Monday, September 2, 2013

Real Women Have... Bodies, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Patriarchy and Love my Body


If you follow feminist-y things on the internet, you've probably seen this meme floating around. It originated from the facebook group "No Hope for the Human Race," and has been pissing people off in a big way. This kind of image is not really surprising. We all know the stereotype about feminists and how we are all fat, ugly man-haters.

shame away

Pfft. Whatever.

That is not the aspect of this image I want to talk about today. I want to talk about body image, the male gaze, and the outrageous standards of female beauty that we all eat up like so much (low-fat, sugar-free) candy.

The awesome feminist group One Million Vaginas posted this image to their facebook page earlier in the week. The comment thread was mind blowing. It's truly amazing how many people feel free to post either gross fat-shaming, uninformed "concern trolling" health related bologna, or just generally mean-spirited comments in a pro-feminist, pro-body-acceptance forum. However, one comment really affected me and stuck with me: 

Oh. My. Word. There were so many more such comments, and not just from plus-sized ladies. Women with a whole lot of different shapes wrote about their experiences feeling shamed because of their bodies. Whether you are fat or skinny or somewhere in between, there is someone out there just waiting for the opportunity to tell you that you're body just doesn't cut it. You're too fat, you should eat less or no one will ever want you. Ugh, she's a total butterface. Your body is okay, but you're sooooo flat-chested. She's too skinny, I like a woman with a little meat on her bones.

I think she's gorgeous too, but you see my point.
AHHHHHHH!!! It never stops. No matter how your body looks, it's never good enough. There is always something to hate. Something to change. Something to work on. Well, ladies and sirs of all shapes and sizes, I invite you to take a step back, look at where this fucked up notion of body-shaming came from, and just say:

Just so that we are all on the same page, let's start with a few numbers:

In Gendered Lives, Julia T. Wood compiles some really troubling statistics about gender and body image from several polls and studies conducted in the early 2000s. 87% of American men report being "very or somewhat satisfied with their appearance," AND even those men who aren't happy with their bodies (in overwhelming numbers) seldom report that negative body-image affects their overall sense of self-worth in terms of competence and value.

Sadly this is not true for women. According to almost all of the studies cited, "for women, dislike of their bodies often affects overall self-esteem... [and] concern about weight starts early." At age 5, most girls surveyed express negative self-images based on weight, at least 40% of fourth grade girls diet, and on average 25% of girls and women in the United States are dieting at any given time. Please keep in mind that this 25% does NOT include the more than 5 million people, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, who are suffering from diagnosed eating disorders. (All this information can be found on pages 141-143 if you're interested).

I feel you, girl. I'm not impressed either. This is BEYOND fucked up, and we have been buying into it and letting it continue for far too long. If only there was some way, some movement or something, to combat this assault against women's self esteem. 

What's that? It's a bird! It's a plane! Oh... look! It's <da, da, dummm> FEMINISM!!!! Hooray!

This is a topic that feminists have been pissed off about for years, you guys. Not only is the topic of body-image/body-shaming an excellent example of the way feminism is relevant to our lives as grrly girls, it is an even better example of how we NEED feminism to unpack issues like these that seem so embedded in our culture that we don't even know how they got there in the first place. 

For starters, a whole bunch of really smart feminists have been talking about this thing called The Male Gaze for a long time now. Basically, the term "Male Gaze" comes from Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, who (in an essay called "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") explained that because the camera is positioned for and from the perspective of the normative male audience, women are most often "possessed by" and not "possessors of" the social gaze. This process disenfranchises women because it reduces them to passive OBJECTS of the gaze instead of active SUBJECTS of their own reality. (If you think that you would understand this concept better if a dinosaur explained it to you, you are in luck. Just check out this Dinosaur Comic.) Even though this started out as just film theory, in the years since 1975, many other super smart feminists have expanded this notion and applied to a much wider range of female experiences including cat-calling, females in public (and frequently powerful) positions, and the self-perception of body and individual value. 

