The Illusion of Beauty: Part 3

“There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty.” ~ Dr. Steve Maraboli

“Health makes good propaganda.”  ~Naomi Wolf “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women”

In 2013, the cry amongst the media is for “healthy” bodies. Of course, what is healthy? Who decides what is healthy and what is their incentive/motivation when doing so? The doctor attempting to sell yet another diet book? The companies trying to convince you their product will make all your body image woes disappear? Once again the ideal body for a female is slender, but with rock hard abs, defined arms and large breasts:

Perfect body

Victoria's Secret

perfect-female-body

Of course, this look is completely impossible for most women to achieve. Others will come close with serious food deprivation, hard physical training and sometimes surgery. It’s not enough to just be “thin” anymore, unless you are on the runway.

In the fashion world, skeletal thinness is still used by runway models who have become the perfect human clothes hanger:

thin model 1

thin model 3

There’s another place and time this look was seen:

concentration camps

Concentration Camp Inmates

How is it that there are people who favor a look only attained by torture, starvation and near death? The rise of anorexia and bulemia (in girls as young as 8!), the increase of hospitalization and even death among young women has made some people sit up and take notice. The efforts of specific organizations who attempt to raise awareness about the havoc being wreaked on our young women is slowly shifting the consciousness. A rising tide of rebellion is beginning and although still not enough to completely infiltrate and break down the cult of beauty that has our culture in it’s grip, it is creating cracks in the foundation. Today, more people are recognizing that beauty comes in many shapes and sizes. Better yet, marketers are starting to realize (finally) that showing size 0 models to the average size 10-14 woman is not serving them well. Slowly, slowly, we are starting to see women that, although still almost impossibly beautiful, look more like women who don’t starve themselves into an unnatural state.

Plus sized model 2Ford Models Celebrates The Publication Of Crystal Renn's "Hungry"Plus sized model 3

It’s a start, a good one, to showing women that it’s okay to be human beings…healthy, happy human beings who don’t have to fit into a mold created by society. There are women who are naturally thin and women who are not. There’s nothing wrong with being thin, athletic and toned…just as there’s nothing wrong with having breasts and hips and thighs and a stomach. Finally, the designers and industries that cater to women are starting to realize WE are the consumer; we’re just not going to take the abuse anymore. It’s still a slow road: These mannequins, used by a Swedish store, have sparked much controversy. While many have reacted very positively and praised the use of  mannequin models that resemble the average woman, some have claimed it encourages obesity.

Swedish mannequin pic

Of course, the use of size zero mannequins and models, some with legs hardly larger than a person’s arm, has encouraged anorexia and bulemia for years. It’s encouraged depression and low self-esteem in women and, increasingly, in very young girls. Showing only women who look like prepubescent girls with large breasts has perpetuated an unrealistic fantasy for men, who begin to believe that is how all women SHOULD look, when very few women will be able to attain it. It has equated “thin” with “good” and “healthy” and anything over a size 8 (and sometimes that’s considered too big) with “bad” and “unhealthy”. Plus sized models start at a size 8, when the average  American woman is a size 12 or 14. And yes, there’s an argument to be made that the average American diet is unhealthy, thus leading to a problem with weight. Setting up unrealistic, unattainable and in some cases, unhealthy, standards for women to look to is NOT the answer. Even very thin women can be heard lamenting about the few ounces of extra weight they have on their bodies…despite a predisposition toward thinness, healthy eating and diligent exercise. How do women learn to feel comfortable in their bodies when they are being sent constant messages that say they are unacceptable?

Plus size vs straight size

A “plus” sized model compared to a “regular” model

How can we get to a place of acceptance that we are more than our bodies, when we are constantly being told that our bodies are all that matter? On top of that, the constant message is our bodies are NOT acceptable unless they are starved and exercised into a form that is often unnatural. Even our little girls learn from an early age that beauty has a specific size:

woman object 4

How do we teach our young women (and our young men), that the female body can be beautiful in many shapes, many sizes? When do we stop acting like we all need to resemble barbie dolls in order to be acceptable, beautiful…good?

I want a different world for my daughters (and myself), yet sometimes am unsure how to effect change in such a rampantly superficial world. What can a single individual do to promote a healthier, more diverse culture of body image? Here are the things I’ve come up with that I CAN change:

  • Avoid negative talk about weight or shape. No more talk about “fat” or “skinny” and no more judgement language about bodies. Bodies are bodies, neither good nor bad.
  • Don’t use food as reward or punishment and avoid negative statements about food. Provide healthy food, then let your child make their own choices about it.
  • Compliment my child on accomplishments, talent and effort. Children should feel they are valuable and valued for more than their appearance. Only complimenting girls (or boys) on the way they look (“You’re so pretty!” “What a cutie.”) links their self-esteem to their looks. Teach my children from an early age they are so much more than just their bodies or faces.
  • Restrict media images. From the Disney Channel to the Victoria’s Secret catalog that comes in the mail. Discuss the media images with my daughters.
  • Help them to understand what is normal and healthy, especially during changes that may naturally involve their bodies changing. Keep communication open.
  • Write to designers/clothing stores/magazines and inform them of what you like and what you don’t. Use my dollars to reinforce my values. If I really dislike the way “American Apparel” or “Guess” uses images and models and I don’t feel they support healthy body image, then I won’t buy their clothes. A single consumer won’t make a huge difference, but change starts with one person, right? If a company DOES promote positive body images, then let them know that too.
  • Finally…love and accept my own body. My children will follow my actions more than my words. Work hard on accepting that I am not defined by my body, then realize that my body is beautiful. Let my children see that it’s okay to not look like Barbie and still take joy and pride in my appearance. It’s fine for them to see me making healthy food choices and exercising…that’s just modeling good health. What’s not okay is for them to constantly hear “I can’t eat that–it’s got too many calories” or “I need to stop being lazy and workout”. What’s not okay is for them to constantly be hearing about the latest diet or technique for losing weight. They learn from me, so I need to make sure I’m teaching them the right things.

Finally…realize how ridiculous it all is. Women spend a large chunk of their lives as slaves to the beauty ideal…which can’t even stay constant! We are slaves to something that shifts with political culture and socio-economic changes. We’re letting people who run the fashion industry (and let’s be honest: Should gay men really get to decide what a woman’s body should look like??) tell us what we should look like. We are starving, running, body-building, tweezing, waxing and even cutting ourselves open in an attempt to be “beautiful” and “sexy”, when those words could be/should be defined in many different ways! Realize the ridiculousness of it all and refuse to participate.

Tiny Fey, who is quickly becoming my hero, sums it all up nicely.

funny-Tina-Fey-body-image-quote

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