The Mirror, The Scale, and Social Control

Most of the time, conversations about body image and body positivity take place on an individual level.  We talk about how individual girls need to accept their bodies, how women need to make peace on their own.  We talk about being healthy, and losing weight to be healthy, and we treat this as something different from things like anorexia and bulimia.  And in some ways, we have it right, in that obesity DOES carry health risks and there are clear benefits to caring about nutrition, and anorexia and bulimia are particular psychological issues, but in some ways, we’re barely scratching the surface of a conversation that desperately needs to be had about the mirror, the scale, and the way body image and fat phobia are used as tools of social control.

Because the reality is that the public discourse on body type is a tool of social control.  It’s an extra sketchy one, because we frame it in terms of health, but let’s just make sure we’re on the same page: health and skinny aren’t necessarily synonymous.  In America, however, skinny is equated with both healthy and beautiful, and all the body peace treaty signatures and images of size six models in the world won’t change the fact that the way we talk about weight necessarily frames anything that doesn’t fit conventional standards of thinness as bad, anything considered “fat” as bad, and still measures people by their pants size.  And if we’re going to make real progress on the issue of health and body image, we need to change not just the pictures we see in magazines, but the words we hear when we discuss this subject altogether.

Why is it that we commend women for working out and dieting, while condemning women who suffer from anorexia and bulimia?  The same issues underlay both categories of behavior.  We’re so focused on weight, especially women’s weight, when we talk about everything from health to beauty.  Magazines like Seventeen always feature workout routines and “healthy, low-calorie” snacks.  We talk about “swimsuit season” and the need to “get in shape”, because we’re socialized to be self-conscious about our bodies, and to focus on perfecting them.  Maybe some individuals are more vulnerable to these pressures than others, but the reality is, it isn’t individuals who are ultimately to blame: the problem lays in a society that prioritizes perceived health and unattainable beauty over actual well-being and acceptance of its members.

It’s the way that we portray women as never eating, or never eating heartily, as if that is or should be normal.  It’s the way that popular culture features women trying to lose weight-~-in Mean Girls, Regina George is already thin but is intent on losing three pounds, and is horrified when she discovers she has gained so much weight she has to wear a larger size than a size five; in Ugly Betty, Betty was always portrayed as being fat; and in The Devil Wears Prada, Andy may be smart and driven, but she falls prey to the standards of the fashion world and is seen celebrating dropping from a size six to a size four.  WHAT WAS WRONG WITH A SIZE SIX?  But it isn’t just that: it’s the way that society shames women who are heavier, the way we talk about fat, the automatic negative connotation that comes with being anything that isn’t “thin”.

If it were really about health-~-and, I’ll grant you, anti-obesity efforts ARE about health-~-it might be different.  Heck, if any of this were about women, for women, it might be different, but it’s not.  Remember that when we’re talking about this.  Men are socialized to reject heavier women.  One study even showed that male jurors are more likely to convict heavier women.  Women are taught that they need to force their bodies to look a certain way to please men.  Swimsuit season isn’t about getting in shape because it’s good for you-~-it is all about being attractive for the consumption of the opposite sex.

To top that off, women are judged for this aspect of their appearance, and know it.  This is part of the social control aspect of fat phobia: because women know they are judged for their appearances, we are forced to constantly check ourselves against each other, against the models of these ridiculous standards.  We are forced to second-guess ourselves, to invest time and money into things like losing weight, waste valuable mental energy on worrying about whether or not we look fat or if our clothes are too tight.  (Which we apparently have to worry about on top of worrying if our skirts are too short or our heels are too high, according to the unspoken rules of dressing for women.)  What you get at the end of the day is a cycle of self-doubt, negative feedback from others, unhealthy or even dangerous behaviors, and lower confidence levels, all based on a societal standard that we know most of the population can’t achieve.

But maybe the biggest problem of all is that fat phobia and fat-shaming reinforce the idea that self-esteem and self-worth are derived from validation by others, and they shouldn’t be.   When we talk about self-love and body peace, we are headed in the right direction, but it’s not enough: we need to stop projecting absurd standards onto women, and we need to start talking about weight in a way that is actually healthy, or maybe just not let anyone other than doctors talk about it at all.  Because right now, when we talk about women being “fat”, all we do is reinforce norms that keep women down by forcing them to worry about things like whether or not their stomachs are flat enough, instead of how they’re going to rock our world.


~ by Randi Saunders on February 10, 2013.

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