Of all the women I’ve known and loved, there is an underlying effort that is, for the most part, unsaid. Among the bravest of us, a few voices on body-image dissatisfaction have started to ring in the air and find their place in the research and literature around the pressure for women to be thin. This pressure, as enforced by the culture and media surrounding us, finds its place in the countless women I revere, many of whom are desperately trying to navigate never-ending diets, eating disorders, or rigorous fitness plans. If not these things, then looking back at the reflection in the mirror and sucking in a hard breath of hope, seeing our stomach press in, and exhaling as it expands again in the next moment, back to its true form.
For some of us, this dissatisfaction has been deeply rooted for as long as we can remember. The stereotypical idea of “woman” has been so chiseled into our belief system that it prevents us from being kind to ourselves in consuming the necessary care we need to heal and feel whole in our bodies. Some practices that serve as nourishment come in the form of food, media, self-talk, connection, activity, and countless other supplements. I find myself asking the question, how could we possibly have agency in any of these things? Perhaps the first step in rewriting the demanding narrative of physical appearance for women is found in understanding the foundations of what brought us here to begin with.
With such a sensitive topic as this, it’s important to note that gender categorization affects all people. The feminine model of today’s context associates thinness with attractiveness, laying a burden on all people who identify as women, as well as anyone who chooses to lean feminine in appearance presentation.
Taking this into account, the pressure to conform to certain gender stereotypes starts from the very beginning.
Even as infants, our minds are predisposed to categorizing visual stimuli in a way that makes sense to what we’ve known and experienced. A study done by Lisa Serbin and her colleagues in 2001 revealed that, by 18 months of age, infants could show preference for gender-specific toys, with boys picking cars and girls picking dolls.
These 18 month olds were also able to show associations with certain toys to a specific gender. Girls were able to match “girl toys” to girl faces and “boy toys” to boy faces; however, boys weren’t able to do this until 24 months. I find it heartbreaking that before we have a developed sense of verbal expression, there is already an appropriate manner of interaction with the world around us in a way that is gender-specific. Additionally, a study conducted in 1975 by Ronald Slaby and Karin Frey showed that 2-5 year old children believe that a person’s gender can change depending on their physical presentation. This is because the children identified gender through haircuts, clothing styles, and behavior. While this may seem like a harmless discovery, the combined studies show the desire for children to fit into a specifically defined gender category from a young age, as well as an inclination to place others in those boxes on the basis of appearance.
Because children begin to internalize the expectations of gender stereotypes through visual stimuli, it’s no surprise that television and other forms of media contribute to our view of ourselves and the world around us. The media’s use of applying and magnifying stereotypes plays a crucial role in forming children’s ideas around what we need to look like and how we need to behave if we want to be socially acceptable.
Through this, the vast majority of media available to young people enforces the cultural script that women must be thin to be attractive.
While this is not the only message, it is one of the more prevalent ideas of womanhood in today’s media. If this is the portrayal of women that children are constantly exposed to, then it is only natural to apply these expectations to ourselves. A more tangible way of seeing the impact of media representation can be found in a study done by Diana Zuckerman, Dorothy Singer, and Jerome Singer in 1980. It was concluded that greater television viewing was associated with children showing high levels of both gender and racial prejudice. This behavior displayed in media allows children to consume these stereotypes in subtle and subconscious ways.
This internalization of gender expectations develops throughout our lives. It is natural that as we grow, we would be molded by what we consume. In speaking specifically of media consumption, the narratives that we invest ourselves in through television, advertisements, movies, and social media will influence our own ideas of well-being. Sometimes those ideas say that we need to be thin to be beautiful and successful and accepted, or that we need to hide or shame the parts of us that don’t fit the script of femininity that has been produced, airbrushed, photoshopped, and mass-disseminated.
In 2012, it was found that college-aged women across all races with internalized beliefs that women must be thin and attractive as depicted in the media also expressed more negative views toward older people. It’s no surprise that, given how children subconsciously adopt attitudes regarding gender expectations, the natural aging of our bodies would also end up being scrutinized. If the media is so influential in the development of our attitudes toward ourselves and the world around us, then it is crucial that we develop interventions that would combat the unrealistic expectations that render us incapable of enjoying our bodies in their true form.
I am taken back to the question of agency. On an individual level, how can we develop the tools that are necessary to consume media that will allow us to live whole and nourished lives?
For me, I have to begin with acknowledging the power of media in my world. My attitudes, my self-image, and my expectations of others are all influenced by the never-ending stream of advertisements and social media posts that take my attention every day. When it comes down to the things we have control over, the importance of recognizing what is and is not real is paramount in reimagining what it means to be a woman. As we familiarize ourselves with real representations of women in the media, support agencies that value natural appearance, and connect with the people around us to share our experiences, the rigid boxes that we have learned to fit in could begin to widen until there is room for everyone. Instead of shaming and purging the parts that don’t fit, we can share in the scary work of broadening the scope of beauty within small pockets of our own communities.