May 31, 2010

Body Image: A Personal Story

Originally posted at FemineUs, a student run blog created as part of their final project for my WS 30: Women and Pop Culture course. Cross-posted with permission. Created by Alexa G.; feminist, blogger, CrossFit badass and all-around amazing young activist and scholar.

Nearly a year ago I became a CrossFitter. For those of you not familiar with what I’m talking about, CrossFit is a high-intensity workout program that’s designed to help build all-over strength. I didn’t enter the program with a specific goal in mind. I wasn’t looking to lose weight nor was I looking to shape myself into a top-tier athlete. At the very least, I figured I would get into better shape and be a bit healthier. So I started taking classes, became hooked to the challenge it provided, and soon found both my body and mind undergoing a radical transformation.

Over the months my body began to change dramatically. Strength I didn’t know I had came out of nowhere. You want me to deadlift and back squat my body weight? I can do that. And you want me to shoulder press and front squat half of my body weight? Hey, I can do that too. Don’t forget plenty of sit ups, pull ups, and push ups for good measure. Having been skinny and without any kind of muscle tone my entire life, being able to do these kinds of exercises was a big deal for me. I felt stronger and more confident than ever- something I hadn’t always felt about my body before.

But even though my body has changed for the better, part of me feels uncomfortable with my new-found biceps and muscular calves. Instead of celebrating my strength and confidence, I sometimes find myself wanting to be skinny again. I’ve put on 20 pounds of (what I’m guessing is mostly) muscle weight and have gone up two pants sizes because of it. And I know that this isn’t a bad thing because I’m the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been. So while I am blessed with greater health and wellness, I still find myself wanting to go back to a body that wasn’t healthy for me.

I find myself caught in an odd position here. Here I am, a self-declared feminist who is uncomfortable within her own body. I’m well aware (and I’m sure you are too) of the ridiculous and unrealistic beauty standards that women are expected to live up to. But even though I do have this feminist consciousness, I still compare myself with this impossible beauty standard. This is all embarrassing for me to admit to because I do know better and I do know that being a size zero is unhealthy for someone like myself. But even with this knowledge, there is a part of me that still longs to be skinny and tiny and everything that popular culture tells me I should be.

And I know I’m not alone with these feelings. Countless books have been written for, by, and about women on the topic of body image. Some of these books deliver a lighter hearted, but still serious take such as Leslie Goldman’s Locker Room Diaries. Others, such as Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight deliver a more academic take on Western beauty ideals and culture. Both are fully aware of and discuss the consequences and impact that these beauty standards and images have had on women. Goldman speaks freely about her own battles with eating disorders and talks to women of all ages about their body image.

Am I planning on giving up CrossFit any time soon? Not if I can help it. I do my best to ignore what popular culture tells me I should look like, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected in some way.

May 19, 2010

Five Feminist Criticisms of Beauty: Is It Worth the Fight?

In light of Britney Spears’ recent unaltered photos, a recent guest post at Jezebel proclaimed feminism’s battle with the beauty myth as bourgeois and not worth the fight. Author, Helen Razer, claims that the efforts to expose the gruesome reality behind the beauty myth is a tiresome and unworthy battle that detracts focus from issues of  “real gender equality.”

I recall an era when feminism’s purview was not limited to banging on about the need for more fat chicks in glossy magazines. While others fight for the right to force-feed Kate Moss, I continue antique fretting over equal pay, domestic violence and federal representation. At 40, I am old and clearly out of step with a movement that demands Size 14 representation.

She continues:

Yes. This just in: heat is hot, water is wet and teenagers are obsessed with their appearance. As such, let’s spend money on developing an industry code of conduct so that we can all enjoy the spectacle of more cottage cheese on Britney’s thighs.

Is it as simple as “teenagers are obsessed with their appearance?” I don’t think so. While the obsession with beauty has long been considered a narcissistic rite of passage among teens, beauty and body image issues are not limited to this demographic. Research shows that eating disorders and the preoccupation with beauty is found younger and younger girls as well as increasingly older women. Disordered eating, eating disorders and an overall obsession with the physical form is not limited to teens as part of a passing trend.

