Body Image

Lorraine Smith explains the pressures the media puts on women to be thin and beautiful.

, 16 March 2003

Shortly after Christmas I was feeling fat, which is not an unusual occurrence

but was actually justified at the time due to the amount of calories I had

consumed over the previous few weeks. I was also feeling old and unfashionable

due to an evening spent in a pub packed with people between 4 and 10 years

younger than me who were wearing outfits purchased in the last 4 months, as

opposed to the last 4 years.

I occasionally find myself wishing I was something other than I am

Although there’s no real pressure on me to conform to a young, thin and

fashionable stereotype, I still find myself occasionally wishing I was something

other than I am. Most of the time I am quite happy with the way I look. I know

I have a big bottom and would love to have longer legs but there’s no point in

worrying about things I have little hope of ever changing, as I will just end up

feeling depressed and overcome by feelings of self doubt. I’ve never been one to

look at photos in magazines and fret that I don’t match up to the image of

apparent perfection that they portray, as they are generally airbrushed pictures

of unusual looking models, but I have recently noticed that I am

actually affected by images on television and in magazines.

I didn’t realise just how few media images there are of women I can relate to

until one television advert really made me smile. It was for the Nokia 7650

where three men expose their bellies to wish happy birthday to a colleague, who

then takes a picture with her phone. It’s full of normal looking people just

being themselves which is rare in today’s media, and even more so in


Why do so many rational women have body image problems? Research by the

University of Glasgow suggested that women are up to ten times more likely than

men to be unhappy with their body image. Why is this? Who is putting pressure on

us to be young and thin? You don’t have to go too far to find an answer to this

question: just as far as your television set, in fact. When we’re not being

bombarded with images of tall, slender and glamorous young women in programmes

where all the fat characters are there for comedy value only, we then get

subjected to adverts for Weight Watchers and Slim Fast during the commercial

breaks. OK so, no one has told us that we simply must buy these

products in order to look like these people, but it doesn’t help when you go

shopping for clothes only to find that nothing fits.

we’re bombarded with images of tall, slender and glamorous young women

So-called ‘fashionable’ retailers skimp on fabric so their sizes come up

smaller, and they shape their garments for a more athletic figure than the

majority of women have. This means that a lot of women feel abnormal when they

are in fact quite the opposite, and it is affecting us at a younger age than

ever before. Teenagers have always been teased at school for looking fatter,

thinner, taller or shorter than their peers but, as the magazine market for

young girls increases and the desire to grow up kicks in at earlier ages than

ever before, young women are finding it more and more difficult to accept the

way they look. A survey of 500 school pupils by the Young Women’s Christian

Association revealed that one in three thought about their body shape all the

time and only 14% were happy with the way they look.

Television companies, clothing retailers, magazine editors, advertising agencies

and Hollywood should all really do more to halt this trend. We need images of

women who we can aspire to be like, but not simply because they look a certain

way. After all, there’s more to glamour than looking good in a bikini. Jamie

Lee Curtis posed sans make-up and photo re-touching for a magazine last year,

then Kate Winslet destroyed all her earlier good work and caused outrage earlier

this year with her blatantly airbrushed cover for a men’s mag.

Every now and again someone in the media mentions that there is a problem

(remember British Vogue’s shoot with a size 14 model?), only to merrily sweep it

back under the carpet again once they have cashed in. Perhaps we shouldn’t wait

for the media to catch up and should focus on ourselves first, but it’s tricky

to “love the skin you’re in” when you’re constantly being told that you have too

much of the damn stuff in the first place.

society accepts a far wider variety of male body shapes than female.

The thing that bothers me the most about all this, however, is that men are not

under the same pressure to conform. Although there is evidence to suggest that

men are becoming more obsessed with their appearance than ever before (usually

by being urged to replace their keg with a six-pack if they want to impress us),

society accepts a far wider variety of male body shapes than female. Men are

still adored by their girlfriends/wives when they pile on the pounds, but then

find these same women unattractive if they happen go up a couple of dress sizes.

Men can go without shaving and still feel sexy, but woman misplaces her razor

and all hell breaks loose! Men can grow old gracefully, whereas women are

constantly being told that wrinkles are bad and will make you look like an extra

for Last of the Summer Wine before you’re thirty if you don’t spend at least

fifteen quid on a pot of cream.

I suspect that social conditioning has a lot to do with this, but most men do

seem to be immune to the media images of sultry male models draped in young

girls, preferring instead just to look at the girls. Buy a women’s magazine and

you will see pictures of the young and slender women that, in someone’s ideal

world, we are all supposed to look like. Buy a copy of a men’s magazine,

however, and you will see photos of the same women. There may be men on the

fashion pages, but the readers will doubtless be looking at just the clothes by

this point. Why can’t we do that? Sometimes I wonder if women are in fact

their own worst enemy when it comes to the poor image they have of their own


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