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The Female Body Image in Popular Media March 25, 2009

This is a subject that I’m hearing more and more about. I was too young to be aware of it in the late 70s or 80s but I do remember the stir that Kate Moss and ‘Heroin Chic’ caused in the 90s. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the trend swung back (as trends do) to curves – Jennifer Lopez, for example – but in truth, thin has always been in. Often, beauty buys what money can’t – admiration, leeway and popularity – and has done since the dawn of time. I want to look closer at the impact of these images and attempt to discover, in my own small way, why society handles them so very badly. The mediums of movies, TV, magazines and comic books are constantly under pressure to explain themselves, even as we continue to feed the machine. But why pass the buck? If there’s no demand, then there’s no supply.

Taking comics – or graphic novels if you prefer but, let’s be honest, they’re comics – these drawings of superwomen are exaggerated fantasies. There’s nothing demeaning or wrong about that. It’s actually quite complimentary to my gender. Yes, the outfits are skimpy and figure hugging but these women are like modern day Sheela na Gigs; breasts proudly on display, with firm buttocks, rounded child-bearing hips and lean, muscular arms and legs. Do I actually look like any of these females? Ummm, no, not really but I identify with the power that this physical form represents. When I hear criticism of the way women are represented in comics, I tend to think two things:

1 – I don’t hear these people moan about the fact that few women look like Botticelli’s Venus, or Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, or other paintings of beautiful women.

People tend to get excited when a naked chick comes out of her shell

People tend to get excited when a naked chick comes out of her shell

2 – I also don’t know a lot of guys whose physique looks like this:

Batman/ Bruce Wayne and Capt. America inspire their own line of cheese graters

Batman/ Bruce Wayne and Capt. America inspire their own line of cheese graters

Yet men don’t complain about the way they’re represented. Is it because they’re mentally stronger and more confident? I doubt that’s the answer but it does beg the question – why? I don’t look like these superchicks but nor do I leap from building to building protecting the innocent and fighting crime.

Elektra and Black Canary – Looks that kill

Elektra and Black Canary – Looks that kill

I’m insulted when the people who protest these female images claim to speak for me. It’s presumptuous and I feel it makes the exact counter-point – that women can’t tell the difference between Black Canary or Elektra and themselves. Do they really believe that women are that weak and stupid? That’s not feminism, that’s patronizing.

As far as magazines go, when you pick one up, you have to realize they want to sell you something. A lifestyle, a brand, an image. It’s not personal – it’s business. My philosophy is that women may not have such an issue if they put down Cosmopolitan (and publications like these), quit watching the TV equivalents of a fashion magazine, like Sex and the City (no, that is not your life. It’s nobody’s life because it’s fiction) and stopped fooling themselves that these things are trying to HELP. They’re not. By all means, read or watch for light entertainment but taking their collective messages to heart is a major mistake and will screw with your psyche. Cosmo, in particular, is like a friend that lures you into a false sense of security. It pretends to be your confidant, and then tells you you’re fat and ugly and unless you change immediately (‘How to – page 28!’) – no one will ever love fat, ugly, useless you.

Same pose, same fonts, same boring ‘advice’ stories. Women are buying the same magazine every month!

Same pose, same fonts, same boring ‘advice’ stories. Women are buying the same magazine every month!

Because it’s coming from this glossy ‘friend’, it’s readily believed, more so than a genuine compliment from a husband, boyfriend, a real friend or stranger. (Seriously ladies, we have to stop that. If someone says, for example, “you have gorgeous hair”, just say, “I grow it myself!” (ho, ho!) or simply, “thank you”. OK? The last reaction I want from someone after giving them a compliment is some ridiculous hemming and hawing about how; no, I am WRONG, the person does not look good and I am a complete ninny for thinking such thoughts. It makes me wish I hadn’t said a word). This is where men have it over on us chicks.

