T hey lie. Come on, let's be honest. Our bodies are not ugly, deformed, or hideous. They don't smell bad. They are just fine. So why are they lying? Because of gold mines--yours and mine.
Women's publications and their advertisers view our physical image as their gold mine: write enough articles, publish enough ads, and we will spend our hard-earned dollars on trash--products they say we need to be loved. It's all lies.
Which isn't to say our bodies aren't gold mines. They are. We use them everyday to perform our tasks, to exhibit how we feel, to proclaim, "This is me." Our emotions are gold mines too. Bet you are wondering if I meant an explosive--nope, a gold mine: something valuable which we can exploit to our advantage. Use them both together, and we are in control of our lives and our society.
Myth #1 Unless our bodies and faces are perfect, we are not lovable.
Physical image is a way of controlling women and us controlling our world. Society demands perfection or 'they' won't love us. We rebel and get obese, so 'they' will leave us alone--instant invisibility. Works well, doesn't it? So do bulimia and anorexia, which are right in the same boat with obesity. Physical enhancements via plastic surgery, intended to attract attention, are the opposite extreme but closely related, just another form of buying into the myth of women's imperfections.
Much of the sexual attention endured by women is undesired. It isn't an accident that bulimia and anorexia start in adolescence or right after childbirth, times when we are most aware of ourselves sexually. People look away when we are at an extreme in weight, or they harp about our weight rather than whatever we need to hide. Weight then becomes an emotional safety zone.
My own fight against weight began after I got divorced. I found myself inundated with insistent men. It had been an abusive marriage, and I didn't have the strength to fight them off, so I gained weight. Each time I lost weight, I was right back in the midst of sexual intimidation. Gaining weight again was easy, and the yo-yo began. The motivations were all subconscious, learned long ago at my mother's knee. When I was a child, my mother harped constantly about being 'fat,' therefore unlikeable. Looking back at old photos, she wasn't, but the imprint remained: fat equals safety.
Other messages are equally destructive: the way we dress, wear our hair, walk, the size of our nose. The way we perceive ourselves is valuable, either to ourselves as we define success, or to others, as we feel shame over their lies. As long as we are busy torturing ourselves into unrealistic shapes, we can't feel self-confident, assertive, independent. It isn't an accident that we are inundated with media attitudes of how an attractive woman should look, or that the standard is set so high as to be unachievable. When we try, we expand enormous energy in a wasted pursuit. If we do manage to achieve one of the standards, it is at tremendous emotional and physical cost. Wafer thin? Have the doctor check you for anemia. Convinced you need liposuction? Read the statistics on death and disfigurement. These are the gold mines which control our lives. This emotional denigration is in our control, although it may not seem so. When we reclaim our right to define ourselves, they aren't able to manipulate us. It is as simple as making up our mind.
In God On a Harley, a novel by Joan Brady. the heroine encounters Jesus on a motorcycle. The "personal commandments" he gives her can be a guide for us all. "...If you know exactly who and what you are, complete with shortcomings as well as talents, then you never have to waste your time or energy trying to be anything else...And the next step, is to embrace your shortcomings and wallow in your talents and to love everything that is you...You simply be yourself. Your real self. You start doing the things you really enjoy, doing them every day, several times a day if you like. You wear the clothes that make you feel most comfortable and most like yourself. You listen to the kind of music that truly moves you...You trust your body to tell you what to eat instead of trying to adhere to some crazy diet... Live in the moment, for each one is precious and not to be squandered...Take care of yourself, first and foremost."
Myth #2 Personal image problems are not society's problems
This myth leaves us stranded, coping alone with problems created by society. Isolation is a favored tool of the abuser, effectively keeping the victim in bondage. The victim is often confronted with hostile attitudes blaming her for her predicament, when in fact it is caused by society's attitudes toward women. We need to reject this myth harshly. We also need to recognize the factors society uses to create image problems.
Until the end of the 19th century, women were prized for their ability to bear and raise children. Society wanted them healthy, and the standard for body image was one of comfortable weight. Thinness was equated with starvation while extra weight was equated with wealth. Works of art, both sculpture and paintings, reflected this, as did dress fashions, such as the bustle.
Then wealthy women began to be more active--riding, swimming, and other things once thought unseemly. This coincided with the dawn of movies and mass marketing. Thin, rather than fit, became the new desired standard. Through a relentless barrage, women came to accept an extreme as being normal. Unable to remember other generations who felt and looked differently, there was no standard for comparison.
Pressure upon women began to increase. Now expected to care for large families and work outside the home, they were not expected to have equality. Society remained unforgiving of women who did not conform. By mid-century, the feminist movement began, strident and demanding. Although the changes were overdue, the fight for equality brought mixed messages as to what the standards should be. There is safety in knowing your destiny, even if that destiny is uncomfortable. Insecurity about life's decisions steal this from us. Thirty years later, the fight for women's rights continues, and there are no clearly defined roles to ponder.
