Excerpts from an article that explores how women’s bodies have evolved into a subject for anyone to judge–link below.
The female body as a contested site of struggle
A contested site of struggle is a phrase often used to depict the fact that women’s bodies are not neutral entities. There is more to the body than just flesh and blood. Women’s bodies are not neutral in the sense that there are so many external factors that act upon them and eventually dictate the way of life of women. A woman’s body has come to be recognised as a contested terrain in contemporary societies, where battles for control are. The war on women’s bodies ranges from acts of extreme violence to bills targeting ‘indecent dressing’ to attacks on women wearing mini-skirts. Along with being bombarded by messages about their bodies on a daily basis, women live in fear of violence and this is a strategy to control women’s ability to think, feel, move freely and act independently.
The struggle for independence and liberation for women has not been easy, especially due to the external forces acting on the female body. Society has always used direct and indirect levers to control women’s bodies in one way or the other. So even the greater equality of opportunity for women in recent times has resulted in a cultural demand for women to be thin – political, economic and social gains have coincided with increasing pressure to lose weight. A woman who climbs the corporate ladder is stereotypically expected to look a certain way so even ‘liberated’ women still end up having to conform to a certain ideal. This is an example that a woman’s body can never be a neutral entity. Someone has to have some kind of control over it.
The role of the media
The media has proved to be a powerful source when it comes to how women view themselves since many magazines, newspapers and television programs are geared towards portraying the ideal woman – from her expected roles to how she should look. The preceding statement is supported by Gill (2007), who argues that we live in a world that is increasingly saturated by the media and information and communication technologies. One of the earliest and most famous studies conducted by the National Organization of Women in the United States of America found that more than one third of adverts showed women as domestic agents, who were dependent upon men. Most importantly, the study also reported many examples of women being depicted as decorative objects (pp. 7-10). And this is important because the media has such a profound impact on the lives of women – providing a platform for their dreams and aspirations, particularly when it comes to achieving the ideal body type.
The fashion industry has been openly criticised for promoting the thin ideal using models that are too thin, even though this thin goal is unattainable for most women. Advertisers have defended their continued use of this unhealthy and unattainable ideal with the argument that ‘thinness sells’ but it also causes damage since the use of ultra-thin models makes many women feel bad about their bodies since they end up internalizing thin as the ideal shape.
The cosmetics industry has also perpetuated a negative body image. According to Gallagher and Hebert (2007), cosmetics companies promise women an outcome and suggest an ideal way of looking. Voluminous eyelashes, moisturising lip colour, natural looking face powder and age defying creams all become part of an ideology of beauty. This ideology works by transforming an ideal beauty into a timeless and universal standard towards which ‘ideal women’ should strive (p.57).
This quest for the ideal has certainly taken another dimension on television where we see Western programmes such as Extreme Makeover and I Want a Famous Face. Most of these programmes are premised on transforming the appearance of women from ugly ducklings to swans in a single show – although the techniques use range from new hairstyles, clothes and makeup to extensive plastic surgery. Gallagher and Hebert (2007) argue that female bodies often develop the status of a commodity – the ideal version of which, as prescribed by society, can be achieved through various processes, including surgical means.
Women are put under immense pressure to look ideally ‘beautiful’. Makeup has become an integral part of many women’s lives since it gives them the chance to transform – or rather to ‘improve’ – their looks and generate self-esteem. It must be noted that the same advertisements that claim to unlock every woman’s beauty instil the notion that women are somehow inherently flawed without beauty enhancing products. This subtext leads to body dissatisfaction and consequently low self-esteem in many women – and highlights once again the on-going battle for control of women’s bodies.