Generally speaking, men don’t take relationship quizzes, they don’t care really care about Brad Pitt’s style secrets and they don’t ‘boo-hoo’ over sad, sad stories or an extra 5 pounds. There’s nothing amiss about being girlie and enjoying fashion and make up and stuff like that but we should be ENJOYING these things. They should enhance our lives and make our existence more fun; not render us miserable and unhappy. Don’t purchase a magazine and then complain that it makes you feel crappy. Speak with your money and refuse to buy it. The content of these magazines is what I really object to; I don’t have a problem with the models. That’s their job – to be thin and photograph well. Aesthetically, clothes hang better on a thin frame than a larger one.

Part of this woman’s job is to never eat cake or Shepard’s Pie. Poor thing.

Part of this woman’s job is to never eat cake or fish n' chips. Poor thing.

Have you ever bought something you saw on a hanger in an impulse, then got it home and found that it looks like a dog’s dinner on you? Designers and manufactures are in the business of selling; they use the tools that work. As grownups, it’s our own fault if we fall for it. When one of ‘The Price Is Right’ spokes models (I don’t understand why they call them ‘spokes models’, they never say anything) sued Bob Barker for getting the sack when she gained weight and didn’t heed the warning to lose it, I was firmly on Bobby’s side. I wasn’t betraying the Sisterhood; the reality is – that woman was hired for the way she looked. If she had been a surgeon or a waitress or a dental hygienist or a CEO, she would have had a point to her weight-related lawsuit. However, if you’ve been hired to wear a bathing suit and wave your arms around a washing machine or a speedboat, you need to look as perfect as possible. That’s the job she picked and she broke the rules, so she got canned. That is totally reasonable to me.

Some women like to wear a bathing suit to show off prizes, some like to wear them to win prizes. Good for all of them!

Some women like to wear a bathing suit to show off prizes, some like to wear them to win prizes. Good for all of them!

Richards spent more hours on a treadmill in a day than you did sleeping last night

Richards spent more hours on a treadmill in a day than you did sleeping last night

Same with actresses, most of them are pretty much paid to look good. Why else would Megan Fox and Denise Richards have a career? I say that not to take the piss out of them but I would dismiss anyone’s argument that they are Royal Shakespeare Company material. And that’s cool, cos they’re not trying to be. They are stunning women that audiences like to look at on a screen. What does disturb me a little is I’m seeing this mad baby-weight-losing competition that’s being played out, gladiator-style, on magazine covers.

I don’t envy these women, I truly pity them but I don’t know them so it doesn’t affect me personally. I mention it only because it’s trickling down to women I do know, who think that they have to compete, and that does affect me personally. Sure, some women possess the natural ability to snap back after having a baby (my Mum happens to be one of these ‘gene jackpot’ winners but I don’t think I would be) but make no mistake, most of these actresses and models are on brutal diets and undergoing a grueling fitness regime almost as soon as the cord is cut. I’m not a mother but I imagine that the first couple of months with your new baby could be better spent bonding and nurturing rather than sweating off 20lbs or so in a frenzied panic. That’s the part we don’t see. Although an uncountable number of women give birth, your own body has been through a unique and extraordinary experience. Give it a break for a minute. Wanting to look your best and feel fit is a positive thing, if you’re doing it for yourself. If you’re doing it to keep up with Angelina Jolie, you’re an idiot. She doesn’t give a crap about you. You’re not an orphan from Cambodia, so why the hell should she?

In Movie and TV Land, beautiful people fall in love with other beautiful people. In reality, these folks are real people and have real lives too. I don’t like to make a habit of using people’s private lives to illustrate a point but have you ever wondered why quite a lot of famous and/or powerful men, who are married to beautiful women, run off with the nanny/their assistant/Camilla Parker-Bowles? It must be ego-tastic for a man to have an amazing specimen-of-a-woman on his arm – the looks and comments and general envy of other men has got to be a great feeling – Veni, Vidi, Vici. So why do so many of them stray from these goddesses to take up with the hired help? Maybe it gets tiring to always come in second to workouts, facials, 6-hour hair dressing sessions and shopping trips. Or perhaps, after a while, it’s more fun to go out to eat with someone who doesn’t just pick at their salad. This is not to say that all beautiful women are super high-maintenance and when they are, it’s probably the fear that if they let their looks slip they will lose their innate value, which would make anyone nuts.

