Does Katy Perry have good body image? That is, does she have positive feelings about her body, and generally perceive little difference between how she actually looks, and how she would ideally like to look (the rubric by which body image is frequently measured)?
What about other stars who wear little and reveal much? Kim Kardashian, for example. Does she love her body?
I got to thinking about whether we can discern someone’s body image after reading a post by Ashley at Nourishing the Soul. Ashley has just announced that she is taking nominations for websites, bloggers, organizations, and celebrities who promote good body image (which is a fantastic way to celebrate those who counterbalance negative messages and provide inspiration).
But the celebrity category made me wonder: how do we know if someone has good body image, or if she is “body positive” as Ashley puts it?
I’m quite sure that we make inferences about body image all the time, largely based on what someone is wearing. We likely assume that a skimpy outfit reflects confidence; we believe that if you flaunt it, it’s because you love it. And we have a hard time acknowledging that someone considered to be an ideal beauty would not have fantastic body image, because just look at her! Millions of women around the world would kill for her body, so there’s no question that she’s confident. Right?
In reality, we can’t accurately make conclusions about someone’s body image without one essential thing: her words. We don’t truly know how she feels unless she tells us.
Stars dress as they do for a variety of reasons, many of which relate to economic viability and career longevity. To survive, most celebs have to dress the part and display their bodies in a very public way (e.g., on the red carpet). In addition, it’s likely there are underlying psychological motives at play, such as the need to fit in or be liked. Sexism certainly contributes, too, as reflected by the fact that women are subject to far more appearance-based scrutiny and discrimination than their male counterparts.
And then there is the element of performance, or wearing something because image is not just image, it is the act; it is the show. Clothing choice (and the extent to which the body is revealed) is as important as vocal or theatrical talent. Think Lady Gaga.
The public often learns, after the fact, that an actor or model or member of the royal family has had an eating disorder or otherwise hated her body, despite every indication to the contrary. And we are shocked (shocked!) that so-and-so was able to hide it, because wouldn’t we have known? (Isn’t that what People magazine is for, after all?)
Apparently not. As it turns out, a star’s willingness to strut her stuff in a peacock-like display does not reliably indicate positive body image. And in fact the opposite may be true: such parading may disguise deep dissatisfaction and shame.
In addition to how celebrities feel about their own bodies, there is also the issue of how they affect the body image of others. For instance, how does a 13-year-old react when she sees pictures of Kim Kardashian in a bikini, or Miley Cyrus in the much-discussed Vanity Fair shoot?
Research suggests that media exposure can negatively impact body image and self-esteem, as well as contribute to a drive for thinness, in girls as young as 5 years old. If we imagine the cumulative effect of such exposure over the course of a lifetime, it’s easy to see why girls and women have internalized the message that weight and appearance are critical to happiness and acceptance.
But is it a celebrity’s responsibility to worry about her impact on the body image of others, anyway?
I very much admire Kate Winslet, who has talked about the fact that she does not diet or pursue corporeal perfection. She was once quoted as saying, “This is who I am and look at me not being perfect!” about refusing to lose weight for nude scenes in her film, The Reader. But is she fulfilling a responsibility by accepting her body (and thereby suggesting that others—including young, impressionable fans—could do the same), or just acting as a decent human being? Or perhaps her motivations have nothing to do with others, and are purely in her own self interest.
Kate aside, there seems to be a fundamental feminist issue at hand: should a celebrity be responsible only for herself, or for the impact that she has on others? Does her individual right to self-determination conflict with the best interest of the masses?
In some ways these are ridiculous questions, as there is no way that a celebrity (or anyone else, for that matter) can take responsibility for the responses of others, for the insecurity or inadequacy or competition that she (unknowingly or not) incites. And it’s important to note that men are rarely subject to these questions, which tells us that men are allowed to be autonomous, while women are expected to think about the collective good and take care of others.
Celebrities (just like the rest of us), should have the ability to wear what they please. But, their impact is enormous, and it would be helpful if they remembered this while going about their business and choosing clothes and snorting cocaine and popping diet pills and starving themselves. Is this a fair expectation? I’m not sure. Is it what I want from them? In most ways, yes.
Perhaps the most reasonable hope (if hope can be subject to reason) is that celebrities take good care of themselves for themselves; that they choose to live good, productive, and healthy lives for their own sake.
And in the meantime, we can choose to honor and celebrate stars who show us that it’s possible to be body positive, even in the most critical of environments.
Kate Winslet, you get my vote.
So what do you think? Can you tell if someone has positive body image by looking? Which celebrities inspire you and why? And what about the whole issue of responsibility: should stars care about how they impact the public?
These are not rhetorical questions—I really want to know, so comment away! And be sure to go to Nourishing the Soul to submit your nominations.
Last reviewed: 17 Dec 2010