Archives for Body Image
If you’ve been reading Real World Research for a while, you may remember the “fat old bitch” incident. (If not, read about it here, and here.) The current fracas over Rush Limbaugh’s unbelievably inappropriate sexist rant against Sandra Fluke brings this back to my mind I’m going to use this opportunity to recommend a new documentary I’ve seen twice now and could easily sit through again. It’s called Miss Representation, and it’s all about how the media’s representation of women shapes our attitudes and contributes to women's lack of power in this country. Lack of power? The “feminazis”? Don't be silly. We're modern, liberated, in-charge women. I wish. Consider this: Women are 51 percent of the population but only 17 percent of Congress. America ranks 90th in the world in women in legislature. Even China is more progressive than we are in that respect. Women hold a whopping three percent of power positions in the media—and that includes TV, radio, publishing, online media—all of it. So this means that pretty much everything we (and, more importantly, our children) see in the media is filtered through the sensibilities of men—and that is not to our benefit.
My last post, about the effects of wearing cosmetics on people’s perceptions of women's competence, raises some compelling issues, discussed in the comments, in which one woman takes me to task for an article she says is “disheartening to say the least.” She continues, “Why must a woman conform to society’s fascist beauty standards to be deemed acceptable? Articles like these contribute to all the artificial beauty and body images projected towards girls and women in every day media.” I don’t entirely disagree with this view. I’ve written many times in the past about the messages women get, about body image in particular. (Check out Am I Fat? Who the Hell Knows, for one.) Do I feel the same way about cosmetics? Certainly I object to any suggestion that cosmetics should help us hew to some sort of standard definition of beauty, and I don't believe cosmetics should be a condition of employment. But cosmetics don't change us, they just jazz us up a little. And I admit, I’ve always thought women were kind of lucky to have the option of wearing cosmetics, particularly on those mornings after a night of too much fun. I’m definitely not the kind of woman who can’t leave the house without “putting on my face,” but I also admit to preferring my appearance with a light glazing of makeup. I’ve been thinking about this research and what it means for women. Yes, in some ways it it is a little disheartening. But in another way, having this knowledge provides women with what could be a useful piece of information.
This blog celebrated its first anniversary on January 1, so I am therefore compelled (it's the law) to reflect on the past year. Writing Real World Research has been fun and also a lot of work. I read a lot more research than I end up writing about. Academic writing is no easy read and I am eternally grateful to those researchers who manage to slip a little joke in here and there. Some papers are so dense that even if the topic is compelling, my eyes cross and I can’t hack my way through them. I have no one to blame but myself---I decided to focus this blog on research. Sometimes I hate myself for choosing a theme that so often forces me in way over my head. Still, one of the perks of being a writer is that I get paid for finding out stuff I want to know. Reading and writing about research has taught me all kinds of useful things which, as the blog title suggests, I can take into the real world. So to reflect on the past year, here is some of the stuff I learned writing Real World Research in 2011 that has been most useful to me.
It’s almost October and you know what that means: Here come the goblins, ghosts, witches, and sluts! The sleaziness of women’s (and little girls’) Halloween costumes has become an annual gripe for mommies and feminists. But my friend Jeannine Gailey, PhD, a sociologist at Texas Christian University, clued me in on what might be the most appalling costume ever created: Anna Rexia, the sexy side of a life-threatening eating disorder. Yikes. The model dressed as someone starving herself to death is slender, yes. Even skinny. But her breasts strain to escape the bodice that barely contains them. Her skin glows, her hair is shiny, her eyes have a come-hither sparkle. She doesn’t look the least bit like a woman with anorexia. She looks like a woman ready to take control with her womanly wiles. Gailey also sent me a 2009 article she published in Critical Criminology, titled ‘‘Starving Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have’’: The Pro-Ana Subculture as Edgework."
I’ve noticed that one way to get a lot of hits on a blog post is to write about weight loss. It’s not a bad way to sell books either. The week of August 8, three of the top ten books on the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestsellers list address weight loss. Magazine racks are a flesh market: Fitness, Shape, Men’s Health, Health, Men’s Fitness, Women’s Health, all screaming A BIKINI BODY NOW!...FLATTER BELLY, THINNER THIGHS…and MELT 1,200 CALORIES TODAY. We can’t get enough of the stuff. A lot of what we read is the same information rearranged over and over. Eat less, exercise more. Fruits and vegetables good, saturated fats bad. And yet we keep reading and watching and fretting, as if one day we will open one of these magazines and find the magical formula that will keep us trim, taut, and healthy with minimal effort. Not only that, but my morning paper today included two items about female celebrities and their weight: Jennifer Hudson said she’s prouder or her weight loss than her Oscar, and that, “I didn’t even know I was considered plus-sized until I came to Hollywood.” And Anne Hathaway said that to maintain a newly toned and taut bod, “I’m living on kale and dust.” What is with us? Why is that interesting? Why are we so coo-coo about weight? And we turn to the same people that convinced us we’re all fat, to tell us how to not be fat. Coo-coo. And now research suggests that women might be likely to believe the media over loved ones when assessing their own bodies.