Left: Diana Spencer was considered one of the most beautiful women and her husband wanted to be this woman’s tampon (don’t jump at me – he’s the one who said it) Middle and right: Ethan Hawke left Uma to run around NY with the nanny

Diana Spencer was considered one of the most beautiful women but her husband (Left) wanted to be Camilla’s tampon (don’t jump at me – he’s the one who said it) while Ethan Hawke left Uma (Center) to run around NY with the nanny (Right)

The thing is, cultivating all your attributes is key, physically, mentally and spiritually. A little vanity can be a really healthy, wonderful thing but what’s life without some cake and cheeseburgers? Or hanging around in your pajamas now and again? Or getting muddy? Or being seen without make up? There is something very comforting and stress-free about being “ordinary” and “everyday”. I put those words in quotes because I don’t believe that anyone is just ordinary but it stands to reason that the glare of a spotlight is just that – glare. Without the glare, you might not even notice these so-called beautiful people.

The fabulous Angelica

The fabulous Angelica

The truth is, with acting especially, you don’t really have to be teeny-tiny or a knockout to have a brilliant, lighting rod of a career. Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Angelica Houston to name a very few are not conventional beauties who wear size zero. But these women are considered ‘character actresses’.

Then again, I’m talking about making a decent living from acting, not being a ‘star’. If a woman chooses to present herself as a Leading Lady then body maintenance is, again, part of the job description and most go into that specific work force knowing this. It’s just a fact. There are plenty of careers that require weight restrictions – jockeys, astronauts, ballet dancers, gymnasts, boxers, showgirls-and-boys – we’re reconciled with that. But when it comes to a career built on illusion, we hop on actresses who become ‘too thin’ or ‘too fat’ instead of accepting the idea that what they look like is their choice. We’re not concerned for their well-being, so don’t dress it up like we are.

What we love to do instead is blame somebody like Mary-Kate Olsen for every other girl’s anorexia. I don’t know Mary-Kate but I can guarantee you that she wasn’t thinking of your daughter/sister/2nd cousin when she was starving herself and sticking her fingers down her throat. The girl had a serious illness and it shouldn’t have been fodder for some bullshit, pseudo-feminist campaign. The people who decry Hollywood starlets for ‘setting a bad example’ are normally self-righteous opportunists who should be checking on what their own kids are up to and/or putting that energy into an actual problem, like forced female circumcision. Set your own damn example instead of looking to Britney Spears to do it for you, and then crucifying the poor girl when she fouls up. Don’t join in the game; observe it for what it is and do a huge amount of grain-salt-taking. Educate young girls and boys that the real world is vastly different to the fictional one, so they don’t become the dumbasses that we apparently are today. This seems like a blatantly obvious thing to say but is this basic idea put into practice at all?

Artist’s renderings of General Joan of Arc and the 18th century Scourge of the Seas, Anne Bonny. Betcha they didn’t really look like this

Artist’s renderings of General Joan of Arc and the 18th century Scourge of the Seas, Anne Bonny. Betcha they didn’t really look like this

For myself, I am not immune to horrible self-criticism. I’m like every other woman in the world; sometimes I want to put a bag over my head and sometimes I think I’m so damn cute, I want to pinch my own cheeks – both sets. Most days, I do what I can with what I’ve got and I’m content with that. I can bitch and whine with the best of them but since it doesn’t do me any favours, I don’t bother because it’s a trade-off. I don’t have a perfectly-shaped nose but I have good, sculpted cheekbones. My eye-lids are too hooded for my liking but my eye-colour is a striking shade of green. I have a little tummy that no amount of crunches seems to fix but I have great legs, like my Aunt Brenda. I’ve learned to see my physical make-up as a legacy that’s been passed down from the many generations of my family that came before me – the good and the bad – just like personality traits. My dear departed Nana might be pissed off if I got rid of her ‘doesn’t-make-for-a-great-profile-nose’ because of something a magazine or TV or a movie ‘said’ to me. She did give me her fantastic dimples after all.

