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Body Image and How We Haven’t Progressed as Much as We Think

June 22, 2010

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?

Tom Cruise, circa 1990 (click on image for image credit)

Tom Cruise, circa 2010 (click on image for image credit)

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.

Demi Moore, circa 1990 (click on image for image credit)

Demi Moore, circa 2010 (click on image for image credit)

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.

  1. andreegiroux permalink
    June 22, 2010 9:10 pm

    First of all – great entry! Well deserved my time it took to read.

    I love the quote you included. The ideal image is demanding. Are we at fault though, for living within a world that expects you to desire the “ideal image”? Can an obsession with plastic surgery be justifiable? The very last question resonates with me, “so who is crazier, the culture that had women bind their bodies or us”?

    I think too, it is interesting to consider the women who value the high heel, such as Marilyn Monroe, who I quote said “I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot”.

  2. June 25, 2010 5:43 am

    Thanks for bringing this to the forefront again. It seems we stopped addressing body image issues not because they ceased to be relevant, but because they changed form and manifested in new ways. Feminists need to keep re-examining this issue as it evolves.

    I also find it telling that at the bottom of this article, Google advertises a Miss America Pageant party and quick weight loss solutions…

    • June 29, 2010 4:33 pm

      We apologize for the disgusting ads. Unfortunately it’s WordPress’ ads and not ours. We are working to be in full control (i.e. self-hosting our own site) by the end of the summer.

  3. gkb permalink
    June 29, 2010 12:11 pm

    First of all, the much-mentioned bra-burning did not happen. Gloria Steinem talks of women throwing bras into a trash barrel during a protest outside a Miss America contest venue, but no burning.

    If you know of an actual bra-burning event, please give the reference, because I want to know when and where it took place.

    I think it was a media term used to ridicule women’s concerns about cultural enforcement of body image that has now passed into folklore as a meme of lofty and tolerant amusement at the folly of those silly 2nd wavers.

    Second, I’m skipping over the whole topic of the effects of pornography on cultural norms. Read the discussion about pubic hair that GAB published a few months ago to get the “low-down” on that.

    Now, speaking to topic:

    Jane Austen said, “Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.”

    Jane Austen also said “Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain–which taste cannot tolerate–which ridicule will seize.”

    At the beginning of her writing career, Austen chops down the folly of flashy dressing; in the last book she wrote, she carves out a few pounds of anguished flesh with her wit while holding up “taste” and “reason” as her shield.

    Well, as an argument, it don’t wash well. I think it will fray.

    Individuals, their affinity circles, and their wider society all have a role in the formation of body image.

    All three have a responsibility to set just and compassionate limits on their “taste”, their “reason”, and all other means they use to rationalize, encode, and enforce their personal prejudices about how other people “ought” to look.

    This goes double for employers.

    This goes triple for the military.
    A day or two ago, the comic strip Doonesbury profiled the “plight” of a military recruiter faced with an enthusiastic but obese recruit. Why? Does not the military use drones as well as troops on the ground? How much exertion and fitness does it take to view a TV screen or press a button to drop a payload?

    Why does the foot soldier warrior body type rule the imaginations of the media (A), the military (B), and the medical profession (C)?

    (A) The media are in service to commercial concerns who are vitally interested in selling massive amounts of products, so they need to make people discontented with themselves as they are now. They hope people will repeatedly try to fill the psychological gap of personal discontent with overpriced stuff.

    (B) The military is using an antiquated mental model of warfare based on territorial conquests of the 19th century. Contemporary urban warfare can be carried out by children pushing prams filled with explosives. The military needs to be recruiting brains–no matter what size, sex, or sexual orientation the body may be. But it would cost a lot of money to transform the military into a network of locally based, decentralized, un-uniformed forces. That is why the world spends so much money on mercenaries who are already optimized in this manner. It may not be the right way–but it’s the army way.

