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The beauty myth... and madness

‘Our aims aren’t modest. They are ambitious,’ said psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, writer and social critic Susie Orbach at the opening of the Endangered Species Summit in London last week. ‘We want girls and women to see their bodies as a place they live from, not as a complicated place of fear.’

*Endangered Species: Preserving the Female Body is an international summit to challenge the toxic culture that teaches women and girls to hate their bodies.

The madness

‘The human body is now a product,’ said photographer Wendy Hicks. So we buy and sell ourselves, constantly remake our bodies, blindly believing we are ‘improving’ them. This commercial exploitation of the body has become a norm; once normalized in a society, it’s taken for granted. The funny thing is, we’re desperately trying to live up to a fantasy – and a fantasy, by definition, does not exist.

In a fantasy world. Photo by Dave_B_ under a Creative Commons licence.

So why are we doing it? Because we’ve been sold a myth, a beauty myth. And because it makes somebody very, very rich. ‘People without problems are not commercially viable,’ said Rosi Prescott, CEO of YMCA. A happy person is a bad consumer. Thus, a business lesson: create a problem, convince me I have it, and then sell me the solution – voilà!  

Indeed, the world has gone mad: a Grazia poll found that an average British woman worries about the size and shape of her body every 15 minutes; a Harvard University study found that only a tiny one per cent of women are completely happy with their body; in the US, 8 to 12-year-old girls are the biggest growing market, spending $40 million a month on cosmetics. Having smelled more profits, the Walmart megachain is launching its new Geogirl cosmetics line, dedicated exclusively to young girls; everywhere you look, you are bombarded with images of ‘perfect’ bodies – and looking back to one’s own real body only brings about misery and self-loathing.

The fantasy world wins. 

What you see is not what you get. Photo by FaceMePLS under a Creative Commons licence.

Of course, men are not immune to this. But the pressure on women to look a certain way is much more intense.

Corporal colonization

The problem is not limited to the Global North. ‘Body hatred is becoming one of the West’s hidden exports,’ Orbach wrote in her book Bodies. It’s a new form of corporal colonization. ‘We’re sending body hatred all around the world,’ she said at Endangered Species.

The (fake) Western image of ‘beauty’ has been successfully enforced all across the globe – from poisonous skin-whitening treatments in India to surgical nose corrections in Iran. ‘We are living in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, sharing many of the same images worldwide. They become identity markers, framing our streets, our magazines, our look, providing a sense of continuity in a befuddling and fast-changing environment,’ Orbach wrote in Bodies.

Sharon Haywood has lived in Argentina for seven years. She says its visual culture is contaminated with massive ads of women in lingerie in sexualized poses, billboards depicting older men in suits and half naked young women next to them… you get the picture. Haywood says Argentine women tend to identify with Western models (Sex and the City type), not with their Latin culture; it’s an atmosphere of competition under the all-powerful neoliberal agenda.

Argentina is also a country which has the second-highest rate of eating disorders in the world, where cosmetic surgery is often covered by health insurance, and 70 per cent of women can’t find fashionable clothes in their size.

One too many. Photo by author.

Faced with pressure from women’s organizations, in 2005 Argentina passed its first Size Law, which requires retailers to stock all items in sizes 38 to 48 (UK 10-20/US 8-18). But only around one in five stores bothers to comply with it – and even those only partly. They argue it’s too expensive.

As a result, there are very few ‘women-friendly’ stores in Buenos Aires, Haywood says. In Argentina, ‘we are slaves to image. Appearances are more important than who a person is. We have to look a certain way, be a certain person. This is our cultural imperative,’ she quoted Dr Mabel Bello of Argentina’s Association Against Bulimia and Anorexia.


It’s time. Through theatre (such as Y-Touring’s performance ‘Beautiful’), art (Emilia Telese’s Paranoia – Perfect 10), photography (Wendy Hicks, Kiki Kendrick), projects (Feminist Webs and their ‘Bin the Beauty Box’), charities (BEAT – beating eating disorders), campaigns (Pink Stinks – the campaign for real role models), local groups (Stephanie Heart Project), politics (bombarding advertising watchdogs with complaints about misleading and offensive ads)… and in our everyday lives.

Fightback through art. Photo from a project presented at the Summit.

There have already been victories: an anti-wrinkle cream advert featuring heavily photoshopped Twiggy was withdrawn for misleading audiences; clothing chain Primark withdrew padded bikinis for seven year olds after parents’ outrage; some fashion players pledged to include more ‘size plus’ models…

But it’s not enough. In a heart-breaking video, Stephanie asks young women what they like most about their natural selves. Confused silence is followed by an uncertain ‘I don’t know…’ Surely there’s something wrong with a culture which treats its people like that? As Lynne Featherstone, UK’s Minister for Equality, said: ‘The only thing that can get you anywhere in this world is self-confidence.’ Don’t take it from me, then.

The trouble is, even if we know all those images of ‘perfect women’ (and six-pack-belly men) are airbrushed, they still affect us. ‘A study by the American Psychological Association found that after three minutes spent looking at a fashion magazine, 70 per cent of women felt “depressed, guilty, and ashamed”,’ wrote Johann Hari in the Independent.

Constant exposure to perfected images results in body dissatisfaction; but, as Kirsten de la Horra’s research shows, warning labels on altered images, such as ‘Smoking Kills’ on cigarette packs, do not have a significant influence. Perhaps stating ‘This model is 10 kilograms underweight’ or ‘Her skin was perfected with computer software’ would work?

Not one struggle, but many. Photo by Steve Snodgrass under a Creative Commons licence.

But these are only crumbs. ‘When interviewing young girls I found that they felt there was just no alternative, only the mainstream image,’ said Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. It’s an issue of diversity: you’re in trouble if you can’t see your own reflection out there; it affects you negatively. We have to mainstream the ‘alternative’ (ie the real image). As Gemma Hallatt, Girl Guiding UK’s young ambassador, put it: ‘A girl can’t understand why she can’t look like the woman in the shampoo ad – well that’s because even the woman in the shampoo ad can’t look like that!’

Beauty? No thanks

Has body become our only asset? Many of us are forced to think so. A beautiful body, that is – whatever that means. But why are we so obsessed with it? ‘I have an issue with beauty. There’s so much more to women than that,’ said Kiki Kendrick, writer, producer, and head of the Liberated Theatre. It was a really brave statement. Not a very popular one, though.

And all the things we do to ourselves to ‘look better’ which will magically make us ‘feel better’… For Kendrick, it’s the Matryoshka case: the smallest doll (and best-hidden) is the real you, while others are only masks. If they are smashed, we feel vulnerable – so we keep quiet and carry on.

One level of fake, another one, another... Photo by meddygarnet under a CC licence.

And then, of course, there is money. ‘Tell a woman she’s old, fat and ugly, and she’ll spend a fortune to look thin, young and beautiful. Tell a woman she’s perfectly fine, and she won’t spend a penny,’ Kendrick says. Beauty industries would prefer it if you are never completely satisfied, because when you are, you won’t want more. Similarly, the diet industry breeds on body hatred. Ironically, it gets fat on our failure.

The best thing about the beauty myth? It is only a myth. Only a myth.

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