Progressive period products: degendering language and representation in the menstrual hygiene industry

JUNE [@thejunecup]. Photo of Model Holding Menstrual Cup. Instagram, 29 June 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CCCdEtTF8f_/.

One of the most recent items to surge in popularity with advocates for eco-friendly bathroom swaps is the menstrual cup. These cups are typically made of silicone and shaped like a cone or a bell and have cult followings because they minimize risk of toxic shock syndrome, can safely be used for more hours at a time, produce less waste, and are often cheaper than other hygiene products over the long term. For decades, the market was dominated by a single brand; however, in recent years there have been a handful of new brands, campaigns, and curious cup-users.

June is a menstrual cup brand that was founded in 2017, among a small handful of cup competitors. What sets them apart from many other menstrual hygiene product brands is their shift away from heavily gendered language for periods, such as “feminine hygiene”, or referring to their customers as women and girls. One of their Instagram posts during the summer of 2020 depicted a model with shorter hair and masculine features, smiling and holding a June cup. The caption of the image reads: “At JUNE, we strive to make sustainable menstrual care accessible and affordable to everyone. We’re excited to be a part of a community of inclusivity that’s always growing”. This was posted nonchalantly and without any fanfare, hashtag, or huge announcement of a related marketing campaign. The social media ad does not specify the gender of the model, and the caption only refers to “inclusivity”. Yet the post still stirred up many more likes and many more comments than is typical of their posts. Why? Because their model, Skylar, is a nonbinary trans man.

The fact is that some people who menstruate are women, some are not, and there are also some women who don’t menstruate at all. Yet having a period is often explicitly tied to womanhood and femininity, a narrative that is often initiated in health class and incessantly perpetuated through media depictions of girls “becoming women” and ads for period products. Menstruation in and of itself can cause significant dysphoria for many trans men and nonbinary folks, even without alienating advertising. For a while the primary menstrual cup on the market was called the Diva Cup- some other brands now have names like Femly, Blossom, Athena Cup, Duchess Cup, and Lily Cup. And of course, the cups come in pink and purple with cursive fonts, and the packaging is stamped with floral patterns. Doesn’t seem to welcoming and inclusive, right? The majority of the imagery and language associated with advertising menstruation products is hyperfeminine and does not present the product in a way that is inclusive of their potential customer base.

What’s interesting about June’s advertisement is that by casually introducing diverse menstruating bodies as the faces of their campaign, they are not only signaling that they are a brand that welcomes all genders, but they are encouraging people to challenge their assumptions about who menstruates and the language that they use to have these conversations. They acknowledge on their webpage that they used to use gendered language to advertise their products but have realized their error and corrected it. Of course, we have to keep in mind that June is a brand, and their number one mission as a company is to sell their product. Even if their goals and values are aligned with authentic diversity and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, it is difficult to consider that inclusion in isolation from their marketing strategy. Since June didn’t introduce Skylar as trans in their initial post, comments ranged to enthusiastic support, to angry bigotry, to confusion. Most of the comments were expressing support and excitement for both the model and the brand.

“Messaged yall a while back about more inclusive language and so happy to see youve done the work 🤗💜 appreciate ya!” – @ileak_balance

“thank you so much for recognizing that menstruating bodies exist outside of the false binaries we’ve been taught. Thank you thank you thank you” – @novadame

However, many commenters were expressing disgust or anger at the post. A few were initially confused as to why someone who is not a woman is representing period products but seemed to understand once the brand responded in the comments.

Screenshot of comments from June’s Instagram post. JUNE [@thejunecup]. Photo of Model Holding Menstrual Cup. Instagram, 29 June 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CCCdEtTF8f_/.

Since they don’t identify the Skylar’s gender, June is assuming that followers will draw their own conclusions from the image. An example of a menstrual cup brand that was not so subtle and took a much different tone was Ruby Cup, which posted an article discussing how they were going to change the language on their website to be more inclusive and started off with the words “Dear Transgender Community, Sorry for being narrow-minded and for discriminating against you”. Was June’s approach to inclusivity more powerful because of its subtlety, or was the bold acknowledgement and education that Ruby demonstrated taking more ownership?

