Saga of the Jasonite

The continuing adventures of that eternal man of mystery…

Female self-image in American society: a sad commentary, but not a hopeless one

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I’m bummed out that something like this even exists.

My next planned blog post was going to address the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ but after an experimental post today on my Facebook page I decided I need to talk about something different. It’s not a new subject by any means, but it is an important one and one that saddens me on several levels:  as a man, as a professional therapist and as a Christian. That subject is how women are taught to perceive themselves in our society…okay not just our society, but American society may be leading the pack.

My post was asking for advice on how to tell a woman she had deliberately written an incorrect figure for her weight on an important form, when she certainly weighed more than she said. Now of course there was no such quandary in my life, I just wanted to see what kind of reactions I would get. I should tell you first that I’m not one of those Facebookers that has 1000 friends, half of whom I don’t even really know. Really the only folks that I’m friends with are those people who I do know personally, many of them for several years, some of which are relatives of mine. I suppose I typically get between zero and three responses when I post something. Can you guess the kinds of responses I got? Well, of the 15 responses I received not a single male friend of mine dared say a word. Concerning the comments I did get–let’s just say they were not friendly responses. First, none of them actually suggested any way in which I might go about my hypothetical endeavor, nor did any of them even want to know the circumstances that might bring this about. My responses–these are from my friends and relatives–included disappointment, defensiveness, scripture quoting, and sadness, all with an undercurrent of anger, indicating significant personal hurt and insecurity that was brought up just from the subject of weight. More than one friend of mine wrote three different posts in response, and many additional friends didn’t post but ‘Liked’ several of the posts that were mentioned. Now I love my friends, and I believe all of them are great folks, but I would have to struggle to think of any topic which a woman could bring up that would elicit such a strong response from multiple men.

Why do American women–and women in many societies around the world–have such strong negative and insecure responses to the subject of weight? The short answer is, because everyone around them tells them to be insecure. Everyone, including parents, the girl’s educational cohort as she’s growing up, male friends and boyfriends, television, movies, magazines, books, the list goes on. One of the first things that came to mind was an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry was explaining to Elaine what wedgies were, to which she responds “That’s sick!” Jerry then asks, “What do girls do?” She responds offhandedly, “We just tease someone until they develop an eating disorder.” I remember watching that and laughing at the time, but there’s got to be a lot of truth in that comment. Remember the movie Mean Girls? It came out in 2004 and was written by Tina Fey as a comedy, but also as social commentary on what it’s like to be one of the 99% of girls in high school today who doesn’t look “perfect.” There is something else that film brings up that I’ll address later.

Weight of course is just one portion of the real issue: female attractiveness. Thinner is perceived as more attractive, right? But there are also other things–all physical–which make up beauty as American society would define it:  bust size, body hair, shape of the legs, shape of the butt, height, pimples, thighs, and probably a dozen other things I don’t even know about. Women I think do have an inherent need to be perceived as beautiful, both by themselves and by the mate they choose in a way that is not analogous among men. I recently watched a documentary on Joan Rivers, it’s one of those where they follow her around for a year to get a slice of what her daily life is like. I’ll never forget one thing she said, which was that no man had ever called her beautiful. This is a woman who had been married twice and been a public figure most of her life, with accolades from a variety of sources, money for the best make-up, clothes, personal trainers, etc., yet what had affected her perhaps most strongly was that she had never been told she was beautiful. “I’ve been told I look terrific, that I look great,” she goes on, but clearly it wasn’t enough. She also talks about her own past struggles with bulimia and suicidal thoughts.

There’s an old saying that I heard when I was teenager, it goes “men fall in love with the women they’re attracted to, and women are attracted to the men they fall in love with.” I believe there is a lot of truth in this. As most of us know men are more visually stimulated than women are, and I can personally testify that how a woman looks to me has a lot to do with whether I am interested in getting to know her better romantically. Men need to look good too, it’s true, to attract a woman. However I can’t tell you how many women have told me that what women are really attracted to is the personality of the guy. I’ve bluntly asked several of my female friends and girlfriends over the years if they’ve ever dated “ugly” guys, and as far as I can remember they’ve all said yes, because they loved what the guy was like, or how he treated her. There has likely always been more pressure on women than men to look physically attractive. What women might not know is that men are programmed regarding what to find beautiful just as much as women are.

