So I’ve noted a few occasions recently in which I’ve just felt I had to explain why I feel strongly about the topic of body image (particularly as it pertains to women). Those occasions have been offhand comments or posts or cartoons or what-have-you that indicate that the desire to change how our society perceives women (as objects or bodies) is trivial or silly or not as important as other issues that could garner support or activism, etc. (such as some of the ignorant comments I saw about the Representation Project’s “NotBuyingIt” campaign and hashtags that call out sexism and demeaning portrayals of women in the media, most recently during the Super Bowl, and don’t get me started on Sports Illustrated teaming with Barbie this year!).
I’m not saying there aren’t SERIOUS, very troubling things happening all around the world (wars, disease, repression, abuse, sex trafficking, crimes specifically against women and particular ethnic or religious groups) and that we in the United States and other less-troubled places can’t mobilize to do something to help. But even as we may realize that our problems in the West are “first-world” troubles, it doesn’t mean they are trivial or not worthy of attention and activism.
I’ve never considered myself “a feminist” (a word that over the years has certainly accrued a lot of not-necessarily-positive connotations and associations), nor am I a “liberal.” I tend to be mostly conservative politically. I care deeply about social justice and helping to improve people’s lives but I have more conservative views as to how those things should be accomplished (because my experience has shown certain methods to be more useful and successful than others). I am a stay-at-home mom who does some freelance work from home and haven’t worked outside the home full-time since the early years of my now 20-year-plus-long marriage. Those facts, along with my religious beliefs, might indicate to outsiders that I am not big into “women’s issues.” Those outsiders, though, if coming to that conclusion, would be wrong.
I care very much about my fellow women and how we get to function as real people in society. (I care about men being allowed to be fully functioning members of society as well, but historically in our culture, they’ve been given these rights for centuries, so they’re mostly “all set.”) The fact of the matter is that our Western, 21st-century culture diminishes the wholeness of women every single day, everywhere we turn. Media from every angle throw back very limited, definitely-not-varied, two-dimensional views of the ideal female, reducing 50% of the population to mere objects. These images and opinions are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we essentially have all tacitly agreed that they are truths. These beliefs lead men to treat women they know on some level and in some degree as less-thans, expecting their wives/girlfriends/daughters/sisters to be shaped and sized a certain way at the very least, and they lead women to act as if they are 75% (or more) what they look like and 25% a collection of their personality traits and actions.
These false beliefs have been and are continuing to be so thoroughly perpetuated that though we may pay lip service to the notion that they are false, we act as if they are true. Extreme examples are the continuing massive growth in cosmetic surgeries, particularly among “normal,” “average,” everyday women (not celebrities, not the rich, not people you might consider to be particularly vain). In the interviews I conducted with women in Utah who are moms and generally have a strong foundation of faith and have always been taught they are daughters of God worthy of love and respect for who they innately are, I was amazed how many felt bad enough about their “outsides” to undergo surgery, which is always risky, costs a pretty penny, and is just unnecessary. While I understood the feelings that led them to make the decisions they did (for getting breast augmentations or full “mommy makeovers,” for instance), I felt sad that our culture creates, fosters and intensifies those feelings of insecurity — all over their breast size or perkiness or the size of their waist or hips.
Yes, this may seem a minor issue: what does it matter if we care a lot about how we look? Here’s a short breakdown: it causes us as women to spend precious time and energy and brainpower on something that simply doesn’t matter very much. It takes those resources away from the things that really matter: our spouses, our children, our friends, our families, our work, our joys, our passions, our life purposes. And how many of us have time and energy to spare?
Focusing on our appearance reduces us to objects. Statues and photographs and machines are objects. They’re nice to look at and they might even get things done, but they aren’t human beings, with glorious origins and endless potential and utter uniqueness. Humans are imperfect, frustrating, very different from each other. But we’re so interesting and fascinating and have so much to offer! Is that true, can it be true, about mere objects? No way.
When we consider each other (or ourselves) objects, we treat each other (or ourselves) differently. We don’t expect the best, we don’t reach towards our limitless potential, we don’t care for each other as precious souls who deserve respect and love and fair and equal treatment. Men in our society, who are swimming in this media ocean of images and objects, are prone to some level of treating women as less-than themselves, because men aren’t reduced to objects nearly as often or as prevalently as women. Pornography is one more extreme example of how women are reduced to being objects, even parodies of womanhood, and it skews men’s attitudes and actions toward the women in their lives even further.
I can’t possibly explore all the angles here. There are tons of scientific studies, books, etc. that speak with authority on this subject. Suffice it to say, this is not a silly or trivial topic. It’s one that must be shared and discussed and changed. How women view themselves and how they are treated (as whole, real, full and complex individuals with unique gifts and talents and attributes) is at stake. I wouldn’t call that minor. It’s a huge battle to fight because the messages that pick women apart and reduce us to body parts, that make us less valuable than men, are constant, ubiquitous, and insidious. They’re so prevalent as for us not to even notice them anymore. If you pass the same billboard featuring a bikini-clad woman biting into a huge, juicy hamburger every single day, you’ll begin to tune it out and not even realize the damage it’s doing. But that message is still burrowing its way deep into your every cell.
I would love to make things better in so many ways, in so many places, for so many people. Right now, what I can do is write and speak up. I can say, “Hey, look at that billboard. Isn’t that insulting? Maybe we can even get it taken down. Maybe we can get the advertiser to stop objectifying women.” I can’t change the world. But maybe I can change your mind and remind you that you are far more than just what you look like.
I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.