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Body Image

Life is a Beauty Pageant

For girls and women, life can often seem like an episode of the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model. Throughout every phase of our lives, our appearance is judged and critiqued. Our looks are compared with those of our peers, our sisters, the women in the media, or imaginary ideals. No one ever asked if we want to participate in this lifelong competition; being female automatically makes us contestants, subject to constant scrutiny.

Individual experiences also affect how we feel about our bodies. Those of us who have experienced violence or abuse may feel unsafe or unworthy. If we have been ridiculed because of a disability or because of our weight or the color of our skin, we may dislike, mistrust, or even despise our bodies. The response to such hurtful experiences may be to seek what we consider to be a “perfect” body, through excessive dieting or exercising to exhaustion, buying expensive cosmetic products, or surgically changing our appearances—all in the hope that such efforts can shield us from discrimination or lead to success and true love. Sometimes the response is to treat our bodies as if they have little worth—to hurt ourselves, by binge eating or cutting.

Wanting to feel good about our bodies and our appearance is natural. Creating our own style allows us to express ourselves and to reflect our creativity and values. But there are questions most of us wrestle with: How do we nurture a positive body image while we’re constantly being judged? How do we deal with pressure to act and look sexier in order to fit in? How do we change a system that marginalizes many of us and that rewards appearances above all else?

While there are many things that divide us as women, dissatisfaction with our looks and our bodies is something too many of us share. This chapter looks at how cultural forces have encouraged us to dislike our bodies and how we each can learn to be more comfortable in our own skin.

The Criticism Continuum

Starting when we’re young, we watch older girls and women go through daily transformations, curling or straightening their hair, wearing uncomfortable clothes to achieve the right look, and critiquing their weight. Everywhere we look we see airbrushed models and products to improve our appearance. We internalize the message that as women, we will be defined by our looks and our size, not by our character, smarts, or accomplishments.

The expectations are set even higher now that cosmetic surgery, Botox, and other imagealtering options have become normalized in the public consciousness. Not only are we supposed to spend whatever time, money, and effort it takes to look “perfect,” but we’re supposed to make it look as though perfection comes naturally— no extra effort required.

This pressure extends from when we’re very young to well into our older years. Girls just starting school critique themselves and their classmates, wondering who is pretty enough to attract praise and attention, while more older women are developing eating disorders. “I think the degree of despair we are seeing among adult women about their bodies is unrivaled,” Margo Maine, coauthor of The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect, told the New York Times.1 At no point, it seems, are we free from being judged or judging ourselves.

The pressures we face have social and financial consequences. Recent studies have shown that thin women earn more on average—about $16,000 a year more, in one study—than their average-size counterparts.2 Another study found that 57 percent of hiring managers agreed that qualified but unattractive candidates are likely to have a harder time landing a job, and 61 percent of managers (the majority of them men) said it would be an advantage for a woman to wear clothing showing off her figure at work.3

Many corporations and medical professionals are all too ready to help us spend our time and money trying to achieve an impossible beauty ideal. The cosmetics, fashion, and diet industries adeptly exploit the message that to be valued, women must do more and spend more to improve their appearance. Through relentless articles and advertisements, the media reinforce the message, playing on our insecurities (“What’s He Really Thinking When He Sees You Naked?”) or raising new ones (“Top 10 Trouble Spots We Bet You Didn’t Notice”).

The fantasy that we can completely trans- form ourselves often blinds us to the fact that a woman standing 5'4" and weighing 150 pounds will never be able to turn herself into a 5'11", 117-pound supermodel. In fact, even supermodels can’t meet supermodel standards unless their images are substantially retouched and Photoshopped. So long as the majority of commercial media aimed at women are supported by advertising revenue from the fashion, beauty, diet, and food industries, there will be no shortage of stories trying to persuade us to do more or try harder.

Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

1. Randi Hutter Epstein, “When Eating Disorders Strike in Midlife,” New York Times, July 13, 2009, nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-eating-disorders-ess.html.

2. Timothy A. Judge and Daniel M. Cable, “When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 1 (2010): 95–112, timothy-judge.com/Judge%20and%20Cable%20%28JAP%202010%29.pdf.

3. R. Gonzalez Rey and M. Parra, “The Beauty Advantage,” Newsweek, July 19, 2010, newsweek.com/feature/2010/the-beauty-advantage.html.


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