This is a topic about which I feel very strongly. It’s a message that I wish could be explained to every young girl and teen (and their mothers, who might need to hear it even more).
“They’re sad facts that many of us know: You will never see an average American woman represented in the mass media as a ‘beauty ideal.’ And it is completely reasonable to assume that every image of women you see in the media has been digitally manipulated. So why is that where we get our standard for what is normal and beautiful?”
This quote comes from an article I read called “Beauty Redefined” in the recent edition of LDS Living. I was so glad that someone finally addressed this topic in such a direct way because it is affecting every single woman in America. We sometimes hear the phrase: “Beauty is not on the outside but on the inside” which is a true statement, but not strong enough to convince women who are spoon-fed a completely opposite, man-made concept of what real beauty is. The problem is that we live “in a world where there is a constant flow of media images that far exceeds the number of women we could ever see face to face, creating for us an abnormally thin and digitally enhanced feminine ideal. A counterfeit, dangerous, unattainable norm.” Not only is this the ideal, but it is portrayed as normal and healthy!
You would think we would be able to distinguish the truth from the lies in media. However, women have succumbed to this “narrow” image of woman, affecting their self-esteem, creating a preoccupation with their appearance, influencing them to fall upon eating disorders, and giving them an overall sense of self-loathing. The article included some interesting studies, stating that more than half of adult women claim their bodies “disgust them” and 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. Those numbers are astounding, but when I think about some of the women that I know and the things they say about their bodies, those figures seem pretty realistic.
I had to come to terms with my own “disgust” that was taught to me by media. I’ve always been pretty thin and quite confident about myself, but that in no way excluded me from feeling like my body could improve. I remember being very conscious of my weight when I was in middle school. I was pretty proud of my 78 pounds, but sure enough that number went up as I got taller and as my woman curves started to come in. I remember feeling dismayed in my sophomore year of high school when I weighed 113. At 5’ 1’’ I thought that was a little too much. I missed my thin, muscle-and-bone body from a few years before. Putting that down on paper now makes me feel ridiculous. But the fact that I can still remember those numbers just shows how much my perception of beauty was skewed, and it makes me feel happy to have finally gotten to a point where I no longer measure beauty by a dumb scale of weight. I continued to worry about weight, and it kept going up in high school. What I did not realize was I was just not done growing and filling out. It was not something I talked about with anyone, but I know I thought about it often and took my appearance and weight into consideration when I ate and when I bought clothes and makeup. There were times when I thought maybe I should just be anorexic for just a couple of days just to drop a couple of pounds. Fortunately for me, I did not have the self-control for that and I was totally unsuccessful—went on eating as usual. But the strange thing is I was a confident person. I knew I had worth, I didn’t feel particularly unattractive, I wasn’t depressed. But I was still affected by this unrealistic perception of beauty.
Unlike me, there are girls and women out there who have a tremendous amount of self-control and will do just about anything to make them feel good about themselves, dieting and starving to be thin. Another study pointed out that half of all 9- to 12-year-old girls wish they were thinner, and 35 percent of 6-to12-year-old girls have been on at least one diet. This might seem like a shockingly young age group, but the fact is that much of this awareness of weight stems from little girls’ mothers. Mothers go on diets, they talk about how fat they are, they talk about how they despise aspects of their bodies. It is having a very negative impact on little girls, and it is only enforcing even more strongly what little girls see on tv, on billboards, in Barbies, in magazines, etc. It is so important not only to say positive things about a child’s body, but to also say positive things about your own body.
One other interesting thing is that SLC has been ranked “Vainest City in the Nation” in 2007, 2008, and in the top 5 in 2009 because of the amount of botox, plastic surgery, and beauty products sold there. LDS women especially feel like they need to be the perfect mom, the perfect cook and homemaker, the perfect role model of excellence. Why shouldn’t this carry over into the area of perfect body?
I’m pretty sure every single woman struggles with her body image, no matter where she is on the scale of American’s standard of beauty. The plan for the media money-makers is to convince viewers that female worth is dependent upon appearance. We have to first recognize that we women are in a battle before we can start to defend ourselves from their lies: that beauty comes in one form, that it is attainable with enough money, time, and effort (whether in the gym, the mall, or on the operating table), and that women who don’t fit the ideal are doomed to be undesirable, unhappy, and unsuccessful.
I don’t want friends and family to read this and feel bad for me because I used to have a bad body-image. I really do feel good about myself and I do not have any health or eating issues—I weigh much more than I did in high school, so nobody freak out! But I am trying to address this very specific issue of how women feel about their bodies and be honest about how it has affected me, and I hope it gets some people thinking. Some women keep their feelings of inadequacy very deep inside, and some women talk about their disgust with certain parts of themselves freely. I just want to point out that there is another option: to redefine what beauty is entirely. I don’t mean that we should fall back to the cliche that beauty is not on the outside…. but that we should actually redefine physical beauty. I think all women should feel good about their outer and inner selves.
I want to talk about one more good example of our disillusioned thinking. Marilyn Monroe was the icon of the 50s at 5 feet 5 inches and 140 pounds. Her figure represents a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) of 23.1. In contrast, the sexiest woman alive today, ranked by men and women alike, is Angelina Jolie, at 5 feet 7 inches and close to 100 pounds, representing a 15.7 BMI. An 18.5 BMI and below is considered underweight. The standards that media (and that we ourselves) have set is to be underweight and unhealthy. We fool ourselves into thinking that thin is healthy, but we have pushed that standard to such an extreme that it is unattainable. Even other movie stars who are not as abnormally thin as Angelina still fall under the 18.5 BMI including Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Aniston and hundreds of others.
Our dissatisfaction with ourselves does not just come in the form of weight. Women feel inferior because of an endless list of things! Wrinkles, the shape of specific parts of their body from calves to fingers and toes to noses to ears, the length or color or thickness of their hair, their teeth, their smile lines, the bags under their eyes, their muscle or lack of it, their foot size, the shape of their face, the plumpness of their lips, their nails, the shade of their skin. There are endless ways to be nit-picky about your own body because no one knows it better than you. There are also many ways to counter this way of thinking:
1) When considering your health and weight-loss goals, base them on concrete measures of fitness and wellness, not on a desire to look a certain way or to fit into a certain size or to hit a number on a scale.
2) Consider the women presented in media and ask yourself if they are good role models, if their value is based on talents and personality, or if their worth is based solely on physical beauty.
3) Another important thing to do is to speak highly of your body and to teach children to do the same. Your daughters and family members will learn from you. Self-image can also be just as challenging for men and boys, just with different standards and expectations, so encouraging them is important too.
4) You can also remember that the image of beauty in media is strictly there for money-making purposes. If they can convince you that you are not the ideal beauty, they can convince you that you need their product.
5) Another thing you can do is to encourage other women and help them see their own real beauty. I like to think about how mankind’s perception of beauty has changed over the centuries and across the world. It has changed so many times! It is a concept that we create, it is not a rule that we abide by.
6) The magazine article encourages women to forget about expensive makeup and diet pills—the best way to improve your appearance is to have a little more light in your countenance! Service in any capacity fills us with love and light that radiate from within and draw people near. Sounds cheesy, but it’s really true. The happiest, most beautiful women are the ones who are always thinking of others. It really does enhance even their physical appearance and they are beautiful to all who know them.
I think this topic is not addressed often enough and not in enough detail. There is so much more to a woman that her hair, her cup size, her eye color, her pant size. And it is not just about looking past physical appearance, but learning to love our bodies as they are and rejecting the stereotypes that media want us to believe in.