    (C)The medical profession also has a vested interest in men’s health over women’s health. The changing body size of women during pregnancy, the fat ratios, the hormonal variability of women have long excluded women from health research. To invest in the complexities of women’s real needs would slash the profits of
    pharmaceutical companies who largely rely on male military test subjects for developing their drugs.

    Of course the facts do sometimes surface, like the opioid derivative pain medicine that works better on women than on men but is more costly to extract. Not only body image is at stake when culture overrules justice. Women’s health is also affected.

    Alas! Poor docs! Old and young alike are now fatter (like women) softer (like women) and suffering from more chronic conditions (like women) than adolescent male foot soldiers. It must do just terrible things to the profession’s statistical norms–and profits.

    Fortunately, cosmetic surgery is a very profitable line of endeavour and there are a lot of women who will pay out of pocket for it. Voila! Problem solved! Keep women more worried about their looks than their basic health and the money will come. And, it’s elective! The insurance companies will not have to pay a cent!

    In short, the Greco-Roman foot soldier body image is culturally pervasive because it is very, very, profitable–to men.

    CEOs, generals, heads of insuro-pharmaco-hospital complexes–mostly men, right?

    No profit in advertising the physique of a pregnant African woman who walks miles carrying a five-gallon jar of water on her head. Might call attention to the many ways in which patriarchy is failing to provide for the women and children of the world

    Very little profit in seeing a 78-year-old, big-bodied griot singing and strutting her stuff in the public square while a circle of girl drummers pounds out the rhythm of life around her.

    But she has no body image problem.

    • June 29, 2010 4:44 pm

      Everyone knows that bra-burning did not really exist, but yes, it is used in the metaphorical sense.

      I’m not sure where you’re getting pornography/culture debate from Katherine’s article, but if you’d like to read about it, I suggest reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.

  4. July 2, 2010 9:09 am

    Emily, you’re right. GKB, I’d like to issue a response, but you have a lot in there… I found this written by Jone Johnson Lewis- which backs up your point about the literal bra-burning; however, it also supports mine…

    “The infamous demonstration that gave birth to this rumor was the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest. Bras, girdles, nylons and other articles of constricting clothing were tossed in a trash can.

    One report has the New York Times quoting Robin Morgan saying that bras would be burned. The closest I can find to this is one from September 8, 1968, in which Morgan promises that nothing dangerous like burning bras will be done, “just a symbolic bra-burning.” Symbolic.

    The symbolic act of tossing those clothes into the trash can was meant as a serious critique of the modern beauty culture, of valuing women for their looks instead of their whole self. (Older feminists may remember that romantic line savvy men began to use, “I love you for your mind?”) “Going braless” felt like a revolutionary act – being comfortable above meeting social expectations. ”

    It’s the idea of shrugging off wearing certain garments in the name of feminism, all burning aside, that lead ultimately to the position we’re in today, because as this “about” contributor suggests, it was supposed to be meant as a serious critique of the modern beauty culture. It missed the mark in the sense that moving further in a discussion of body image never seriously occurred (until now with the obesity epidemic), and being “comfortable” turned into wearing non-constrictive clothing and making sure that we still look good using plastics, poisons in our faces, hours of gym time, etc. And, not for the sake of health… The modern beauty culture never went away; it simply shifted. I believe we’re worse off for it, and it must be addressed.

    With that said, I must clarify that I’m not arguing that this part of the movement wasn’t necessary at the time. It was or perhaps we may never have reached the point of being able to change the mindset of the working male population. I believe we have almost reached that point– not everyone certainly, but the younger generation is bringing with it shifting attitudes in men, and a very large group of educated women.

    Speaking of shifting attitudes, there is an interesting essay that includes some statistics written for the Atlantic: …just some food for thought.

  5. August 2, 2010 9:51 pm

    Good day everyone! We are looking for films on gender and women’s issues, body image, eating problems and related topics for 2011 festival. Please visit and contact us should you know of any filmmakers who may fit the bill! Many thanks:) we are looking for docs, shorts, features..the whole shebang:)
    Jill Andrew, Festival Founder & Director
    Toronto, ON Canada


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