Archive for body image

The Illusion of Beauty: Part 3

Posted in body image, objectifying women, raising daughters, self-esteem, women's bodies, women's liberation, women's rights with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by sexandthesinglesoccermom

“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


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.


The Illusion of Beauty: Part 2

Posted in body image, objectifying women, raising daughters, women's bodies, women's liberation with tags , , on April 17, 2013 by sexandthesinglesoccermom

“Beauty is in the eye of beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye”

The notion of female beauty is a fluid one, subject to rapid shifts depending on culture and who’s running the fashion industry. Beautiful, sexy, healthy: These words all shift with the decades. Yet they greatly influence how we perceive ourselves and how we feel we measure up with others in our society. The obsession with female beauty and the ideal body is not a new concept. Throughout the ages, artists have been attempting to capture the curves, grace and mystique of a woman. Men pursue beautiful woman; women want to be beautiful. But what is beautiful? How has our perception of beauty changed?

From artwork of the Middle Ages, which showed women with hips and breasts and a rounded stomach:


To artwork and images of the 1800’s:


In fact, being “thin” was not a lasting trend that was considered beautiful or fashionable until the 1920’s, when the flapper styles came into vogue. There were exceptions to this rule: Before the Civil War, tuberculosis ravaged the nation; called the ‘wasting disease”, one of the side effects was severe thinness. This look gained popularity for a brief time, until the antebellum era, when voluptuousness was again on the rise. Lillian Russell, a theatre actress who was around 200 lbs, was considered a great beauty. Curves ruled the scene until the Roaring 20’s, when women began to push for more independence. A boyish figure was the look of the decade…


Until the 30’s and 40’s, when Marilyn Monroe and other actresses brought curves back into the spotlight:


curvy vs skinny 1

Then came Twiggy: A British teenager who was part of London’s “Swinging 60’s”, Twiggy’s ultra-thin, androgynous look changed the fashion industry overnight:


The 90’s brought a mixture of body styles, from the curvaciousness of Cindy Crawford, who was once dubbed “too busty” to be a runway model:

cindy crawford

Juxtaposed with the “waif” look of Kate Moss:


In 2013, where are we with body image? What is it that we’ve determined is the ideal beauty?

To be continued…

The Illusion of Beauty: Part 1

Posted in body image, objectifying women, raising daughters, self-esteem, women's bodies, women's liberation, women's rights with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2013 by sexandthesinglesoccermom

“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.” ~ Helen Keller

My youngest child has cheeks that are rosy with color and she loves to don a swimsuit or shorts and bare her skin to the sun. She is a lovely, sensitive, smart, artistic, incredible little girl. She is also quite chubby.

Three and a half years ago, she looked like a little ghost: Pale, with dark circles under her eyes. She was constantly sick and would be doubled over with stomach pain nearly every time she ate. After taking her to doctor after doctor, she was finally diagnosed with an autoimmune disease: Ulcerative Colitis. Freqeunt bleeding and a 106 fever even landed her in the hospital; it was a scary event for her father and I. This resulted in a massive dose of steroids to try to manage the severe symptoms. It worked. It also left her with raging emotions and a wicked appetite. Her weight gain was so fast and so significant, that I commented to someone once that it looked like this child had eaten the child she used to be. After awhile, we were able to wean her off the high dose of steroids and begin a more long-term approach.

Today, she looks like a healthy kid. A kid that plays and colors and sings and makes it to school. A child that looks at me and sometimes my breath catches, because she is so amazing, inside and out. Yet…

As a woman who has struggled with body image, I am concerned. As an adult who knows the way this superficial world works, I feel trepidation. When she reaches for seconds at meals or wants to have a big slice of bread for a snack, I struggle with how to react. I don’t EVER want her to feel like she is less than the beautiful, amazing girl she is. So when her pants don’t fit anymore, I simply buy new ones. I never disparage or comment on her body and I only use positive language. I stopped calling myself words like “fat” in front of my children long ago. Still, I know the way the world is; as she moves into adolescense, if the weight issue hasn’t resolved itself, I fear she will suffer the consequences. So I feel a bit sick inside: How do I meet this situation? To treat her differently than her sibling (who looks like a wraith no matter what she eats) around the subject of food will bring an awareness of her own body that I really don’t want her to have. To not take any action feels like setting her up for failure. I have been struggling with this dilemma for months…

And I’m angry. I’m angry at a world that punishes us for how our bodies look. I’m furious at a culture that believes objectification is okay. And I’m not certain that the average person is aware of how insidious, how prevalent, it is. Let me help put it in perspective:


woman object 1woman object 7woman object 5woman object 6woman object 8woman object 11woman object 2woman object 10woman object 9

woman object 3

What do these images convey about women? They are nothing more than the sum of their parts: Breasts, thighs, ass and legs. Because of this they are interchangeable; we don’t even need to show their faces! They are vapid, empty vessels waiting to be filled by men. Merchandise, to be used and displayed as desired. If the female model’s face is even shown, it is often void of expression. Afterall, she is simply an object and objects don’t think or feel. She is a coat rack, a fantasy, an apex of thighs, a valley of breasts, a hole (while the guy fantasizes about his real passion, as exemplified in the ad for the car), a product…not a human being.