According to research that will be published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, women are more likely to buy clothes and make-up their teenage daughters like than the other way around. A press release explains: The study, conducted through questionnaires, sampled 343 mother-daughter pairs, with an average age of 44 for the mothers and 16 for the daughters. The researchers found that if a mother is young at heart, has high fashion consciousness and views her daughter as a style expert, she will tend to doppelgang her daughter’s consumption behavior. Heavens to Betsy. I can no more imagine my mother "doppelganging" (way to verbify a noun, guys) me when I was a teenager than I could imagine her robbing a bank. The thought makes me giggle. My mother was very stylish—she made her living designing dresses for little girls—and favored classic lines, elegant pumps, and discreet gold jewelry. I, on the other hand, passed through fashion phases from hippie chick to disco queen to punk rocker, none of which my mother would ever have dreamed of trying, even on a lark My mother hated the way I ringed my eyes with dark makeup. (“It makes you look tired.”) She was always pushing my hair out of my face. (“You have such a pretty face.”) She thought my disco platforms were Frankenstein shoes. (“Ick.")
When I was a teenager in a predominately Jewish girls’ summer camp, we had a little joke: For your sweet sixteen, you got either a pearl ring or a nose job. Several friends opted for the nose. I didn’t, although my nose is no less prominent than theirs were. I like my nose just fine. I have a nose like my mother had and my father had and my brother has. And my grandfather had, for that matter, although I am glad I didn't get his ears. One might even say we have Jewish noses, if one says it with affection, as I do, though many people don’t. (I have a name for people like that. And here’s an interesting article about the term “Jewish nose” in the Journal of the American Medical Association.) I’ve always been grateful to Barbra Streisand for keeping her nose. It’s a proud nose, a trademark nose. Cher broke my heart a little when she had her nose shaved down to something more pert. She lost a lot of what made her look like her. I saw Dolly Parton perform the other night. It was an outstanding evening (here’s my review) but I was troubled through the entire show because Dolly no longer looks like Dolly. I kept waiting for her to take off her mask and be Dolly again. She jokes about her surgery, but when she said something about being a “show horse” and having to keep up her appearance, I felt sad. Joan Rivers also makes me sad. Meg Ryan makes me sad. Kenny Rogers makes me sad. Melanie Griffith makes me sad.
[/caption] Guys know better. When the woman in their life asks, “Do I look fat?” guys respond, “Gosh, I love you more every day, honey,” or “Now would be a great time for me to start painting the kitchen, don’t you think?” or “Hey, is that a UFO up there?” Anything to avoid fat talk. For women, however, fat talk is social currency. A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Mimi Nichter, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting. Nichter coined the phrase "fat talk." You know what she means—that familiar conversation among girls and women that starts with one saying, “I’m so fat,” to which the other is expected to respond, “Oh no, you look great but my thighs are HUGE,” to which the proper response is, “YOUR thighs are huge? Look at MINE!” and so on. “It’s very common everyday discourse among girls,” Nichter says (although she found less body dissatisfaction among African American girls than among Caucasian and Hispanic girls). “And it’s culturally appropriate. It’s actually a way of creating solidarity among girls. You’re opening yourself up. It’s a way of sharing and disclosure.”
The first step to regaining a healthy weight is loving your body as it is. Research says so: Researchers in Portugal compared a control group of women trying to lose weight with diet and exercise advice only, with a group who also received an intervention focused on body image. The scientists took various psychological and physical measurements for a baseline, and again a year later. What they found was that women who had received the intervention had better body image after a year, and had lost more weight. Body image was measured a few ways: self-perception (what you think you look like compared to an ideal), and dysfunctional investment (worrying about your appearance too much). Dysfunctional investment breaks down again into body shape concerns (my thighs are enormous) and social physique anxiety (I’m the fattest girl here). And in the end, dysfunctional investment appears to be the real enemy here. It seems the less we fret over our (perceived or real) fat, the more likely we are to lose it.
What an interesting few days I’ve had. I write about various topics in my work, including music. Last week, I wrote a blog post for a local newsweekly’s website in which I was critical of a local band. It had snarky moments—Dallas/Fort Worth, where I live, is a snarky media market. But it had a point, and I didn’t accuse anyone of kicking puppies or eating babies or anything. I expected a rough-and-tumble response. I thought I knew what I was getting into. Being called bitchy, perhaps. An F-bomb or two, since I threw one myself. But one of the members of the band is a delicate blossom who also happens to be on a hugely popular afternoon drive-time radio show. And although his show’s stock-in-trade is snarky, Delicate Blossom was devastated by my criticism. He was so upset that he ranted first on his Facebook page, and then on the air. I have avoided direct contact with both of his rants because I’m busy and a little neurotic and I don’t have time be thrown off my game any more than necessary. But I do know the gist of what he said, and the words “fat old bitch” are involved. Also “ugly.” Obviously, I have nothing but disdain for anyone with so little imagination that the only way he can argue is Neanderthal slurs. And I’m puzzled that anyone so thin-skinned is in show business. I tried to shrug this off as just the little crybaby hissyfit it is. Except it’s not.