by Georgie Fear & K. Aleisha Fetters
The definition of what’s feminine or beautiful is exceedingly narrow. Despite culture, location, and time in history, they’ve always been intricately linked with power dynamics. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, “A woman’s appearance is more often called to her attention for a political reason than as a constituent of genuine attraction and desire.”[i]
Think about it: The eyes alone don’t see natural female anatomy—a full waist, touching thighs, or cellulite—as unfeminine or undesirable. Empirically, they aren’t aesthetically displeasing. But we’re imprinted in cultures that convince us they are.
In turn, we women have spent centuries working to downsize our bodies in whole or in part. Methods have included corsets, foot binding, rib removal, waist trainers, Spanx, diets, liposuction, pills, exercise, CoolSculpting… the list goes on and on. And as time has progressed, the focus has gotten tighter and tighter. Maybe in just the last few years or decade, you’ve felt the increasing pressure. After all, what the average woman pinpoints as the “ideal” or “most attractive” female body is medically underweight.[ii],[iii] Yikes.
Raised for Less
The pressure to downsize might be at an all-time high, but it was long ago that we learned that our worth rested in our appearance. Even as toddlers, when we received compliments, they were far more likely to be that we were pretty, cute, or adorable than that we were fun, funny, or smart. Within our first years of life, our nails were painted, ears pierced, and we had so much fun putting on our mothers’ makeup. Beauty culture welcomed us with open arms.
But, throughout it all, we didn’t just learn that beauty was the goal. We also learned that our size and weight were threats to it.
When do you remember first wanting to lose weight? Some estimates indicate that more than half of girls ages six to eight want to lose weight and by 10 years old, 80% have been on a diet.[iv], [v] In one study that followed a group of 496 adolescent girls for eight years, 12% of the girls suffered from some form of eating disorder.[vi] Sadder still, most young girls say they feel better about themselves when they’re actively slimming, according to research.[vii]
Our homes certainly play a part: There’s a powerful connection between our mother’s body image and our own. It’s telling that, when little girls ask their mothers if they’re fat, the immediate response is, “No! You’re not fat! You’re beautiful!” Even that reassurance reiterates the idea that a person couldn’t be both.
Indeed, research shows that by age five, girls who’ve observed their mothers diet are more likely to be concerned about their own weight than are girls whose mothers haven’t tried to lose weight.[viii] When our mothers, sisters, and aunts said they were “too big,” “too fat,” or needed to “drop two dress sizes,” we listened, just as our daughters, sisters, and nieces listen to us now. We not only kept tabs on their analysis, we considered how our own bodies ranked in the evaluation. This analysis is the heart of social comparison theory, which explains that much of what we think about ourselves and our worth comes from how we think we stack up against everyone else. And when our family members—female or male—commented on women’s bodies, they likely made it clear that women belonged in one or two camps: desirable or fat.
As kids, the body images and weight stigmas of those around us were instrumental to forming our identities, senses of self-worth, and aspirations. We were sponges, taking in and absorbing everything around us to make sense of the world and our places in it. We looked not just within our homes, but everywhere we went—school, sports practice, the mall.
However, it’s possible that the greatest influence on girls’ desire to become ever-smaller is from women they never actually meet. Characters in cartoons, shows, movies, and now YouTube are among young girls’ greatest female idols. Research shows that these female characters are nearly twice as likely to have an uncharacteristically small waist compared with their male counterparts.[ix], [x] Aleisha can attest to the impact these images have over young girls. As a child, she was obsessively envious of Ariel’s waist, and spent an inordinate amount of time sucking in her stomach and jamming her hands into her sides, and trying to get her hands to wrap all of the way around her waist. It never occurred to Aleisha that the cartoon mermaid’s body was altogether impossible (not just for the fins) and unhealthy. After all, Ariel’s waistline was roughly the same diameter as her neck!
Social Comparisons and Social Media
Images influence our thoughts more than we realize, and research shows that women are significantly more likely to internalize societal appearance standards than are men.[xi] When we see these images, within a fraction of a second—sometimes even before we consciously register it—we make a social comparison. We compare our bodies to what we see in front of us and use it to appraise our own standing. Psychologists consistently show that when it comes to these social comparisons, women are more prone to making upward rather than downward comparisons.[xii] Basically, every time we look at another woman, we find something to devalue ourselves.
