This was an essay I wrote for my honors thesis in Sociology. It's pretty long, so I won't include the entire paper. Just the introduction and relevant facts about what influences these ideals have on women. I hope you enjoy.
Women and girls no longer feel that pursuing beauty is an option. Instead, many females feel a pressure that they must achieve the standard of beauty presented to them, and even use beauty to define themselves. Today we are bombarded by advertisements in the media trying to sell products related to beauty, fashion and dieting products. These advertisements can be found on television, on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, endorsed by celebrities, and even on the radio. They constant influence of these advertisements conveys that we must improve the way we look in order to be accepted by society. The pervasiveness of unrealistic beauty deals in the media creates a cycle of both the inattainability of these ideals and extreme unhappiness in girls and women.
As these standards become more prevalent and more persuasive, so do the amount of women and girls with low self worth, eating disorders, and depression. By the time the average American girl reaches the age of 17, she has seen “more than 250,000 commercial messages aimed at her appearance” (Yu 2014). The same girl has also been bombarded by 3,000 advertisements in any given day. These images of unrealistic beauty standards are harmful in many ways to women, and while there have been changes in the way women are portrayed in the media, many changes still need to be made.
Levine and Murnen (2009) explain that “mass media are saturated with potentially unhealthy messages, and citizens of virtually all ages are motivated to use and be engaged with these media on a regular basis” (p. 16). Why, then, do we continue to be surprised by the facts that women and girls are unhappy with their bodies? According to Levine and Murnen, this dissatisfaction with the way our bodies look is both caused by and continually perpetuates “a schema that integrates three fundamental components: idealization of slenderness and leanness; an irrational fear of fat; and a conviction that weight and shape are central determinants of one’s identity” (p. 11).
Many women succumb to society’s standards for beauty without questioning why we conform or where these ideals have come from. These ideals cause extreme amounts of emotional pain, and yet many women feel that these standards are natural. Unrealistic beauty standards have evolved over time, and once even had an evolutionary basis. According to Goehring (1999), in our “evolutionary past… it [was in a male’s] reproductive best interest to find a female who is healthy, and able to bear young with minimal difficulty.” Observable physical characteristics must be used to define what is healthy and therefore indicative of procreation in a potential mate, “hence the evolution of preferences in the dimensions of age, skin completion, [and] body shape.”
Two more modern studies of women’s fashion magazines documented the striking changes in beauty standards over time. Each focused on a different aspect of how beauty is defined within those magazines. Sypeck, Gray, and Ahrens (2004) conducted a study examining the cover models of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Vogue magazines from 1959 to 1999. Sypeck et al. specifically studied changes in the size of the cover models, as well as studying the change in type of photograph used (whether it was a full body image, or image of face and torso only). While changes in both models’ size and type of photo occurred over the years of this study, the shift towards increased thinness was found in this study to begin around the 1980’s (p. 346). “Particularly striking is the finding that not only are the models becoming thinner, but that the public has also been increasingly exposed to depictions of their bodies” (p. 346).
Gane’s (2007) study focused strictly on the changes made in the way Seventeen Magazine advertised over a period of 60 years. Gane sought to identify the changes in advertisements, specifically “products applied to the body as compared to products worn on the body” as well as the changes “in the cultural messages of these products over the years in terms of reproduction of traditional beauty and femininity.” Starting in 1945, Gane examined two issues (each six months apart from each other) of the magazine per year, in five year intervals ending in 2005. Gane found that “as applied bodily-enhancement ads for beauty increase over time, clothing/shoe ads appear to decrease… over time, ideals of beauty changed from being defined by attitude and fashion (1950’s) to being defined by physical appearance” (p.12). Another prominent change found by Gane was the fact that the majority of the bodily enhancement products were specifically made for the face, making it an increasingly important symbol of beauty and femininity. “To be beautiful,” Gane proposed, “it is necessary to have an enhanced, non-natural face” (p. 13). The augmented body has become the new symbol of femininity.
