‘Femininity as spectacle is something in which virtually every woman is required to participate.’
Human bodies are under constant scrutiny to look, behave and take up space in a particular way. Growing up girl, I have experienced first-hand the pressures that are placed on women to carry out the social ideal of femininity. For as long as I can remember, I have been conditioned to believe that I must look a specific way, and if I fail to fit this prescribed criteria then I am ugly and therefore unsuccessful and hold less value. The media has consistently promoted a particular image of perfection to me, something that I should aim towards embodying – the conventionally attractive woman. Supermodels and social media influencers are celebrated as performing femininity ‘perfectly’, which leaves women like me desiring more from our bodies. We wish we were thinner, or had curves, had bigger boobs, or smaller tummies, had longer legs, and peachier bums. Women are deterred from loving their natural selves at all costs. The ‘natural’ woman is rarely celebrated or represented in the media, because it is much harder to make money off of a woman who loves herself. Instead, there is a large focus on what women can do to improve themselves…how they can change their bodies in order to mimic the appearance of the conventionally attractive woman that we see being celebrated and praised so highly in the media. Performing femininity ‘perfectly’ seems to serve as an inescapable requirement that all women must endeavour to achieve, no matter the cost…
‘I say I love myself, and they’re like, “oh my gosh”, she’s so brave. She’s so political. For what? All I said is “I love myself, bitch!”’
Trends and norms of feminine appearance seem to change drastically over time, meaning the pursuit of this feminine ideal can be a confusing and somewhat dangerous territory to navigate. Due to these frequent changes in bodily trends though, there is an unreasonable degree of pressure placed on women to keep up with this ‘perfect woman’ ideal, which can often lead to us carrying out appearance-related rituals that compromise our mental and physical health. For years now, I have been carrying out disciplines and routines to ‘better’ myself, by making small changes to my body. I exercise, diet, wear makeup, buy new clothes, paint my nails, style my hair, do skincare routines, shave my body hair, wear perfume, get piercings, apply fake-tan…the list goes on. I have tried fad diets, meal replacement shakes and even bought pills which work by suppressing your hunger. Weirdly, these rituals seem to disguise themselves as things I just do for ‘self-care’, to make me feel better. It’s interesting to me the relationship I have between feeling happiness and looking like anything but my natural self. My automatic assumption that to be happy is to be pretty, thin and conventionally attractive. But then I remember that we live in a capitalist-functioning society that rewards women for adhering to the ideals of feminine beauty that the media shoves down our throats (and has done since we were little). I think that from a very young age, girls are encouraged to believe that if they look feminine, behave in a feminine way and have feminine values and interests (whatever this even means), then they have somehow won, or achieved something… If we are thin and beautiful and we fit in, that this equates to our success and therefore our happiness. We are told off when we do things that ‘aren’t ladylike’, or if we are wearing outfits that are considered ‘slutty’ or ‘too revealing’; we are politely reminded that only ‘really skinny girls wear those dresses’ and that being ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ is unattractive and something that we should steer clear of.
It’s not at all surprising then, that often girls feel inadequate and learn to hate their bodies. Fad diets, Botox and cosmetic surgery, hunger-suppressant pills, meal-replacement shakes, and excessive exercise seem to serve as a solution for us to ensure that we don’t become this fat and ugly monster that we are all too often poisoned against? Recently though, I have seen that girls seem to be hating their bodies at a much younger age, they are embarking on these dangerous ‘solutions’ and feeling the need to alter themselves when they are still kids. But when celebrities, and social media influencers, and even ‘normal’ young women in their 20s/30s who these girls look up to as role models, are promoting vitamins that give you better hair and skin, pills that suppress appetite, teas that reduce ageing, meal replacement shakes, skinny tea/coffees that are filled with laxatives, waist trainers, and Botox and cosmetic surgery, to young, vulnerable, and easily influenced girls, I think it’s easier to understand how these children can come to hate themselves. No girl should be led to believe that it is healthy to suppress their hunger, or consume laxatives, or squash their bodies into tiny waist trainers (which can severely damage our internal organs), or drink a shake rather than eat a meal. Why are women of all ages, but particularly girls between the ages of 15-25 encouraged to drink tea to reduce their ageing??? I wish the people who promote these products would think about how damaging these habits are and take responsibility as role models who have the power to influence young girls, who don’t need any more added pressure to look perfect. I wish they could understand, that preserving the mental and physical health of young girls is more important than making money from destroying the self-worth of children. Having said this, it seems easier to understand why it is considered such a political statement, for women to declare that they love themselves.
There is an obsession surrounding the rhetoric of losing weight, looking younger, before and after/transformation pictures, going on ‘health kicks’, detoxing and how to obtain the perfect ‘summer’ and ‘bikini’ body (this one is actually astonishingly toxic to me – why have we been taught to think that our bodies are seasonal? In winter, they’re not allowed to be seen, they are being trained to perfection for the big reveal in summer…Our bodies are not school projects or artistic sculptures that we don’t want anyone to see until they are finished or look perfect). When I think about it, I’ve never heard anyone speak about losing weight in a negative context, women seem to gain respect, value and likeability after sharing their weight loss journey. I often hear ‘she’s lost so much weight’, closely followed by something like, ‘doesn’t she look amazing’. It’s worrying to me, that at 23 years old, I’m only just starting to really understand how damaging these comments are.
