Flawed logic behind images made to comfort the average woman
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?