Either way, the reality is that some menstrual health brands are shifting their brand away from ultra-feminine, binary-reinforcing language and imagery that isn’t inclusive of everyone who has a period. It is important to keep in mind that these are brands with marketing goals that are behind these changes, but the hopefully representation and inclusivity demonstrated by brands like June continues.


Citations:

JUNE [@thejunecup]. Photo of Model Holding Menstrual Cup. Instagram, 29 June 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CCCdEtTF8f_/.

We Need to Apologize., Ruby Cup, https://rubycup.com/blogs/news/we-need-to-apologize.

Celebrities: That Doesn’t Look Like Me

With social media, more specifically editing tools like photoshop, at the tips of everyone’s fingers, being a teenager today is hard. There is a constant feed of images that have been altered to fit society’s misconstrued beauty norms: airbrushed skin, whitened teeth, any ounce of fat pinched in or smoothed out. These images, mainly of or posted by celebrities, generate unrealistic expectations that collide with the very foundation of what it means to be human: having blemishes, curves, and for goodness sakes – everyone has fat on their bodies – it is normal. This “standard of beauty” often goes uncontested, but known body positivity advocate and celebrity, Zendaya, had no problem taking a stance against the editing done to one of her own modeling photos for Modeliste Magazine.

In the screenshot above, you are able to see not only the two images she has juxtaposed, but you can see her caption, likes, comments, and even how many followers she has. I think it’s safe to say that at 108 million followers, she has quite an audience and at 839,310 likes, that her post was well-received. The right image in the post is the beautiful, unedited image of Zendaya. She is wearing a black leather jacket with high-cut bottoms that flatter her curves and she is working a subtle, soft smile with her curled hair framing her face nicely. This gorgeous image makes it puzzling that someone would even think that there are aspects of it that need to be “perfected.” Yet, thanks to what society has falsely deemed as “beautiful,” the image was edited (left). By placing these two images side by side, it makes it glaringly obvious that multiple things have been “touched up.” Starting with the most noticeable, her skin has not only been airbrushed, but a filter has been placed over the initial image, altering both Zendaya’s skin tone and hair color. Next, editors have made her hair “smaller,” by pinching it in closer to her face and flattening it out. Another evident edit is that her waist and hips have been made smaller. 

The irony in the photoshopping of this photo is that Modeliste Magazine prides itself as being an authentic source for emerging fashion and beauty trends. However, their heavily retouched photos of Zendaya scream many things – none of those things being authentic or along the lines of what “beauty trends” should be. In addition to the way Zendaya juxtapositioned these two images, her caption speaks volumes regarding her important message. At 19 years old, she describes her shock, having images posted of herself with the realization that they did not look like her at all. She quickly noticed that her hips and torso had been altered (as she describes in her caption) and points out that “these are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.” She then goes on to explain how important it is for her to represent “honest and pure self love.”

While Modeliste later took down the edited images and worked with Zendaya on publishing the complete unedited images, I think that there are multiple take-aways from Modeliste’s initial publication and Zendaya’s response. The magazine’s initial publication speaks volumes not only of society’s need to take away the uniqueness within beauty through photoshopping, but also the beauty norms that are implied as a result of this photoshopping. It implies that there is a standard for beauty and that the standard is thin, airbrushed, and lacking a single imperfection. As a result, people often don’t feel good enough and if we cannot feel at home in our own skins, where else are we supposed to go (Wann)? The amazing thing about beauty is that there is no standard. Zendaya makes it clear through both her post and caption, that beauty is more about self love and being real. Beauty is fat and thin and happy and natural with blemishes and so many other things. Beauty is all encompassing and inclusive. Photoshopping within these large platforms try to make beauty small and singular, whereas it is something that is limitless due to the diversity within the world we live in. Additionally, Zendaya’s response was empowering – not only for her, but for everyone who looks at social media and is overwhelmed by unattainable and unrealistic beauty norms. She makes it clear to her audience that the real her is beautiful and does not need to be edited. Her post radiates body positivity and breaks down the walls that confine beauty to be a singular thing. 

Works Cited

“Fashion Trends, Celebrity NEWS, Influencer STYLE, Beauty Tips, Luxury Travel.” Modeliste Magazine, 8 Sept. 2021, https://modelistemagazine.com/. 