We can talk all day about the unrealistic messages that the media projects onto us, after all this stuff is known right? But there is very little change that I can detect in healthier self-image among women. In fact if anything there are more treatment centers for eating disorders these days, and I’ve counseled more than one young woman with an eating disorder diagnosis. Take a look at this poster that details the chemicals women use to enhance their beauty–go ahead and click on it for the full-size image. Some of these chemicals are linked with cancer, others have been shown to affect the health of a fetus. At the heart of what I want to talk about is why this is still happening. I believe there are a couple of reasons, both of which attempt to take advantage of the fact that women want to be beautiful. Please understand, in my view it’s a healthy thing for women to want to be beautiful, there’s nothing wrong with this basic desire, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with a man’s desire to be his wife’s hero. In both cases however, if these desires are distorted they can lead to dead-end unhealthy outcomes.

Take another quick look at the poster. If you tell me the first thing you notice, it’s probably not the list of chemicals that covers it, but the fact that this woman only has underwear on and is certainly topless. Why would someone do this? I mean would it harm the message irreparably if she had some clothes on? I got this from Google but I’m willing to bet money that this came from a women’s magazine, I mean I can’t imagine finding something like this in Golf or Electronic Gaming Monthly. So if it’s a poster that is primarily aimed at women, why have this be the image? This poster actually illuminates both of the primary reasons women’s body-image is suffering. First, women are taught to value themselves solely on the basis of their sexual attractiveness, and secondly, companies are happy to manipulate women by the millions to get them to buy their products or read their “helpful” articles.

Take a look at this photo, this is from an issue of ESPN Magazine. A sports magazine, right? The woman on the cover is Ronda Rousey, let me tell you a little bit about her as she is exceptional. She is a former judoka and current mixed martial artist and a current champion in her weight class. She is only the second American woman to earn an Olympic medal in Judo since its inception as an Olympic sport. She qualified for the Olympics when she was just 17, which made her the youngest judo competitor in the entire games, and at 19 she became the first US athlete (male or female) to ever win two junior world medals. Since she began competing in MMA every opponent she has ever fought she has defeated by submission in the first round of her matches. Currently she is ranked by consensus as the #1 pound-for-pound female MMA fighter in the world, and one of the top three female fighters in the world in general. Due to her talent and dedication she’s probably better at this than I will ever be at anything. Yet before you found all that out about her, what was your first impression upon seeing this magazine cover? Playboy bunny? Just a model they’d gotten for the cover? Aww, isn’t she cute with those pink gloves?

Can’t say I blame you, because that was similar to what my first impression was. I’ve never met her but I bet if I did I would find an extremely serious, hard-working woman who is more driven than most anyone I’m ever likely to meet. Yet they have her with practically no clothes on. Does the cover shot at all encourage us to take her seriously? Or are we encouraged despite her incredible achievements only to value her for her sex appeal? If I was a woman who grew up in a typical American family, bombarded by images like these and more on a daily basis, what else would I be likely to think but that I need to be beautiful by the American measure of beauty to amount to anything. Is it any wonder that a mere mention of weight is enough to send my friends to the emotional place they went to? Unfortunately Ronda goes on to undercut her own validity by posing nude in this same issue.

The objectification of women should not really be news to anyone. Look at the TV shows, movies, magazines, commercials, even news programs and cartoons and you’ll find it. Strippers and porn only make matters worse. Why did some of the girls treat other girls so badly in Mean Girls? One of the reasons is competition for men. Maryanne Fisher, PhD, in an issue of 2011’s Psychology Today wrote an article entitled, “Yes, Women Do Compete for Men.” Now I’m a reasonably good-looking single guy in his 30’s, and that’s not exactly a revelation to me. She described this as primarily a competition for “good men,” the definition of which has been changing quite a bit. Not just getting them, but keeping them as well. This is one likely motivator for women to be thinner, to use make-up and dress in ways they would not otherwise do. The problem here is, and I know there are women who won’t believe this, but men don’t really care all that much how thin women are. *Gasp* Yup, it’s true. Now some few men do really care about this, but largely it has to do with either being an immature kid in high school/college, or the body type of the man involved. Thin guys tend to be drawn to thinner women, guys that are bigger tend to be drawn to a similar physical structure in women. It can work the other way too, with thin guys being attracted to larger women and larger guys going after thin women. See how impossible it is to predict what a guy might find physically desirable? In the end, when looking for a mate, a man is looking for a woman he can respect. Someone who is comfortable with herself.