So, basically, here's the deal. Because (as laid down by one of my all-time favorite feminists Simone de Beauvoir) in our society masculinity/men are constructed as the norm against which femininity/women stand as the Other, women are always constructed as an object existing within the realm of the male subject. This means that women, in order to seek social value and validation, constantly try to live up to demand of physical attractiveness and desirability set by the Male Gaze. You see, it's not that women are oppressed every time any man looks at them, or that women are only trying to be attractive to men. In fact, The Male Gaze doesn't REALLY refer to any specific man looking at any specific woman. It simply refers to the dominant social force controlling the standard of beauty for women. This social force is characterized as male because of the traditional construction of society within the framework of the masculine/feminine binary. One of the women surveyed by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner for her amazing book The F Word says it best: "In our efforts to become the woman 'every man wants' and what we think we want ourselves to be, we are killing ourselves," (68). 

Grrls, we are completely surrounded.

Our desire to fit into this acceptable physical form of femininity is hard-wired into us from infancy. Julia Wood cites several surveys and studies comparing the way in which parents describe male and female infants of equal size, weight, and level of activity. Almost invariably, the male babies are described as, "strong, hardy, big, active," while the female babies are described as, "pretty, small, dainty, delicate," (155). Our clothes (and the stores in which we buy them) feed into this too. Wood points out that now and for the past, oh... FEW HUNDRED YEARS men's clothing tends to fit loosely and provide for activity and independent movement while women's clothing, "is designed to call attention to women's bodies and make them maximally attractive to viewers," (134). Wood reminds us that women are further exposed to these unrealistic standards of beauty when they enter retail stores because of the smaller-than-average mannequins (sized, on average, as a 2, 4, or 6) and very attractive female sales associates (she cites examples ranging from L'Oreal to Abercrombie and Fitch of openly basing hiring decisions on physical appearance). When we give little girls dolls and dress up kits, while their brothers play with trucks and blocks, we are telling them that boys build and do, while girls should tend to physical appearance and that clothes and accessories are important (163).

This picture makes me want to punch a whole bunch of somebodies (source)
Even though we CAN apply the notion of the male gaze to most everything that we do with our bodies, ladies, I gotta say: the media is the biggest offender. Mostly because it's everywhere we go. More than 98% of American homes contain at least one television (2/3 of which have cable and 4/5 of which are connected to a DVD player or streaming device); Kids aged 2-7 spend an average of 3.5 or more hours per day with some form of media; at age 6, the average American child has watched more than 5,000 hours of TV, and by age 18 that number jumps to 19,000 hours. Wood explains, "From newspapers to MTV, media shape  our understanding of gender," by providing us with, "models of what it means to be male or female," (233). Though there are a few exceptions to this rule, if women are to be taken seriously as characters, they must be very attractive, slender, and young, and they are almost always sexualized in some way. 

Take a wild guess as to which women from the movie Bridesmaids is the socially awkward one who no one initially wanted to invite to the party or, actually, socialize with at all. (Hint- it's the fat one)
The images of women offered by the media don't leave much to interpretation: pretty women are valuable, lovable, and have individual and social worth. Ugly (and especially fat) women do not, though they can be hilarious fuck ups or caricatures so ridiculous and buffoonish that no one could possibly identify with or emotionally connect to them. As my grrl Julia Wood preaches: "media repeat the cultural view of women as dependent, ornamental objects who exist to look good, please men, care for children, be sexually desirable and available," (237). 

Advertisements are just as heinous as movies and television shows in this regard. "Whereas men are seldom pictured nude or even partially unclothed, women habitually are... advertisements for make-up, cologne, shampoo, and clothes often show women attracting men because they used the products to make themselves irresistible," (Wood, 244). Don't believe me? Take a look at these two commercials, both of which are currently airing. 

There is a lot of face-palm in this commercial. Let's not even talk about the use of that awesome T-Rex song in dumb context and jump right into to feminist-y stuff: women are casually sexualized and objectified. This car is so amazing that it made all those hot colonial women rip off their clothes and become modern girls dressed in slutty Halloween costumes. They aren't trying to get you to buy into the car, they want you to buy into the notion that hot women will be turned on by it, or to associate this kind of car with the exposed idealized female form. This kind of objectification of the female body is so common that while you probably thought "What a dumb commercial," when you first saw it, and maybe even thought, "I wonder what half-naked colonial hotties have to do with Fiats?", you probably didn't think it was funny or especially demeaning.