There is a high cost for women who pursue these unrealistic beauty standards, including physical, financial and psychological pain. The highest cost to pay to achieve these standards is psychological. One of the biggest impacts of unrealistic beauty standards for women is the belief many women have that what they see portrayed in the media is achievable. The media is an influential source of socio-cultural values, which are easily learned. From a young age, we are assaulted by unattainable “‘body perfect’ ideals in the mass media that become a source of body dissatisfaction. According to Dittmar (2009), for many women and girls the “body perfect” images we see are of models that are extremely thin and underweight. The value that women and girls then consume is that what is normal in reality is not good enough; they must be normal by media standards, and that “normal” means being both unattainably beautiful and thin. Advertisements make it look easy for women and girls to become as thin as the magazine models we idolize “Even more destructively, they get the message that this is possible, that with enough effort and self-sacrifice, they can achieve ideal,” because we live in a “culture that encourages us to believe we can and should remake our bodies into perfect commodities” Kilbourne (1999 p.132).
The failure to reach unrealistic beauty ideals sets off a chain reaction starting with poor body image, and its effects are far reaching. “The experience of negative thoughts and esteem about one’s body is linked to a range of physical and mental health problems, including disordered eating, obesity, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, or low self-esteem (Dittmar, 2009).” Even women who manage to succeed at matching society’s standard for unrealistic thinness may still experience these feelings because there’s always something that doesn’t match what the media portrays. These women are expected to maintain their bodies “by exercising frenetically and compulsively, implementing severely restrictive and nutritionally deficient diets, developing bizarre eating habits, and using continuous self-degradation and self-denial” (Saltzberg and Chrisler, 1995 p. 6).
Girls and women begin to compete for unhealthy body fixations, and while a tiny waist was once coveted immensely, girls have now moved the thigh gap to the top of their list. When standing with feet together, this is the space between the thighs. It is one of the most sought after body shapes. Another current trend is “thinspiration” so-called inspiring messages with images of emaciated women working out. Harmful messages like “I am currently in training to be the hottest girlfriend you’ve ever had,” which link self worth to body size are another obsession of young women and girls (Miller 2013).
The media bombards us with images of unrealistic beauty, and as a society, most women and even girls are aware of the digital manipulation that goes on. What we don’t realize is how much these images are altered. And according to the blog Beauty Redefined, “not everyone understands that it isn’t just fashion magazine covers that feature drastically Photoshopped images. It’s TV. It’s video. It’s your favorite brand online. It’s everywhere” (2014). No wonder women are incapable of reaching these standards of beauty. They’re not simply unrealistic, they are physically impossible, and yet those images are internalized as average and beautiful. “It’s a profit-driven idea of normal and beautiful that women will spend their lives trying to achieve” even though we are aware of how unrealistic these expectations are (Beauty Redefined 2014).
Notes: The ellipses represent portions of the paper that have been left out. I have used parenthetical documentation to cite my sources, but I have not included the full (two page) list of references. If, for some reason, you are interested in reading the entire paper, please PM me and I can post it to google docs. Thanks!
“The female body is a cultural artefact defined and redefined over time in response to broad cultural and historical transformations. Historically, the body has taken on a tubular and slender form in eras in which the female mind has become more politically, economically and socially independent. One need only reflect upon the popular image of the 1920s flapper and the 1970s fashion models to observe the validity of such an assertion” – Hesse-Biber, Howling, Leavy and Lovejoy (2004).
Hesse-Biber, Howling, Leavy and Lovejoy depict the body as a contested site of struggle by comparing it to a historical canvas – a surface that is constantly transformed according to the painter’s wishes over time. As a young woman, this subject has proven to be close to my heart, perhaps because of my own experiences and the experiences of other sisters, who have always grappled with the notion of beauty and attractiveness. What is beauty? Do I look beautiful? What can I do to look like her? What do they think of my looks? These are some of the questions that I believe have plagued the minds of most of us as teenagers and young women on countless occasions. For me, growing up in Botswana – a patriarchal society where how you look is determined by a plethora of external forces – has been a real challenge. And I hope this article can shine some much needed light on this issue and so help everyone – but especially young sisters across the region – who are battling with these questions.