Into this vacuum stepped big business, always ready to exploit a situation for profit. They bombard us with articles about how to be better, do more, be loved, none of which can be achieved without tremendous effort and a lot of money passing through their cash registers. Women learn how to be women from their mothers and from society at large, including advertising. They internalize these ideas and pass them onto their daughters, all the while believing they are providing good advice toward success.
Society remains comfortable with this assault on women's dignity. Women who are "fat, ugly, skinny, flat chested, large chested," and any number of other combinations frequently find themselves the butt of jokes. Comedians throw out these heart wrenching lines, although they no longer ridicule other stereotypes, and everyone laughs. Janet Reno, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, and Linda Tripp have all been cruelly victimized by late night comedians, not because of their actions or politics, but their appearance alone. We pretend these jokes don't bother us, but they do. We simply cry alone, later, in private.
The movie and pornographic industries also contribute. The display of our intimate anatomy as if they are public property is a control factor meant to intimidate.
What is more degrading than a woman's body parts splashed across the big screen, especially if there is violence involved? While pornography is the most blatant of this venue, the movies are just as insidious. In popular movies, every woman who is desirable is an artificial woman, comprised of artificial parts purchased from a surgeon, air brushed to eliminate imperfections, and rising to an unachievable standard. By contrast, the woman who is normal is portrayed as plain and unwanted, having to hide her desires, and thankful when she finally receives male attention, due only to her sterling character. The older woman fairs even worse. What message are we accepting each time we pay to see the aging hero courting the still dewy eyed ingenue?
Ted Bundy, and other serial killers of note, claimed his murderous rages began with pornography. Although few of the patrons of porn will become killers, each of them learns a false image of womanhood, either in how to treat a woman or in what is important about a woman. Imagine a young boy who is curious, feeling awkward, and wondering how to kiss his girlfriend for the very first time. Now imagine this young boy watching a pornographic movie where the woman is tortured. At first she resists, then she collapses into an oozing pool of delight, with one orgasm after another. Is this the lesson we want our young boys to learn? Would a film about torturing blacks, produced by the KKK, be tolerable as our everyday lesson on race relations? Then why do we accept violence toward women as the prime component in the movies and videos which are the headliners on our local movie marquees?
The combined effect is that a significant percentage of women are emotionally crippled. They live incomplete lives, inflict emotional and physical damage upon themselves, and may even commit suicide. On a financial basis, they earn less, pay more for health care, and have less invested in savings. A large portion of their money is spent needlessly, trying to achieve impossible standards. They live feeling ashamed and isolated. Who are they? We are.
Our first step back from this brink is to stop giving away our power. We don't need to believe the lies, spend our money, or make others rich while enduring treacherous manipulation. We can stop buying the magazines which make us feel inferior and then tell us how to "fix" ourselves. We can stop buying the products which rely on an inferior self image. We can reserve our gold mines for other uses.
The next time you are tempted to purchase a product, ask yourself a few questions first. If it is a magazine, change the pronouns. Replace "woman" with "man," "she" with "he." Does it still make sense? A story might have the title, "Fifteen ways to make yourself more desirable in bed." Do their suggestions apply only to women, or would they make sense for men too? If not, why not? The truth about sex is that any woman can have a man in her bed, if she wants to, with or without perfume, expensive hairdos,or lingerie. Men want to have sex all the time, anywhere. They'll come when called. So why is that magazine saying you can't have him without doing something to erase your inferiority? Don't buy it, unless you require him to read it and follow directions.
Stop going to fashion shows who employ anorexic models. We can force designers to be realistic by using our gold mines to reject the clothing they design. Don't buy magazines who feature abnormally thin models. If a designer's clothes don't look good on the average woman's body, why should we look, let alone buy? If they do, why aren't our body types in the ads? How will we know if we don't see?
Demand better movies with better female roles and role models. The movie industry counts on women as the primary ticket buyer. They also count on her accepting movies designed to titillate the man in her life. When we allow the insulting term "chick flick" to be attached to any movie with real women portrayed, then we are accepting ourselves in a derogatory role.
Why do we not rebel? Because nice women don't. We go along to get along. Another myth designed to control women. Is it more important to be viewed as nice than to be treated with respect wherever we appear? Billion dollar industries are built around our gold mines. When we stop buying products which make us feel inferior, they will stop manufacturing them. Then, and only then, will we get realistic standards and true ways to improve our lives. This is the bottom line: It is up to us. We can stop the lies. Do we care? Will we learn to use our gold mines?
Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International. She is a judge in Outreach International Romance Writers 1998 Award of Excellence in Unpublished Romance, Single Title Category. Among her current projects are a completed mystery novel, "Forbid The Silence" and a non-fiction work-in-progress as coach and editor for the author of "Gay Charade: A Husband's Betrayal." Other work by Ms. Kemsley may be viewed at http://lores.lair.moondance.org/ You can write to Ms. Kemsley at LKemsley@moondance.org
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