Body Image: The History Of Body Hate And How To Change It
Here is a good question: Why have womenís feelings about their bodies been
so horribly painful to
them? In search of the answer, you have probably read a lot of articles about
dieting, self-loathing and eating disorders. And you have probably looked in the
mirror and disliked some part of your body Ė as if that "part" were bad or wrong
and if it could only be changed everything would be okay. In this article you
have a chance to look at why and how women have been encouraged, programmed and
coerced into disliking, even hating, their bodies by a culture which perpetuates
female self-loathing. You have the opportunity to discover why you may be
struggling to love your own body and yourself.
As psychotherapists we are interested in helping women to create a healthy
inner-personal life: mind, soul and spirit. As we help women to define and
understand who they are as unique human beings, we also want them to recognize
that we live in a culture that tells us many things about ourselves Ė some are
true and some are untrue. These cultural messages have a profound effect on us
whether we know it or not. Thus, as women in search of emotional well-being, we
need to form our own authentic vision and values in the face of cultural
messages, especially harmful ones.
Author Mary Pipher, in her wonderful book The Shelter of Each Other, reminds
parents that they need to positively influence their children because cultural
icons such as The Spice Girls and Madonna, as well as MTV, the fashion industry
and every possible advertisement are planting messages in their childrenís
heads. Because these messages influence the basis of a childís reality and
identity they need to be checked and altered in order that a child may grow up
with healthy values and a positive sense of self. In a similar way, we believe
that the powerful and negative ways in which the media and American culture
commercialize womenís bodies has been extremely effective in getting women to
feel discomfort or even to hate themselves.
To begin introducing you to the power of marketing, letís run an analogy
between cult leaders and advertisers. Both cult leaders and advertisers lower
self-esteem in people and then promise redemption at the cost of complete and
total compliance. In a religious cult, it goes something like this: "You are a
sinner. I know Godís truth and if you follow what I say completely, you will go
to heaven/win." In advertising, it goes like this: "You are fat/ugly. This
product will make you beautiful and if you buy it you will be attractive/win."
Millions of women accept this rationale whether or not they actually buy the
products advertised. In fact, even when they do buy the products, the feeling of
redemption is very short lived since there will always be a more beautiful
dress, better diet product or whiter toothpaste. It seems that we can never
catch up. There is no end to the required total compliance. We will never be
good enough. But has it always been this way?
We see ourselves as we are influenced to do so by the culture in which we
live. The master artist Rembrandt (b.1606-d.1669) painted pictures of the most
beautiful women of his day Ė voluptuous, round and sensual. And the
Impressionist painter Renoir (b.1841-d.1919) is known for his meaty nudes
stepping out of the bath. In the l950ís and 60ís the archetypal femme fatale was
Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn wore a size l2. She had a tummy, thighs, soft neck and
arms. She was a far cry from the emaciated high fashion waif look created by
designer Calvin Klein in the form of his favorite model Kate Moss who wore a
size 0. What happened to create this shift in female beauty? Why have women gone
from accepting a curvaceous form to the familiar dieting, exercising, lipo-suctioning
and obsessing over every wrinkle and gray hair?
Since the l950ís there has been a rapidly increasing economic drive in
America to take advantage of nearly anything that will make money regardless of
the product or the destructive impact of the product. President Eisenhower first
sited this drive in the form of the growing dangers of the military-industrial
complex and the rapid production of lethal weapons. This money making force
naturally found its way into the bowels of Madison Avenue where everything from
Hoola Hoops to Pet Rocks swept the nation.
It is no coincidence that female children and women, the major American
consumers, were targeted as a vast, untapped market of revenue. And advertisers,
having to create a discontent and a need in order to sell products, reacted to
cultural forces and created a new model of female beauty: the eternally young
and slim woman. The economic climate probably helped determine the shift in
female beauty from Rembrandtís chubby ladies to the waif archetype we value
today. In slim financial times the revered image of female beauty has been a
larger woman. Her ample body became a sign of financial abundance afforded by
the upper class. In times of economic prosperity, when the middle class was not
starving, a sleek female image was embraced by the upper class to set them
apart. So, what did the increasing prosperity of the 1950ís and 60ís bring?
The new image of female beauty was best exemplified in the form of the
Barbie Doll, the fantasy girl which made Mattel the zillion dollar company it is
todayÖ.and perhaps one of the greatest forces in planting the seeds of body
image distortion in little girls who became discontented adolescents and women.
The billion dollar diet and cosmetics industries also took root as women
witnessed the image of the seemingly 9 foot tall woman floating down the modelís
runway in her Coco Chanel gown with hardly a hint of body beneath her clothes
and not a line in her face. (Americans spend $33 billion dollars a year on diets
and diet related services. This amount does not include plastic surgery or lipo-suction.
