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Saturday, July 27, 2013

How the Structure of our Society Affects Women

I wrote this in college for an english course. We were instructed to choose a topic we were passionate about so I chose women's body issues which I have always been interested in. At the time I was also volunteering for the women's Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program and the University of New Hampshire. This issue has recently come back up in my life and so I have decided to post my essay. 

How the Structure of our Society Affects Women

Young girls today are more afraid of becoming overweight than of nuclear war, cancer, or of losing their parents (Beyond Hunger). 90% of high school junior and senior girls diet regularly while only 10-15% are actually overweight (Maine 47), and on any given day 30 million American women suffer from eating disorders (Beyond Hunger). On television, 69% of female characters are thin and it's been found that only 5% are overweight (About-Face); 97% of print ads portray women as victims, sex objects, and other female stereotypes and in the 1990's, 11 times more diet advertisements were found in women's magazines than in men's (Maine 78). Based on these statistics, it seems that the way women are represented in the USA has a great impact on the way young girls, teenagers and women feel about themselves and more specifically, their bodies.

Why is it that as children girls are much stronger and self assured? They are even more confident and outspoken. It appears that when puberty hits girls begin to worry tremendously about how they look or how they appear to others. They begin to read fashion and beauty magazines, watch music videos, and soon they are comparing their own bodies to the ones that have been placed on a pedestal. Seeing these images over and over again, day after day, they begin to lose sight of who they really are and who they were before their concern with body image took over. Rather than defining themselves society begins to define them causing women of all ages to look in the mirror and see something they deem "imperfect". It's been found that 80% of women of all colors and all sizes wake up in the morning feeling inadequate (Beyond Killing Us Softly). In cultural studies, places with no television, magazines or other forms of advertisement contain very curvy women who remain self confident with their bodies. When the media is introduced to these cultures the body types of women change dramatically (Maine 99).

A woman's body is naturally curvy and this is something that we have all seem to have forgotten. Today, it is undeniable that the ideal female body in our country is a stick thin, boyish figure. Diet and weight control advertisements bombard us and it's been said through a United Nations report on women's body image that "advertising is the worst offender to a woman's well-being" (Maine 77). This ideal, magnified throughout the media, begins at a young age with who we all know very well: Barbie. 90% of 3-11 year old girls have or have had Barbie dolls (myself being one of them), which serve as a role model whether parents know it or not (About-Face). In real life these miniature women would realistically be 5'9" and 110 pounds, which if you think about it is extremely underweight for that height. The average weight for a woman that tall is 145 pounds! Physically, she would not be able to menstruate and plastic surgery would be the only way to attain some of the un-realistic proportions. Young girls begin to believe that this is what they should look like too. When puberty hits girls mature quickly, gaining 40-50 pounds and up to 10 inches in height (Maine 199). With the unattainable image presented to them they don't realize that their growth is actually quite normal. They start to think they are getting fat which leads to a great deal of dieting amongst children. In some cases dieting doesn't start at puberty but even sooner. In a recent study it's been discovered that weight and body image concerns have been found in girls as young as 7 years old (192). Is body image something 7 year olds should be concerned with?

An artists creation: Comparing the Barbie we know to a Barbie with normal proportions.

Women's magazines overflow with advertisements that promote a thin figure in turn causing women in the US to face many issues that could otherwise be avoided. As the media promotes diets, pills and butt busting workouts the overall messages seems to imply that we are not good enough as we are. In the past, women's magazines emphasized women's roles but as housework became less demanding throughout the years they turned to beauty and appearance. Thinness and body shape have become the definition of happiness and it has been drilled into the minds of females across the country that in order to succeed in life you must be attractive. Ad's promoting shampoo, make-up, cigarettes, clothing lines, shoes and accessories use supermodels as their marketing strategy and although it doesn't literally say being thin is the ideal, it lies within the images. "Searching through catalogues you wish you could buy the bodies, not the clothes," says Jessica Bullman in her book "Ophelia Speaks". Because the supermodels in magazines receive so much attention, girls and women begin to believe that their weight determines their worth. If they aren't thin they won't receive any attention or be taken seriously. But what many don't realize is that the women in these magazines aren't actually that "perfect". Photograph's are airbrushed and touched up. Women's legs are made smaller, their boobs made bigger and their lips more plump. One supermodel says that she only recognizes herself because of a distinctive mole (80). Still, women feel that if they don't look like these falsified images they won't be as successful or they will be seen as lazy or over-indulgent.