Not only are the consequences of the beauty myth not limited to a specific age group, it is not limited to rich (“bourgeois”), white girls. In fact, the Eurocentric beauty ideal is exported the globe over via the mass media and continues to erase our physical diversity. The global reach of these manufactured and altered images result in more and more  individuals conforming to homogeneous definitions of beauty.

As Brumberg traces in The Body Project: An Intimate History of Young Girls, physical beauty has become the sole measure of the worth of girls and women. This reduction of value and self-identification to the numbers on the scale and shape of one’s figure signals a  sociohistorical shift in the ways in which girls and women are valued. It doesn’t matter if you’re intelligent, independent, competent, charismatic, artistic, or successful unless you’re thin, toned and flawless. In other words, you’ve got to be hot, too.

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May 17, 2010

Tabloid Talk, week 4

Week four of Tabloid Talk features more of the same:

Relationships rank high in the tabloid headlines: 5 references, including beginnings, endings and pregnancy.

Heidi Montag appears on both covers this week and the focus is on her lack of individual agency as related to her body project gone wild through the relentless pursuit of “perfection” by continuously modifying her body.

The “body,” focus on women’s beauty and their assorted body projects have been a leading theme week to week. Dina, of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, is featured to the far left of the Life & Style cover and explains “Why I got a breast reduction.” Juxtaposed next to Heidi Montag’s looming headline, “Forced into more plastic surgery,” Dina appears to be a claim to body sanity. After all, Heidi Montag has been turned into a circus freak, an emblem of the industry’s standard of beauty gone awry.

And, of course, in addition to body talk and a focus on heterosexual relationships, no tabloid would be complete without the girl feud. This week, the “nasty feud” is between Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz. The main issue? A guy, natch, and Kate thinks its Cameron’s way of paying Kate back for Kate’s hook-up with Justin Timberlake.

Looking at the pop culture landscape, women are rarely shown in authentic female friendships or in solidarity with one another. Women seem to be endlessly competing with one another in hot pursuit of the beauty myth, an unrealistic image of perfection sold to women as the primary indicator of worth, and men. Of course, I have stated time and time again, the former serves to nab the latter.

This article reinforces these ideas about “mean girls” waging war:

There’s plenty of bad blood between the two professionally. “Kate thinks that Camewron is an aging old-lady actress struggling to remain sexy and relevant,” the insider says of Hudson…

In a cultural environment that prizes female beauty, youth is a primary component in the way that beauty is constructed. Taking aim at Cameron’s age is a classic example of the way in which women are devalued as they age and the derogatory comments hurled at one another in spite, envy and competition.

May 10, 2010

Exploring Beauty

We believe beauty is not always thin, and beauty is not always young. In Exploring Beauty, women are invited to explore their thoughts about the nature of beauty. The paring of their ideas and images expands the definition of what beautiful is.Exploring Beauty

Exploring Beauty is the work of artist Erik Hagen, a US citizen currently transplanted in The Netherlands, an attempt to explore the nature of beauty and expand its cultural definitions. In a collaborative effort with each volunteer model, Hagen pairs the image with the interview in order to bring the essence of each woman to the reader.

In an image-based culture that proliferates streams of homogeneous images reinforcing unrealistic and dangerous images of beauty, these unaltered photos of women are a breath of fresh air, rich and full of life. Not only do Hagen’s images offer diversity and authenticity, the accompanying stories provide depth and character, reminding us that women are not solely defined by their physical appearance.  Hagen’s work allows us to fully experience a woman’s beauty; her mind, body and spirit.

Like many men, in Hagen’s youth, he preferred a beauty standard that reflected the dominant beauty norm, young and thin. As he grew and matured, he came to recognize and appreciate a woman’s character and story as a primary component of holistic beauty. In addition to his growth as a man, his move to Europe continued to expand his boundaries of beauty. Unlike many parts of the United States, Holland’s beauty definitions are broader and fuller.

Engaging in this intimate exploration of beauty, both Hagen and his models have emerged changed, moved by the collaborative experience and their contribution to change prevailing attitudes that have created epidemic levels of low self-esteem and body hate.

Projects that allow us to see what a real woman looks like, are important efforts in combating the manufactured images that tell us that we are defined and valued in narrow, one-dimensional ways.