If you’re looking for true body images because you can’t cope with the false ones, don’t go to the movies. Don’t read comic books. Throw your TV out the window. Don’t go to art galleries. Never, ever go to a fashion show. Don’t watch sporting events. Avoid photographer’s studios. Don’t buy magazines. Cast your eyes away from billboards. If you can’t tell the difference between everyday life and the realm of entertainment fantasy, just don’t leave the house. We’ll all be much happier.

Left: Drew Barrymore as Drew Barrymore – Regular Girl. Right: Drew Barrymore as ‘Drew Barrymore’ – Movie Star

Left: Drew Barrymore as Drew Barrymore – Regular Girl. Right: Drew Barrymore as ‘Drew Barrymore’ – Movie Star.

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Alvean Jones March 26th, 2009

Excellent, excellent blog!
I was smiling, laughing and nodding my way through the whole thing! LOL!

Matthew March 26th, 2009

It’s true I don’t know any guy who yearns to look like George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Lauer. I’d add to your very enjoyable article Erin by saying we do have those yearnings to shape our bodies in the image of our favorite athletes. Being said, this isn’t for the same reasons a young girl might want to be like Angelina so I don’t say this in contradiction but just to add a male perspective. We don’t admire men whose good looks bring fortune and fame like your average cosmo-reader. We admire the men who jump the highest or run the fastest; and we’ll also try and channel a war hero or two. With athletes the admiration is purely physical and my aspiration to have a body like The Rock is only so I can be one of the last survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. -matthew

Sasha March 26th, 2009

“You’re not an orphan from Cambodia, so why the hell should she?”

This is a fabulously written piece. You made every good point that ever ought to be made. And I love your nose, so don’t you dare go messin’ with it!!!!

(; Sasha

melora donoghue March 28th, 2009

Erin, BRAVO on this article and good for you for bringing light to this topic! But with that said, I recommend a great book by a Harvard professor (Nancy Etcoff) called “Survival Of The Prettiest: The Science Of Beauty”. It actually goes into great detail about how this “body image” ordeal is not a Western or even modern phenomenon. In very distinct cultures across the globe, for thousands of years, women (even those in indigenous tribes) have been and still are judged for their physical being. Men look to women (whether they are aware of it or not) for physical signs that they are healthy enough to pass on their genes successfully. In the animal world it’s usually the men who take on the “beauty role”, e.g., the Peacock who wears his hue-filled plumage to attract his mate even though the heavy feathers impede his chances of survival. He can’t escape prey as fast as his female counterpart and he runs more of a risk of dying from parasites BUT he’ll do it all to attract his mate. Now think of those women who run up their credit cards for plastic surgery, spa maintenance, the latest diet, the newest Louis Vuitton bag, blah-blah-blah. Whether they are consciously aware or not, they do this all with the same motive as our male peacock. There are the amazing studies done about Hip to Waist ratio. It is calculated by measuring the waist circumference and dividing by the hip circumference at its widest part, 0.7 considered “perfect”. In times before fertility doctors and OctoMoms, there was no way of telling if a woman was fertile or healthy enough to survive pregnancy so men looked to a woman’s hip to waist ratio as an indicator. Today, scientists have been able to prove that women with hip to waist ratios within the 0.7 range actually ARE more successful at birthing, have less chance of heart disease and other terminal illnesses. The interesting thing about it all is Barbie, Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy and Venus de Milo all have the same hip to waist ratio!!!! So what does this all mean? Yes, maybe it’s true that we are judged by our physical being but I see awareness as the goal and a way to stop this mania over looks and to actually strive for healthiness in mind and spirit. Maybe men will always judge us physically but women will always have the ability to choose their mate. No matter how big their plumage or how fast their BMW goes, us women have the choice of whose sperm we want to bake or who we brush off with a wave of our pretty little wrist. And women aren’t victims in it all, we do the same to men. In the ancestral environment women chose the man of brawn and strength to protect them and hunt and gather for their family, today they look for the man with money. Looks aren’t as important to us but it doesn’t make us any less shallow. It is a crazy arms race between men and women, we both sadly have the same goal of survival (STILL) but we have opposing ways of obtaining the goal. Again, a spoonful of awareness goes a long way and I think human beings are the only species who actually have the ability to disrupt and possibly change our innate behaviors that no longer serve us. Some of us are already on the way…VIVA LA REVOLUCION!!
p.s. thanks for getting me thinking and for this awesome website…YOU ROCK AND INSPIRE!!!!!! Go Feeney with all your amazing BEAUTY!!!!

