One of the blogs I check out most consistently is Sociological Images, a site with a sociological but accessible take on everything from pop culture to high politics. One of its strengths lies in the way it confronts the ways culture imagines and pictures gender and bodies, and last week’s post on women’s body images is no exception.
The post dealt with the ways plastic surgery changes the conversation on women’s bodies and body images (see, too, my colleague Lexie’s recent post on this topic). A frequent complaint about the “Barbie” body image is that it is unrealistic– all women are encouraged (forced, coerced, etc.) to achieve a certain type of body (very thin, tiny waist, curvaceous bust and hips, etc.) but most simply are physically unable to do so. Their bodies don’t look like that, and attempting in vain to force them into those constraints tends to result in constant stress, anxiety and, in the worst cases, eating disorders.
This blog post points out that plastic surgery change the game a bit. To some extent, plastic surgery does allow women to alter their bodies in ways that let them conform more closely to the Barbie stereotype. This partially gets rid of the “unrealistic” critique. With plastic surgery, one might argue, such bodies are within reach. As the writer puts it, “the Barbie physique may be possible if you have enough cash.”
If you have enough cash being the key phrase, of course. Even if plastic surgery could shape our bodies exactly how we want it to (which isn’t the case), only those with the financial means can afford to pull off this transformation. If radical body modification became a privilege of the rich, body image issues would become even more of a class issue than they already are, with the upper classes distinguishing themselves from others through their actual physical bodies. But I also don’t think that the unrealistic nature of the Barbie physique is the only problem with it, or even the main problem. The way that we associate morals and personality traits with different physiques is really dangerous, as the writer notes:
“The important question to ask is why do we do this to our bodies? Increasingly, we have gone from being judged on our ‘good works’ to our ‘good looks.’ We place a high premium on the look and shape of our bodies, as it is the visible sign of our moral status and class position.”
We often assume that fat people are lazy and stupid while the skinny are disciplined and smart. Perhaps the worst aspect of these body image dynamics is the fact that women (and men, though probably to a lesser extent in general) are faced with constant scrutiny and evaluation–by men, by other women, and ultimately, by themselves. This is a huge and totally unfair burden; it’s exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and violent.
What do we do about all this? Lexie’s suggestion that media represent a greater diversity of body types is a great one. Another interesting idea came up in a conversation with my girlfriend, who thought one solution might be to stop talking about women and beauty altogether! That would be next to impossible, of course, at least in the short run, but perhaps the best way to exit the maze of body image anxieties and violence is not to find the “right” way to talk about beauty but to remove it from some of our conversations altogether.
By: Aaron Bekemeyer
(Photo by Sydigill under a Creative Commons license)