This figure totals more than all the money America spends each year on social
services and education combined!)
The movement toward beauty embraced by our contemporary culture and
relentlessly promoted by the mass media has been very effective. It has gotten
millions of women to hate themselves while feeding billions of dollars into the
marketplace. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once noted that, should
advertisers support womenís emotional well-being rather than undermining it, our
economy would suffer a devastating blow!
The standards for the l990ís female body are impossible to reach. Did you
see the May issue of Vogue Magazine? Cultural ideal Elizabeth Hurley was on the
cover. She is quoted as saying that she is extremely uncomfortable being
photographed in a bikini and that she never stands up at a pool! Could there be
a more perfect cultural litmus test than this? The woman who walks around in the
ideal female body isnít even satisfied herself! She knows that self-esteem does
not come with physical excellence.
Healing Issues and Actions:
Some women have revealed to us the destructive belief they hold near and
dear: just how closely they can approximate the "perfect body" is a sign to them
(and to others Ė they believe) of how well they are doing in life. They have
placed their personal value solely on their flesh. One woman we know confided
that she was more upset having eaten a donut than having been caught using the
company stamp machine for personal mail. The problem isnít that women should be
thin. The problem is that our values are thin.
In spite of the bombardment on our souls of absurd body ideals, it is up to
each and every woman to recognize the absurdity of the advertising industry.
Each of us must define our own personal values Ė those that are right for our
individual authentic self. Each of us must discover who we are inside, what our
innate talents and gifts are and then find the joy and strength to nurture those
gifts to their fullest Ė regardless of anyone elseís opinions.
Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death,
states "Why does [wo]man accept to live a trivial life? Because of the danger of
a full horizon of experience, of course." (We added the "[wo]" part!) This is a
profound statement for any woman struggling with a negative body image keeping
her from being all that she can be. Focusing endlessly on HOW ONE LOOKS is
living a trivial life. It does not include who and how we love, why we believe
what we do, what we give credence to, a recognition of our inner talents and
joys, our spiritual values, our philanthropy, or anything else other than how we
look to others.
Further, we must keep in mind and pay homage to the fact that our natural
bodies are influenced in form and shape by our genes. To negate or hate our
bodies is, in effect, to reject our ancestors Ė our mother line. Doing the best
with what we have inherited is not only self love, it is respect for all those
women in our blood line who have come before us.
Even given what we have inherited, the body had a transitory nature.
Everything and everyone ages and changes. Regardless of the most advanced
medical and cosmetic devices and procedures, we age. The denial of this and the
fight against it can create an obsessive-compulsive drive for an ideal
appearance that not only makes an individual woman miserable, it also
perpetuates the industrialization of the female body.
To be whole, human and truly expressive of our beautiful authentic selves,
you would benefit by doing several things:
Discover (donít create) your inner life and live it out to its fullest.
Examine what you truly want and need from life and pursue these goals.
Take up beloved dormant hobbies and live out your secret wishes.
Bring consciousness to the contents of your unlived fantasies. Recognize
them. Honor them.
Measure your life success one day at a time by how well and fully you
have lived it Ė not if it matches the cover of a magazine.
Wake up your creativity. The authentic Self speaks through creative
actions. If you havenít discovered it yet, get The Artistís Way by Julia
Everyday write down 5 things you are grateful for. Be specific. Write
things such as, "I am grateful I made it to dance class" not "That it is a
nice day." Pick up Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. It is a
powerful daily reminder of what is truly important.
Pick a few people you really trust and use them for your "reality check"
of what is important and what is not. Donít believe everything you see and
read. Even this article!
If you had critical parents and you continue to beat yourself up as they
did, work hard to replace their inner voices with kinder ones.
Remember that your mind, soul, spirit and body are all one. In hating
your body, you are hating yourself. In pretending you are only your body,
you are starving most of yourself.
Remember that your higher Self craves nurturing.
See yourself as a human being Ė not as a human consumer.
Own yourself and your life. Donít take instructions about who you are
from anybody Ė especially advertisers.
Journal daily about how much youíve lived and what youíve experienced Ė
not how much youíve done toward how you look or how youíll look in the
We wish you a fresh and inquiring mind, body, spirit and soul. Donít live a
trivial life. Live a well rounded life. Your dog doesnít care what you look like
when you rough house on the front lawn and you shouldnít care nearly as much as
you probably do. Carry that inner sense of joy every minute. Youíve got just the
body your mother line sent to you over thousands of generations. Donít let
corporate advertisers rape you of your inner or outer self. Enjoy.
For more information, please visit Dr. Du Puy's and Dr. Dovitch's web site,
This article has been contributed and published with the due permission of
OBGYN.net, with the goal of Good
Health for all women Everywhere!