Nonny March 30th, 2009

Dove created a fast-motion video showing how a woman was transformed by makeup artists, hairstylists, and photo editors into a model for a photo shoot. It’s a great reminder of how imperfect the “perfect” women are. What really bothers me about the media obsession with beauty is not that they think we’re supposed to be that beautiful, but that they convince us that the men in our lives expect that kind of beauty. That was the subject of my long-postponed documentary – that most men don’t want what we’re told they want! And I totally dig your theory about why famous men cheat on their famous women…if only because it makes me feel better about enjoying those days when I just can’t bring myself to put on a clean pair of jeans! haha

One final note… In Mary-Kate and Ashley’s inaugural issue of their magazine (which I’m not even sure is still around), there was a prominently featured cover article about why every young girl was beautiful just the way she was. Maybe she couldn’t lead by example, but Miss Olsen was sending the right message, if anyone bothered to read it.

Howard April 1st, 2009

As you say, one can argue whether attitudes should be this way or not but I agree with your point of view of the reality of it. You don’t see many men going to strip clubs looking for inner beauty.

Anne Huarte April 7th, 2009

Bravo Erin! Loved this article — espec with the photo illustrations. Sometime in the past, I think I was in my 20s, I decided that “those magazines” were bad for my mind & stopped buying them. I mean, I actually did fall prey to gazing at these photos and comparing myself and thinking if only. Bleck! On the other side of that coin, and similar to the prior comment re: Nature’s call to procreate, I believe most of all of us humans, are atracted to Beauty. It feeds our soul and gives us pleasure — whether it is an Ed Moses painting, a Frank Gehry building, Mammoth’s majesty, Pavarotti’s voice, or a heavily shadowed eye peering through black lace netting. Wanting to look at beauty is not evil, it is just how we all are, sensory creatures.

Erin May 1st, 2009

Thanks for all your comments. And, just to prove that I’m really not above it – Thanks for saying you love my nose, Sasha! ;-)

D.J. September 12th, 2009

Well done lovely Erin. I’m so tired of the hero worship it’s so boring. It’s so out there and doesn’t leave anything to the imagination and now it seems to be really hazardous especially to young people.
And this obsession with looks and money! I agree it’s an obsession that’s been around forever but there was a work ethic that went along with that drive usually.

And you’re right we need to be our own examples. There are so many really worthy humans we can worship besides the so called “celebrities” that can lose the baby weight in a few hours and document it on the cover of People Ragazine. It can be fun to dabble like eating junk food once in a while but a steady diet.

Ricky November 3rd, 2010

I really like what you are refering to here; you know, with our obsession with beauty and all that. The thing about it is that we all are the way we are to attract a mate (or possibly multiple ones) and continue to populate. But what we aren’t realizing any more is that ALTERING looks doesn’t change genetics. If you change your nose, then you will look better- -if they don’t botch it up- -but your child will still inherit your old nose! It’s cruel, but changing your looks like that doesn’t amount to anything but a waste of money, people. So why SHOULD we look up to Cosmo?

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