I recently underwent an emergency surgery to remove my appendix. Before I was wheeled in to the operating room, the surgeon described the procedures of the laparoscopic operation to me, mentioning that he would have to make an incision in my belly button. I immediately asked if it would be possible for him to ‘fix’ my belly button. Puzzled, the surgeon asked what needed to be fixed. I explained that I had an outie belly button but I had always wanted an innie, playing the matter off like it wasn’t a big deal even though I was desperately hoping that he would agree to my request. The surgeon seemed to find the matter trivial, but he agreed. Two hours later my appendix had been removed and I had the innie belly button I had always dreamed of.
While I am perfectly content with my new navel, since the surgery I have often wondered why I asked the surgeon to ‘fix’ me without any hesitation. I find it intriguing that I was changing a part of my body, even if it was only a small part, without pausing to ask myself why. Rarely did anyone besides me see my outie, and it was even rarer for anyone to notice it. It never inhibited my education, my social life, or my major lifestyle choices. It did, however, affect my body image.
In today’s society, girls and women are constantly bombarded with sexualized, air-brushed advertisements that exemplify an ‘ideal’ body – thin, youthful, and oozing with sexual appeal. While numerous campaigns lobby against such media deception, its influence still affects thousands of women. Personally, I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably independent of succumbing to the media’s illusionary influence, and yet here I am with a reconstructed belly button. I realize now that while I was growing up I subconsciously internalized the media’s projection that the ‘ideal’ body type included an innie belly button, and over time that projection prompted me to ‘fix’ my body.
How has the media gained such influence? One widely accepted answer is that women are fed a steady diet of media deception since early adolescence. A 1997 study, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (Random House, 1997), focused on the diaries of adolescent girls in the past 100 years, and how girls in different eras focused their efforts of self-improvement. Girls of earlier eras sought to employ self-improvement by focusing on their studies and manners, whereas girls of modern eras focus their self-improvement efforts on their bodies and physical appearances.
This change is hardly surprising as modern retailers are constantly marketing sexualized clothing to young girls, making it difficult for the girls to see themselves without having thoughts of self objectification. Such thoughts lead to appearance anxiety and body shaming as adolescents try to emphasize the ‘sexy’ features they see exemplified by older women. Ironically, as women grow older, they tend to embody the self-destructive habits normally attributed to teenage girls for the sake of becoming thinner (e.g. eating disorders, obsessive exercise regimes, etc.). As if this is not enough, tens of thousands of both younger and older women undergo plastic surgery to enhance certain features that are routinely objectified by the media, spending millions of dollars in the process.
These trends are alarming, and it is difficult to not feel overwhelmed by the media’s ideals in our high-tech society. But while the media’s sexualizing influence is undeniable, it is important to point out that women and especially adolescent girls are also significantly influenced by their parents, peers, and teachers. If we want to have strong, confident women tomorrow, we need to make sure we aren’t negatively affecting girl’s self esteem and body image today. If we do this, we can stop worrying about issues as trivial as belly buttons and start focusing on empowering women.
I believe that we, both women and men, can help each other out by promoting positive, realistic, and healthy body images. By refraining from engaging in ‘fat talk’ and by complimenting each other on attributes rather than appearances, we can promote these body images. There is not one ideal body type; every woman’s body is unique and beautiful. It’s time we stop idolizing and striving to embody the fake reality of ‘ideal’ women and start recognizing the beauty of real women.
Zurbriggen, et al. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. American Psychology Association. Retrieved January 17, 2014, from http://APA.org.