I’m a naturally curvy girl and a size 12 in North American measurements, but a size 14-16 in European sizes.
Our body issues are understandable when we look at how saturated our world is with perfect and unattainable bodies. Yet my body image issues are that of many other girls who read Vogue and Glamour religiously and unconsciously or consciously start feeling like a prized elephant next to Kate Moss. So we see that image and we know that Kate is lightened, her cheekbones enhanced, her hips nearly shrunken, and her height lengthened. However, we cannot help but fall into those binaries of inadequacies: I’m too fat/too skinny, or this makes me so healthy/unhealthy. These binaries are internalized in our relationship with media images, which are superficial and altered but make their way into how we self-objectify.
Is there too much blame on the media?
Naturally, our body image is an entirely personal experience of our appearance and bodies. Through our lifetime, we amass a stockpile of media associations, desires, and insecurities that are projected onto flabby arms, thunder thighs, and wonky faces. We often seek out diets and weight-loss schemes to control our bodies from being ‘fat’ and unhealthy. Instead, we are relational bodies that exist alongside the saturation of media images that call us to buy that product or start on that diet to look a certain way. Images socialize us and shape our bodies, but not completely to the degree that empowerment movements suggest. The media influence is huge in our lives, but we exist alongside it and incorporate its images into our own embodiment as women.
“I think the media images that we see do affect us, but not as directly as we think. As we definitely isolate those images from our own bodies that are in the real world. They are clearly Photoshopped, they may make us feel bad but we kind of know that we are comparing ourselves to completely distorted images,” explains Suemin Do, third-year English major. “There is self-awareness here about the relationship between real live bodies and those of airbrushed and Photoshopped models and celebrities. We are active agents in how we internalize media images, but consciousness-raising campaigns tend to conflate the media is the sole problem for body image problems.”
Campaigns like Dove with its Evolution ad suggest that Photoshop is the central factor in creating that unattainable bodily idea. I often feel annoyed by this go-to reliance on Photoshop as the leading cause of body image problems. That’s too simple an answer. It is the threat that Photoshopped models and celebrities have come to replace all other images. By slenderizing Jennifer Lopez’s hips on her Cosmo cover, we are confronted with our problematic relationship to the female body. We exist in a dicey mode of embodiment where we know that the image we like and interact with is wildly different from its original, but often cannot help but recognize the similarities in how our bodies and their bodies are put through that constant self-objectification.
Photoshopped images are marked by their ubiquity in our landscape, in that it has completely re-shifted our modes of comparison. Often we compare ourselves to “localized images” of strangers, friends, and family; instead we incorporate pictures of celebrities, models, and bodies to emulate. What has shifted from local comparison, is the way we interpret and use images in our identity-making processes.
I love empowerment movements as much as the next curvy girl that wants to see Crystal Renn and Christina Hendricks grace every magazine cover without having to justify their diverse bodies. Yet empowerment groups like the SPARK movement, the Dove campaigns, and I Am That Girl are armed with statistics of young girls in constant jeopardy of falling prey to a media machine that dictates how they come to realize that ‘fat’ is wrong and ‘skinny’ is ideal. The old phrase from the Dove commercials is that ‘real women have curves,’ which felt wonderful to me at the time, instead ignored the vast amount of bodies that we actually have!
Just this summer data was released by the Keep It Real Foundation this summer that revealed that 80 percent of all 10-year-old girls have at some point been on a regulated diet. The data comes from a study by Kimberly Epworth called “Eating Disorders Today – Not Just a Girl Thing.” The campaign rolled out many of these frightening facts to call major magazines, and media outlets to rethink how they frame their subjective beauty standards of young girls and women. They also stated that “[A total of] 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number increases to 78 percent by age 17.” While these figures are disheartening, there is central focus on girls as passive and uncritical consumers of images that do not take into account how they can resist it and their agency as spectators. We produce the images that we see in the media, because we each have our own projections and internalizations that we take from it.
As UBCO Gender and Women Studies professor Ilya Parkins explains, “It is like the public consciousness has seized on a really rudimentary understanding that media equals the problem, and all the complexities of this question, the multiple factors involved, have been lost. This means that in the search for solutions, there has also been too much of a focus on media. When we hive off one aspect of a problem, we can’t possibly get at the root of the problem…People are complex, human interactions are complex, and seizing on one aspect of a whole, wide field of interactions between the body/self and others (people, discourses, institutions) negates that complexity.”
Parkins highlights, women internalize images in such complex ways which suggests that bodies don’t exist in a black and white way. It is entirely up to each woman in regards to how they see solutions for their bodily dissatisfaction. When we reduce a woman’s body image issues to simply the media and its capitalistic control, we deny the ways in which she may have formed these binaries in her own life. Empowerment movements do seek solutions, but in their consciousness-raising, they often leave out such contextual information and generalize all women as bait for advertisers and corporations. In any case, we are looking at certain body types that are influencing purchases and making money. These empowerment movements are vital in asking women to look critically at the media that they see around them.
