Lily, a lifelong feminist, raises money for a woman’s college. At 55, she is petite and feminine; she swims every morning, uses an elliptical machine three times a week, and lives in a fifth floor walk-up. And for the most part, she’s happy with her appearance. With a wry smile, she says she thinks she's "sorta cute."
That’s not easy: most of us are our own worst critics.
Feminists like Lily worry less about their bodies, according to a meta-analysis from Kenyon College, examining 26 studies of body image and feminist identity.
It helps women accept themselves, they argue, in part because it promotes “critical thought,” the ability to see outside cultural messages as constructed narratives. So who’s a feminist? While the studies vary, they generally agree that a feminist “recognizes that discrimination against women exists, experiences a sense of shared fate with women as a group, and wants to work with others to improve women’s status,” the authors say.
Note that feminism in this definition means solidarity. You don’t have to hate men, or approve of abortion, or gay marriage. You also don’t have to forgo makeup and high heels. After all, critical thinking means you think for yourself. Up to a third of Americans consider themselves feminists by their own definition, according to a 2000 study.
Without some distance, the ideal faces and bodies we see everywhere in advertisements and celebrity coverage easily may come to seem normal—rather than rare. Our culture broadcasts that you’re acceptable only if you look like a cover-model. Women (and men) who spend more time looking at magazine advertisements and TV programs are more likely to be depressed and worried about their weight, according to a variety of studies. Eighty-two percent of women in one study of 200 undergraduates had a negative thought about themselves after looking at a woman in a swimsuit.
Yes, most of us have heard that photos in ads are airbrushed, and the web is rampant with photoshop exposes. But the facts may not change how you feel and think. Research by Renee Engeln-Maddox, a professor at Northwestern University, has suggested that “media literacy” education isn’t enough to keep us from absorbing absurd standards. In another study, she concluded that college-age women “way overvalued” the importance of looks, associating beauty with confidence, assertiveness, happiness and employment opportunities—as well as shallowness and jealous friends.
Although feminism provides some protection from body-image problems, it isn’t a cure. Even Lily, a lifelong member of Weight Watchers, feels better about herself when she’s thinner, despite the fact that she’s well within a healthy standard.
When we’re dissing our bodies we’re really asking for encouragement and acceptance—a sign of a deeper problem. Body concern may be what life coach Martha Beck calls a “designated issue,” a distraction from a scarier problem. Think of an obsessive dieter in a dull marriage who behaves as if her husband will become more loving and gregarious if she loses ten pounds.
Body image may also fluctuate with your mood, becoming a kind of summation of your self-assessment on all of the issues that matter to you: a vote on whether you’re “okay.” Sally is a statuesque 30-year old beauty with a glamorous job and her pick of male admirers. But she has days what she can’t look in the mirror—for reasons that have little to do with her appearance.
Body image may even be off from reality. This happens most often with yo-yo dieters. During her thinner periods, Bette, a 55-year old graphic artist, recalls how she would pick up a skirt while shopping that was clearly too big, "and the saleslady would say, ‘you’re a 6.’”
A more educated, empowered mindset helps protect against all this confusion. So does self-compassion. To maintain a healthy body image, find ways to gain strength from other women as well as any men in your life.
End fat talk. When a friend (or your sister or mother) complains about her body, don’t encourage her by joining in. A “fat-day” may be the day before her period. Women who chime in with their own complaints or just listen to “fat-talk” end up feeling worse about their own bodies.
Surround yourself with people who accept you. Yvonne, a 44-year old editor, now limps after she suffered a stroke at 41. She notices that she can forget about her limp in public when she’s with friends. Her boyfriend helps, too: “He thinks I’m very sexy and lets me know it. We do a good job of playful flirting,” she says. Bette’s current partner “likes me at any size,” she says. “I’ve had relationships with guys who made comments about my weight,” she adds, “but I was young. I wouldn’t accept that now.”
Don’t equate your looks with a happy relationship. Both women and men overestimate the importance of sex characteristics to potential opposite-sex mates. Women typically assume that men prefer a female shape that is thinner and bustier than they actually do, while men wrongly assume that women prefer heavier, more muscular and larger-chested men. Women feel especially bad about their own bodies when they look at scantily-clad male models—most likely, because the men seem unobtainable—as do men when they look at semi-nude women. A true partner will see you with rose-colored glasses.
See the beauty in art. Women come in all sizes when artists portray them. Feast your eyes on Eve in Rubens' "The Fall of Man," "Anna, The Javanese," by Gauguin, "Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne" by Amedeo Modigliani or "The Grand Odalisque" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Notice that in art from India and Africa, women have big hips and big breasts.
Observe the beauty in the women around you. Rather than compare yourself with envious eyes—or mentally note your best friend’s physical flaws—appreciate female diversity. The variety of bodies in one little locker room is enough to make any woman feel normal.
Take up a cause that helps women. Consider it an experiment: does mentoring a teenage girl or raising money for a battered women’s shelter take your mind off your thighs? Do leave a comment and let us know.
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