The conversation is not new. On one end of the spectrum, women in the United States are overweight, obese, and unhealthy in depressingly high numbers (latest estimates say 64% of U.S. women are at least overweight, and 36% are obese (1)). On the other end are eating disorders and an obsession with extreme thinness and body perfection.
The Body Image Debate: Which Side Are You On?
1: Thinness and Health Appreciation
We celebrate thin, fit, healthy bodies (usually celebrities). We spend hours pinning to our Pinterest “Thinspiration” boards with the aim to tone our problem areas, get rid of our cellulite, and achieve the perfect “bikini body.” We are obsessed with extremely fit and toned bodies and praise women who have achieved this ideal (think of the “No Excuse Mom” movement (2)).
2: Fat Acceptance
Advocates for fat acceptance say we need to learn to love our bodies–that being overweight or “being curvy” is something to embrace and appreciate, not fight. In practice, for example, an increasing number of retail stores in the U.K. have begun to use plus-sized female mannequins in their displays. Proponents of the larger mannequins claim they are trying to “promote a more diverse range of women” and that regular mannequins promote a message that “there’s only one way of being beautiful” (3).
These examples demonstrate a common debate among those wondering how to approach body image: should we admire and celebrate thinner, technically “healthier” weighted women, praising and admiring bodies that are aesthetically as far away as possible from obese and unhealthy as we can get?
Or should we celebrate “curvier” women and teach all, including overweight and obese women, that they are beautiful just as they are?
My answer? None of the above.
The Harm in the Positive Body Image Movement
The problem is the obsession with female bodies in general.
We celebrate unrealistic thinness, and we urge girls towards eating disorders.
We celebrate larger, overweight bodies, and we promote unhealthiness.
We celebrate body appreciation the way we have been, and we promote vanity and an unhealthy focus on our physical appearance.
I would argue that we should take the focus off bodies entirely–celebrating neither thin figures nor “curvy” ones, but instead, stop publicly “appreciating” female bodies and physical appearances, whether negatively or positively.
The positive body image movement may have started out nobly, but it has devolved into another exercise in vanity and self-absorption. It has taught women to become self-centered and to believe that thinking about their bodies, no matter how, is absolutely essential to healthy functioning.
Consider the following body image/self-love articles (all tagged under “body image”, “body positivity”, etc.), many of which come from respected and reputable news sites:
“Awesome Plus-Size Woman Publicly Struts Her Bikini Body In the Name of Self Love”
“Selfies to Promote Self-Love”
“How Venus Taught Me To Love My Curves”
“I’m Not Afraid to Say I Think I’m Beautiful”
“How 30 Days Nearly Naked Changed My Life”
Maybe it’s just me, but the adjectives I would use to describe articles like these are not ‘empowering’ and ‘positive’, but maybe ‘vapid,’ ‘embarrassing,’ and ‘self-absorbed.’ So this is the empowering and ennobling body positivity movement we always dreamed of?
I guess it just doesn’t seem to me like we’re getting at it the right way if our focuses of choice are “Giving Up the Shame of Those Sagging Arms” or “Making the Perfect ‘I Love My Body’ Playlist”. We crossed the line from positive and helpful into shallow and ridiculous a long time ago: there is a clear difference between seeking to build one’s self-esteem and spending an hour trying to take the perfect “brave” No-Makeup Selfie*.
*A social media body image campaign dedicated to women posting the perfect picture of themselves with no makeup. They are praised for being courageous–I guess posting a heavily-filtered and posed photo of yourself without makeup is our definition of ‘brave’ today. There are also people devoting themselves to spotting frauds (women who are actually wearing makeup in their no-makeup selfies), and I find it embarrassing that we are spending this much time on the whole thing.
How Much Time Wasted?
Consider the following findings from a study done about women’s thoughts:
-Women spend about an hour and 32 minutes every week worrying if their outfit and clothes look okay.
-Women think about their breasts being too small or large for about 35 minutes and worry about their hair being too greasey or frizzy for about 57 minutes every week.
-The average female spends around 50 minutes a week deciding what to wear, with a further hour and 32 minutes worrying about what they’ve chosen.