Wann, Msrilyn. “Fat Studies: An Invitation to Revolution.” Fat Studies, pp. Forward XV. Zendaya. “Instagram.” Login • Instagram, 2015, https://www.instagram.com/zendaya/?hl=en.

Zendaya. “Instagram.” Login • Instagram, 2015, https://www.instagram.com/zendaya/?hl=en.

Harry Styles Likes Women’s Clothing and He Doesn’t Care Who Knows It (Not Even Candace Owens)

By Alice Berndt

Written for Jezebel

Vogue Online, 13 Nov 2020

On November 13, 2020, jaws dropped and 1D fans swooned when the cover image for Vogue’s December issue was released. The shot features former boy bander and current pop sensation Harry Styles dressed in a black and white lace gown and black cropped blazer, his hair swept to the side in an intentionally effortless flop. He is the first man to appear solo on the cover of Vogue in 127 years. As the cover reads, “Harry Styles makes his own rules.” [Vogue]

Framed against a sprawling green meadow and clear blue sky, the British singer squints into the sunny distance. He holds a blue balloon to his lips, mid-blow, showing off an array of chunky rings, including one in the shape of an “H” and another in an “S.” The photo is iconically Harry — sexy, androgynous, playful, and edgy. 

Since the beginning of One Direction’s seemingly eternal “hiatus” back in 2015, Styles has been making a name for himself as a solo pop rock artist. In addition to releasing hit singles like “Sign of the Times” and “Watermelon Sugar,” he has also become a fashion icon, breaking free from his 1D wardrobe of V-necks and skinny jeans and embracing more traditionally feminine styles like colorful blouses, bootcut pants, and dresses. For the most part, fans and the public have been accepting of his style transformation, which recalls music legends of the past including David Bowie and Prince. But for some, this Vogue cover took it a step too far. 

Screenshot: Twitter / @RealCandaceO

In a move that sparked contentious debate, conservative commentator Candace Owens retweeted Vogue’s post on Styles’ cover shoot and wrote:

“There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.”

[Twitter]

Yowza. Owens received immediate backlash from liberals, feminists, and Styles’ fans alike who claimed she was being sexist and close-minded. She was criticized for her assumption that masculinity and strength (or lack thereof) are directly connected to wardrobe — a man cannot be “manly” if he wears a dress. 

This assumption stems from centuries of clothing acting as a marker of gender — men wear pants and women wear dresses and skirts. Period. But is Owens implying that the inverse is true as well — that women cannot be feminine if they wear pants? Certainly Owens herself has been spotted wearing pants on more than one occasion. Commentators wondered how an article of clothing could limit or “attack” masculinity and strength but not femininity or grace. 

Screenshot: Instagram / @harrystyles

In a reclamation of Owens’ derogatory words, Styles posted an image to Instagram from his cover shoot with Variety and captioned the post “Bring back manly men.” The caption combined with the cheeky photo — Styles in a powder blue pantsuit eating a banana — pokes fun at his haters, addressing the situation while also making light of it. 

Styles is certainly not the first celebrity to be criticized for their clothing choices, so why did this get so much attention? Perhaps because it’s far less common for a woman to publicly shame a man for his outfit than vice versa. We’re used to female celebrities being called out for “scandalous” or “overly sexy” clothing (Billie Eilish’s British Vogue cover, for example), but typically male celebrities wear what they want or what their stylists give them and that’s that. It also cannot be ignored that Styles has a massive fanbase that has grown alongside his career since the inception of One Direction in 2010 and is prepared to defend him regardless of the context.

In talking about gender and fans, we must engage in a conversation about privilege. A quote from Styles on the Vogue cover reads, “Anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself.” For Styles, a straight white male celebrity with a net worth of over $80 million, he has the comfort and freedom to express himself through his clothing without fear. [Vogue]

For many others, including female-identifying, LGBTQ+, and POC celebrities, what they wear is often the biggest target for ridicule, criticism, and objectification. These individuals must first break down the barriers placed in front of them by society before they can even consider those they may have built for themselves. 