The Relational Body
If we look at ourselves as relational bodies, we can see that young girls and women ‘become their bodies through the images around them. As theorist Rebecca Coleman highlights, “For example, a Deleuzian account would understand bodies not as a bounded subject that is separate from images but rather would see the connections between humans and images as constituting a body.” Coleman illustrates that the female body becomes through its experiences with images that are intertwined in fostering a workable identity. The woman becomes her body through her daily interaction with pop culture images.
How do we see ourselves as relational bodies when research has constantly shown how other factors such as influences from parents, peers, friends, and teachers shape our embodiment and how we want to improve our bodies. If we take the media out the equation, we exist in a give and take relationship with the world around us.
As Third-year History Major Alison Shearer notes “I remember when I was like 15, I always look up to my older sister, and we’re both built very differently. I’m more curvy, and she was quite skinny, and for a while I was like why don’t I look like that.”
Women are socialized to feel negatively about their bodies and our chats often end up touching on ‘fat talk.’ This everyday chat about our eating habits or comparing our bulges with each other reinforces our own self-inflicted ‘thin ideal’, which can be attributed to our body hatred. When we compliment each other with “Ooh have you lost weight – you look so good” or declining that scrumptious piece of chocolate cake, we train ourselves to conform to body that is under constant self-scrutiny to be healthy. By acknowledging that communal fat-phobia, we exist as relational bodies that cull together influences from so many different sources to account for our dissatisfaction.
I have a sweet tooth, and an especially Indian penchant for indulging in ladoos and barfis, which are made with copious amounts of sugar and clarified butter. There was a constant vigilance in my household to discourage this insatiable urge in order to be a certain standard of ‘healthiness.’ Bodies are in a constant state of vigilance to be healthy, which extends to varying degrees of slenderness some women desire. I would venture that we communicate this through our food choices, where we perform that ‘healthy’ ideal by declining the fatty and sweet foods, and eating in moderate ways. My stomach was incomplete without the Indian food on the Atkins diet, and it was unused to all that meat intake in the Dukan one. There is that constant need to straddle the lines of being healthy as well as being in that ideal body that you dream of. We are just as much judged on looks as we are on being a healthy body type that ascribes to the norm.
While we can understand our bodies as relational to the world around us, there is a need for solutions that don’t simply blame media or social pressures for our bodily ideals. There are ways in which we can embrace the empowerment politics of the various campaigns because women are made to aware and cognizant of how the media frames our bodily standards. While we cannot conflate all body issues with the media’s influence, it is certainly the strongest factor in how women construct their embodiment.
While we may have Christina Hendricks, Romola Garai, and Mindy Kaling, who spoken countless times about how comfortable they are with their curves, they are constantly reduced to their sizes. Hendricks has pioneered the shapely dresses from her Mad Men wardrobe that makes it onto catwalks, minus the curvy model. Whenever these women make their appearances in fashion magazines, constant attention is called to their ‘interesting’ and ‘buxom’ bodies. The plus-size model Crystal Renn and writer Jennifer Weiner are made to justify their weight losses for modeling contracts and health reasons, when they are constructed as less ‘real’ than we expected by caving into the dominant thin ideals.
Yet, the web is a great place for seeing more empowering spaces that include many body types that aren’t often reflected in the media. Jessi of the extremely popular Tumblr blog “Gentleman Prefer Curves” has created a oppositional space where curvier and plus-size women can submit photos of themselves, and their embracement of their body type. The blog has a mass following and is a space where women can express their interaction with their bodies and the media in such powerful ways.
Jessi highlights that, “I started this blog as a result of the lack of plus size body confidence blogs here on Tumblr. Everywhere I looked were thin-spo (thin-inspiration) blogs telling women that being chubby or overweight is unattractive and how being thin will make your life better. So Start a body love blog for plus size women, create a curvy girl zine, make a website or a Facebook page showcasing plus size women, curvy women, and all body types. If you don’t see enough of something that you want to see, change it! We have more power than we know with the internet, make it what you want! Not only will you be bringing forth important topics, but you’ll more than likely help others too!!”
Truly, we can become critical thinkers when we learn to create a variety of spaces where we see ourselves represented and celebrated in a way that can avoid the media-constructed binaries. Female bodies are in constant transformation and reinvention through our everyday lives. We will likely continue to face body image problems but when we are cognizant of the ways in which we are relational to the Vogues that we buy or the sizes we wear, there are means of resistance. It is the dialogue that we can have to crack open the binaries that we inflict and internalize that makes us agents against the impositions of our media.