Woman's Body Image in the Media
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Before the world was told that being fat was wrong, women were praised for their voluptuous bodies. Full breasts and large hips were considered sexy and men chose women with these body types because they were ideal for child bearing. Have you ever noticed that in most cases, female animals are larger than their male counterparts? There is good reason for this. Natural selection has made the bodies of female animals larger in evolution. Women are the only creatures that are forced to have a slender figure. Artists throughout history, however, have upheld the previous idea that women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful and to be admired. Due to the rules of Talk City, I will be unable to post the images of the beautiful works by Botticelli, Rubens and Renoir. I will mention a listing of works that I feel portray women in a pleasing light. Please, search for these images on a search engine such as Altavista and view them for yourself.
Still, it seems difficult to dispute that the attainment of the slender ideal is very painful for many women. It is not liberating by any means. In light of the statistics given earlier (only five percent of women can achieve the ideal fashion model form), it is a fruitless task for women to pursue. Women develop a highly damaging relationship with food that does very little except limit their lives. As Kilbourne states, women are shamed for eating, and Kilbourne does not believe that women's increasing empowerment coincidentally occurred as media bombarded women with thin images, especially the "little-girl look."

Advertising has served as a disciplinary force in the lives of women. Advertisers create images that dictate cultural trends indicative of the time. In the current disruption of gender roles, there seems to be a cultural uprising against women's increasing power. The uprising is noticeable in advertising. The dominating image of the painfully thin woman in advertising remains the ideal for American women. The grim truth is that attaining the slender body of today is not realistic for most women. Our bodies are not naturally shaped like those of twelve-year old boys. Eating disorders are on the rise, and the relationship women have with food is becoming an increasingly dangerous one. In order for patriarchy to continue to thrive, women's mobility must be limited. Is there a better way to limit a person than to starve them?

There is a need for women to re-define themselves in order to begin the reversal of gender oppression. We cannot accept patriarchal definitions of ourselves and our bodies. We need a new goddess, a new woman, a new cultural female icon that does not limit women. As Kim Chernin has written in Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself, we need to reflect on the "Woman Who Is Not Yet":

"These reflections on the Woman Who Is Not Yet are linked together by a fascination with food and by the general questions why food is forbidden to modern woman. Thus, the tyranny of slenderness encourages us to regard food with a sense of dread because eating leads us away from the present cultural ideal for slenderness in women and back to an older, frightening imagery of female abundance (Chernin xiv)."

Recognizing that the present ideal of slenderness has not always been the case at all times or in all cultures is the beginning of a new definition of our bodies. For centuries, women have shaped their bodies in accordance with men's needs and desires. Our lives have been immobilized in the process. In order to combat the pervasive effects of advertising on women's body images in our male-centered culture, our self-definition is essential. We must reinvent our bodies in a way that does not limit them.
Reinventing Ourselves
Written by Niqe Ware
December 12, 1995

not a barbie girl

Women's Media-Induced Schizophrenia
Written by Niqe Ware
April 1996

"In a variety of ways the mass media helped make us the cultural schizophrenics we are today, women who rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be…the mass media has engendered in many women a kind of cultural identity crisis…We are ambivalent toward femininity on the one hand and …feminism in the other" (Douglas 8).

Over-emphasizing the influence of mass media in shaping women's cultural identity is difficult. Women in America have been assaulted with images from the media that prescribe what we can and should be. Girls growing up today face very similar representations. As Susan Douglas writes in Where The Girls Are, "American women today are a bundle of contradictions because the media imagery we grew up with was itself filled with mixed messages about what women should and should not do, what women could and could not do" (9). Douglas argues that the media's most striking contribution to the women and girls of America is the erosion of any sort of unified self (13). Women are a myriad of personalities, and they take on a multitude of roles. This becomes an inner strife that has been induced by the media, and according to Douglas these contradictions within women reflect our culture's indeterminate attitudes concerning the female gender.
By the year 1960, there were approximately 11.7 million girls between the ages of 12 and 18 in the United States (Douglas 25). These children of the baby boom were a massive section of the American population. It did not take long to recognize the market that these young women represented. Advertising campaigns, television programs, films, and musical groups all started to gear towards this new and incredibly profitable market.

The early 1960's saw the beginning of the nation's Sexual Revolution which happened to coincide with the advent of puberty for millions of girls in the baby boom generation. Puberty is that exciting time in a teenager's life when sex becomes quite the focal point. The 1960's were a time for mixed messages from the media for girls. The two messages of the time were that girls have sex, they enjoy it, it's liberating but also that having premarital sex defiles you and no man will ever marry you without your virginity in tact:

"In the early 1960's, the voices of the schoolmarm, the priest, the advice columnist, and
Mom insisted, "Nice girls don't." But another voice began to whisper, "Oh yes they do-and
they like it too" (Douglas 81).