Now, let's think about that Fiat commercial in the context of this commercial for (I wish it was less stereotypical): salad dressing.

It's a joke. Get it? We are so unfamiliar with the male body being objectified for the purpose of selling products that when it happens, we can't help but to see it as tongue and cheek. It's cute. It's funny. It's not serious. It's so overtly sexual that it loses all sexuality. Ultimately, it plays against the undercurrent of female body objectification to which we have become nearly immune to get a laugh and hopefully get consumers to connect their product more with that positive feeling than with the image of the sexualized "Zesty Man." 

Okay, okay. I hear a few grumbles from the back. Some of you are probably thinking, "We know the difference between fiction and reality. We know how unrealistic most media portrayals of women are. Seriously, does anybody ACTUALLY think these representations influence body-image for regular people?" Well, I hate to say it, but the answer is a big ole yes. Numerous studies have proven that unrealistic media representations of feminine beauty have a direct impact on self-perception, behavior, and individual values. One particularly compelling example of this occurred in Fiji in the 1990s. Despite the tradition of valuing heavier body-types as more attractive, when American television shows (specifically Beverly Hills, 90210) began to be broadcast in Fiji, an enormous number of young women began dieting and many women developed eating disorders (both of which were previously uncommon). Many young women from Fiji identified hyper-thin characters from the TV shows as their model when questioned about their new-found interested in weight-loss. 

This is dangerous. Movies, television shows, and especially advertisements tell us that normal bodies are unacceptable and encourage us to devalue the bodies we have and buy products to "fix" all the problems that make us feel unattractive. Whether it's weight loss pills, diet plans, wrinkle cream, hair dye, or wonderbras, women are spending billions of dollars in the battle against their bodies. Wood reminds us of one shocking example of this: In the 1960's when slim, angular bodies were considered beautiful, there was a spike in breast reduction surgeries. In the 1980's, larger breasts became the standard of beauty and breast augmentations rapidly increased in number. At this point, 80% of breast augmentations are for cosmetic reasons (and not reconstructive etc.). Furthermore, one in five college-aged women currently admit to eating less than is necessary to meet daily nutritional needs. These women cite "wanting to look like fashion models and actresses" as their motivations for placing such severe restrictions on their caloric intake (253).

Holy shit, ladies and gentlemen. This is messed up. And we have to stop buying into it. We have to stop looking at unrealistic images of female beauty and imagining that it reflects a lack in ourselves. We have to stop using the Male Gaze as the yardstick against which we determine our own worth. We have to stop talking shit to ourselves, calling ourselves too fat or too skinny or ugly or flat-chested or big-nosed or any other insult we can lob at ourselves. 

We have to stop because it's wrong. We have stop because we all have value, whether or not our bodies are considered "beautiful." We have to stop because social constructions of beauty are fiction and they are ever-changing. They are unattainable, and no matter how far we run, we will never catch them. But we also have to stop because body-shaming is just one more tool that the patriarchy uses to keep us in our place. As Rowe-Finkbeiner reminds us, "If young women are distracted by body image, and also if their self-esteem suffers in that struggle, then they are less likely to be advocates," (72).

So let's wear whatever the hell makes us happy. Let's look in the mirror and think, "Fuck Yeah!" (or at least "okay!"). Let's stop calling each other fat or ugly or skin and bones and start lifting each other up. Let's start laughing at commercials that demean and objectify women, instead of internalizing their messages that we are not yet good enough. We are here. We look the way we do, and that's a-okay. 

Let's no longer accept the shame and insecurity we've been made to feel as a reason NOT to speak out. Let's no longer accept messages like the one expressed by that first meme (of the grrl holding a "This is what a feminist looks like" sign) that physical appearance is an appropriate way to discuss (and demean) fellow feminists. Let's give the patriarchy the bird and mean it.

You're awesome, grrl. So, be happy, be healthy, and ignore any ass-hats that try to tell you otherwise.