It seems that the more society at large seems to progress on an issue, if we are really truthful about it, long held stereotypes and modes of thought are hard to break. In this case, I am talking about body image and weight.
One day my daughter told me about one of her friends, Kelly* who has been complaining about her weight. Kelly had said she needed to go on a diet to lose weight. My daughter expressed to me how strange that sounded since her friend was very petite. My daughter is very slim and taller than most of her friends. She is in the 90th percentile when it comes to height for her age (11) and the 6oth for weight. Kelly is probably a foot shorter and about 15-20 lbs lighter. She is definitely not overweight.
I could tell that this bothered my daughter. I could imagine what she was thinking: If Kelly needs to lose weight then I probably do too. My daughter confirmed my hunch when I shared what I thought she might be thinking. We had a talk (as we have in the past) about body image, weight, and society’s pressure on girls, especially, to look a certain way. I emphasized the importance of eating a healthy diet and exercising, all things we practice and talk about a lot at home. She seemed conflicted because she had heard people call her “skinny” and “bony,” which she thought made her okay. I thought long and hard about this because we (our family) had always characterized my daughter this way in truth, but also in just. She had picked up on these jibes as “good” because they characterized her as the opposite of fat, a state that she also had picked up on as “bad”.
On another occasion, I was helping my daughter choose clothes one day to wear. She requested a tight pair of jeans because they made her look smaller. This was a clue that we needed to talk about this again because these conceptions of good body/bad body were entrenched in her mind. I pulled out my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and read her the chapter on body image. We had a frank discussion again about this. Despite my interventions, I think she still has some conflicted feelings about weight because of what she has learned from her peers, family, and advertising both consciously and subconsciously. I will have to continue this dialogue with her to counter these negative images and conceptions about weight.
The ubiquity of the message that achingly thin is the ideal is hard to knock down. Even though big name celebrities like Oprah and Tyra Banks, corporations live Dove (and its Campaign For Real Beauty), and organizations have tried to counter these messages, society at large accepts them.
I don’t watch Desperate Housewives regularly, but when I occasionally catch an episode I am always struck by the achingly thin body of Teri Hatcher. All the headliners on the show are thin, but her body looks unhealthy. My husband watched the episode with me and the first thing out of his mouth was a remark about how she looked sick. Her eyes also look funny, like she is either really tired or drugged. Her facial expressions never reach her eyes. I also saw a recent movie on Lifetime with Heather Locklear. I was more struck by the way her plastic surgery gave her an artificial quality. Then there is Lisa Rinna whose lip implants make her look ridiculous. She seems to continue pumping them up, up, up. I know these are random choices, but they are ones that I see on television that have made me pause. It is unfortunate that these beautiful women do things to their bodies to freeze frame them as if they are forever 21. Another one is Holly Hunter. I couldn’t watch Saving Grace because I couldn’t stomach watching her achingly thin body. These 45-50 year old women are walking around with pre-preteen bodies. It is just unnatural.
Many will blame this state of society on men, but women are often the loudest voices and harshest critics of other women’s bodies, faces, hair, etc. Most recently, Meghan McCain spoke out against the politics of Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. Her criticisms were not met with blows to her politics or views, but Ingraham blasted McCain about her weight.
I will continue to talk to my daughter about this while trying not to send conflicting messages.
*real name has been changed