And as Douglas goes on to state, these blatantly contradictory sentiments were present not only in the films and magazines of the day, but were present in much of the popular music which according to Douglas was responsible for "branding ambivalence, defiance, and fear onto the innermost reaches of our psyches " (81).
Douglas emphasizes the importance of "girl group music" in the 60's. Her reasoning for why it was so powerful was the music's ability to voice the contradictory messages girls were receiving and being forced to shape into some sort of solid identity for themselves (87). Within the music was the struggle going on in most girl's minds and bodies: should I rebel and let my sexual desires be realized, or do I conform and keep the prescribed gender dynamics in place? Many of the songs from this decade were either about getting away from the male-centered culture and/or being more autonomous and sexually liberated ("Don't Make Me Over", "You Don't Own Me". "It's In His Kiss 11, "Beachwood 4-5789") , or the songs were about conforming to the demands of patriarchy with hits like "My Guy", "Baby, It's You", or "Soldier Boy" (Douglas 90). In general, the music did forge feelings of rebellion and female solidarity which became more realized with the arrival of the Beatles.

As Douglas argues, the main cultural crisis of the mid-1960's was one of ff gender boundaries" (120). Girls and boys were beginning to look and act a bit more like each other all the time. The androgynous model of the Beatles, unisex clothes, and women in the media such as Jackie Kennedy and Katherine Hepburn in the film "Breakfast At Tiffany's were all amazingly popular among young women. Gender bending was what was really going on here, and as Douglas writes about the mid-60's, "girls wanted some gender boundaries blurred" (120).

In Douglas' chapter titled "Genies and Witches", she analyzes the effects of two very popular t.v. sitcoms of the middle and late 1960's: I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. Both shows, although different in some ways, embodied important contradictions of women's roles. These new shows seemed to be an answer to the new ideas girls might be getting in this time of "prefeminist agitation" (Douglas 125). The paradox involved in both I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched was similar to previous media creations :

simultaneously cautionary and liberatory. The schizophrenic female persona such shows helped constitute saw female obsequiousness amply rewarded. But she also had empowering images of physically zapping things--and men--into their proper place" (Douglas 137).

Around the same time, prefeminist- agitation was becoming the women's liberation movement, and the media's treatment of the women's movement is, perhaps, one of the most critical ways that women's identities have been shaped by media.

As women began organizing and the women's movement gained more and more momentum throughout the early 1970's, the differences between what was happening in the streets and what was portrayed in the media were increasingly marked. The media's response to feminism entailed trivializing the movement, poking fun at its leaders and ideologies, and objectifying the women involved. The media's account of women's liberation, as to be expected, was an account that did not stray from their history of ambivalence concerning women's roles:

"The news coverage pinioned women between the same messages we had grown up with, only now the stakes were higher. On the one hand, by endorsing a few liberal reforms like equal pay, the media reinforced the message that women had every right to expect to be treated as equal citizens, with the same rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as men. On the other hand, by mocking and dismissing the way feminist activists looked and behaved the media also endorsed the notion that in some cases female subordination and sexual objectification were not only fine but desirable" (Douglas 189).

This contradiction, sanctioning the notion of women as autonomous and equal citizens while also endorsing the idea that women are around to be gazed at, is the contradiction that lessened our potential then and has the same effect today. Although the media did foster the spread of the liberation movement through its vast amount of coverage, the media also hampered the movement's potential and women's potential as individuals by putting female attractiveness at the forefront. Douglas discusses this obsession with female beauty in her chapter "Narcissism as Liberation."
Women, again encouraged to be consumers, were now urged to buy products that were "liberating." Cosmetic products began to be marketed during the Reagan era as modes for women to gain control of their lives and the world. An unwrinkled face, thighs without cellulite, and large, shapely breasts became the metaphor for female success because attaining these symbols of female achievement requires a great deal of sacrifice, hard work, and control. Douglas captured the true essence of this focus on women's body's as contained and flawless with one sentence, "Narcissism as liberation is liberation repackaged, deferred, and denied" (266).

What about the 1990's? Do we find the portrayal of women in today's media equally wrought with similar "schizoid" messages of the 1960's and 1970's media? Douglas feels that the 90's are not without their own collection of "split personalities about the roles and place of women" (269). Her analysis of contemporary mass media is, I feel, on the mark. Although there are certainly more powerful women in film, news, television, and music, it seems that these women are either tokens, some sort of exception, or their presence has been used as a means of criticizing feminism.

The motion-picture industry has witnessed a rise of "strong-chick flicks" where women are the ones initiating all the action and men play a secondary role. Some examples include the popular Thelma and Louise and Boys On The Side. The women in these films place their relationships with women as central to their lives, and they often blatantly reject current gender expectations for women. These films seem to be a cautionary tale for feminists though: Thelma and Louise drive themselves off a cliff in the end, and the women of Boys On the Side are involved in a murder and one dies of AIDS. Looks like it's tough to be a happy feminist lately.