Patriarchy, gender and the body
The notion of beauty and attractiveness is synonymous with one’s body image; how we view ourselves and how we think other people think of us in terms of looks or appearance. I believe that as societies, we tend to minimise the role patriarchy has played in influencing body image. Patriarchy strives to exercise control by defining what beauty is, controlling the mobility of women, exerting violence and constructing social norms that impact on women’s lived experiences. Throughout history and up until the present day, a core belief of Batswana culture – and indeed many other cultures on the African continent and beyond – is that women should have a certain body type.
Society often begins projecting socially constructed gender expectations on children before they are even born. This is evident in the colours used to decorate the nurseries. Colour codes in the form of blue and pink, pierced ears, head bands and clothing designed for infants’ provide a gendered foundation that will provide a template for much of the children’s lives. Things such as toys, books, cartoons and video games develop a framework that cultivates children’s identities, their relationships with others and most importantly how they view the world. The process of socialisation is embedded in patriarchal values, where beauty is emphasised for girls, while independence and adventure are emphasised for boys.
According to Lighthouse (2006), body image refers to personal constructions and public projections of our body and body parts, often in attempted conformity with parameters of ‘beauty’ established in socio-cultural or non-personal contexts. In other words, body image ‘involves our perception, imagination, emotions and physical sensations of and about our bodies’ in relation to values that are not necessarily innate but ‘learned or expected culturally’.
Body image concerns have been measured by several authors (Phares et al., 2004; Thompson and Stice, 2001; Rand and Wright, 2000), who have had differences when it comes to how body image issues affect women, men, adolescents and children. Akram and Borland (2007) report on the negative affect of women’s and men’s body image concerns and their attitudes towards physical appearance. They conclude that women tend to focus more on the physical appearance aspects of body image and tend to be more negative about their bodies, and compartmentalise them more than men. This compartmentalisation allows women to isolate parts of their bodies for criticism and specific analysis and thus women tend to be more body focused than men (p.312).
Body image is generally the subjective sense we have of our appearance and our body. There is much evidence that image plays a central role in people’s lives – so much so that people spend a lot of money on their looks, from hairstyles to make up to plastic surgery. Although both women and men are on the quest to look good, studies have shown that this quest for beauty is more profound for women – and that it is women who fret more about their bodily ‘imperfections’.
Women and the body ideal
What is attractive varies from one culture to another and definitely from one historic period to another. In some cultures, facial scarring is attractive, while drooping breasts are in others. In the historical context, a core belief of most cultures was that women should display a certain body type as per society standards. It is for this reason that women have constantly tried to look a certain way – a way that is deemed attractive at any given point in time. Failure to conform to the prevailing body ideals always results in some form of image dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction with how one looks may be a manifestation of several ideals emanating from socialisation, culture, peers and the media.
Today, most women are plagued by the thin-ideal in which a certain thin body size is desirable. However, it is evident that this female preoccupation with looks is by no means a recent phenomenon. Body image ideals have always existed in societies and have continued to evolve over time. A study by Prevos (2005) reveals that the preoccupation with thinness is not a recent development. In the early 1940s, it was found that people with ectomorphic bodies were perceived by others as nervous, submissive and socially withdrawn. By the late 1980s this perception had changed and thin people were considered to be the most sexually appealing.
Women tend to internalise this thin ideal and this internalisation is a result of individual attitudes that are approved of by significant or respected others. Kandel (1980) calls this a process of social reinforcement. Agents of socialisation – such as family, peers and the media – are believed to reinforce the thin body image through comments or actions that serve to support and perpetuate this ideal, including by teasing women about their weight, encouraging them to diet and glorifying ultra-slim models (p. 238). It can be attested that these sources increase expectations concerning the benefits of thinness, such as increased social acceptance, and these expectations play a major role in the propagation of this ideal.
With the rise of globalization, many aspects of Western culture have been emulated by the rest of the world. Akram and Borland (2007) suggest that for many girls and women in Western cultures, appearance is central to their self-definition. They are socialised early into learning that their bodies should be used to attract others and they learn to see themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated by appearance. This pressure is constantly reinforced by a strong cultural ideal of female beauty – an ideal beauty has become synonymous with thinness (p.315).
