Monday, April 13, 2009

A Feminist's Body Image Struggle

As a feminist, I am well aware of the evils of the unrealistic body ideal promoted by mainstream media. (Pretentious sounding sentence, anyone? Anyway…) It is clear, that as a woman and a girl, everywhere you look you are reminded that you’re not pretty enough, not thin enough, not young enough, not big breasted enough, not perfect skinned enough (and in many cases not white enough.) We all know this fact by now: The media and our society promote unrealistic body image for women. (And increasingly for young men as well, although I would argue not as rigidly.)

The situation becomes even more complex when you hear the statistics of eating disorders among young women:

Nearly half of all Americans personally know someone with an eating disorder
• Two to three in 100 American women suffers from bulimia
• Only an estimated 10 – 15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are males
• 50% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight
• 80% of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight

It’s not a stretch to cognitively understand why the media might influence bad body image in young girls, but it can be difficult to “prove” that this exists. I remember reading about the anthropological study of an indigenous Papua New Guineaian society that didn’t have access to American TV or magazines. Their societal ideal for a woman’s body was slightly overweight, large breasted and buttock-ed, and all around “thick.” Girls and women strived to have this particular body type and therefore ate plenty. Eating disorders were, in fact, nonexistent in this society. However, after the culture gained access to mainstream American cultural through television, suddenly eating disorders developed among the girls.

I wish I had a citation for that, but it’s just one of those things I came across in a women’s study class.

Clearly, the media’s portrayal of the ideal woman as a size 0 (but with DD breasts…HUH? That doesn’t happen in nature!) is not positive. One response to the increasingly unrealistic depiction of women has been the pro-fat movement. Of course, I’m for something that seeks to gain acceptance for a marginalized group…but let’s think about pro-fatness for a moment. Being obese is a health risk, just as been excessively thin is. I’m not exactly sure that I’m ready to endorse a movement that puts anyone’s health in jeopardy. I’m not anymore pro-fat than I am pro-ana (which is one of the creepiest “pro” movements out there! Google it!)

Let me sort this out…I’m getting off track. I need to refocus on why I’m writing this. I’m writing about body image because of what I struggle with, myself, as an overweight feminist. It can be tricky to balance the thoughts that swirl through your mind about your body as ANY woman in American society, let alone a feminist woman. On one side, I’ve been raised in this society, so pretty much daily I think that I’m the fattest person alive, that my boobs don’t look that great, that the occasional zit here and there are life altering. But then my feminism comes in and says YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. You are you, no need to try to be anything else. Stop focusing on your body and think about all of your accomplishments, the person, not body, that you are. But THEN my health side kicks in and reminds me that I *do* need to lose weight to be healthier. It can all be a lot to take.

At any rate, the health side has been winning for a while now, and I have been trying to live healthier, so that I can prolong my life. Since January, I’ve lost 16 lbs. (A very slow and gradual, but steady process.) I’ve been stalling out a bit lately and wanting to slide back into a life of not caring. In these cases, I think I try to use feminism as a crutch for myself, but that isn’t going to help anyone. At the end of the day, I do need to lose about 20 more lbs to be out of the truly unhealthy zone.

My point is that the media does promote an unrealistic body ideal for women. However, it’s not unfeminist to want to be healthier, and I have to remind myself of that. I have no desire to be someone with no butt or boobs, because this is my body…and I’m gonna make myself love it, if it takes a lifetime. If doing a few crunches helps me love it a little more, then so be it. But you’ll never see me walking down Sunset Boulevard with big plastic boobs and a 22 inch waist. I know you’re heartbroken and shocked to hear that :)

Society DOES need to drop the so-thin-ribs-are-poking-out-and-stabbing-us high fashion models. We DO need to stop reducing everyone woman to her waist and bust size. We DO need to have representation of all body types in print advertisements. We DO need to stop portraying all overweight people are stupid, lazy, and ugly. We DO need to embrace diversity in its entirety (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education level, and YES, body size.)
But Americans also need to be healthier, for ourselves and our children.


  1. Yes! I totally agree. As much as we say to ourselves, to our friends, to the girls we talk to in programs, that we need to love our bodies as is, no exceptions, and reject the media's narrow view of what beauty is, it doesn't always make it any easier to shut out the bad body thoughts in our own heads. And as you pointed out, we can't ignore the fact that the definition of healthy isn't nearly as flexible as the definition of beauty. And I feel bad for being such a donut/food pusher when you're being so good with your healthy habits! But it's hard for me to forget that eating yummy (and non-nutritious) food can be very fun. :-)


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