Women don’t get much of a chance to think that how they are might be okay, they are typically sold a one-size-fits-all perception of female perfection. In this paradigm women try to be something most women can’t, and undercut and sabotage each other from the age of adolescence on, all while their own self-esteem is in the toilet. This can lead to eating disorders, depression, and desperately reading women’s magazines for help, most of which have on the cover how to get fitter, thinner, look better, have better sexual technique and be a better homemaker. All available if you buy the magazine, then spend money on some of the products listed inside. Remember, as has been mentioned in the news the photos on magazine covers are “Photo Shopped”, so even those models that are posing don’t look quite like that. As a personal aside, as a guy I’ve always found it hilarious that women actually look up advice on how to be better lovers. Most guys will tell you we aren’t that hard to please in bed. You want to be good in bed? Just get to know what your guy likes through verbal communication and experimentation, then (if you feel comfortable with it) do those things! If you don’t feel comfortable, then don’t, there’s nothing wrong with setting limits with guys. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Women are given messages on how to think, how to look, what’s acceptable and what’s not, how to present themselves to a guy, how to act with a guy, what to let a guy talk them into, what to do to a guy, everything except how to accept themselves. Meanwhile men are given similar messages on what to value in a woman, and it always has to do with what they look like. Where are the messages on how to like who you are, or what really matters in someone else? The why of this is pretty easy:  there’s no money in it. There are self-help books and this is a multi-million dollar industry, but let’s face it books are much less sexy than any other form of media, and there’s less money there than other avenues. In our (unfortunately) sex-obsessed society, women are pressured to believe that sleeping with a guy will make him like her more. Nothing could be further from the truth! The most forgettable women are those that “give it up” on the first or second date, and they are also the most likely to be dumped. The women that have the most success in securing a good relationship are those that demand men treat them with respect. Steve Harvey has just published a good book (there’s a movie out too) on how to do this. I haven’t read it but if it’s anything like the movie based on it, I recommend it.

The answer, I believe, is to learn how to value yourself independent of the messages of those around you. How to do this? Having loving parents who accept you no matter your appearance is a good start, and I suspect in many homes this is not a problem. Figuring out how to value yourself for non-physical attributes is the trickier issue. Girls are generally raised to value themselves based on their sex appeal to men: “I’m worth something if I’m sexy.” What a tragic belief this is. It’s the genesis of the beliefs that often follow, which include being thin, showing as much skin as you can get away with, and doing whatever it takes to secure a man’s attention. The problem is these beliefs are self-defeating. It’s impossible to be sexy to everyone, for example. There will always be someone cuter, thinner, with bigger boobs, better hair, dressed more provocatively, etc. We need to put something in its place. This is where parents often fail, though it is part of their job to instill confidence and a belief system into their offspring. For those parents interested, Reviving Ophelia is a great resource I’d recommend.

There are a lot of core beliefs that are flawed, however. Let’s look at some. “I’m worth something if I’m with a man,” is dangerous for obvious reasons: it often is a sign of co-dependence and the sublimation of your own goals and even personality to those who you are with. Talk about a one-way ticket to a miserable life. “I’m worth something if I’m a good wife or mother,” carries the same risks. What if you are single, you get divorced, or your spouse dies? What if your children die, or you can’t have kids? What if your kids go astray, does that mean you’re worthless? “I’m worth something if I’m smart.” This seems better on the surface, but research has shown that if a child is praised for being smart when they do well at school it often leads to a lack of hard work and avoidance of true challenges, because the fear of failure takes root. Much better is to praise them for working hard. “I’m worth something if I have a good job/education/career,” can work to your good, but can also lead to overwork and a sense of failure and depression if that career goes awry. It can be a goal, but not the primary place from which a person derives their sense of worth.

Generally better are statements that focus on things over which someone has direct control or which will never change and is good. For example, “I’m worth something if I have integrity.” This leads to better conduct with others, and provides a bulwark against peer pressure as well. “I’m worth something because my parents love and accept me,” is also good in all but the unhealthiest of home environments because it leads to an inner sense of confidence. It can work against someone if their parents are manipulative, or place worth on their children due to outward things, such as beauty or achievement. I’ll admit my bias here as a Christian by stating perhaps the best of all is, “I’m worth something because I’m a child of God, and He loves me.” That will never change. It will always be good. It can lead to a life of integrity because we inherently want to please those who love us, and those who are familiar with God and communicate with Him know how He wants us to live. This link will help provide additional evidence of this for those who would like it. Being a daughter of God also happens to mean that you are literally a princess.