While past research has focused on how traditional forms of media, such as magazines, TV, and music videos spur women’s body dissatisfaction, social media is a whole new body-dissatisfaction-fueling beast. Social media doesn’t just allow us to compare ourselves to celebrities and models; it also encourages us to compare ourselves to our “real” women. But that doesn’t mean the images haven’t been altered. Free online image-editing apps offer to slim waistlines, thighs, or stretch the entire body into a leaner look, and they have hundreds of thousands of users. (And if you aren’t at least playing with filters on Instagram, what are you even doing?)
Indeed, research shows that women’s Instagram use is strongly linked with a tendency of self-objectification. The more frequently women view fitspiration images on Instagram, the more apt they are to internalize appearance-related ideal and base their worth on how they compare to others.[xiii]
Think about it: When you scroll through your social media feeds, how do you feel? What emotions do you experience as you look at other women’s photos? What do you think about your body and yourself?
Body Shame, On Tap
Our experiences teach us that smallness is the goal, and that largeness is hated. The prevalence of weight stigma has increased in past decades to the point that it’s now on par with that of racial discrimination, especially among overweight women.[xiv] Hiring discrimination against women who are overweight is extremely prevalent.[xv] Women say their most common stigmatizing situations include receiving nasty comments from family members and children, encountering physical barriers and obstacles such as public spaces being too small, others making negative assumptions like having low expectations because of their size, and hearing inappropriate comments from doctors.[xvi]
Every one of these situations hurt women, but the fact that not even the healthcare and wellness fields have a healthy perspective on women’s bodies is especially disheartening. Research has shown that physicians view obese patients as less self-disciplined and more “annoying,” and report less desire to help them than to help thinner patients.[xvii] One systematic review of weight stigmatization reveals that most physiotherapists think that people with increased weights are “noncompliant” and “unmotivated.”[xviii]
Clients have told us far too many stories recounting doctors dismissing their medical complaints and concerns. In most cases, women explain that doctors completely ignore the symptoms and concerns for which appointments were scheduled, with the doctor instead wanting to talk about weight loss. Alternately, some patients feel that physicians cut diagnostic processes short, seemingly prematurely, to conclude that excess weight is to blame for their headaches, trouble sleeping, or gastrointestinal troubles. Health only worsens when women become hesitant of seeing doctors.[xix], [xx], [xxi]
Gyms and fitness studios blatantly punish those who enter overweight. In fact, Aleisha recalls a friend of hers leaving a gym in tears, unable to enter the facility through its turnstile. And, once in a gym, larger women are likely to get unsolicited advice for diets, suggestions to stick to walking on the treadmill, and unwelcome looks from both staff and fellow exercisers. Remarks like, “You’re so inspirational” call out overweight women who exercise as exceptional, a reminder that if a woman is overweight, she’s presumed to hate exercise, be lazy, or have some character defect.
In one of the least surprising findings ever, a 2017 study confirmed that experiencing stigma at a gym was associated with developing negative attitudes toward the gym.[xxii] Of course it does! Who would feel eager and positive about going to a gym where people give you dirty looks or stare at you? The same study found that when women experience stigma at a gym, they typically respond with maladaptive coping behaviors such as avoiding exercise, hiding in baggy clothes, and trying to rapidly lose weight with unhealthy strategies like crash diets.
Signs and pamphlets—in gyms, family medicine exam rooms, chiropractic waiting rooms, dermatologist offices—advertise weight-loss medications and procedures. Advertisements in pharmacy windows or spa storefronts promote the latest fad diet pill or slimming gimmick. For some women, it’s impossible to get a Pap smear or skin-cancer screening without being told to shrink. Attending the gym means becoming a target for disparaging “helpful” comments from a personal trainer, and that even picking up your prescriptions comes with another reminder that you’re not okay.
How can the effect on mental health be anything but terrible? Since weight bias is a reality of everyday life, it’s understandable that we absorb these attitudes as our own. In fact, one large-scale study estimates that about 40% of U.S. adults internalize weight bias, and 20% do so to a very high degree.[xxiii] This internalized stigma results in people devaluing themselves or applying negative stereotypes to themselves because of their weight.[xxiv] “I’m lazy” is the most common refrain we hear women using to tear themselves down.
Women Aren’t Just Victims, We’re Also Active Participants
As much as we suffer from body hatred, we women are often the ones perpetuating it.
