I'm a women/gender studies minor. It had to come up eventually.
The topic of body image is a very popular one in the American culture today due to an increased awareness of eating disorders and general body dissatisfaction in women and men alike (though mostly in young white females). By now, we all know how ridiculous the media's "ideal" body is. We've seen the "life size" Barbie dolls that wouldn't be able to stand up on their own. We know about the wonders of Photoshop, and we've seen at least one video of how models are airbrushed to "perfection." We know the reality of teens suffering from anorexia and bulimia; we've seen pictures of the bones protruding from their bodies. And yet we still have this stubborn mental image of a perfect body: the tall, lean woman with perfect skin, long hair, and plump breasts. Not only is this the image of perfection, but it is also the image of beauty.
So what of the girls who don't identify with this image? They aren't tall, they aren't lean, and their skin is far from perfect. They come to see this image of beauty as the only one, and, if they don't look like the image, then they are not beautiful--they may even be ugly.
The biggest problem with this image is the weight of the "perfect" body. Models are almost always incredibly skinny; when was the last time you saw an ad with a fat person--or even a normal size person for that matter-advertising your favorite jeans, cereal, or makeup? Tune into any fashion show and you'll see it: unnaturally skinny women. So, if only tiny women are allowed to model popular--subjectively beautiful--clothing, then how can the rest of us possibly hope to achieve beauty if we weigh more than they do?
Yes, there has been much coverage, and backlash, on the modeling industry. People know about it. But simply knowing does not change this image of beauty that has been ingrained in our minds and in our culture so thoroughly that we can't even imagine a different kind of beauty. Consciously or not, women still compare themselves (and other women) to that image of perfection, as do men. I can't go a day without hearing someone belittle their body, saying "I'm too fat," "I eat too much," or even something like "I hate my body." Many times, I do this to myself. I know how damaging it is to my self-esteem, yet I continue to do it.
So how can we break free from this nasty image of perfection and the damaging self-criticism that comes from it? I can't pretend that I have an answer that would free our women from this media-driven image. Many are trying to change the image of beauty in our society by including a few "curvy" models to the lineup of skinny women. However, these women are scarce--the exception rather than the rule.
On a more personal level, I plan on changing my perspective. I have to stop belittling my body. It's my body, and I've just got to live with it (maybe even learn to love it). I am working out: not only to lose weight but to gain more energy and get stronger. I am trying to eat healthier foods with an understanding that it will help my body function better, which will in turn make me feel better.
I know that there is a long road ahead of me. I cannot change my entire way of thinking overnight. But, with a lot of work and willpower, along with a few inspirational women, I can change the way I think and feel about myself. Am I beautiful? Not yet. But I am trying.