Almost 10 million women in the UK ‘feel depressed’ because of the way they look, according to new research kicking off Body Confidence Week. But campaigns to address the problem too often miss the point
We need to talk about body image. New findings from the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey reveal that only 63% of women aged 18-34 and 57% of women aged 35-49 are satisfied with their appearance.
In a world obsessed with women’s bodies, we are bombarded with images of them, usually undressed, often in dehumanised pieces, at every turn. But though we see women’s bodies everywhere, it’s only really one body that we’re seeing, over and over again. Usually a young, thin, white, toned, large-breasted, long-legged, non-disabled body.
Funnily enough, that’s not what most women’s bodies look like. But the airbrushed media ideal is so powerful and so omnipresent that women find themselves comparing their own bodies to it anyway, and finding themselves wanting. The results are devastating. A recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image found that girls as young as five are worrying about their size and appearance, and that one in four seven-year-old girls have tried to lose weight at least once. And, as the BSA survey results show, a preoccupation with body image affects women throughout their lives, not just in their youth. It holds women back by eroding their confidence both at work and socially. New research coinciding with Body Confidence Week found that almost 10 million women in the UK “feel depressed” because of the way they look and 36% avoid exercise because of insecurity about their looks.
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Unrealistic media ideals of female beauty have spawned a multitude of “body confidence” campaigns, but many, like the Sun’s recently launched No More Skinny, only seem to want to shift us from coveting one ideal to another. Supported by male celebrities including singer Olly Murs and rapper Professor Green, an article about the campaign in the paper’s Bizarre column quoted Murs lamenting: “Gone are the days of Marilyn Monroe …” and later continuing, “Sometimes skinny women can look attractive – but it is too dangerous.” By referencing Monroe, famously a sex symbol, and foregrounding the issue in women’s attractiveness, the message once again seems to be about women adjusting their body shape to appeal to men’s desire. Not to mention the fact that a curvaceous shape like Monroe’s is just as unattainable for many women as a very thin physique. It misses the point entirely.
When you visit the latest column about “No More Skinny” on the Sun’s website , the sidebar alongside the piece includes links to the following articles: “Enter our Sun Lurves Curves comp to win £1K prize and modelling contract” … “Lose 7lbs in 7 days with the Sun’s new Back to School diet” … “I shed 1st 9lb on Sun Slimmers diet … and you can too” … “Bianca Gascoigne: ‘I lost a stone in six weeks on the No-Diet Diet’.”
Confused? I am. It’s hardly “empowering” to encourage women to eschew thinness in a media outlet presenting reams of methods offering to help them lose weight. (Nor, for that matter, one that publishes a regular picture of a usually slim, white, large breasted, young woman topless on page 3). But the deeper point here is that trying to shift the ideal body shape shouldn’t be the ultimate aim anyway – we need to stop judging people by their looks in the first place.
Worries about body image impact on both men and women – the BSA survey found that only three quarters of men are satisfied with their appearance. But while it is true that we are all bombarded with idealistic images of bodies to aspire to, there is a marked difference in the scale and context of the problem. When the Times Magazine ran a picture of David Gandy in his underwear on the front cover last month, many people tweeted it to the Everyday Sexism Twitter account, presumably to point out that objectification is an issue that affects men, too. But the incident was the perfect example of the sort of context in which we tend to see these images of men’s bodies – on an underwear model, in an article specifically about his new underwear range. Compare it to the multitude of front pages showing women who are generally not models partially or fully nude – in articles not related to underwear – while their male colleagues remain fully clothed. Or the coverage of female politicians’ legs and fashion choices compared to men’s voting records and credentials. Or this recent ad showing female founders and CEOs of tech companies in their underwear. Male equivalents? Not so much. To give another example, while men are portrayed as rounded, full characters in Hollywood films, women are often reduced to inconsequential sex objects. Women took just 28% of speaking parts in hit US films in 2012, while 32% of female parts and over 50% of teenage girl parts were sexualised.
This insistence on valuing and judging women’s bodies first and their careers or personalities second is insidious and powerful. In a world that holds up ridiculous and unrealistic standards as ideal, it means they are always doomed to fall short.
Telling us curvy is better, or patronising us by suggesting we are our own worst body critics and should magically “snap out of it”, isn’t going to help. Women will stop worrying about their looks when society stops telling us that they’re all we’re worth. Let’s focus on that first.