Updated: Apr 30
I was 11 when I first became aware that my body was flawed. Transitioning from childhood to adolescence, an already uncomfortable experience, was accompanied by the unsettling anxiety that I should begin to enhance, alter or mask my natural appearance – because that’s what teenage girls do. The magazines I read, the shows I watched and the shops I visited were for the vast part, informed and influenced by female gender stereotypes which (if you failed to live up to these standards) worked to promote a subtle sense of inadequacy.
Airbrushed, altered, cropped, filtered, lit and manipulated, the bodies my friends and I saw on a daily basis were bodies that seemed unattainably, perfect. But what was more concerning, was how these women’s success stories seemed to be directly linked to their blemish-free physiques. Beauty was capital in our too white, too male, too heteronormative world; and if you didn’t have it – the subliminal message we were fed, was to get it.
So, when at 11 a bump started to form on the bridge of my nose, I became stupidly self-conscious. The solution? A nose job! said my angsty teenage brain. (Looking back now, I laugh at this ridiculous, teenage self-indulgent anxiety and the wasted minutes I spent mooning around, wondering when the rest of my face would catch up with my nose – but alas, society has taught us that waging a war on one aspect of your physical appearance is a teenage rite of passage.) Announcing my proposal at supper one evening, my mother laughed but put a firm end to both the discussion and the request by adeptly arguing that though I may indeed be inheriting the family’s ‘Roman nose’ it was in fact “a sign of character, darling, historically associated with intelligence”.
But, in a woman, were character and intelligence better than beauty?
The cultural signals I received as a young woman didn’t seem to suggest so. Wandering along high-street retailers I began to notice a concerning divide in the gendered rhetoric used in the children’s fashion industry. While the slogans on boys’ clotheslines often claimed they were ‘little scholars’ and ‘Genius’ in training’, the slogans on the girls’ clothes rack positioned us as ‘social butterflies’ who were ‘too pretty to do Maths’. While he was ‘Batman in training’, I was only ever ‘training to be Batman’s wife’; he could ‘be the hero’ whereas I was instructed ‘I need[ed] a hero’. Intelligence and ambition were offered to him, beauty and amenability to me. While he was told he was strong I was told I was vulnerable, while he was told to act, to make a difference, I was told that it was more important to be pretty and nice than to have a voice – society was reinforcing the hegemonic myth.
And it is this myth that contributes to the concerning way a woman’s social mobility is restricted and constricted as her body develops.
As boys approach manhood they begin to enjoy a newfound liberty to come and go, pursuing opportunity as they please, but as a young girl grows into a woman her freedom of expression and freedom of movement within society is subtly fettered, manifesting most clearly in the way she must learn to adjust her external appearance, her body and her demeanour to meet the expectations of others. At one end of the spectrum, tops suddenly become ‘too tight’, shorts ‘too short’, heels ‘too high’; girls that dare wear such attire are all too often slut-shamed and branded as the type who are “asking for it”. At the other end, our image-driven, materialistic society teaches girls to twist themselves into shapes, shapes that are often undernourished and oversexualised, in order to make themselves ‘likeable’. Through the censoring of external appearance and actions, girls are essentially taught how to act and how the things we choose to wear impact on what could "potentially” happen to our bodies, reinforcing both our sexual vulnerability and the gaping division between the sexes and the freedoms they enjoy.
So, where is the middle ground in this spectrum of extremes? Where are girls and women allowed to use their bodies to express themselves honestly and without fear of polarisation? Where in mainstream media are images of real bodies? Where are young girls taught to embrace the natural ways their body changes as they go through life? Why do the bodies of women post childbirth become invisible? And, why is the ‘dad bod’ glorified but not the ‘mum bod’?
Though there are now (thankfully) a wealth of body positive activists reclaiming the female body by promoting social media accounts that celebrate the diverse nature of the modern female body, the sad truth of the matter is that society for the vast part still exalts an oversexualised, unrealistic, unattainable and often fake female form which pressurises women of all ages to “be” the way the world wants them to be.
But this burden to “be” better, slimmer, leaner isn’t solely problematic for women. Body image anxieties plague men in remarkably similar ways. Beer bellies, man boobs and hair loss dominate detrimental conversations surrounding male body image and the widespread perception that these traits are apparent imperfections reflects the damaging impact mainstream media plays in its overrepresentation of the idealised male physique. Concerningly then, our image-driven world seems to be intolerant of body diversity in both sexes, and it is this that seems to be the driving force behind the C21st citizen’s rising anxiety surrounding body image.
While we should certainly be promoting health and fitness through media channels, our incentive shouldn’t be the longing to ‘look’ a certain way in order to achieve success or improve social mobility. Though companies are now responding to consumer desire to be reflected in the brands they buy and a growing emphasis on ‘feeling’ as opposed to ‘looking’ healthy, the shift needs to be more radical; diverse bodies should be actively exposed and celebrated in everyday media in order to normalise our experience of varying body shape, weight, size and age. We should be taught about the natural ways our bodies develop and change throughout our lives and most importantly why this happens, focusing on nurturing and celebrating our bodies as they evolve. Only once this has happened, will we be truly liberated from the unhealthy and unrealistic expectations surrounding body image in the 21st century.
Body Positive Instagram Accounts to follow:
Image courtesy of Wix