Negative body image: are women to blame?
Women are bombarded by negative body image messages at every turn – but are women themselves to blame?
If there’s one subject that’s ubiquitous – in the press, on the lips of children and adults alike – it’s body image. Never have we been more obsessed with the way we look than during the past decade or so, and now an All Party Parliamentary Group report, Reflections on Body Image, tells us that girls as young as five routinely worry about their weight.
Some have been treated for anorexia. Indeed, half the entire population of the UK suffers from negative body image, and there’s evidence to suggest that parents are passing their own insecurities on to their children.
The London School of Economics has conducted a study of nearly 3,000 young women in the UK and Europe, and has found that social and cultural influences have driven some of these young adults to starve themselves in pursuit of what has been presented to them as an ideal body shape.
Influence of the designers
The increasing popularity with fashion designers since the 1990s of size 0 models (a UK size 4), has made the benchmark for what women consider an acceptable or desirable shape an impossible dream for the vast majority. Billboards, online images and magazine features portray women as ‘perfect’ waifs. And yet so much of what we take to be the norm is smoke and mirrors, with widespread use of image enhancement via airbrushing and other photo modification software presenting altered images as the real deal.
Pressure from the press
The messages are mixed, too: newspapers and magazines aimed at women vilify those celebrities with enviable curves as having ‘piled on the pounds’ and yet consign those without them to the ‘worryingly thin’ pile. They highlight in the cruellest ways a rogue spot ofhere, an unshaven armpit there, an ill-fitting bikini or a pair of apparently ‘ugly’ feet.
The same celebrity might be praised for her glorious fashion sense one day and ridiculed for her double chin the next. Some larger celebs are branded ‘fat’ whilst others of the same weight and build are hailed as ‘shapely’, depending on who’s flavour of the week. So what hope is there for the ordinary woman on the street who can’t fail to feel inadequate by comparison?
Booming diet industry
The diet industry in the UK alone is reportedly worth £2 billion, and who hasn’t been tempted at some time or another to buy into the idea that the latest fad diet or ‘miracle’ weight-loss product will somehow enable us to achieve the impossible?
This obsession with attaining physical perfection (or perfection as portrayed by the media and the fashion industry) has infamously had disastrous consequences. In 2006, model Ana Carolina Reston died from anorexia at the age of 21, and last year 14-year-old Fiona Geraghty hanged herself after suffering from the eating disorder bulimia.
The coroner laid the blame for this last tragedy on the influence of the fashion industry. Sadly, it’s not an isolated incident, and it’s not uncommon for children to attempt or even achieve suicide after becoming the targets of repeated bullying, often on account of their weight.
Are women to blame?
The question of who’s to blame for this burgeoning body image problem is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Women support the media and buy the products that promote an idealised version of beauty; the industries, responding to women’s interest (or desperation), promote their products ever more aggressively and play on the vulnerability of those women who genuinely believe that the secret to perfection lies within the bottles of expensive pills or potions – or under the surgeon’s knife.
Are we, in our constant strivings to conform, in some way perpetrating the appalling body image many of us have of ourselves and each other? And who is it that judges the images presented to us by the media as desirable? For the most part, it’s not men, who are far less critical and more appreciative of the natural womanly form than we give them credit for: it is women.
Ask other women who they dress to impress and they’re more likely to tell you it’s their female friends and colleagues, not their partners. If only we could take a more realistic view; see ourselves as the real women we are, complete with the battle scars of adolescence, adulthood and motherhood. If only the real woman was more widely celebrated by the public and the media alike.
A step in the right direction
There have recently been some attempts by the media to back-pedal, with some daytime TV programmes finally acknowledging the value of using ‘real’ women as models for fashion features. Body-image guru Gok Wan’s How To Look Good Naked series on Channel 4 gave self-loathing women makeovers that involved no body re-shaping or surgery, and his latest series Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth (also C4) advised troubled teens on self-confidence, bullying, anxiety and eating disorders.
The government, too, is getting involved. Recently, as part of its Body Confidence campaign, it announced its backing of the launch of a leaflet, also to be launched online, encouraging parents to discuss with children as young as six how images have been digitally altered to change the appearance of models.
Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said: ‘Young people are being set an impossible standard by images in media and advertising which can erode their self-esteem. I want the pack to empower parents to have those difficult conversations and open the door to discussion.’
Surely the next positive step would be to introduce laws that mean advertisers and print media must clearly specify when an image has been altered and to restrict the usage of the techniques. And for women to see through the industries that feed off their sense of inadequacy and set more store instead by their inherent strength, inner beauty and real bodies.
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