May 6, 2010

Pretty

Filed under: Body Image — Tags: , , — Melanie @ 9:10 pm

Poetry slammer, Katie Makkai, breaks down “pretty.” (Thanks to Jacquie B.)

May 2, 2010

Heidi Montag: Pop culture fall-out

Filed under: Body Image — Tags: , , , , — Melanie @ 10:46 pm

Heidi Montag continues to be a tabloid focal point, prompting ridicule, cruel jokes and derision. After she unveiled her new self to the horror of many (including her mother), I  was impelled to blog on her surgical transformation in a way that didn’t simply chalk her up to a freaky circus sideshow or Franken-barbie, a name commonly used in the tabloids and blogosphere.

Lets be honest, she is not the only woman (of any age) to pursue multiple procedures at once or over a period of time. Unlike most women who keep these “beauty secrets” precisely that, secrets, Heidi exposed herself and helped fuel the initial media feeding frenzy in the pursuit of exposure and publicity. Clearly, Heid’s revelation wasn’t necessarily an intentional revelation to critically examine the truth behind women’s insecurities, beauty pressure and the often horrifying consequences of elective cosmetic surgery (she is half of the fame mongering duo formely known as Speidi, afterall). But she did pull back the curtain on a beauty reality for many women. That reality is the incessant pursuit of unrealistic and crippling images of beauty. This candid and uncomfortable reality doesn’t sit well with most of us. It forces us to confront the emotional and physical fall-out that the beauty myth leaves in it’s wake, a wake made large and wide thanks to the proliferation of streams of images that fan the flames of the all-consuming beauty norm. And, lets face it, most of these images are perpetuated in the seemingly benign environment of pop culture, a cultural environment dominated by mindless “reality” shows that depict women as stupid, superficial pop-tarts consumed with the reflection in the mirror and their relationships with men (the former used to secure the latter).

Perez Hilton recently blogged on the “Franken-Heidi” in training, the 15-year-old UK girl regularly injecting Botox as preventative maintenance.  Perez acts surprised but “botox babies” are nothing new. The New York Times published an article on this phenomenon in 2005 and this is the cultural landscape Montag came of age in, an era in which young girls seek extreme measures to maintain their looks before they’ve even developed a line. As much as her new face and enormous, overly-round implants make me cringe, I recognize her as a pop culture casualty that is held up as some sort of freaky novelty because it is too uncomfortable to admit that she represents the insecurities so many of us face on a daily basis (and the measures many are silently willing to take).

This recent Gawker post, articulates the toxic terrain Montag rides on and the frightening and sad result.

When The Hills premiered, in May of 2006, Heidi Montag was 19 years old. Which could very well mean that she signed her first MTV contract at 18. The network snared this kid, this real genuine kid, into their glossy trap and then just let her hang herself, over and over again, claiming some sort of documentarian remove when asked if they’d intervene. They simply couldn’t do it, couldn’t even acknowledge the swirling Oort cloud of Us Weekly frenzy that surrounded the cast, because then it wouldn’t be real. Only of course they do intervene, all the time, when it is convenient for them. It’s pretty much common knowledge at this point that the show is staged to within an inch of its life — nearly every look, conversation, relationship is false. So the audience at home is never quite sure what to believe. “Oh look how awful Heidi acts on this show, let’s be cruel to her. It doesn’t matter, it’s just a made-up show!” Which, sure, may have seemed, or been, true at some point. But now, with all of these surgeries, this willful and terrifying mangling of her body, Heidi has emerged as a deeply troubled and emotionally damaged lost soul, one who childishly offered herself up to a reality camera crew and watched, feeling helpless to do anything but not fight the riptide, as they stripped her bare, took everything off her, mocked her for taking what they’d offered her, edited her however they wanted, threw her family into the mix and tore them apart too.

And then in a final act of desperation, the old innocent Heidi finally kicking out the chair, Montag got something like ten plastic surgeries at once, changing her entire face and body to something immovable and unrecognizable. She became some sort of version of Heidi as she imagined the show defined her — pretty, booby Heidi with her shallow, fake husband — and MTV saw it, they saw it, and said “OK, let’s roll cameras!” anyway. So we watched last night as she went home to Crested Butte (that name, that name) and her family tried to mask their horror, until it was finally too much. Until the presence of the cameras was so looming and demanding that her parents felt they had to try to sputter out words and just ended up hurting her feelings. Heidi tried to chew, she tried to cry, but she couldn’t. So she just sat there, her eyes wild with the recognition that she can never go back, and you realized that MTV ruined this kid’s life. They gave her a platform to indulge her greatest insecurities, to stoke her deepest unhealthy desires, and they encouraged it and filmed it and sent it out to world while saying Ha Ha.

