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Flawed logic behind images made to comfort the average woman

Date

Lisa Pryor

Getting your kit off has many merits. Nudity is cooling and thrifty, not to mention perfect for enlivening a party or a game of volleyball. But is one of those merits improving the problem of negative body image among women?

For some time now, women's mags and toiletries manufacturers have sought to boost self-esteem by convincing women of all sorts, ranging all the way from gorgeous to average, to shed their smalls, baste themselves with a thick marinade of fake tan and pose for the camera.

The photographs are then published, typically in a magazine, typically with the women lovingly pointing out their flaws in the accompanying text.

This pop culture remedy for negative body image reached its nadir this week with the publication of the latest edition of marie claire magazine, in which supermodel Jennifer Hawkins appears on the cover without benefit of clothing or airbrush, in a move that only coincidentally provides onanistic inspiration to men everywhere.

"Jennifer's like everyone else," marie claire's editor, Jackie Frank, told Ten News. "Jennifer's not flawless and I think it still took courage for her to get out there; there's, you know, a few lumps, a few bumps."

Julie Parker of the Butterfly Foundation, the eating-disorder organisation set to benefit from a planned auction of the image, weighed in after criticism of the magazine. She went on radio defending the cover, explaining why a cover with an ordinary woman on it would have missed the point.

This is all so screwed up I hardly know where to begin.

Women already invest physical appearance with too much meaning.

Anorexia, the most deadly psychiatric illness, which disproportionately affects women, exemplifies this in that it involves annexing the territory of physical appearance to fight all kinds of separate psychological battles over perfectionism, anxiety, control and family dynamics.

Encouraging the idea that bodily flaws are a universal female concern, uniting everyone from Hawkins down in the Holy Sisterhood of the Troublesome Saddlebags seems to be a misguided way to improve the way women feel about themselves. It's still all about self-worth achieved through how you feel about how you look. It misses the point when it comes to negative body image: the focus on image is as much the problem as the word negative.

The damage that initiatives such as the Hawkins cover could potentially do to young women is suggested by a study considering whether body image education can be harmful to teenage girls.

The study, conducted by the University of Sydney dietician Dr Jenny O'Dea and reported in The Journal of Treatment and Prevention in 2002, considered the effects of an educational poster designed to combat negative body image.

The poster, produced by the NSW Department of Heath in 1997, featured a line-up of five attractive and healthy teenage girls. Each one had a complaint about some aspect of her body. "She wants to be thinner" the poster says of one girl. "She wants bigger breasts" it says of another.

Despite the slogan "It isn't your body you need to change, it's your mind" not all the girls surveyed took away a positive message.

Comments from teenagers viewing the poster included "makes me feel fat and ugly", "gives me bad ideas about myself" and "there is nothing wrong with these girls, so I must be really bad".

If exposing women to flawed female body parts really was effective in combating self-esteem problems, the body confidence of the average woman would be sky-high, given the in-depth coverage of celebrity cellulite, celebrity weight blow-outs and celebrity plastic surgery disasters by the gossip mags.

Perhaps the better way to better mental health among young women is to shift the focus away from the image of the body, negative or otherwise, towards thinking more about the capacities and sensations of the body - achievements through sport; the pleasure of touch; the potential for reproduction; achievements of the mind.

The most important work on improving the self-esteem of young women will never happen inside magazines designed to make women feel insecure so they will buy stuff. Such compromised publications should not be mistaken for champions of the psychological health of young women.

Perhaps we should not expect more from a publication such as marie claire. But still, you have to wonder, what is the Butterfly Foundation doing, lending credibility to such a flawed and publicity-seeking initiative?

50 comments

  • I am a man and I have never had problem with the physical appearance of my body. That was the body I had when I was born and grew up. A body that changed over the ensuing years of my life.
    What's the point of wailing that one's body isn't like the one trumpeted in a magazine. I can never understand why women are obsessed by this. It is beyond reason.

    The other day I sat at the promenade at Manly beach and watched the people parading by. There was young and old, male and female. The interesting part was seeing all the different body shapes, clothes and so on.
    Now if they had all been Nymphs and Adonises I would have fallen asleep from sheer boredom.

    The important thing is to make the best with what nature has provided, whether it's brain or body.

    PS. When one sees those botox faces on TV or cinema it is like watching a horror movie.

    So girls get over it. A dumb blonde nymph is no match for a dumpling with brains and common sense.

    Commenter
    John
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 09, 2010, 9:37AM
    • John, I wish we all could "get ovet it", but unfortunately it's not that easy. Perhaps you should try talking to some of the females that are close to you (daughters mothers sisters etc) and ask them why this marie claire stunt is so offensive. We as females are constantly told that we are only valuable if we are flawlessly beautiful. You may be immune to the negative thoughts about your body image, but I would like to point out the obvious...you are a man!

