In her book Becoming Women: The Embodied Self in Image Culture (2014), Carla Rice reconfirms the commonsense notion that North American popular culture—filled with images of thin white women—damages women’s self-esteem by sending narrow messages about what women should look like. Because the mass media’s standard of beauty excludes 99% of ladies, it encourages them to develop such issues as body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Rice predictably lobbies for more diverse pictures of women. About a decade ago she served as a consultant to Dove, helping that company develop its “Real Beauty” advertising campaign. It was begun in 2004 after surveys revealed that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. Rice urged Dove to appeal to women’s desire for acceptance rather than judgement, admitting that the final (highly controversial) advertisements continued to feature attractive women with flawless skin.
Yet Dove was late to the party. For decades artists and scholars have intervened in dominant image culture, offering alternative images of fat, sick, differently abled, and lesbian bodies, among others. Artist Jo Spence is well known for scrawling “Monster” across her chest, taking photographs of her cancer treatments in an effort to reclaim and de-medicalize her suffering body. Such transgressive images are much more effective than those produced by Dove, though they have less popular circulation.
While I agree that the current beauty standard is ridiculously limiting, and support the display of diverse female bodies, I think that image culture receives too much attention and has in fact become a scapegoat for women’s body problems. The visual realm is not the only nor even the primary site where interventions should occur. I take issue with the focus on “image” in the concept of body image, finding it overrated. Rice’s book ultimately convinced me of this position, despite her “image culture” thesis. About ten years ago, Rice invited women who identified as South Asian, Asian Canadian, African Canadian or multiracial to discuss with her their childhood experiences of embodiment as well as their opinions about beauty ideals and race. The voices of racially, physically, and economically diverse women inform Rice’s lengthy book, extending beyond the usual studies of body politics, which tend to analyze middle-class white women. The women in Rice’s study regularly describe childhood events that permanently shaped their understandings of their own bodies. These traumatic encounters occurred in family settings, when girls aged 10-15 began to receive negative comments, especially from fathers. As girls entered puberty their status within the family changed, and shame began to be attached to their bodies. Fathers in particular would encourage girls to be thin, pretty, demure, contained, and less physically active. Sometimes mothers would endorse these efforts to invent a properly “feminine” body for their daughters.
School was another realm that fundamentally shaped body image, with peers criticizing each other. Whereas menstruation is often considered a key experience by which girls become women, Rice’s interviewees reveal that breast development is even more important. Girls’ breasts begin to develop early and are visible, attracting various comments from family and friends, while transforming the girls into sexualized beings, at least in the eyes of others. Although vision plays an important role in this (mostly) negative and damaging process, the looking occurs in everyday settings and the narrow messages are often verbal. Mass media images reinforce rather than initiate this punitive process. That is why interventions meant to encourage body confidence in girls and women should prioritize family and school settings. Dove ads are like band aids slapped on after the damage has been done.
Do your own childhood experiences confirm this idea? I presume that the body images of both men and women are fundamentally altered during the pre-puberty and puberty years. When thinking about my own childhood, I can only wince. I was called ugly and tormented on a daily basis in my home, by my father and older brother for the most part. The saving grace is that they begrudgingly recognized that I was highly intelligent. Like the women interviewed by Rice, I also remember grade six as a crucial year, when girls were categorized according to their breast size. Girls with large breasts were unlucky, receiving unwanted attention from boys and called sexualized nicknames. Flat chested girls like me could only watch the constant teasing of large-breasted classmates with anxiety and foreboding. I was quite unattractive in grade six, with serious acne and one missing front tooth. But at least I was thin! Fat girls and boys were always targets for scorn at my tough school (where kids were regularly beaten up and one even had his arm broken). I was not a bully but I was terrified of attracting attention to myself so I never protected others. I was a bully enabler. All the same, my home life was more important than those school yard experiences. It cemented my body image and to this day I think that I am ugly. I also think that I am not ugly. Like most women, my so-called body image is a mass of contradiction. No fucking Dove campaign is ever going to change that.
One summer when I was about 15 years old, I went out for a walk with my mother. We were both wearing shorts. A car load full of teen-aged boys drove by and one shouted out the window: “Lose weight before it’s too late!” He must have been insulting me, for my mother was always very thin. She fasted one day each week, recommending this method: “If you want to lose weight, just stop eating.” After the insult was hurled at me—I then weighed 110 pounds—my mother paused and said: “You know, he has a point.” I was simultaneously hurt, shocked, and outraged. I thought she was wrong to side with strangers against me. Even though it was one small blip in my entire life, I will never forget that moment. In my opinion, such incidents are far more important in shaping body image than fashion magazines. This is where the positive intervention must take place. Focusing on mass media images lets families, friends, and strangers off the hook, shifting political attention away from oppressive people toward voiceless objects.
