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.