Body image and women's oppression

Issue 

BY MARIA VOUKELATOS
& LAUREN CARROLL HARRIS

"What if she doesn't worry about her body and eats enough for all the growing she has to do? She might rip her stockings and slam dance on a forged ID to the Pogues, and walk home barefoot, holding her shoes, alone at dawn; she might baby-sit in a battered-women's shelter one night a month ... or fall in love with her best friend and do something about it, or lose herself for hours gazing into test tubes with her hair a mess, or take lovers without telling her last name. She might revel in all the freedoms that seem so trivial to those who take them for granted; she might dream seriously the dreams that seem so obvious to those who grew up with them really available ..."

This inspiring paragraph is from Naomi Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth. It gives a picture of what society would be like if women had real choices, free of all restrictions.

Why do women have restrictions placed on them? And who sets these boundaries?

Capitalist society forces women into roles that are usually unachievable and oppressive. In a sexist society, women are prevented from doing things they would otherwise do, or are made to feel bad or as if they are an outcast when they try.

The beauty industry has been a major profiteer from the oppression of women. This is a multi-billion dollar industry that creates and preys on women's insecurities.

The beauty myth creates a largely unattainable ideal of the "perfect" woman. Women feel forced to invest copious amounts of time and money in the impossible attempt to achieve the "perfect" body, which advertisers and the beauty industry promise will boost their self-esteem and improve their lives.

A major part of the beauty industry is the weight-loss industry. The Gloria Marshalls and Jenny Craigs of the world promise to transform women into physically healthy and perfect people (by today's society's standards). Supposedly, they will then be more successful in all aspects of life.

health rhetoric

The strength of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, which increased consciousness among women of the sexist basis of the beauty industry, forced the industry to incorporate the rhetoric of "health" to keep beauty myth alive.

In a letter published in Green Left Weekly #444, Lachlan Malloch, in a response to Alison Dellit's article "Hollywood's healthy bodies leave women looking for more" (GLW #443,) asserted "Australians face significant health problems" due to "obesity". According to Malloch, 50% of Australian women are obese, therefore women need to become more body conscious and more healthy.

However, the beauty industry's version of the "ideal" body weight and shape and one that best promotes good health do not necessarily correlate. Ideal body weight was introduced in the 1910s by US insurance firms. It was assumed (through a non-medical case study of well-to-do Anglo-Saxons) that people with the correct weight to height ratio were least likely to die early and therefore were most profitable for insurance companies. This assessment was not based on medical reasoning and ignored cultural, social and economic factors.

The multi-billion dollar weight loss industry bases itself on these standards and promotes unhealthy eating and exercise regimes. The Jenny Craigs and Gloria Marshalls of the world encourage a cycle of "yo-yo" weight gain and loss that creates more health risks than "obesity". It promotes a cycle of dependence on its "quick fix" products and services. Maximum profit not women's health is its goal.

Fitness

The medical profession is generally more realistic. It takes into consideration a vast range of factors that are ignored by the beauty industry.

The key requirement for good health is not the smallness of a person's dress size, but their level of fitness and the quality of their diet. The beauty industry, supported by the images popularised by the capitalist media, perpetuate the beauty myth rather than concentrate on reality — because it sells more products.

A woman can be a size 16, have a healthy diet and run a marathon. A woman can also be a size 8 and live on a high-fat diet and get worn out when she walks down the street.

Women are healthier and more successful in their lives when they are confident. The promotion and use of the beauty myth in the mass capitalist media perpetuates a lack of confidence among women.

Malloch asserts that 50% of Australian women are "obese", we assert that 100% of women find something wrong with their bodies every time they look in the mirror and feel guilty when they eat chocolate. The beauty industry uses the guise of "health" to legitimise and entrench the centuries-old commodification of women under capitalism.

Aside from the profits generated by this con, the beauty myth has the added advantage for the powerful in this sexist society of keeping women focused on the extra bit of flab on their thighs and the wrinkles on their face rather than realising that a society that makes women feel bad about such meaningless things has to be changed fundamentally.

Feminists need to defend and build on the success of the women's liberation movement in raising consciousness about the need to liberate women's (and men's) body image from destructive, profit-motivated stereotypes.

[This article is based on a discussion that took place at a Resistance Sydney central branch executive meeting.]