Is it too late for me? No. I actually have a pretty good body image, at least compared to some friends of mine who suffer from body dysmorphia. I am not sure why I now have a mostly positive understanding of my body, but I suspect that my accepting partner—he loves me no matter what—and my love of weight lifting and exercise are the main reasons. Body image never really stabilizes, however. To a certain degree I am still trying to embrace my current body, especially my scarred lower abdomen. I am posting a picture of it here; I do not want comments or praise, but I am forcing myself to show a part of my body that I have been hiding for the past 11 months, since giving birth to my son via caesarean section. I mainly hide it while at the gym, where it is flattened by tight lululemon pants. I notice that many women in the gym’s change room have visible stretch marks and scars related to pregnancy. I smile whenever I see their “mommy tummies,” considering them a sign of accomplishment and bodily experience. All the same, I am finding it difficult to see my new body in the same way, despite working out and taking care of myself. I highly doubt that mass media images will have any impact on this process. Time will tell.
body image does fluctuate every. single. day. and I’m with you on family having a huge impact on our self-concept
Thanks for this post. I have been reading for blog for a few years – I am an academic, feminist, and weight lifter. I am also currently 29 weeks pregnant in my late 30’s with my first kid (and a male partner also in academia). I am really not having any major body image issues with this pregnancy, but I do weigh myself weekly and enjoy it when people tell me I am “small.” (I am not a small woman in general at 5’6″ with lots of muscle pre-pregnancy). So, maybe I would have more issues if my body was drastically different in appearance than it was before the pregnancy. I am even okay with my drastic loss of fitness and strength – pregnancy is such amazing ‘bodywork’ in and of itself. I don’t over sentimentalize pregnancy, but I do think we need to appreciate how much work our bodies do in the process of creating another human being.
What I really appreciate about your post is your discussion of having a c-section. I have been struggling with pelvic floor hypertonicity (my pelvic floor is way too strong…the irony) for the last four years. This causes a lot of intermittent pain and frustration. My physical therapist and OB-GYN (both specialize in pelvic floor problems) want me to have a scheduled c-section. They are afraid that my pelvic floor cannot handle a vaginal birth (they actually used the word ‘explode’). I am too. But, I am also afraid of having major abdominal surgery. Seeing the picture of your scar was really powerful for me. Thank you for posting something so personal.
Thanks Robby. The scar actually looks better in the photo than in real life. It is still quite raised, red, and (often) itchy. I was really hoping to give birth vaginally and very disappointed to have had a cesarean. I had a good birth experience nonetheless, with an excellent surgeon and quick recovery from major surgery. I was walking the next day and was allowed to go home early. I agree that the hard work of pregnancy and birth are often underappreciated—and the serious nature of a cesarean section is also underrated.
What a poignant post. It is such a pleasure to read your blog – I’ve been following for a few years and really enjoy reading what you have to say.
Have you ever considered that the boys who yelled at you simply used the most upsetting phrase they could think of? It’s a sure insult – tell any woman that she’s fat and it’s guaranteed to be a terrible insult, regardless of whether it’s true. Incidentally, when I was 13 years old, I lost about 50 lbs (from 200 lbs) by walking every day and using Weight Watchers. Groups of boys yelled out the window at me on a few occasions, but to this day I have no idea what they said because I liked listening to loud and angry music on my walkman while walking outside.
The most vicious and hurtful things said about my body were always spoken by other women. To this day I will not change in front of others and always use a bathroom stall or private change room because of this. I’m proud of my body – the strength and health I’ve attained through weightlifting and nutrition are remarkable – but I refuse to subject myself to the judgemental gaze of other women. I suppose it’s internalized misogyny that perpetuates the problem, but I don’t want to participate willingly. My father encouraged me to love my (chubby) self and be healthy on my own terms. My mother took me to a dietician in order to make me lose weight when I was 7 years old. Perhaps this is unusual, but it’s what I’ve grown up with.
Hi JMS. I think that women often police other women. After I left home, my own mother would hug me hello while grabbing the fat on my waist to see “how I was doing.” My graduate studies were of no interest to her. She would always compare my sister’s body with mine, and my sister was usually judged much more harshly than me. I know that my mom put her on a diet at a very young age as well, and that was VERY wrong of my mother. I agree with your point about the boys. They were just learning how to be assholes, practicing out their male privilege and it did not really matter what they shouted. My mother’s response was the shocking part. As for the change room, I often consider giving women compliments at the gym to counteract previous female criticism, but think that might not be well received…
True that women police other women. Did comparisons between you and your sister create a lasting rift between you both? That sounds like it must have been stressful for you both.
That’s interesting that you’ve considered giving women compliments at the gym; I’ve had similar ideas. That idea leads me back to the theme of your original post though; every time I consider giving other women compliments at the gym, I wonder if my comments might be perceived as too focussed on image (even indirectly).
Perhaps we need to practice new ways of communicating support that genuinely empower each other without relying on or referring to an ideal of unwavering positive body image. The dark side of Dove advertising is the implication that we each need to feel “beautiful” to feel validated or worthwhile. The focus on image remains problematic.
Yes the comparison between me and my sister did cause a rift until we finally told my mother that she was no longer allowed to compare us or comment on our weight. She stopped and never did it again. So the rift was not lasting. I agree that the notion that we are all “beautiful” is a problem, even if the definition of beauty is expanded. A focus on abilities would probably be more positive for women.