Real women: The fake body-image debate

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Is it fair to blame socially ingrained sexism for certain kinds of attitudes and behaviour in young women? On this I’m really not sure; indeed, I’m constantly struggling with my own attitudinal double-standards regarding my feminist beliefs and (what I believe are) anti-feminist practices. For instance, I firmly believe that nobody should feel obliged to live up to any kind of beauty standard, yet, like many women, I routinely remove hair from my body that, frankly, is only offensive to morons whose “minds have been warped by porn.”* If the mainstream media are any indication, it seems that most serious discussions surrounding beauty standards become clouded by puerile feature articles about what constitutes a “real woman,” and how refreshing it is when supermodels/celebrities get naked/forego makeup and/or airbrushing and have their photo taken for a fashion magazine/”cause.” Save for the astute observations of rare columnists like Clem Bastow, the majority of opinion pieces surrounding femininity, body image and beauty standards skirt around pertinent questions regarding the extent to which people’s (women’s) appearances matter in our culture, and trivialise the effects of such a culture on many women’s social status and psychology.

On that topic, I’m again drawn to the idea of socially ingrained sexism and it’s relationship to social and psychological interactions between women. I was once told by one of my peers that particular aspects of her character were a result of  having been raised in a phallocentric society in which women are pitted against each other in competition for the attention of men, resulting in the perpetuation of jealousy, misogyny, self-loathing and a range of other unhealthy insecurities among women. While I’m willing to accept that our culture does generally encourage a range of detrimental attitudes towards and among women, including the ones I’ve listed above, I also believe that it is reductive (and reminiscent of comically pompous letter-writers in tabloid publications) to “blame society,” women’s Ugly Stepsister, for the peccadillos and character-flaws that are part and parcel of, well, being human. To claim that it is all society’s fault that people experience say, jealousy, implies that a) people are entirely subject to their social and cultural environment and b) that they lack agency over their own attitudes. To be sure, I’m not denying that emotions like jealousy, anger, and low self esteem often defy rationality and are incredibly hard to control. But in my view, blaming society’s insidious influence for one’s feelings of resentment and mistrust towards other women is akin to blaming the Bureau of Meteorology for inclement weather. Human emotions are far more complex and entwined with our individual psychological experiences; experiences which encompass the impact of culture on our psyche(s), but are not wholly manipulated by society’s misogyny.

For me, overcoming my negative feelings towards other women will entail the maturity and self-confidence that only comes from experience. While I’m working on that, I’ll continue to rant on this blog, in cafes, at work and to myself about society’s ills in the hope that I am helping to change other women’s experiences for the better.

*Credit to Dr. Bandit for this succinct yet highly evocative observation.

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One Response to “Real women: The fake body-image debate”

  1. kathi Says:

    very interesting. in particular, your reference to this idea of “real women”. that whole concept is, in fact, misogyny mascarading as empowerment. this idea that we should put down skinny women in order to feel better about ourselves (if we’re not skinny) is just another artificial division and is totally unhelpful. a real woman is just a woman, that’s all!

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