Girls and body image… it’s a power thing

3 Feb

On Wednesday evening I went to the House of Commons for the launch of the government’s new Body Confidence campaign and the first showing in the UK of a brilliant new American documentary called MissRepresentation. The documentary is amazingly powerful about the links between women obsessing about weight, appearance and objectifying themselves – always thinking about what they look like from the outside, seeing themselves as a thing which needs improving – and the lack of female leaders.

body confidence campaign


Now, as regular readers of mine will know – I am totally obsessed by how we get more women to the top – whether that in the professions, industry or politics. And, why more women are not breaking through as leaders. The figures in MissRepresentation are really shocking. The US Congress now has fewer women than at any time in the last thirty years; we still lack strong female role models on the boards of our top companies (last month a pathetic 15% of women on the boards of the top FTSE100 companies was greated as a great success). The documentary argues that the reason for this is a backlash against women which has taken the form of us being increasingly judged on our appearances, the more we insist – and show – that actually we are much brighter, do better at school and are just as competent as men – the more the media imagery and popular culture insists that women should only be valued for their looks.

The clips of Barbie women are really shocking: in the US even news presenters are judged on looks – how much cleavage they can show etc. They showed Hillary Clinton being slated for looking like an old bag lady: but hang on, she’s not modelling for Vogue, she is the face of US power in the world – who cares if she looks a bit old and tired.

film missrepresentation about feminism and women in the media

Now I’m not always a fan of these kind of shows, but this is brilliant on what women are being forced into caring about because of the male dominated media; tiny percentage of the executives of the top media companies are women – so what we are being sold is images of women which appeal to men and teenage boys, not the kind of images we’d choose of ourselves, or that we see around us.

Last week, the Advertising Standards Association banned the air brushing of pictures – that is a good first step. I can’t stand it that so many young women measure themselves against an impossible standard that isn’t even real and then feel they aren’t good enough. Again, MissRepresentation brilliant on that – shows the real model, and then what the model looks like once she’s been stretched, made up and  photoshopped into a living Barbie doll – all endless giraffe legs and huge boobs – no-one looks like this. Geena Davies and Condoleeza Rice, along with Katie Couric and the female writer/director of Twilight and Thirteen also talk about the importantce of women writing and telling their own stories to change the balance; to give young women something real to aspire to.

Go and see it -and take away that if us women spent a fraction of the time and resources cultivating our own power – through education, or looking after other women, or being leaders and thinking about who we are, rather than what we look like – we would be in a position to change this insulting and denigrating imagery.  The first step is to educate our daughters about what they are seeing and deconstruct it. It’s what you are on the inside, how you feel that matters – not whether some fictitious teenage boy thinks you are ‘hot’. To arms, ladies!


3 Responses to “Girls and body image… it’s a power thing”

  1. reesesrants February 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    Eleanor, big business and the media want us all to feel inadequate so that we buy more stuff to make us feel better. It’s that simple. It’s the basic premise of all advertising. Body image is a very simple place to start. Naomi Wolf said it in The Beauty Myth back in the early 1990s and Susie Orbach’s been saying it for years.

    Personally I’m less convinced about the importance of what goes on at “the top” than what is on offer for the 99 per cent. I’d be more impressed by a company run by men that gave women workers free childcare and all workers good rates of pay (like the living wage) than a company with loads of women on the board that did jack for the workers. I guess I’d like to see the end of a culture that only admires high achievers.

    Have you read Oliver James’s Affluenza as there is good stuff in there about the relationship between a society obsessed with money/greed and a society obsessed with body image.

    • fattkittens February 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      I agree it’s all very Beauty Myth – but the derpessing thing is that nothing changes – the Beauty Myth was what – 20 years ago now… more? And I think in that time that the pressures on young women have got even worse – particularly because of the ubiquity of internet porn. Miss Representation certainly suggests that women are going backwards and that younger women are more self-objectifying than ever… I went to Leeds University the other day and there it was writ clear in the lobby of the student union: there was a Vegan food co-operative (massively popular) and next door a tanning and waxing salon… all that ghastly body maintenance has become so mainstream for the next generation that they don’t even see the inherent contradition in being so obsessed by toxins and the environment that they won’t sell local honey, but at the same time are filling their bodies with chemicals at the beauty salon and waxing off all their privates…. help

  2. sarah Belfield March 7, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    reesesrants – I agree that there is an absolute correlation between the ‘free’ market and the obsession with body image, particularly among young women but also men. It has become ubiquitous and virtually unquestioned, particularly for the younger generation. I also understand the resistance to ‘playing the boys game’ – if women aspire to and become executives and power players then we are just buying into the testosterone-inspired system of competition and hierachy that will sell you more crap in whatever ways it can.
    But how else are things going to change? I don’t see the revolution coming!

    I think that a company with female executives is more likely to treat workers well, a media company with women at the top is more likely to portray women as something other than barbie dolls…

    If we are going to change the paradigm then we have to engage with it and fighting the prevailing objectification and self-objectification of young women through getting more women at ‘the top’ of an admittedly rotten tree, we can at least start to change aspirations and make girls feel they are valued for more than their tits and ass.

    its a hope….

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