How many women do you know who think their bodies are just fine the way they are? The sad fact is that we live in a world in which it has become normal for women to dislike their bodies, a world in which even healthy eight-year-old girls may worry about their size and shape.
The irony, of course, is that women today are doing more than ever before at home and at work and, as a group, are living longer and healthier lives. Given their many achievements and advantages, this degree of self-criticism among women seems unwarranted. Where does it all come from? What does it cost us? Can we change it?
Why Are So Many Women Dissatisfied with Their Bodies?
The reasons behind the dissatisfaction (if not hatred!) many women experience toward their own bodies are varied and complex.
Since time began, women's bodies have been important not only to themselves, but to those around them. Men have always been keenly interested in the female body, not only for sexual pleasure, but also for the opportunity to sire offspring and produce heirs. Children literally depend on women's bodies for life and for nurturance. Women themselves are acutely attuned to their menstrual cycles and their reproductive capacities over the life span.
And yet, today, more than ever before, women are also keenly aware of other women's bodies and idealized images so highly prized in American culture. You cannot turn around without exposure to depictions of very thin, "flawless, often highly sexualized women. They're virtually everywhere, bombarding every woman throughout the day.
What many women may not fully appreciate, however, is that many of the faces and bodies plastered on magazine covers, television screens, movie posters, and billboards are maintained through unhealthy or unnatural means. In more and more cases, too, the images are literally impossible to attain " because they are computer-generated! Legs are made longer or thinner, imperfections air-brushed away, and the beautiful face and form "manufactured" through a composite of "perfect" parts from several different women. Women with more ordinary attributes may experience relief in knowing that not even the models can look this "perfect." Nevertheless, many of us hold such images in our own minds as the standard against which we measure our own beauty.
Some writers have observed that these stringent standards for female beauty coincide with the increase in women's power and presence in the outside, "man's" world. Maybe there is some pull or pressure "whether conscious or not "to keep women "in their place." And setting unhealthy, unattainable standards for appearance has the potential to disempower many women across the life span and cultural spectrum.
Another aspect of body dissatisfaction may be rooted in the fact that women's bodies have always been more vulnerable than men's and subject, in some situations, to unwanted sexual intrusions. When intrusions occur, a woman can feel less in control of her body, more "dirty" or used, and may need to distance herself from her body. This is certainly not the case for every woman with body dissatisfaction, but these factors do contribute to many women's problems with self-esteem and body image today.
Body Dissatisfaction Takes Its Toll
The costs of body dissatisfaction and hatred can be very high. Eating disorders can flourish in such an environment. Cruelty and prejudice against fat people go unchecked as well. The self-esteem of women and girls suffers greatly, and sometimes permanently.
Jean Kilbourne, creator of the videos Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women (Media Education Foundation, 1979) and Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession with Thinness (Media Education Foundation, 1995), points out that when women (and girls, too, unfortunately) are asked what they most wish for, the vast majority say "to lose weight" " not to make lots of money, have love in their lives, be successful, or have the world at peace. She calls this a tragic "failure of imagination." Meanwhile, the diet industry continues to make millions and millions of dollars each year, thriving on self-hatred and fostering false hopes and unrealistic dreams.
Imagine what the world would be like if women felt secure and comfortable in their bodies, appreciated their individual talents and strengths, and laughed heartily at the impossible, unrealistic images that bombard them. I think we would notice differences in such a generation of women, both externally and, more importantly, internally.
Body image and feelings about the self are not easy to change, but here are some measures that can help. Keep in mind that any steps you take, no matter how small, will move you that much closer to your final goals of feeling more comfortable with yourself and your body.
- Learn more about this widespread problem. I highly recommend Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter's book, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself from Food and Weight Obsession (Fawcett Books, 1997). It is hard to think in the same way about these issues after reading it. They do a nice job in particular with ideas about managing "bad body thoughts." Other good books are also available "check out the catalog available through www.bulimia.com for more titles, or visit Hirschmann and Munter's Web site at www.overcomingovereating.com.
- Make an ongoing effort to STOP talking about diets and "imperfect" body parts with your female friends. Consider talking to them instead about what you are doing with your life and why you are doing it.
- When you catch yourself criticizing your body or what you've eaten, STOP, remind yourself that self-criticism is part of this syndrome, and shift your attention elsewhere; repeat as necessary.
- Get help if you suspect or know that you have an eating disorder. There are several articles on this site that describe these life-threatening conditions.
- Challenge media images "to yourself, and out loud when with your family, children, and friends. Write and complain if you see images you don't like. Support products with advertisements that feature "normal" looking and/or "normally" sized people.
- Set a good example for girls (and teach boys about these issues, too). Do not model obsessive dieting or self-criticism.
- Start to appreciate your body's various functions: how it walks, makes babies, stays healthy, sees and hears, etc.
- Take good care of yourself. Learn to eat well (most of the time), get moderate exercise and enough sleep, give yourself treats occasionally, and keep supportive people in your life.
- Exercise and move your body for strengthening, health, pleasure, and/or stress reduction. Avoid exercising in desperate, obsessive, or self-punishing ways.
And, finally, remember: the great beauties of yesteryear " from Lillian Russell to Marilyn Monroe "would be considered FAT by today's standards.