It was 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention. They came out swinging with fightin' words in their Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. They said "the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman…" Whew! In the 132 years that followed women gained the vote. They gained better education. They gained more economic freedom by entering the workforce. But don't get too excited, the sad fact is we've got a long way to go, baby!
On the outside, things may look a whole lot better for women and girls, but the battle for health and well-being still wages. There are way too many issues for us to talk about today, but we can begin with one: body image.
Women have been pressured to conform to nearly impossible ideals of body shape throughout history. Even as far back as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. All "respectable" women back then wore a corset to make their waists tiny. They were as compulsory as bras are today. Some "tight-laced" ladies of the time actually had thirteen inch waists from wearing corsets. Not only were they terribly uncomfortable, but they created a whole mess of health problems in many women; nasty things like liver and kidney displacement, respiratory distress, uterine prolapse…oh the frightening list goes on and on. Women endured the pain of a corset because the social pressure to wear them was huge.
You might think that this sort of thing is just history, but you'd be wrong. Even though people finally dispensed with the external corset, we replaced it with something more like an "internal corset." Instead of shaping our bodies from the outside with corsets and girdles, we began to shape our bodies from the inside with diet and exercise. So far, so good. But what happens when we still have the same unrealistic ideals of body shape that existed over a century ago? Back then, we wanted a 13" waist, today we want a 5'8", 98-pound woman in perfect shape who never gets hungry. Which ideal do you think is easier for everyone to achieve?
We wanted to find out more about what body image is all about, so we talked to Rachel Licitra, a Counseling Psychology and Drama Therapy graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She has written her masters thesis on issues around female body shame, and has worked with adolescent girls dealing with issues of self-esteem and self-harm. We caught up with Rachel by e-mail and asked about her thoughts and experience with body image.
Q: What is body image? How does it affect young women and men?
A: Generally it refers to one's perception of them self, particularly their physical appearance. Typically there is some relationship between one's body image, and the cultural ideal. … Since most people do not have the features, or body type of the current standard, this can negatively affect young men and women, by reducing their self-esteem, leaving them with feelings of being … somehow inherently deficient.
Q: What are some unhealthy attitudes that you see with body images today?
A: They can range from a minor obsession with counting calories and exercise … [to] eating disorders, depression, and self-harm. I have seen a lot of young women put themselves down, or question their worth because they perceive themselves as "too fat", "not tall enough", the list of self judgments goes on.
Q: Who suffers the most from this, and in what ways?
A: My biased answer is young women, who are continually bombarded with images of "beauty." … When you are dealing with a negative body image, it can affect everything you do. You can become overly concerned with what others think of you, and less able to participate in life without feeling painfully self-conscious.
Q: Have you ever had to deal with issues of unhealthy body image in your own life; either with yourself or with loved ones?
A: Yes, I have personally and with loved ones. I don't know many women who have not in some way had to deal with this issue (not that it only affects women). I almost lost my best friend to an eating disorder. I have been hyper-focused at times on appearance, leading to excessive exercise, and controlling what I eat. … Negative body image issues have affected … my beliefs in my own attractiveness and self-worth.
Q: What is the most important message you want to send to young adults today?
A: To try to accept and celebrate their uniqueness. We all have beauty and gifts to share with the world, and no matter what other people think of you, if you do not think well of yourself, no amount of compliments can sustain you.
Thank you Rachel!
So, where do such inhuman body ideals come from? Although society at large is ultimately responsible, the media holds a great deal of responsibility in creating the impossible images that we see everyday. This affects you … and more than you may realize. Liz Dittrich, Ph.D. of About-Face.Org quotes a 1991 report that says "the incidence of anorexia nervosa among 10-19 year-old girls paralleled the change of fashion and its idealized body image [during a 50-year period]." Dittrich also writes from another report that says "exposure [of women] to the thin ideal produced depression, shame, guilt, body dissatisfaction, and stress." This means that the media affects our attitudes about our own bodies and our health whether we realize it or not… whether we like it or not!
An unhealthy body image can mean an unhealthy body, mind and spirit. One health experiment shows that not getting enough calories has caused depression, anxiety and irritability. Extreme cases include anorexia nervosa (distorted body image resulting in eating too little) and bulimia (uncontrolled overeating usually followed by self-induced vomiting). Smoking among girls is on the rise, and surpasses the number of guys who do it. One study suggests that almost half of young female smokers do so in order to lose weight. The unfortunate fact remains that a quarter of them will die from a smoking related disease. Worst of all, girls have an increased risk of suicide as a result of negative body image. Some quick Facts and figures by Jean Holzgang from the Just Think Foundation's Body Image Project.
How can you
make a difference?
Don't buy the hype!
Rebecca - Get out of the kitchen! It's time for equal rights! Or is it?