As if those ideas weren’t degrading enough to women, there is also the implied violence and oversexualization present in the majority of the photos. A man between a woman’s thighs as other men look on, a man possessively clutching a bare breast with one hand while grasping a woman’s head with the other, text reading “NOW OPEN” above a photo of a woman’s spread legs. The apathy and bared breasts of a model who looks to be barely out of her teens, selling riding pants.

Do we really need to wonder why we live in a culture of violence toward women? These images were a few culled from thousands just like them. The message that women are the sum of their sexual parts, they are objects, they are prized only for their beauty and sexuality…this is the daily message blared at us from magazines, billboards, television and the advertising industry.

Women: Is this what we want for ourselves? For our children? Men: Is this the norm you’d want for your mother/sister/daughter?

How did we get here?

To be continued

For My Daughters: Leaving A Legacy of Empowerment

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 10, 2012 by sexandthesinglesoccermom

The word “pretty” is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine  will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty  creative, pretty amazing, but you will never be merely “pretty.” —Katie  Makkai

As a child, I ran, jumped, climbed trees and rolled down hills. I can still remember the sun on my skin and the breeze in my hair, chasing butterflies across a hillside dotted with dandelions. I remember wearing my favorite dress as soon as it was warm enough, just so I could sit in my backyard swing and go as high as my seven year old legs could take me, loving the flutter of the full skirt as I swung up and down. I remember feeling powerful and strong and lovely. Sometime between 8 and 10, that feeling of rightness within my body started to fade. The pride I took in my strong legs and sturdy arms, the joy to be had in being in my body and loving what it could do for me, started to diminish. Rising up to overshadow my own sense of worth, or even my own lack of awareness of my body as an “entity” apart from me, was a growing litany of things that were wrong.

My hair didn’t fall in smooth waves or sheets down my back; it curled or frizzed with a mind of its own. My nose was too big, my eyes were too small. My face was too round. My body was far too sturdy and muscular to ever have the delicate look that seemed to be considered beautiful. My cheeks were always so red and rosy, not porcelain and evenly colored like the pretty girls that looked like perfect china dolls.

As I grew older, the list of grievances against my body only grew longer: I was too short all over. Short legs, short waist and short stubby fingers. Of course, too short didn’t mean too small. My legs and arms were too big; my stomach wasn’t flat enough and my hips flared out ridiculously. The only thing that wasn’t big enough (other than my midget height) were my breasts: They reached a B Cup and refused to grow. My rosy cheeks continued to plague me. There were stray moments when I looked in the mirror and I thought I was pretty. When the light would catch my oddly colored golden-green eyes and the reddish gold of my curls and I would pause for a moment, surprised. There were times as an older teen I would be anxiously appraising my nude body in the mirror and realize that there was beauty in the flare of my hips from my small waist and the curve in the small of my back. My breasts weren’t large, but they were high and proud. The feeling of pride lasted as long as it took to open up a magazine, watch a movie or listen to the chatter of conversation among the women I knew.

“Did you see how big her butt was in those jeans? No wonder she always wears dresses!” “Somebody throw her a doggie biscuit!” “I’d never wear shorts if my legs looked like that.” “I can’t eat that! I don’t want to turn into a fattie!” “I’ve lost all respect for my husband for loving me while I’m this fat.” Instantly, any beauty I found in my external self was squelched by self-doubt. Girls were never just people; they were objects to be appraised and assessed, either approved or found wanting.

I spent most of my teenage years, even well into my twenties, obsessed with my appearance. My relationship with my body began to take on a duality: On the one hand, I was deeply unhappy with what I perceived as my flaws. On the other, I was receiving a lot of positive attention from the opposite sex. I was called “beautiful” and “sexy”. Boys fell over themselves asking me out (primarily boys that were not approved by my parents, but then again, that was 99.8 % of all boys). It was a balm for my ego. Unfortunately, when you don’t believe you’re beautiful, having dozens of people a week insist you are won’t actually make you believe it. My body image confidence was like a leaky tire: Being desired pumped me up for a little while, but the “leak” was never actually repaired. I would jokingly make references to “not being my own type” and try to downplay my insecurities, but I felt deeply insufficient as a human being for not being taller, thinner, more delicate, more…beautiful.