      Commenter
      Laura
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 09, 2010, 10:21AM
      • I agree with John - if only more people had his head screwed on their shoulders. Unfortunately too many women buy into the images the media pushes out. If women (and increasingly men) didnt accept the rot then it wouldn't take such a strong hold. The dumpling with a great measure of self esteem is clearly the more interesting person however the media wont plaster her on the front cover. People need to take control of what they allow to affect them. Laura - its not only men who think like John, theres a lot of confident women out there who are really too busy to invest time in this sort of rubbish. Just ask any woman getting on with her life and achieving her goals rather than obsessing about her shade of fake tan.

        Commenter
        BearBait
        Location
        Richmond
        Date and time
        January 09, 2010, 10:54AM
        • This is a very good article Lisa - the best I have read in the media on this latest idiocy. So revealing the "flawed body" of Ms Universe is unlikely to make us all feel better. What a good idea to consult some actual research on the subject. What a pity the Anorexia people didn't think of doing that before lending their name to this cynical exercise by the fashion media. And Jennifer sells icecream to the eskimos again. Hope she is investing the proceeds wisely, ie not taking her own advice!

          Commenter
          Kate
          Location
          jmhou@bigpond.com
          Date and time
          January 09, 2010, 11:14AM
          • The thing I cannot understand is that women keep bleating about how magazines are always publishing images of women with body shapes unattainable by the majority of women but they continue to buy these same magazines.

            If you don't like the editorial policies of these magazines just stop buying them and write to the editors explaining why you have stopped. The editors will eventually change the content if the circulation drops.

            I am also concerned that the push for "real women" be used for models in magazines is perpetuating the epidemic of obesity for women.

            The average clothing size for Australian women is supposed to be 14-16 but I have to ask does this represent a healthy weight? I would suggest for a lot of women having to wear size 14-16 clothes would represent being overweight or obese when compared to the BMI scale.

            There should be more focus on men and women achieving and maintaining a healthy weight based on scientifically based recommendations.

            Commenter
            Infoholic
            Location
            Melbloure,Victoria, Australia
            Date and time
            January 09, 2010, 11:24AM
            • I am a man and have never had any problems with my body image until I lost most of my hair just when I'd finally figured out a good way to wear it.

              And now at 49 years of age I'm getting a (gasp!) stomach.

              Commenter
              Tonsils
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              January 09, 2010, 11:42AM
              • As a male I find this whole issue of body shape so perplexing. Simply put, who cares? If a man/woman loves his/her partner, she/he looks good enough to eat to them!! Who else matters?? If they had to look perfect the relationship would never have happened and cant last. Dressing for work is different, then you dress to impress either customers, clients or associates. But body shape or size only impacts style not self esteem. My wife recently left me after 30 yrs & 5 kids, during councelling she brought up the fact that I once had an Elle McP calender on my office wall. Her intent was "how selfish I am not to consider how this impacted on her", my response was I chose her not Elle McP, doesn't that say that in my eyes she was more desirable than Elle? I did not wait for an Elle lookalike, I chose her because to me she was and still remains beautiful, despite her failings. Life is what it is, you were born with a body, accept it, do your best and make the most of the all too short time we have. Magazines will display what sells, women are their own worst enemies in this instance. If society did not promote the hippocracy of our moral system, nudity would be endemic and the problem would not exist. Why do we need bathers at the beach?? Why are genitals any different to other body appendages?? Because some fool back in Victorian times enforced a false modesty on society that too many fools still cling to, to cover their own perceived physical failings I suspect.

                Commenter
                Mike
                Location
                Central Coast
                Date and time
                January 09, 2010, 11:42AM
                • But I do think it's a good idea if women stop reading those stupid, brain-melting magazines. I mean, really!

                  Commenter
                  Tonsils
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  January 09, 2010, 11:46AM
                  • This was an amazing article, and spot on. The reason why it is so offensive to parade images of Jennifer Hawkins as the 'average' woman is precisely because her whole entire career is based around looking beautiful. She has been blessed with good genes, and luckily for her, her career provides ample hours with personal trainers, beauty therapists, hairdressers, personal stylists, dieticians and alike... not to mention the unlimited budget to pay for all the pruning and grooming. Most 'average' women don't have that luxury!
                    The crux of the matter is competition through comparison ( god forgive me for saying it!), but girls and women alike compare themselves physically in order to reach a standard of perfection, both for themselves and for the male sex. John knows little of the dating world. Until men choose the plumpy, smart and funny girl over the blonde nymph (a.k.a. Jennifer Hawkins), and until pop culture stops perpetuating and reinforcing the ideal that happiness and success belong only to 'the beautiful people', women (especially the younger ones) will always define their self worth by how 'beautiful' they are.

                    Commenter
                    Ms_Jones
                    Date and time
                    January 09, 2010, 12:06PM
                    • Laura, Canberra - January 09, 2010, 11:21AM
                      "We as females are constantly told that we are only valuable if we are flawlessly beautiful."

                      I'm sorry, what? I'm a female, and never once been told that.

                      It's such a bullshit argument; women who think like that are the same ones who judge other women based on how THEY look. How hypocritical can you be? Start valuing things OTHER than beauty in other people, and you'll start to value those things in yourself too.

                      Commenter
                      Maxie
                      Location
                      Bondi
                      Date and time
                      January 09, 2010, 12:20PM

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