of this anymore with the exception of the occasional remark on how Spanx is the new corset or how high-heeled shoes still constrict us. While such issues certainly hold a historical place in the women’s equality movement, I make the case that they are irrelevant today due largely to shifting attitudes, and a much more dangerous trend–an extreme obsession with body image.
I have considered this issue much over the past few months as I have endeavored to struggle with my own body image. Having an hour-glass figure from a relatively young age, it took me some time to adjust to society’s current aesthetic. Just as teenagers struggle to form their own opinions on everything else in our society, they are impressionable when it comes to what they are subtly told is attractive. I haven’t been a teenager for 10 years, and yet, despite the confidence I’ve achieved with age, I still find myself obsessing over minor aspects of physicality. And let’s be honest–as feminists, we have stopped rallying against doing so.
Yes, we talk about how worried we are about young girls these days, and how concerned we are about the size 0 model, or the prevalence of eating disorders. Though it’s obvious to many of us, it’s rarely pointed out that this obsession isn’t just among young girls. Our obsession with physical perfection has rarely been more acute or expensive. I challenge you to turn on the TV and watch any channel without finding, at the very least, the use of Botox.
I realize that this particular point that I am making is not new to most people, but why aren’t we considering this within the scope of traditional feminism? Doing so tells us something about who we are, and about the results of the occasionally misguided logic in the original tenets of the feminist movement.
In the book The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Ms. Hecht puts words to exactly what I have been considering these last few months.
Today we wear soft cotton shirts and pants, and women get support for their breasts from other supple materials designed for comfort. But the same woman who pities the corseted girls of the past may very well go to the gym five times a week to do a hundred sit-ups on a Swiss ball and an hour of aerobics. Most likely she is exacting about her diet, eats foods that have been stripped of various life-sustaining elements and thus keeps her body fat to a minimum. The whalebone ribbing is gone from just beneath her dress, but now her own ribs show through the cloth . . . Also note that though it was hard to fail at wearing a corset, many women today fail at their body goals, spend massive amounts of money on half-used gym memberships and diet programs, and worst of all, feel tortured by their failure . . .
So who is crazier, the culture that had women bind their bodies or us?
This segment on corsetry is only a small point towards her overall thesis on our misconception of the cause of happiness, but I believe this paragraph makes a very valid point with regard to my own thesis. Our behavior with regards to our own aesthetic appeal has become more harmful, and the feminist movement’s overemphasis on clothes–corsets, dresses, high-heeled shoes–has actually been counter-productive to the goal of gender equality.
I think it’s important to note that men have similarly been affected by the pressure to attain physical perfection. Indeed, while women for many years shoved themselves into corsets, men idealized the “athletic body.” The modern male athletic body also tends to extremes encouraging young men to harm their bodies with drugs such as steroids. The modern idealized male has become, for lack of a better word, rather lumpy. Look at the older generation of movie stars: Carey Grant, William Holden, and Sean Connery back in his James Bond days. The former ideal for men was broad-shouldered, and fit, but the super six-pack was not the emphasis. It seems that the masculine ideal is back to the Greco-Roman standard immortalized through sculpture.
It is important to note that men are likewise influenced by society. They too use Botox, get face lifts, and has anyone seen Tom Cruise lately?
He reminds me of the Demi Moore of a few years back when she went through hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery. He’s looking comparable to his Cocktail and Top Gun days. The point here is that the willingness to go to extremes to achieve physical perfection isn’t necessarily gender specific.
I used the word “necessarily” with a very important distinction in mind. Let’s take a look at reality television. I don’t mean shows like The Biggest Loser, where there is a gender neutral emphasis on health, but at shows like The Real Housewives of [fill in the blank]. Look at the women and then look at their husbands. Sure the men have occasionally had a surgery here and there (very secretly as it still seems passé for men), or perhaps some Botox–but the women. They are often pulled so tight that you really can’t say for sure whether or not they even look good. And as contrived as they sometimes seem, these women are real. I can think of others like them–examples from within my own life of women who took things a bit too far.
My point is that while men do suffer from the same affliction that causes people to take drastic steps in exercise, diet, and even surgery, this issue seems to affect far more women and to reach an extreme that you rarely see in men.
Let’s tie this back into feminism. The feminist movement in its progression through the ages has, in the past, equated constrictive clothing with a lack of equality. Women have burned their bras in protest, and shrugged off their corsets. Now Spanx and many other garments have appeared and sold well in the market much to the dismay of classic feminists who argue that women are back-tracking over much of the progress.
My argument against this may turn out to be quite controversial; however, I believe it is valid. I do not believe we ever came as far as many thought we did from this particular aspect of the movement. While the cause of the bra burning was noble, there were unforeseen consequences. This aspect of the feminist movement did nothing to combat the underlying problem–the reason for wearing restrictive garments in the first place. Because we shrugged off our garments, and didn’t so much consider body image, we now are in the position of trying to remedy our societal obsession with the way we look.
Diets, surgery, and over exercise are now the standard. There are some feeble attempts to combat this, but no movement in force, and nothing that has a chance of standing against the fantastic and massive beauty industry. Even if it was just the marketing campaign of a for-profit company, I think we can all take a lesson from the Dove beauty campaign that pushed the idea that there are many types of beauty. De-emphasizing beauty altogether goes against fundamental human nature, but HEALTH can and should be the standard.
The feminist movement needs to tackle the underlying problem, and not silly little symptoms like control-top panty hose.
And while it’s so easy to say that if men didn’t want it, women wouldn’t do it, I strongly believe in the fallacy of this assumption. I enjoy discussing body image with men because they have a very different take than women. Most guys I know do not understand high-heeled shoes, don’t care if there is the tiniest bit of fat on our bottoms, and don’t even notice the makeup we spend so much time on. I have heard time and time again from a variety of men that they think women often look the most attractive without their make up and in their pajamas. Attraction and beauty are highly subjective. We cannot blame men for modern women’s collective problem with body and self-image; this issue can only be tackled by women themselves.
This is also not an individual problem, but a fault of our society as a whole; therefore, I believe the issue needs tackling as a group. The feminist movement needs momentum in a new direction. Placing too much emphasis on the importance of removing constricting garments without emphasizing the importance of proper health and without moving away from unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards has created an even greater challenge for the next generation of girls. If we take away the reason for this unhealthy obsession by changing our current perception of beauty, then I truly believe we will be further along on the course of gender equality than ever before.