Having a solid foundation based in healthy core beliefs is crucial, and of inestimable worth. However we can do more. You and I can’t control what movies come out, what magazines print on the cover, or what content commercials contain, but we can control how much we watch and read them. If we have kids we can be aware of media with these kinds of messages and limit our children’s exposure to them, and also use times when these messages are sent as teaching moments. If you are reading women’s magazines that contain any messages that attempt to dictate what you are worth, or that being thinner or sexy is ‘better’, stop reading them! If you tend to attract a certain kind of guy you don’t like, look at what you do that is continuing that pattern and change it! How provocatively are you dressing? As a rule, the more you reveal the less the guy will respect you, because you are demonstrating that you value yourself based on your looks. If you don’t like that guys tend to look at your boobs or your butt don’t show ’em off, wear attractive clothes that don’t distract men from your face. I ran across a quote from Marilyn Monroe that I like: “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you’re a woman, but loose enough to show you’re a lady.”

Are you going to bars to meet guys? Don’t do it! Beware the kind of clubs you go to, certain clubs attract a certain kind of clientele. I’ve written a good article on what being a man should mean, and I do understand that good men can be hard to come by. Don’t compromise too much of yourself in your search. Do you tend to suppress your own opinion and agree with a guy even though you don’t? Stop that! As an experiment try giving your honest opinion for every one that he voices. You’ll find you have less to be afraid of, and if a guy doesn’t like being around who you really are, then he’s not for you. It’s better to find out sooner than later! You also have control over who your friends are; if you have friends that make you more self-conscious about things you shouldn’t be, let them know you don’t like it. Pick friends that encourage you to accept yourself more, not less–get rid of the other ones. I know, I know, easier said than done. But it’s worth it! It’s like anything else, just try one change at a time. The happier you are with yourself the clearer you will know who you want (and don’t want), and the easier it will be to not worry about what the bathroom scale says this week. Make-up will be something you can apply if you choose to, not because you feel you have to. Anyway, I really hope this is helpful. I’m sure some will scoff at the content of this post, but just as I’ve learned what messages society projects toward men that are unhealthy, it’s easy to see what women are being told about themselves and how poisonous it is. Fight it and you’ll be happier for it!

Updated, 11/14/12

Minor updates, 2/21/13

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4 thoughts on “Female self-image in American society: a sad commentary, but not a hopeless one

  1. Jason,

    I loved how you pointed out the impact media and societal expectations have on women as a whole. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s discouraging that women are surrounded with expectations to be drop dead gorgeous, thin, and luxurious…but at the same time have a fabulous personality to boot (all the while feeling insecure because they don’t meet the superficial expectations). I would like to point out one thought though–how men and their expectations impact women as a whole. You stated that surprise surprise men don’t care about weight. I am going to have to disagree. Time after time men are commending women when they lose weight and the second they do all of a sudden they have more male counterpart options. Along with this outcome, women are even more conditioned to want to lose weight, thus feel more beautiful because when they do compliments increase, and all of a sudden they are finally “noticed.”

    There are many incidences that I’ve experienced that support the argument that males actually do care about weight concerning women. I don’t think males care as much as females feel personally about their own weight, but they do care and it does effect females as a whole. Ask any woman that has lost weight and is either at an average weight or below average weight and I am sure she will confirm, men do care about weight and that men have complimented her more and noticed her more.

    I absolutely love this article and agree with everything except for this (to be a devil’s advocate ;D). Reviving Ophelia is magnificent…a fabulous book. Thanks for sharing and I think that if every man thought like this, women wouldn’t feel so insecure about their looks or be constantly striving to be gorgeous to the public eye.

    • I think it depends on the guy. As I’ve noted, men are conditioned here to go after the thinner type but many also do not. Those times it is reinforced, it tends to carry much more weight than other times–it tends to be more difficult to recall occasions when a man might have said to a woman that she looks attractive as she is. Those comments tend to be forgotten in those comparatively few times when a man has actually suggested she lose weight. You raise a good point though. Those comments can be good when someone loses weight primarily for health reasons, but harmful when they contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle or body image.

  2. i liked that there was a counter to that book about ophelia mentioned in the reviews, from a teenager who was normal and ended out hating her dad for assuming she was the girl in the book. sad 😦 also, yep, images of women are decieving and i am glad that the women i know dont really feel they have to fit in with the images media submits. It bugs me to see cosmo–who buys that crap? do wiomen really want to know that stuff? bleecch.

    your posts are incredibly long and obviously thoroughly thought out, didnt quite finish this one…there must be a reason you are driven to write them though.

  3. Pingback: Beauty Magazines and Self Esteem :The Psych Life

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