Heidi isn’t any different than the girls watching at home, just worse off. She was watching the show, watching herself, and seeing something distant and faraway. And she wanted it, wanted desperately for it to be real. So she’s just chasing her tail forever, while MTV films and makes bundles in cellphone advertisements. They pried open that hole in Heidi’s heart, and they basically put that shit in her face. At least they certainly funded it [italics mine].

April 21, 2010

Beauty isn't the problem, its ownership is

Originally posted at The Delphiad Blog by Dominique Millette in response to my post at Ms. Magazine yesterday, Unretouched Photos: Empowering or just more “Empower-tainment?” Cross-posted with permission.

The following post has been inspired by discussions in the blogosphere of whether or not unretouched photos are progress. I argue they’re not: because beauty as a public discourse is a trap for women, unretouched or otherwise. No matter how we change definitions of beauty, the fact that women are constrained by the requirement of being beautiful above all else is the main problem. It remains whether or not we retouch the photographs.

Women are separated at birth from the right to their own beauty, just as they are separated from the right to their sexuality. Within patriarchy, both exist only to service male expectations and fantasies. We stop owning what belongs to us — it gets appropriated by men. Our beauty, like our sexuality, becomes a commodity to be traded and bartered, to be put on display, to be graded and tinkered with, for the profit and enjoyment of men.

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April 15, 2010

For every Britney there are countless Kates

I was still reveling in Britney’s unaltered Candies photos circulating the feminist blogosphere, specifically, and the internet, in general, when I read at HuffPo that Kate Hudson celebrated her birthday with a new set of breasts (story at UsMagazine, too). As I was digesting this bit of disheartening news, @RevoltRealWomen posted the link on twitter (I told you information travels quickly out here).

Why am I disheartened? When a woman as beautiful and as “perfect” (by mainstream cultural standards) feels insecure enough to get breast implants, there’s a big fucking problem out there for women. It’s an example of how impossibly perfect, and utterly *unreal*, these standards are. I’ll be blogging more on this topic in the next few days.

This also explains my skepticism on the importance of Britney’s photos. As I blogged last night (full post here):

Do these efforts matter? Well, yes. Of course.

Do they represent “change?” Not exactly. Real change will occur when these images are not the exception but the norm and these images do not represent a handful of images and in a sea of millions of taken-for-granted but absorbed images that counter their positive message.

For every body image “victory” like curvy French Elle or Britney untouched, we have countless Kates altering their bodies and succumbing to the endless pressure exerted by a merciless industry, body snarking as sport and beauty standards that can only be reached through outrageous and dangerous body practices such as going under the knife for elective plastic surgery.

March 17, 2010

Would Hollywood ever make "He's Out of My League?"

We think not.

I loved Fredrika Thelandersson’s post at Ms. Blog on She’s Out of My League, the latest male comedy/fantasy flick. No, I haven’t seen it. Along with so many other films, this one will have to go straight into my Netflix que. That’s mommyhood, people.  Mommyhood=Netflix.

But, honestly, I don’t think viewing it is a prerequisite to this particuar post.

To start off on a positive note, Thelandersson blogs about the film’s surprising exploration of contemporary masculinity despite the “standard guyfest” advertising. I love that. According to Thelandersson’s post, the film explores male insecurity, male friendship and a gender change-up that has the female hottie earning more money, holding more power and, obviously, being more attractive than her goofy male love interest.  Good enough.

But, its the last part of this post that interests me:

Reading the narrative in these ways turns the movie into a rather refreshing piece of pop culture, carrying the message that strong women can continue to be strong rather than weakening themselves to fit traditional gender roles. On the other hand, have we not seen enough big-screen male losers being desired by perfect women by now? The chances for the roles to be reversed–the “loser” being a woman who nabs the successful guy–are slim to none (unless, of course, she’s a prostitute!).