Women’s magazines—staffed almost entirely by women—provide a strong example. Although, in past decades, women’s magazines have arguably done more to popularize women’s rights and welfare compared with even “feminist” publications, they still echo many negative messages about how we should exist in our bodies. An analysis of the top women’s health and fitness magazines reveals that their pages contain more messages about body shaping and weight loss than actual health.[xxv] Another analysis supports this, and adds that their performance-related content appears far less frequently than appearance- or health-related topics.[xxvi]
In short, women are usually the people who write headlines covering ways to shrink, and the ones who edit women’s photos. It’s largely women hanging airbrushed images of celebrities on a wall and debating which will sell the most copies.
Doing so, unfortunately, has been the key to these publications’ survival. After all, nearly every headline and article you’ll ever read, whether it’s in print or online, is based on what will perform—what women will buy or read. Online publications afford some of the best examples, with search engine optimization companies often determining editorial content. They even outline articles topics, headlines, subheadings, what words and “burn fat” catchphrases to use most frequently, and questions to be answered—based entirely on what women are Googling.
Meanwhile, in all forms of media, it’s not actually articles read or episodes watched that turn a profit or keep companies afloat; it’s advertisers, a vast number of which propel body hatred. After all, selling stuff hinges on keeping women dissatisfied with themselves and desperate for solutions.
Women drive 70 to 80% of all consumer purchasing through a combination of buying power and influence in determining what the rest of her household buys. They form the backbone of the $72 billon weight-loss industry, despite that a greater percentage of men are medically overweight or obese compared to women.[xxvii], [xxviii], [xxix] Some digital marketing experts estimate that we see and hear 4,000 to 10,000 ads every single day.[xxx], [xxxi] Although many of those ads don’t directly sell weight-loss programs, diets, or tools, they still reinforce the idea that for women, size is intimately linked to beauty, worth, love, and happiness.
Similarly, on social media, women are both the leaders and the followers. “Fitspiration,” which is overwhelmingly female-driven, reinforces the over-valuation of physical appearance and endorses extremes in food restriction and exercise.[xxxii] When encouraging behavior change on social media, influencers consistently use attractiveness more frequently than health or happiness as motivation.[xxxiii] The motivation is, again, social comparison. We don’t look like the beautiful images we see online. “So let’s do something to fix that,” they urge.
Often, even the women in these posts don’t look like their idealized selves. As prevalent as photo-editing is among everyday women, it’s mandatory—and far more extensive—for women who use the platforms to earn a living. Influencers have entire teams of people fine-tuning every curve and erasing every trace of cellulite.
The bottom line is that these images don’t make us feel good about ourselves, no matter if we’re the creator or consumer. Either way, they convince us that our bodies are not ideal. Our bodies are flawed, we think.
And with that mindset, our bodies will stay flawed to us, no matter how we change them.
[i] Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Random House.
[ii] MacNeill, L. P., & Best, L. A. (2015). Perceived current and ideal body size in female undergraduates. Eating behaviors, 18, 71-75.
[iii] Brierley, M. E., Brooks, K. R., Mond, J., Stevenson, R. J., & Stephen, I. D. (2016). The body and the beautiful: health, attractiveness and body composition in men’s and women’s bodies. PLoS One, 11(6), e0156722.
[iv] Common Sense Media. At what age does media begin affecting my child’s body image? Retrieved from: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/media-and-body-image/at-what-age-does-media-begin-affecting-my-childs-body-image [article]
[v] Common Sense Media. (2015, Jan 21). Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-media-and-body-image [article]
[vi] Stice, E., Marti, C. N., Shaw, H., & Jaconis, M. (2009). An 8-year longitudinal study of the natural history of threshold, subthreshold, and partial eating disorders from a community sample of adolescents. Journal of abnormal psychology, 118(3), 587.
[vii] Mellin, L. M., Irwin Jr, C. E., & Scully, S. (1992). Prevalence of disordered eating in girls: A survey of middle-class children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association (USA).
[viii] Abramovitz, B. A., & Birch, L. L. (2000). Five-year-old girls’ ideas about dieting are predicted by their mothers’ dieting. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 100(10), 1157-1163.
[ix] Common Sense Media. (2015, Jan 21). Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-media-and-body-image [article]
[x] Boyd, H., & Murnen, S. K. (2017). Thin and sexy vs. muscular and dominant: Prevalence of gendered body ideals in popular dolls and action figures. Body image, 21, 90-96.
[xi] Brennan, M. A., Lalonde, C. E., & Bain, J. L. (2010). Body image perceptions: Do gender differences exist? Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, 15(3), 130-138.