The morality messages in women's magazines have changed dramatically over the decades. The representation of "being good" has changed from being a good wife, good cook or good mother to eating less fatty food, focusing on maintaining a "sexy" body shape and wearing trendy clothes. Not only do girls and women feel negatively about their bodies but also about having a piece of chocolate cake, or wearing something that isn't a popular brand. It's a fact that eating too much fatty food is unhealthy, but instead of focusing on the health aspect of it it's all about what that specific food will do to your body shape. Magazines promote nutrition and fitness plans in order for women to lose weight and be more attractive and not for actual health reasons (About-Face). What about feeling good inside and remaining confident in who you are? What about those health reasons? In today's world it seems more important to look good on the outside than to feel good on the inside.

While men in magazines are shown as strong, powerful and macho, women are exposed in vulnerable positions and their bodies are used and abused to sell any product. The cost of this is the way our entire country views women today. Women are revealed, covered in dark make-up, at times curled up in little balls with their faces covered, surrounded by alcoholic beverages while dressed in nearly nothing. In a particular pornographic magazine, women are actually hung from trees. These images teach women that they are not supposed to be powerful like men are, they are more beautiful and sexy when they are vulnerable and they are more vulnerable when they are thin. As a result, eating disorders skyrocket and this sexy image is set into the minds of Americans. While looking at pornography men get the idea that women are sex objects: meant to be beaten and used. Pornographic magazines sexualize violence by hanging women from trees as mentioned, or displaying them with fists in their faces. It's no wonder so many women are found in such trying situations while they are only trying to fit into "society".

A Skyy Vodka Ad.
To attain the high standards set for them, women are willing to go to extremes. 7 million girls in the US suffer from an eating disorder as opposed to the 1 million boys and men. These eating disorders consist of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Compulsive Eating. Anorexia is defined as self starvation due to the desire to maintain an abnormally low body weight and 15-25% of body weight is usually lost. Bulimia is eating compulsively followed by vomiting, fasting and excessive exercise or the use of laxatives or diet pills. Both of these disorders are accompanied with a distorted body image, meaning that a perfectly healthy woman may look in the mirror and see only fat. Compulsive eating is quite different than the previous two. One attempts to take care of or comfort oneself through eating (while not hungry). It is a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings and it may lead to binging or repetitive dieting and fasting. Why must women attempt to attain something almost physically impossible? Most supermodels are thinner than 98% of American women (NEDA), and it is usually accomplished through very unhealthy methods. Being supermodel thin has its costs. A few possible symptoms of Anorexia include moodiness, kidney stones, constipation and even loss of period. Death is also a risk; over a person's lifetime 50,000 people die of an eating disorder (NEDA).

Not only do women starve themselves, binge, and purge but they increasingly undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery to "fix" the bodies they were born with. Since 1997, cosmetic surgery has increased 293% (ViaHealth). Because anesthesia is used during these procedures and many patients have serious reactions to this, there are many risks which include airway obstruction, blood clots, brain damage, heart attack, nerve damage, stroke, or even death. However, it seems that these risks are only minor considering the enormous increase in the procedures. Despite the fact that there is a 9% surgical complication rate when considering liposuction (Maine 136), 117% more people have done it (ViaHealth). In 1988 20 deaths resulted from liposuction, yet women are willing to risk death to be beautiful. Women get their faces toned, peeled, blushed, lifted, moisturized, creamed and painted. Their lips are lined and pumped, their teeth are straightened and whitened. Eyebrows are tweezed, penciled and waxed. Lashes curled and coated, lids lifted, lined and shadowed. Body hair is shaved, waxed or removed by electrolysis and lasers, fat is even sucked out or pumped in. What would our country be like if we all accepted ourselves and others for the bodies we were born with instead of trying to change them?