While undeniably the mainstream popularity of artists like Madonna and Alanis Morrisette is occurring (female music artists with a strong feminist voice), MTV is still inundating viewers with videos sexually objectifying women in some of the most demeaning ways. Sut Jhally, in his video about MTV videos called "Dream Worlds', even argues that MTV is promoting a rape culture through its constant portrayal of women as men's sexual play-things. One minute you might be watching an Alanis Morrisette video where it's just a woman and her music, the next might be a Prince video with women bent over his lap getting a spanking.
Magazines are equally as contradictory. In any large fashion magazine such as Glamour, Vogue, or Mademoiselle there are images of coy. little girls with their legs crossed trapped in women's bodies and the new, ever-popular spread-eagle, overtly sexual woman. Again, we see the slut/virgin, good girl/bad girl contrasting messages.

The mass media are a powerful tool. Their influence in shaping American women's sense of ourselves and our futures is more than significant. The media's ability to convey mixed messages to women that fragment our identities makes it extremely difficult for us to become the unified selves of which Douglas writes. The schizophrenic methods that the media has adopted to portray the roles of women in our society has just that effect on us: we are each an unorganized mixture of different women who have learned that we are always being watched.


Douglas, Susan J. Where The Girls Are. New York: Random House, 1994

Link to Body Image info

Best Start Project

Good health is more than a number on a scale. It begins with self-acceptance and the capacity to feel good from inside ­ regardless of how much you weigh or the shape of your body.

Unfortunately, we are all bombarded every day with messages from television shows, movies, advertisements, magazine articles and even our friends that we need to look a certain way in order to be accepted. For many of us, these images are neither realistic nor achievable. The result: We feel bad about ourselves if we don't measure up.

We shouldn't, says Susan Kayman, DrPH, RD, health and weight program director for regional health education at Kaiser Permanente's California Division. "The whole notion of battling your body image implies that one isn't at peace with one's body image," Kayman says. "It's the opposite of loving who you are."

Kayman co-wrote a Kaiser Permanente booklet called "Living in a Healthy Body," which offers a new look at health and weight. "Not all bodies are made to be thin," the booklet observes. Factors like heredity, your body's frame and how fast your body burns calories have a lot to do with your body's size and shape. "Many of these things you really can't change," it continues. "But you can learn to accept the body you have and to be as healthy as you can."

The need to reach a certain weight or to possess an "ideal" physique can lead people to develop unhealthy habits, including constant dieting or an addiction to exercise. And, taken to extremes, an obsession with weight and body image can lead to dangerous eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and compulsive overeating.

There's a difference between a healthy attention to fitness and an unhealthy preoccupation with your body image, says Lusana Hernandez, MSW, a psychiatric social worker for Kaiser Permanente's Outpatient Mental Health Services in Honolulu, Hawaii. "A healthy interest in fitness enhances a person's life," she says. These people "enjoy their work-outs, they choose healthier foods and they don't feel guilty if they indulge in a cookie or two." Nor do they beat themselves up if they miss their work-out session at the gym or they have to skip their aerobics class one night. Most importantly, Hernandez says, they feel good about themselves.

But for people with negative images of their bodies, diet and exercise are a compulsion. They can't feel good if they engage in the "wrong" behavior ­ by eating something fattening or failing to exercise. "They spend a lot of time thinking about food ­ how they'll eat, what they'll eat. They are obsessed with thinking about it," Hernandez explains. "They also feel totally out of sorts or stressed out if they don't get their exercise in."

Kayman says her programs focus on educating people to accept the bodies they have and not try to emulate something that is unobtainable. "We hope people will get more physically active and be more physically fit -- without being concerned with looking like something that is on TV or in a magazine," she says. "That is inappropriate."

Healthy Thinking

Hernandez says that people need to learn how to give up negative ways of thinking and learn "healthy thinking" instead. "Human beings have a capacity to feel good no matter how they look and no matter what weight they're at," she says. "We have the capacity to feel good from the inside."

Hernandez says she uses an approach called "Psychology of the Mind" to help people "live in a quiet state of mind" and learn not to produce stress in themselves. The idea, she explains, is to use your thought processes in a healthy way.

Part of that means examining how you deal with stress, insecurity and other negative issues. "We all create coping mechanisms to help deal with these thoughts and emotions," Hernandez says. For some people, that's eating. Hernandez says she tries to help people break those kinds of habits in a gentle, natural way and replace them with ones that are self-reinforcing and help access their inner well-being. "We talk about thought and how to handle our moods and how to handle our cravings." Basically, she says, it all comes down to getting people back in touch with the natural health they have inside them already.

More than half of women overestimate the size of their bodies, according to Health magazine. And it's not because they have trouble guessing the size of things.

A study at St. George's Hospital Medical School in London revealed that when asked to estimate the width of a box, 50 average-size women were right on target. But when asked to estimate their body widths, they exaggerated the size of their waists by about 25 per cent and their hips by about 16 per cent.

A woman's body image can have a tremendous impact on her life. So check out some of our links and read what women are saying about what we see when we look in the mirror.

http://eng.hss.cmu.edu/feminism/real-and-ideal.body-image.txt - this chapter from The Barnard/Columbia Women's Handbook, 1992, explores the significance of body image for modern women.

http://www.opc.on.ca/beststart/bodyimg/httoc.html - this collection of articles from the Best Start Project, based in Ontario, Canada, deals with body image, related health problems in women and children and explores strategies for change.