[xii] Fardouly, J., Pinkus, R. T., & Vartanian, L. R. (2017). The impact of appearance comparisons made through social media, traditional media, and in person in women’s everyday lives. Body image, 20, 31-39.
[xiii] Fardouly, J., Willburger, B. K., & Vartanian, L. R. (2018). Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways. New Media & Society, 20(4), 1380-1395.
[xiv] Puhl, R. M., Andreyeva, T., & Brownell, K. D. (2008). Perceptions of weight discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America. International journal of obesity, 32(6), 992.
[xv] Campos-Vazquez, R. M., & Gonzalez, E. (2020). Obesity and Hiring Discrimination. Economics & Human Biology, 100850.
[xvi] Puhl, R. M., & Brownell, K. D. (2006). Confronting and coping with weight stigma: an investigation of overweight and obese adults. Obesity, 14(10), 1802-1815.
[xvii] Hebl, M. R., & Xu, J. (2001). Weighing the care: physicians’ reactions to the size of a patient. International journal of obesity, 25(8), 1246.
[xviii] Cavaleri, R., Short, T., Karunaratne, S., & Chipchase, L. S. (2016). Weight stigmatisation in physiotherapy: a systematic review. Physical Therapy Reviews, 21(1), 1-9.
[xix] Uppot, R. N., Sahani, D. V., Hahn, P. F., Gervais, D., & Mueller, P. R. (2007). Impact of obesity on medical imaging and image-guided intervention. American Journal of Roentgenology, 188(2), 433-440.
[xx] Mensinger, J. L., Tylka, T. L., & Calamari, M. E. (2018). Mechanisms underlying weight status and healthcare avoidance in women: a study of weight stigma, body-related shame and guilt, and healthcare stress. Body image, 25, 139-147.
[xxi] Singh, M., Sethi, A., Mishra, A. K., Subrayappa, N. K., Stapleton, D. D., & Pellikka, P. A. (2020). Echocardiographic Imaging Challenges in Obesity: Guideline Recommendations and Limitations of Adjusting to Body Size. Journal of the American Heart Association, 9(2), e014609.
[xxii] Schvey, N. A., Sbrocco, T., Bakalar, J. L., Ress, R., Barmine, M., Gorlick, J., … & Tanofsky-Kraff, M. (2017). The experience of weight stigma among gym members with overweight and obesity. Stigma and Health, 2(4), 292.
[xxiii] Puhl, R. M., Himmelstein, M. S., & Quinn, D. M. (2018). Internalizing weight stigma: prevalence and sociodemographic considerations in US adults. Obesity, 26(1), 167-175.
[xxiv] Corrigan, P. W., Watson, A. C., & Barr, L. (2006). The self–stigma of mental illness: Implications for self–esteem and self–efficacy. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 25(8), 875-884.
[xxv] Willis, L. E., & Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2014). Weighing women down: Messages on weight loss and body shaping in editorial content in popular women’s health and fitness magazines. Health communication, 29(4), 323-331.
[xxvi] Aubrey, J. S., & Hahn, R. (2016). Health versus appearance versus body competence: a content analysis investigating frames of health advice in women’s health magazines. Journal of health communication, 21(5), 496-503.
[xxvii] Brennan, B. (2015, Jan 21). Top 10 things everyone should know about women consumers. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bridgetbrennan/2015/01/21/top-10-things-everyone-should-know-about-women-consumers/ [article]
[xxviii] Marketdata Enterprises (2009). The US weight loss & diet control market. Lynbrook, NY: Marketdata Enterprises.
[xxix] Overweight & Obesity Statistics. August 2017. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved from : https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity
[xxx] Marshall, R. (2015, Sept 10). How Many Ads Do You See in One Day? Red Crow Marketing. Retrieved from: https://www.redcrowmarketing.com/2015/09/10/many-ads-see-one-day/ [article]
[xxxi] Simpson, J. (2017). Finding brand success in the digital world. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2017/08/25/finding-brand-success-in-the-digital-world/#7ba91ab0626e [article]
[xxxii] Boepple, L., Ata, R. N., Rum, R., & Thompson, J. K. (2016). Strong is the new skinny: A content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body image, 17, 132-135.
[xxxiii] Tiggemann, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2018). ‘Strong is the new skinny’: A content analysis of# fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology, 23(8), 1003-1011.
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