Feminism, Body Image

Body Image and Feminism

Feminism“I hate my body; I’m a bad feminist.” Many of my 20-something clients self-identify as feminists, but they worry that their body image issues undermine the sisterhood. Aside from the burden of counting each and every calorie, closely monitoring their BMI, and reassuring themselves that they still have the requisite “thigh gap, ” many young women live with the guilt of betraying their own feminism. They obsess about their body shapes and then berate themselves for doing so.

Feminism has done wonders to expose the objectification of women. In 1914, the right to “ignore fashion” was included in the list of demands for gender equality in the United States. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s critiqued the notion that women should constantly seek to improve their bodies. In Susan Bordo’s 1993 book Unbearable Weight, she explores how the unrealistically thin ideal serves to oppress women. In other words, we’ve been talking about this issue for ages, and yet, young women still strive for the thin ideal.

"…girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This perspective on self can lead to habitual body monitoring, which, in turn, can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, …”

In their research, Fredrickson and Roberts found

  • Women are gazed at more frequently than men
  • Women are more likely to feel “looked at” in interpersonal situations
  • Men direct more nonreciprocal gazes at women in public places
  • Men’s gazes are often accompanied by sexually evaluative commentary, which tends to be most derogatory of women of color

Now these observations are from studies conducted in the 1980s; we’re past all that, right? Um, no.

Women’s bodies are continuously scrutinized, evaluated, objectified, sexualized, and picked apart. And not just by men. As Frederickson and Roberts theorize, women internalize this cultural dynamic and start to objectify themselves.

The difference now, though, is that men and women alike are challenging this external pressure. But with this challenge comes anxiety and stress, which is often played out internally.

As mammals, we’re designed to follow the “herd” to ensure our survival. However, our contemporary lives do not always require this “pack” mentality. Our brains are still catching up, though. The logic center of the brain says, “I am more than a number on the scale!” but the deep mammal brain pokes at us, urging us to follow the broadly held message. Challenging a longstanding, deeply held societal belief poses a threat, which can trigger anxiety.

As much as we like to think we are all single-minded, independent people, resisting cultural pressures is extremely difficult and energy depleting.

The remedy lies in re-connecting to our inner wise selves. At our core, we know that our value is not connected to our body shapes. But invalidating messages from the culture undermine our ability to stay rooted in our true selves.

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