The Body Public

“I am what I eat: especially if I am a woman.”
“To be thin is to be divine.”
“It’s okay to be called a skinny b—-h.”

When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was diagnosed with cancer in her early sixties she is quoted to have said, “If I had known this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have done all those sit-ups.”

Why are woman judged so harshly by how they appear in the public? From tabloids to respected news syndicates a female’s worth and wisdom are appraised by appearance first and substance second. In our centuries of evolution the value of female beauty still reigns supreme over her other qualities.

This surprises me in a post-modern age where we have concentrated a lot of political and societal effort on closing the gender gap. More women are working in fields such as medicine, law, and government than a century before. However, women are still largely under-represented in political office, as leaders of companies and in the fields of research science and other male dominated fields. Several women who choose to take time off to rear children are often unable to regain their previous traction in both academic and career tracks. The statistics are staggering, as listed in the documentary Miss Representation.

When I asked my students to read aloud a few of their New Year’s Resolutions most of the females (85%) listed “losing weight, eating better, and transitioning from a couch potato to a french fry” as their main resolutions.

On the other hand, most males mentioned wanting to make more money, save-up for a gaming console of some sort, or doing better in school.

Both genders listed wanting to spend more time with family, being nicer to siblings and making more time to do schoolwork.

Not a single male voiced the desire to become more athletic, lose weight or eat better.

Having volunteered in clinics for individuals with eating disorders (which comprised 98% of female clients) and witnessed first hand how debilitating such a disorder is, it is shocking when I hear both adolescent and adult women alike boasting their goal of “having the endurance of an anorexic”.

The public often equates being thin with being healthy.  When a person loses weight we often assume that they are “doing something right.”  In the past year, I lost approximately 9kg (or 20 lbs).  Far too many people commented on how “good” I looked.  My closest friends knew I was either not getting enough to eat, due to financial issues, or that I had lost my appetite due to stress and health problems.  It was not a conscious effort, at all, to lose weight.  My weight loss did not bring about better health, if anything I had less energy because food simply did not taste good.  Having to force myself to eat was a stressful experience.

Thus, my outlook on individuals who wish to become “like an anorexic” or morph from a “potato to a french fry” scares me.  We weren’t meant to look like stick figures.

Most developing nations find our body trends rather alarming because they know what it is like to live without food.  To have a little extra roundness in one’s face (I’m not talking about obesity) and a little something spare around the middle is actually a good thing.  It means you have enough to eat.

I would like to understand why women are held to such a high standard of beauty that is both expensive, often harmful, and doesn’t add to their psychological well-being, whilst men feel no such compunction to do the same?  Are women their own worst enemy or is the pressure of society so large that we cave in?

Why do people believe that women’s bodies belong to the public and are open to discussion?  Is there a systemic belief that we are the property of the public at large because we can bear children?  Or, have the rise of violent crimes against women and the depiction of them in T.V. and film dramas led us to believe that one gender’s body is less important than another?

What surprises me most is that most individuals don’t give their criticism of female public figures a second thought.  Whereas the bodies of balding, aging and overweight men on television are rarely the subjects of satire.  Instead, men tend to be criticized because of their way of handling a subject or their verbal goofs on television.

I am curious what others think about taking the pledge to help balance public portrayals of women less as objects and more as people who have feelings and as much dimension as males.  I’m not saying that women and men have to be the same.  I just wish we were treated the same in media and public portrayals.