Body Image

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

Lorraine Smith, 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 advertising.

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 body.

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