Since 1973, there has been a great increase in women athletes from 800,000 to 2.5 million by 1997 (241). There were no full scholarships in 1972 but 20,000 in 1997. Although the increase in women's sports is wonderful and empowering sports also contribute to eating disorders. In 1992, out of 182 athletes 32% had one or more eating disorders. In females involved in just gymnastics the percentage jumped to 62% (242). Not only do athletic females struggle with perfecting their sport but being sexy at the same time. Athletic wear and uniforms are made much more revealing these days; even the governing board for women's beach volleyball requires all females to wear bikinis in an attempt to attract more sponsors and spectators (246). The Women's Tennis Association arranges appearances on late night talk shows, spreads in fashion magazines and clothing contracts to make the connection between sports and sex (247). The problem is a tennis player may feel she needs to be sexy in order to excel at her sport! Or, she may not want to pursue it because she doesn't want to be seen in such a revealing uniform. Sports are sports and are, in their origin, unrelated to sex. Women's participation in athletics should be encouraged so women feel healthy, strong and capable. Not sexualized. Athletics are a way to earn your curves and be proud of your body. It's a shame that all aspects of womanhood these days revolve around sex appeal.

Tennis player Anna Kournikova on the cover of Maxim Magazine

Not only does the media directly influence children, but indirectly by influencing their parents. If a parent is concerned with his or her own weight, this worry may rub off on the child leading to an unnecessary anxiety regarding body image. In addition, a parent may want to "help" their child by regulating their food intake. But, it's said that regulating a child's food intake can lead them to believe that they are eating for others and not for themselves (194). In the future, children that have had their food regulated for them may feel out of control when they eat on their own. As a parent, one mustn't control a child's eating: instead, inform them about proper nutrition and let them feed themselves in turn teaching them how much they actually need. It is very important that girls are saved from eating disorders at a young age; childhood dieting can lead to longer lasting eating disorders and can stunt growth (200-01). Its also a good idea to inform young girls about the changes they will go through during puberty: that it's absolutely normal to gain weight and shape and that these changes are imperative to becoming a woman.

Women shouldn't be held to a standardized ideal and neither should any human being. We are all born unique and different and that's what makes this world so diverse and beautiful! As women I believe we all need to stand up for our bodies and ourselves. We are not objects, we are human beings deserving of respect regardless of our physical appearance. It is up to us to change the way women are viewed. We need to challenge the system and fight for a more accepting society devoid of any standards and a larger view of what is beautiful!  Everyone deserves respect regardless of their size or body type and to make this possible we must change the way our society is structured. To do that it takes not following the rules and standards set for us. If we can come together and see that this issue isn't a small one, fairness for all shapes and sizes would benefit the quality of life in the United States and eventually, the whole world.

Works Cited

Beyond Hunger. 2003. Beyond Hunger Inc.

Beyond Killing Us Softly: The Strength to Resist. Cambridge Documentary Films, Inc. 2000. 

iPetitions. Angle Three Associates. Nov. 2, 2004. Angle Three Associates LLC. 

Kitch, Carolyn. The Girl on the Magazine Cover. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press,      2001. 

Maine, Margo. Body Wars. Carlsbad: Gurze Books, 2000. 

Meyers, David. Exploring Psychology Fifth Edition. Eds. Nancy Fleming and Christine Burns. New York: Worth Publishers, 2002. 

Mizejewski, Linda. Ziegfeld Girl. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. 

NEDA. 2002. National Eating Disorders Association. 

Pipher, M. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Putnam, 1994. 

Smart Plastic Surgery. 2002-2004. 

ViaHealth. July 2, 2001. GreyStoneNet.