Pregnancy helped me see my body with a different lens, at least for awhile. For the first time in my life, my body felt like it was beautiful in a way beyond being decorative; I was growing life inside me. Watching the changes in my body filled me with awe and I loved showing off the shape of my round belly. Sadly, after my babies were born, it didn’t take long for me to slip back into my negative views of myself.

A few years later, my marriage began to erode and I found myself thrust into the dating world, for what was really the first time. I discovered that there were plenty of men who found my imperfect body very attractive. There were also men who wouldn’t dream of looking at me twice. How I viewed myself made a world of difference and I vowed to never voice another criticism of my weight or imperfections to a partner again. It was a small step toward gaining a bit of perspective.

However, as I began to read more books about raising girls, I started really looking around me. I saw that it was no longer enough to be “thin”; now you had to be thin and defined and curvy all at the same time. Eating disorders were starting earlier and I heard very, very young girls lament about being “fat”. “Plus size” models, only now even beginning to be used by the fashion industry, wear a size 8, while the average American woman is a size 12. I saw clothing for eight year old girls that my mother wouldn’t have allowed me to wear at fifteen. Was this what I wanted for my daughters? To be obsessed with their bodies? To feel they had to attract desire at all times, because without it they felt unworthy? Did I really want my beautiful, vibrant girls to feel like without being “pretty” they were inadequate or less-than?

I’ve spent most of my life feeling inadequate. Every relationship that has ended, my first thought has been to wonder if it was because I wasn’t attractive enough. Even now, it is a struggle for me to feel whole and confident if I leave my home in a t-shirt and jeans, with my hair in a ponytail. Why? Because my own sense of worth has been so connected to my appearance for so long , it’s hard to separate it after years of conditioning. It saddens me and it shames me to be trapped in this cycle, yet I know it is a problem I will probably struggle with the rest of my life. Yet I finally over the years have found the strongest reason in the world to continue to fight everyday to overcome the idea that I AM my physical appearance: I have two little girls who are looking to me for cues on what to think and how to feel.

I want more for my daughters than a sense of worth heavily influenced by a number on the scale, a waist size, a bra size or how white their smile is. I want them to love the feel of the sun on their arms and legs, without the instant thought that follows being, “I wonder if people think I look fat in this?” I want them to run for the sake of running, not just to burn calories, not just to fit a cliche. I want them to dance with abandon, without wondering who is looking on in approval. I want the sum of who they are to be measured by the kindness in their hearts, the clever thoughts that dance through their quick minds, the reverence with which they live their lives and the people they love and who love then in return. I absolutely want them to take pride in their appearance and enjoy the physical beauty they’ve been granted, but I want it to be the icing on the cake of a beautiful mind, heart and soul. I want them to know on a heart and gut level, not just from a place of logic, that as women their value is not measured by the number of men who desire them or women who envy them.

The word “fat” never enters my vocabulary in conversation these days; I try to not assess or critique my body in front of them at all. When they see me execising or trying to eat a little less, I tell them it is because I want to be healthier, stronger and have more energy to be able to run and play with them. At first, it was a struggle and I felt I was paying lip service to something I didn’t really believe. The longer I’ve made the effort, the more it has started to sink in and become a part of me. My body image issues aren’t gone; there are still days I feel so insecure I’d like to curl into a ball and disappear. I’m getting better at reminding myself that I am not my appearance. I am strong and kind and compassionate. I have hands that can bake cookies, bandage boo-boos, spot a fever quickly and soothe pains of the heart or the body. My legs can dance and run, or wrap around a lover in ecstacy. My hips, these rounded goddess hips that I have spent years treating with such unkindness, have been used to hold my babies or tempt my lovers. My breasts have nourished two children and provided a place for their sleepy heads. My stomach, despised for so long, was a beautiful home for the life that grew inside it. My body will never be perfect. At 38, when my body is further from the ideal standards of beauty than ever, I am less bothered by this than I’ve ever been. My body is a part of who I am, but not the sum of it by a long shot. These days, when I look in the mirror and my flaws seem to be the only thing I see, it doesn’t ruin my day. I don’t hide from the camera when my children want to take my picture; to them I am beautiful and they will one day treasure the memories in those photos. It won’t be the messy hair, the lack of makeup or the body flaws they see when they look at that photo. I hope they see a mother who was unafraid to live her life just because she didn’t meet someone else’s standard, smiling at the lens with joy and love.

I don’t delude myself that looks don’t matter; People are drawn to beauty and taking pride in your appearance is important. Yet if I can manage to raise my daughters to believe they are amazing for many reasons, desirable and worthy for more than just their looks, I will have succeeded in one of my loftiest goals. I want to leave a legacy for my children of feeling they are powerful. I may not be able to change the entire culture, but I can make a vow to try to not be part of the problem.