Women often go through body enhancement procedures to achieve the desired societal body ideals. These body image enhancement procedures range from traditional approaches (grooming, dieting and exercising) to extreme surgeries (tummy tucks and liposuction) – and can even involve potentially deadly eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia). It is quite evident that the pressure to conform to the ideal body image can be stressful and has resulted in the majority of women suffering from a negative body image.
The female body as a contested site of struggle
A contested site of struggle is a phrase often used to depict the fact that women’s bodies are not neutral entities. There is more to the body than just flesh and blood. Women’s bodies are not neutral in the sense that there are so many external factors that act upon them and eventually dictate the way of life of women. A woman’s body has come to be recognised as a contested terrain in contemporary societies, where battles for control are. The war on women’s bodies ranges from acts of extreme violence to bills targeting ‘indecent dressing’ to attacks on women wearing mini-skirts. Along with being bombarded by messages about their bodies on a daily basis, women live in fear of violence and this is a strategy to control women’s ability to think, feel, move freely and act independently.
The struggle for independence and liberation for women has not been easy, especially due to the external forces acting on the female body. Society has always used direct and indirect levers to control women’s bodies in one way or the other. So even the greater equality of opportunity for women in recent times has resulted in a cultural demand for women to be thin – political, economic and social gains have coincided with increasing pressure to lose weight. A woman who climbs the corporate ladder is stereotypically expected to look a certain way so even ‘liberated’ women still end up having to conform to a certain ideal. This is an example that a woman’s body can never be a neutral entity. Someone has to have some kind of control over it.
The role of the media
The media has proved to be a powerful source when it comes to how women view themselves since many magazines, newspapers and television programs are geared towards portraying the ideal woman – from her expected roles to how she should look. The preceding statement is supported by Gill (2007), who argues that we live in a world that is increasingly saturated by the media and information and communication technologies. One of the earliest and most famous studies conducted by the National Organization of Women in the United States of America found that more than one third of adverts showed women as domestic agents, who were dependent upon men. Most importantly, the study also reported many examples of women being depicted as decorative objects (pp. 7-10). And this is important because the media has such a profound impact on the lives of women – providing a platform for their dreams and aspirations, particularly when it comes to achieving the ideal body type.
The fashion industry has been openly criticised for promoting the thin ideal using models that are too thin, even though this thin goal is unattainable for most women. Advertisers have defended their continued use of this unhealthy and unattainable ideal with the argument that ‘thinness sells’ but it also causes damage since the use of ultra-thin models makes many women feel bad about their bodies since they end up internalizing thin as the ideal shape.
The cosmetics industry has also perpetuated a negative body image. According to Gallagher and Hebert (2007), cosmetics companies promise women an outcome and suggest an ideal way of looking. Voluminous eyelashes, moisturising lip colour, natural looking face powder and age defying creams all become part of an ideology of beauty. This ideology works by transforming an ideal beauty into a timeless and universal standard towards which ‘ideal women’ should strive (p.57).
This quest for the ideal has certainly taken another dimension on television where we see Western programmes such as Extreme Makeover and I Want a Famous Face. Most of these programmes are premised on transforming the appearance of women from ugly ducklings to swans in a single show – although the techniques use range from new hairstyles, clothes and makeup to extensive plastic surgery. Gallagher and Hebert (2007) argue that female bodies often develop the status of a commodity – the ideal version of which, as prescribed by society, can be achieved through various processes, including surgical means.
Women are put under immense pressure to look ideally ‘beautiful’. Makeup has become an integral part of many women’s lives since it gives them the chance to transform – or rather to ‘improve’ – their looks and generate self-esteem. It must be noted that the same advertisements that claim to unlock every woman’s beauty instil the notion that women are somehow inherently flawed without beauty enhancing products. This subtext leads to body dissatisfaction and consequently low self-esteem in many women – and highlights once again the on-going battle for control of women’s bodies.