With that simple act of reclamation via his Instagram post, Styles had, in the minds of many, “won” the argument. For many others — celebrities or not — the complexities of how they use clothing to express themselves is a never-ending fight, both internally and externally. [Vogue]

Vogue Online, 13 Nov 2020

Don’t get me wrong, I worship Harry Styles as much as the next Gen Zer and wouldn’t dare question his status as a cultural icon. As actress and director Olivia Wilde says of Styles, “It’s pretty powerful and kind of extraordinary to see someone in his position redefining what it can mean to be a man with confidence.” By breaking free from the societal binary of gendered clothing, Styles utilizes his privilege to pave the way for others. But his work is far from being done. [Vogue]

TikTok: Its Perpetuation of Gender-Based Stereotypes and Human Body Standards

Over the past few years, TikTok has become a mainstream social media platform. This application, available for most smartphones, uses an algorithm to curate content for users, effectively getting them addicted to scrolling on the app. There are many subcultures on TikTok… For example, people who like dogs might find that the algorithm has put them on ‘dog TikTok,’ because their ‘For You’ page is filled with videos of dogs. The same concept applies to gender and sexuality. There are many different points of view represented on the application, and once the algorithm figures out what yours is, it will show you a plethora of content to reinforce that exact idea. 

There is a large subculture (or really, a set of subcultures) on TikTok that perpetuates the gender binary system and all of the gender roles that come along with that. For example, this video is a representation of many of the different videos that are found on ‘straight TikTok’: 

When the individual speaking in the video says, “Men will choose a peaceful woman before a beautiful woman,” they are enforcing many of the expectations that are placed on female-identifying people in our society. Moreover, the speaker is implying that women must be ‘peaceful,’ therefore implying that often, women are not peaceful. This implication tells women that they need not express their emotions; rather, they should focus on being as passive as possible in an effort to be chosen by a man. 

Next, when the person speaking says, “Men seek for peace, and it don’t matter if you’re Black, blue, asian, Latina… they want to come home to a peaceful woman,” they are demonstrating a lack of awareness of the intersection between race and gender. This statement also reinforces the idea that men come home to women, therefore saying also that women should not be working professionals. 

On top of that, the speaker discusses the intellect of women and expectations in that area that men hold. They say, “He wants a woman that’s resourceful, a woman that can think on her feet. So when he can’t hold it down if he’s ill and he’s unable to pay the bills, she can be resourceful and have her intellect to make things happen.” The first implication I see in this statement is that the woman should just be intellectual as a safeguard… the woman will never actually have to use these skills unless it comes down to it. The assumption that men always pay the bills is harmful to all people, regardless of gender, because that is not the case for everybody. By the same token, the fact that the speaker is bringing this point up implies that women are, in general, less naturally intellectual than men. Drawing this unfounded connection between gender and intellectual capacity is harmful to society as a whole. 

Perhaps most disturbingly, our speaker talks about the ‘appropriate’ role of women in a sexual context. They say that men are “looking for a woman to supply their physical needs… A woman that looks good and proper and public but is a beast in bed” is the golden standard. First of all, in addition to ignoring the physical desires of the women at hand, this statement claims that the purpose of women is to fulfill mens’ sexual desires. This incredibly sexist ideology has the capacity to negatively influence the lives of many people. On top of this, the speaker is assuming a common definition of beauty… she is saying that women who have a certain physical appearance and demeanor are examples for what all other women should try to be when in pursuit of a relationship with a man. 

In conclusion, the ideology contained within this video is based on the idea that women are socially inferior to men, and that female sovereignty should not exist when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships. The central claim is that women should constantly be cultivating their personas to match what they think men are looking for in women, in hopes that they will ‘meet the cut’ for some man.

Similar to the last clip, this piece of satire brings awareness to many of the appearance-based expectations that our society holds for women, and the stark contrast between these expectations and those for men. The actor, mimicking a man, says: “Alright, so I want a girl with huge, but perky boobs, small waist, huge butt, flawless skin (but can’t wear makeup). And I like blondes, but I think she should also be brunette… because I get bored quickly, you know?” This statement encapsulates many of the body standards that our modern society has for women, and also touches on the normalized fact that men sleep around while women are expected to be loyal. 

In the caption of this video, the creator claims that this is how all men think. Although this is probably a sarcastic statement, it is representative of the way that many people think. Moreover, individuality is to be nonexistent: all men must act one way, and all women must act another way. Beyond pointing out, and perhaps reinforcing, the gender norms that are in place for men and women, this video illustrates the prevalence of the gender binary in our society. 