‘You can’t hate yourself happy. You can’t criticize yourself thin. You can’t shame yourself worthy. Real change begins with self-love and self-care.’
‘Hating our bodies is something that we learn, and it sure as hell is something that we can unlearn.’
Megan Jayne Crabbe
For quite a while now, me and my body have had a mutual understanding that we make each other sad. I don’t blame my body for that (although I have in the past), but growing up girl and trying to cope with the pressures of being and looking like the right ‘type’ of person has had a detrimental effect on my mental health. On several occasions, I have found myself terrified to take up space or be seen in public because I have been ashamed and disgusted at the way I look. Growing up, I would often cancel plans because I didn’t feel comfortable seeing other people. If my sister and friends managed to persuade me to come out, I would try on clothes or look in the mirror and just cry, then I would force myself to exercise, cry again and find something to wear that still didn’t look nice but also didn’t look completely awful (or as awful as it did half an hour ago before my exercise), and then I would let myself go out. I wouldn’t be filled with confidence, but soon enough I would be drunk so I wouldn’t care/notice as much. (Shoutout to Fern and Yasmin for dealing with my shit and getting me through that time). I truly hated my body and punished myself for it at every opportunity. I had internalised feelings of guilt which meant that my relationship with food was awful. I would often find that I was starving/depriving myself of food, and when I got to university, I would occasionally make myself sick so that I wouldn’t feel so guilty for eating. I have had friends in the past who told me I had ‘Body Dysmorphia’, but I was in denial about that too. I remember thinking, I’m not mistaken, I know what I can see in the mirror, I just don’t like it, I don’t have a problem, I just need to change the way I look, and then I will be happy. It’s weird because when I think about it now, I can see how irrational and problematic all of that behaviour was, but at the time it’s very easy to convince yourself that you don’t deserve to be happy unless you look a particular way.
When I think about the relationship I have had with my own body, it makes me really worried for younger girls who are yet to navigate this complex relationship that the vast majority of women go through with their bodies. But what makes me most sad when I think about the constant pressure that female bodies face, is that I have never met a girl who feels, or has always felt, completely secure in her own skin. The vast majority of us seem to experience this horrendous rites of passage, filled with self-hatred and criticism. Research suggests that 86% of women are ‘dissatisfied with their bodies’ and want to lose weight, with only 2% of women around the world describing themselves as ‘beautiful’. In addition, ‘women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity’. The NHS has suggested that anorexia and eating disorders in younger children may be increasing. In 2019, they revealed that, ‘child and adolescent psychiatrists reported 305 new cases of anorexia during an 8-month period, among children and young people with an average age of between 14 to 15 years. Overall, that translated to around 14 new cases of anorexia per 100, 000 young people aged 8 to 17 each year.’ These statistics demonstrate the cultural obsession with dieting and the pressure women face to attain the feminine ideal, that only seems to be worsening and becoming more and more out of control. Perhaps a more refined focus on recognising the beauty within our true, natural selves and representing diverse female bodies, rather than the perceived beauty in enforced ideals would significantly reduce the number of women and children who suffer from diseases associated with poor mental and physical health.
‘Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.’
Me and my body are getting along much better now. I appreciate what she does for me rather than hating her for what she looks like. It seems I have finally realised that ALL bodies are worth celebrating, including mine.
It still frustrates me when people pass judgements based on the appearance of others, but hopefully one day in the future, they will realise how damaging their words can be and that there are far better things to do with their time. I don’t expect body/appearance shaming to end tomorrow, or that people will stop making money by looking like and promoting the ‘perfect woman’. But I hope with the current traction of the body positivity movement as well as developments in the representation of diverse bodies e.g. the Savage Fenty show (I would highly recommend watching if you haven’t already, and choose to buy Savage Fenty instead of Victoria’s Secret); that people will be able to see their beautiful, normal, body types being reflected back to them, popularised and celebrated, and will hopefully be less likely to undertake gruelling processes to change themselves to fit into a rigid mould that society expects of us.
As we enter the Holiday/New Year season, I think it is important to be mindful of the toxic rhetoric that surrounds New Year resolutions and goals. Let’s be a little more kind to each other and ourselves. Don’t let yourself feel bad for eating, or feel the need to eat extremely clean/minimally now so that you can ‘treat’ yourself over Christmas, don’t put ridiculous amounts of pressure on yourself to lose that quarantine weight. Make your New Year’s Resolution to become healthier, or increase fitness, to get into yoga or meditation, rather than to weigh less or look thinner or anything that reinforces being this unrealistic image of the ‘perfect woman’. Uplift friends, family and strangers with compliments instead of making insulting/judgemental comments. Make an effort to unlearn negative stereotypes and call people out for their objectification and sexualisation of the female form. Look in the mirror and compliment yourself as though you would a friend. We will likely be bombarded with sales pitches from members of pyramid schemes to encourage us to buy products to get that bikini body for 2021, but let’s avoid buying into this punishment and reward rhetoric where we are convinced by others that our appearance needs fixing. Remember, there is no one ‘perfect’ body. Bikini and Summer bodies do not exist. Our bodies are unique and incredible, they do so much for us. ALL of them deserve to be celebrated and loved. Let’s avoid any appearance-related judgements and prioritise mental and physical health after a truly challenging year.
‘And I said to my body softly, “I want to be your friend.” It took a long breath and replied, “I have been waiting my whole life for this.”’
Listen to Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), by Baz Luhrmann