It’s precisely this male fantasy of the geeky, awkward, less attractive male pursuing and snagging the hot, possibly successful, female hottie without losing said geek status and awkwardness. This is a perfect example about the feminist complaint and critique of representations of men and women in the mass media: the double-standard. We see it all the time. It was one of many reasons I couldn’t stand 2005’s Hitch. I mean, really, Kevin James and Amber Valletta? That pissed me off. You’re telling me you can be short, stout, overweight and missing a neck and still hook up with a friggin’ supermodel based on charm and wit alone? Well, in the real world that might happen if you’re carrying a thick wallet and/or have an impressive stock portfolio.

But, in films or real life, the reverse scenario would never happen nor would it be considered as the basis for a film, even a comedy. If some variation is offered, the woman always transforms into a more culturally pleasing version of her former self. You know the drill: the glasses come off, the hair comes down and her wardrobe shrinks from overalls to teeny skirts and tops. Said transformation is not a requirement for the male geek, even those missing a neck.

Girls and women have to be hot to land the hot guy. End of story. We’re constantly bombarded with endless images and messages reminding us that without flawless skin, toned abs, thighs, legs and butts, and large breasts that stay perky no matter their size or age, we are not going to land the hot guy. Shoot, we probably won’t land the no-neck, awkward geek. The ultimate message remains that we must embody the culture’s beauty standard or we will lose value and eventually become invisible (and we’ll definitely remain single).

So, yeah, I dig the exploration of contemporary masculinity. It’s important. It truly is. But I’d like to see Hollywood tackle the “beauty and the geek” scenario honestly and accurately without turning the awkward, “unattractive” female character into a caricature. Will we get that story? Hmmm. I doubt that it will happen any time soon and that sucks.

shes_out_of_my_league

March 11, 2010

Stretch Marks Don’t Discriminate

Even the supremely fit, athletic, former “Girl Next Door” is not immune to postnatal stretch marks and gooey belly flab.

The following video confirms the Internet speculation about Kendra’s recent post-baby-bikini photo shoot. Those pictures were most definitely retouched.

In the Us Magazine video featured here Kendra is shocked to find her figure unchanged weeks after the birth (girl, try a year after birth). The conversation goes like this:

“What the hell is this?” Wilkinson asks her husband, NFL star Hank Baskett, as she lifts up her suit top to reveal her stretch marks. “I want to look sexy for you again!”

After he tries to comfort in a what I think is a pretty half-hearted and half-assed attempt, she says, “I wouldn’t fuck me!”

Listen, I know this segment on her new reality show and video clip at Us Magazine is more about creating new tabloid drama, strains of body gossip and body snarking but I’m relieved to see this. I’m relieved in the same way I was relieved to hear Kourtney Kardashian call “bull shit” on her (supposedly) unauthorized and retouched post-baby pictures via OK! Magazine.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have had more body image issues in the last two years than ever before (and I have had some major body issues in my life). As soon as I started growing and showing at the end of my first trimester, I felt fat, ugly and subsequently depressed (oh, and pissed off).

It’s hard to admit. I’m a feminist. I teach Women’s Studies. I critique the media, examine body image and beauty ideals. I should have no body image issues what so ever.

But I have and I do.

I’m a product of this culture. I live in this culture. Even though I limit my level of mediation, I am media literate and conscious to the ways of the media and advertising, I am still swept up in the media current. And, what a strong current it is.

I had gotten my body image issues under control before I got pregnant and felt great for years. The pregnancy and the post-natal body threw me for a loop. Like Kendra, I’d never experienced a mushy body that felt so foreign to me. I’d never lived in a body that I felt I didn’t have control over. I had this romantic notion in my head that I’d be one of the bounce back success stories. Hey, I’m healthy, fit and eat well. No problem. I’ve got this.

Uh, hello 60 pounds and a c-section later. What the heck is this? Who is this?

I’m not saying Kendra or Kourtney are feminist media sheroes but I will admit that those morsels of honesty are helpful. I can only imagine how much pressure would have been taken off of me (and countless others) if messages like these were the norm instead of the countless stories proclaiming a complete weight loss of all baby fat a week after birth.


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