Content Warning: This video contains a real-life portrayal of surgical body mutilation. Use viewer discretion. 

In this shocking clip, we see a person that is identified as a man who has ‘overdeveloped’ breast tissue. His act of having the ‘excess’ tissue removed is labeled as life-changing. First of all, the video notes that this overdevelopment in the breast tissue of a man is an actual medical condition, which is known as ‘gynecomastia.’ Its causes are said to be “medications, drugs, testicular cancer, and hormonal imbalance.” 

Without looking into the history of this condition, it’s plausible to assume that this condition was developed in response to a bodily appearance that was not in line with society’s idea of what a man should look like. Moreover, this condition does not pose any medical risk to the patient; it is merely aesthetic. 

This video perpetuates a toxic standard of beauty, and is essentially telling men who have growth in their breast tissue that in order to be beautiful, they must undergo surgery. Explicitly, the caption says, “These [surgeries] literally change men’s lives.” In watching this video, men with growth in their breast tissue are inevitably going to receive the message that they are disgusting, and must go get surgery. 

In conclusion, the three videos I have analyzed here are examples of the many TikTok videos that enforce gender-based stereotypes and human body standards that are present in our society. This is not to say that TikTok is a problematic platform that should not exist; rather, this suggests that we as a society should critically examine the role that social media plays in perpetuating harmful gender-based stereotypes and expectations on a day-to-day basis.

Writing for Feministing | www.feministing.com

An Analysis of Facebook Misogynists

Last year, in my high school class’s Facebook group there was a debate I’d like to discuss as it still infuriates me to this day. For context, I’m from a very small, affluent town in Connecticut. My town is known for being quite liberal, generally pretty progressive , and very well-educated. The public school that we all attended is ranked by U.S. News as being number 4 in the state and number 184 in the country. 99% of students who graduate from our high school go to college. For comparison, the national average of high school graduates who enroll in college is 65.9% according to The New York Times (2014). The percentage of Americans who actually attend and graduate from college is even lower. Every single person involved in these conversations is now attending a reputable college, including University of Indiana, Southern Methodist University, and University of Michigan. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to contextualize these comments and explain why I was so shocked by them. Given our shared background and education, this incident was unexpected. To further contextualize this, this occurred on social media with the knowledge that is was a form of mass communication. The people involved were aware of who would be seeing their posts. In order to analyze this, I will be examining some screenshots I have from the private group in which they were posted, and relating their contents to a variety gender and sexuality studies concepts, such as gaslighting, identity politics, and misogyny.

Despite having been graduated for nearly a year at the point when this incident occurred, someone decided resurrect our class Facebook group by creating a post in support of Donald Trump. When a fellow classmate, who happens to be female, spoke up about her dislike of the candidate, two male students felt the need to respond with the following comments: “95% of Hillary 12814413_964920363584441_1240800165149743160_nsupporters are women…BOOM roasted” and “You’re allowed to vote from the kitchen these days?” These comments led me to believe that these boys thought that female supporters of Hillary Clinton do not count and are invalidated in their belief simply because they are women.

 

As degrading as these comments were, what happened next was, to me and to many others, absolutely enraging. Another former classmate of ours posted a porn video that depicted a female porn actor advocating for a woman’s right to voice her opinion, only to be interrupted by a male porn actor shoving his penis in her mouth. Many people, including myself, were shocked that this boy would look up this video and post it in a group that was intended for school-related information. Despite this, many of my former classmates, both male and female, liked this post before group administrators (who were former student government members, so ex-classmates as well) removed the post. Prior to this however, more hatred and misogyny were spewed at the students who asked for it to be removed. Though it was a relatively small group of boys participating in this hatred, I was still shocked at the number of students participating and what they believed was okay to say, particularly coming from as liberal and well-educated of as place that we do. Ironically, this all occurred on International Women’s Day (March 8th), which, in my mind, solidified the point that we need this day to celebrate women seeing as we still face this misogyny, even from our classmates and supposed friends who are college educated.

