“If we start from a position of neutrality, and do not make an a priori assumption that higher BMI is unhealthy, we are left with numerous studies showing health benefits based on quality nutrition, regular physical activity, social support, restful sleep, freedom from violence and stigma, abstention from smoking and excessive alcohol and drug use, access to quality medical care, and so on” (Burgard, 47).
According to Jen Baker in her TED Talk Total Body Love, “4% of women will call themselves beautiful, and in my experience men are very similar.” By creating an exhibit for the 1972 Sex Positivity Fair, we seek to discover why only 4% of women would call themselves beautiful. As students of GSS 101, we have learned to identify the voices seeking to force, in both subtle and blatant ways, the image of the “ideal” body upon us. We have learned to reject these voices in the name of Total Body Love. We have identified three voices that are loud, though sometimes unrecognized in our culture: advertising and media, the health/wellness industry, and the medical world.
In a society overridden by advertisements and media, we are constantly bombarded with both conspicuous and inconspicuous symbolism in images dictating what “attractive” means. These images pervading online, in the news, and even in public spaces, are in almost all instances edited to depict what those believe to be a desirable body type for both men and women. For example, in Agnes Rocamora’s article about the fashion industry titled “Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Self Portraits,” she states, “in a field, fashion, where those in charge of taking photographs have been predominantly men, and those photographed women, visuals show the latter behind the camera actively engaged in an act of self-representation contrast with doxic views of men as photographing subject and women as photographed object” (Rocamora, 420). Our culture teaches us that the woman’s body is valued only when serving a specific audience – whether that is the male gaze, commercial gain, or even representations of purity or innocence. The woman’s ideal body type has changed drastically over time, however. Today the ideal female body type depicted in the media is widely accepted as unrealistic and photoshopped, and many companies have moved towards a “body positive” approach to their advertising as in the case of Aerie’s #AerieReal campaign featuring models with untouched bodies. Conversely, advertisements featuring the male body are frequently also photoshopped to unrealistic proportions of musculature, which acts to shape society’s interpretation of masculinity. However, this issue has yet to take off as a widely accepted false representation of the male body, which can lead to low self-esteem and poor body image in the male population.
The health and wellness industry contributes to an unrealistic body image by creating an unattainable picture of health. There are men and women whose bodies simply cannot be shaped and molded into the hard, athletic lines of a stereotypical gym-goer. The pressure to be toned and muscular has led to an increase in disorders like muscle dysmorphia: an obsessive preoccupation via a delusional or exaggerated belief that one’s body is too small, too skinny, insufficiently muscular, or insufficiently lean. Muscle Dysmorphia and other related disorders concerned with the strength of the body (together referred to as “The Adonis Complex”) are often overlooked. Because those affected by muscle dysmorphia are not seeking to drop significant amounts of weight, if at all, they are sometimes considered outside the realm of eating (or body) disorders. We are reminded of Marilyn Wann’s claim that “The weight divide is not just a fat/thin binary… People feel superiority or self-loathing based on each calorie or gram of food consumed or not consumed, in each belt notch, pound, or inch gained or lost, in each clothing size smaller or larger” (Wann xv). We learned that identifying voices seeking to shape body image in a way not immediately identifiable with the pressure to be thin or beautiful are especially insidious, and need to be addressed. Because they are encouraged to subscribe to patriarchal standards of “masculinity,” many men are imprisoned by society’s definition of “healthy.” Harrison Pope argues in his book Rise of the Adonis Complex, “Over the last three decades, the Adonis Complex has spread dramatically among boys and men, and more and more men are struggling to improve their appearance in one way or another.” This obsession men experience with body image echoes Harrison Pope’s study, which reported “95% of college-aged men being dissatisfied with some part of their bodies.” Muscle dysmorphia and other disorders of the health/wellness world need to be more widely recognized in order to make effective and valuable changes.
Another voice seeking to define which bodies should be loved and which should be shamed comes out of the medical world. Fat studies scholars like Marilyn Wann and Deb Burgard argue that the unrealistic and scientifically false standards of “health” set up by health and wellness industries are perpetuated by members of the medical world through measures like BMI. BMI, or Body Mass Index, is one of a variety of “ideal” weight charts used by the federal government to mandate who is healthy and who is not. The problem with BMI is that it is too simple, and does not account for the full range of human diversity, especially in children. BMI works by juxtaposing height and weight to create a n
umber from 12-42. The oversimplification of the incredible varieties of the human body leads to the “medicalization of human diversity,” which “ inspires a misplaced search for a ‘cure’ for naturally occurring difference. Far from generating sympathy for fat people, medicalization of weight fuels anti-fat prejudice and discrimination in all areas of society” (Wann xiii). Medical professionals who seek to determine patient’s achievement of “good health” based on flawed scales like BMI contribute to the chorus of voices that say, falsely, that our bodies are too fat, not muscular enough, too short; basically, that our bodies are incorrect. We still need to seek advice from medical professionals; there are men and women who have completed years of training in order to help us live our best lives. Through this project, we discovered the importance of seeking medical professionals who understand and appreciate the diversity in human bodies and also encourage us to seek out a truly healthy lifestyle (in every sense of the word).
Rocamora, Agnès. “Personal fashion blogs: screens and mirrors in digital self-portraits.” Fashion Theory. Vol 15, No. 4, 2011.
Wann, Marilyn. Foreword to the Fat Studies Reader, by Marilyn Wann, xxi-xxvii. New York: New York University Press, 2009.