-In total, thinking about weight, body image, and eating habits take up an average of 12 hours and 4 minutes of time a week of worry for women (4).
If this study is accurate for the majority of women, then we are spending about 10.7% of our waking hours thinking about our physical appearances (whether negative or positive), or a full month out of every year.
So, the body image movement (or at least, how we are approaching it) is going south.
What can we do to combat the problem?
Again, I would suggest that if we could stop talking about bodies entirely and teach girls to replace ALL body thoughts with more positive pursuits and endeavors that perhaps by default–by NOT focusing on ourselves and our bodies so much–we begin to have a more positive view of ourselves.
Perhaps low self-esteem and body image problems are rampant BECAUSE women are taught to spend so much time thinking of their physical selves, whether positively or negatively.
I recognize that this is perhaps an extreme solution (getting everybody, including the media, to just cease all body talk is a very tall order). I also recognize that there are perhaps some women who need to have positive body talk circulating–women who suffer from mental illness in the form of eating disorders, women who have been raised in abusive environments, etc. (and these are not the types of women I’m addressing in this post).
In that light of this reality, perhaps what we need to do is make over the body image movement. Some proposed solutions:
1) Teach girls to think body thoughts ONLY directly related to health. We need to take a bare-minimum approach to body image. I think there are only four questions we should ask ourselves regarding our bodies:
Am I overstressed? Am I eating right (not too much, not too little, healthy foods)? Am I sleeping enough? Am I exercising regularly enough?
If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, create a plan so you can answer ‘yes’. If you can answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, STOP DWELLING on your body.
2) Rethink how we choose to appreciate our bodies.
I think some may criticize the loss of public positive conversations of bodies and feel that getting rid of this conversation is a shame, that the female body is beautiful and deserves to be appreciated and lauded as the art form that it is.
To that, I have two responses:
One, I have more faith in women’s creative ability and capacity for appreciating beauty than that. I think learning to appreciate your body should be a private, personal experience. Reading articles that do all the thinking for me and tell me exactly how to appreciate my wide hips/small breasts/freckles/large nose/small nose/long legs/short legs cheapens the experience and takes away all the fun, creativity, and growth in coming to that myself or with those whom I am intimate.
Two, body appreciation is not always, and is perhaps rarely, directed into positive channels (pornography, anyone?).
3) Abandon exercising with an end goal in mind. We need to abandon the idea of sculpting our bodies. We need to delete our Thinspiration and Fitness Pinterest Boards. Women claim they do all of this for better health, but the difference in health between the average healthy body and the average ultra-toned body is negligible. It’s more of a plateau than it is a linear relationship: once you’ve hit healthy, there’s not really much more you can do to get healthier.
Pinterest boards and workouts aimed at getting six-packs and reducing cellulite and arm flab may be disguised as innocent health pursuits, but in reality, it’s just pure self-centeredness and vanity.
Health is simple. Again, going back to the 4 questions: if you’ve answered ‘yes’ to all, regardless of what you physically look like, you need to stop.
4) Replace body thoughts with constructive ones. If we as women took the full month (or hey, even just two weeks) we spend annually thinking about ourselves and our bodies and used our mental energy on something else (service to others, solving social problems, and so on), what more could we be changing?
As one writer notes, “What would feel right is if my friends and I were worrying less about body image and more about equality . . . [Many of the issues surrounding body image] are vitally important, especially activism to end sexual violence and the discussion around the intersection of body image, food and eating disorders. But they are not the sole issues of feminism . . . “Don’t use ‘fat’ language!” “We don’t have an obligation to men to shave our leg/armpit/pubic hair!” This [talk] absorbs so much of our attention and energy that it distracts from broader sociopolitical problems that we will face.
The so-called solutions of “self-improvement” and “empowerment” are, in fact, dis-empowering. It is a goal without a concrete end (5).”
To allow women to have a positive body image, we need to take the focus off of bodies. We need to seriously rethink the way we are teaching women to relate to their physical appearances. Of all our societal problems, does this one really merit the most attention?
The time is much better spent not thinking more about ourselves, but on how we can help others and make the world we live in a little better.