I’ve included some of the comments below. These comments included such things as “#nomeansyes,” followed by “and yes means anal,” which reflected an incident we had during our Senior year, when the Women’s Empowerment Club created a rape awareness campaign, and put posters around the school with the statement “Rape is not a joke,” many of which were vandalized with the phrase “lol”. This displays the mindset of many of the students involved in this debate, where they truly don’t see women’s rights or rape (which certainly extends to more than just women) as an issue.
12814106_964919356917875_856941921631290399_n
12806194_964919360251208_3840839426840677950_n12794378_964920243584453_853440003447550235_n
12809523_964920300251114_7954592233995510200_n
12801117_964919713584506_2779395371015545430_n

10371895_964485050294639_14927973729924029_n

Their comments showed to me that these boys see gender as a clear dichotomy; there are only men and women. Not only that, they perceive these two genders in a clear hierarchy where women are the lesser of the two. Their statements not only diminished women but also served to reinforce this dichotomy and created a notion of having to “choose sides” between men and women, or even between feminist and misogynist. The fact that this one boy thought he was “roasting” Hillary and her supporters by calling them women furthers this notion as it’s clear he thought this was an insult of some sort. Furthermore, this displayed a weak and simplistic version of identity politics, where these boys tried to create a sense of comradery and alliance because of their gender. Their beliefs are being shaped by their gender identity and the convictions that come with that. I believe that many of these students, as white, cisgender men, who were raised in a very affluent town, have never been the subject of oppression or faced anyone telling them they are lesser. Most of them have never truly faced hardship, which I can say confidently as I have known the majority of them since they were in diapers. They are able to make these statements because of their position in society.

The student who posted the video defended his actions the next day with this post below. He felt he was justified because, supposedly, girls from our class had messaged him telling him that they agreed that the other girls in the group, who were defending their right to be seen12814811_964485743627903_3451060346602791121_n as equal, were being ridiculous. Because he had some support from females, it was okay. This again ties into the idea of identity politics where he is attempting to justify his beliefs on the basis of his gender and the support of the other gender. Additionally, it could be argued that he is gaslighting, where he is manipulating others into questioning their own beliefs. He refers to this whole situation as a “joke,” trying to diminish the impact of his words and mold the perception of his actions. He tries to defend his own character, implying that if he’s a kind person he couldn’t have done something offensive,insisting he’s “never said a mean thing” to any of his opposers. This likely won’t be shocking, but he was not a kind person in school. He considered himself a class clown of sorts, and was constantly making fun of others, but always under the guise of humor.

The outrage that followed these posts were undermined by the original posters complaining that feminists don’t have a sense of humor and that they couldn’t take a joke, which, from their perspective, is clearly these posts were. The people involved in both these posts and the anti-rape poster incident (which are groups that include many of the same members, unsurprisingly) excuse their words and actions with humor. Words have power. Actions have power. They are not excused because you think they are funny. There were many comments in this thread that told people to “take a joke” or “chill out” or “get a better sense of humor”. However, I believe that the comments they made are rude and insulting, and should certainly not be taken as a joke. This idea that women don’t have a sense of humor when they try to defend their rights as people is derogatory and degrading. This “joke culture” is harmful because it invalidates feminists’ claims as humorless without at12814530_964920476917763_3029247096580930692_ntempting to understand their arguments, valuing humor as the most important factor. It also attempts to minimize the impact of the offending statements and the culpability of those who make them because they “aren’t meant to be taken seriously,” which is problematic because not only are the perpetrators not seeing the other side of the argument, they often don’t even recognize that there is a problem. They don’t see that feminism and comedy can coexist, and that one does not negate the other.

The claim was made that “feminism definitely doesn’t have a sense of humor,” to which I must respond: I’m sorry that I don’t find rape funny. I’m sorry that you think I’m a “bitch” for arguing that all humans –  male, female, or otherwise – should be seen as equal. I’m sorry that I can’t “just chill my nips” and accept injustices. I’m sorry that completely undermining another human and treating them like subhuman for factors that are out of their control is not hilarious to me. If that means that I don’t have a sense of humor, then so be it. I’d rather be able to see the value of a human than be able to take a joke. I’d rather be a feminist than a comedian.

1972 Sex Positivity Fair: Body Image


IMG_6509
1972 Sex Positivity Fair: Body Image by Rachael, Maryanna, Malia, and Caroline B.

“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.

IMG_6511

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. IMG_6510Because 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 professionalsIMG_6508 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).

 

 

Works Cited

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.