They say “love don’t pay the rent.” Love is undeniably the foundation of any healthy relationship, but it is by no means the only essential ingredient to keep that relationship humming smoothly. The same rules apply to the relationship with our bodies—relationships often complicated, contradictory and influenced by the incessant voices from those outside the nucleus of that union.
Establishing a healthy body image and creating a positive relationship with our bodies absolutely requires a sturdy foundation built on love and respect. Banishing the negative self-speak—the fat talk and body bashing—and replacing it with positive affirmations is a vital step in that direction. There is no doubt that body-love is a key ingredient.
But is that all?
Well, no. Love Your Body Day’s Beyond Beauty and Body Image Panel Discussion, moderator, Pia Guerrero, and Hollywood’s Love Your Body Day organizer, Chenese Lewis, brought together panelists last Sunday in West Hollywood, including myself, to expand the mainstream conversation which seems perpetually stuck in affirming physical attractiveness. Together we discussed the broader social and political implications of body image. While new in the mainstream, the intersection of body image, beauty, consumerism and media is not a new conversation. In fact, the Media Education Foundation has produced several films exploring this intersection for years. These conversations, films, and the activist work accompanying them have largely been confined to educational, academic and progressive settings. To create massive change, the discussion must become mainstream and that mainstream conversation must be nuanced—a difficult task due to mainstream media’s love of sound bytes over complexity. Fortunately, the body image movement is steadily growing in popular culture, but its time to move beyond the cultivation of body-love and appearance. And as panelist, Marie Denee of the Curvy Fashionista, noted that the sexualization of plus-size women–as American Apparel has done–only creates separate but equal amounts of objectification.
The mainstream success and appeal of films like America the Beautiful2: The Thin Commandments and Miss Representation are positive signs for the body image movement. Unfortunately, while America the Beautiful2 examines the myth of the BMI, the diet industry and the dangerous compromise many make in the pursuit of thinness, it perpetuates the same reductive and one-dimensional analysis. It does not delve into a robust examination of the impact of the media, the role of the advertising industry or provide solutions beyond “love yourself.” On the flipside, Miss Representation is the first complex analysis of media representations of women offered to a wide public audience via OWN—and it just aired last week. Due to its success the film is airing again in November.
Clearly, the inroads are just being made with a mass audience and we need to be mindful of how these inroads are created and what solutions are offered. A thorough analysis requires the movement to examine the issues within a system of patriarchy, shining a light on sexism and misogyny, while employing critical media literacy skills. Low self-esteem and body image issues are not individual problems created in isolation. As such, the conversation and solutions must be forged in this context.
As Sunday’s panel discussed, beauty itself isn’t the oppressor. Standards and measures of beauty have always existed and they will continue to exist. Beauty is only the beast because, as panelist Hugo Schwyzer points out, mainstream standards of beauty are incredibly narrow and one-dimensional. Rather than eliminating beauty and the desire for beauty, the goal must be to inflate that definition beyond its current boundaries. As Schwyzer states, “It’s to expand the definition of what is beautiful by focusing on health and joy rather than on size alone.” To me, beauty is an emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical state of being. Our current beauty standards merely reflect a purely physical aesthetic, often dominated by a focus on size and Eurocentric beauty and body ideals.
Not only are the dominant standards of beauty suffocating in their extreme limitations, beauty is framed as the sole measure of worth for girls and women, as well as the only worthy aspiration. It negates and restricts all other vehicles of self-actualization and agency, such as the validation of intellect, self-expression, and social engagement. As witnessed this week, Hillary Clinton may be Secretary of State with extraordinary accomplishments to her credit, but our culture negates and belittles her leadership by measuring her worth by her fashion sense and her scrunchies. As Jennifer L. Pozner, director of WIMN’s Voices and author of Reality Bites Back, argues in a recent interview with the Daily Beast, “When girls look to the media for models they can achieve in the real world, they see newspapers and TV anchors talking about female politicians’ haircuts and fashion choices.” In Miss Representation, Pozner ponders the message that sent to girls and women when the medithe most influential and powerful women in the world berated and limited by media representations.
Historically, a woman’s waist size, weight or hotness quotient wasn’t always the definitive aspect of her being or value. Yes, women’s beauty was corseted and bustled in the recent Victorian past, but she was also measured by her commitment to the church, her community, mothering or her grace. All gender-specific to be sure and arguably oppressive, but they did represent a broader value system.
As Sunday’s panel agreed, beauty isn’t the problem. It’s our culture’s obsession with creating unrealistic and falsified images of beauty. It’s the double-standard. It’s the exorbitant cost to chase the beauty myth. It’s the damage to one’s physical and mental health by waging war on the body in an effort to punish it into submission. It’s the ways in which these Eurocentric beauty standards maintain other forms of inequality. It’s the lack of choice and control. As panelist Emily Musil Church points out, it’s having a bunch of men define female beauty, objectify and sexualize the female body (a standard misogynistic tactic of patriarchy) and package it for sale as female empowerment. And that’s just ass backwards.
In our quest to expand beauty, we must confront the commodification and co-optation of beauty. It is the profit-driven and commercialized images of unrealistic beauty that are equal opportunity self-esteem destroyers across race, class, age, sex, sexual orientation and ability. To move forward, we must recognize our shared struggle and work together in collaborative ways to meet our goals. And one of those goals is to navigate these giant commercial forces in thoughtful ways, convincing them, as Seth Matlins, of Off Our Chests, emphasized during the panel, that commerce and consciousness can work together-and that it can be profitable. And in this effort, we must remain vigilant to the movement and not allow positive body image messages to become merely bumper sticker slogans or empty epithets.
We must all do the work of consciousness-raising. We must examine the myriad of ways body shame is created and perpetuated in our families, our peer groups, by the fashion industry, the beauty industrial complex and the diet industry. We must point out the contradictions and failed efforts. A magazine that encourages women to love their bodies while putting highly sexualized images from the same mold on the cover and throughout it’s pages doesn’t cut it. We must take responsibility for what we say and do in our relationships and families, being mindful of the behaviors we model for our children. We need to be conscious of our levels of mediation—what and how much are we taking in? I am a huge proponent of limiting, or at the very least, decreasing that exposure. This isn’t necessarily easy but these efforts must be made in order to make the movement stronger, more inclusive and truly liberating.
After all, in this struggling democracy, there are other fish to fry. We can’t even begin to address those if we’re still fixated on the size and shape of our ass or the firmness of our thighs and breasts. To become liberated from oppressive and limiting standards of beauty frees us to commit ourselves to our families, communities and the world in more full and complete ways. Last I checked, the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been passed.
Editor’s Note: Beyond Beauty and Body Image: Top bloggers and social media experts discuss what are the broader social and political consequences of our image driven culture?
Pia Guerrero, Adios Barbie
Yashar Ali, The Current Conscious
Emily Musil Church, Ms. Magazine Blogger
Marie Denee, The Curvy Fashionista
Melanie Klein, Feminist Fatale
Seth Matlins, Off Our Chests
Marquita Thomas, President, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce