Lets get real about body image

Fact: all women, no matter what shape or size, at some point, will suffer from bad body image. We have attempted to become a society that supports women and their curves, however, this “love yourself” message has become so politically correct, that I question whether or not it carries any meaning. Or is just like Miss Universe wishing for world peace? Is it another way conformity and social norms are taking over?

It’s similar to the hashtag phenomenon. It’s one thing to pop a hashtag in front of a comment and pass it around the world for everyone to join in on (and I often question if sharing these messages is meaningful, or if it is a case of jumping on the bandwagon), but it’s another thing to remove our fingers from our Twitter accounts and our eyes from our smartphones and do something about the issues we seemingly care enough about to punctuate with a hashtag.

It’s the same with body image. Are we doing anything useful anymore? Or are we just going with the flow of political correctness? Are we conforming to the idea with a few articles and good-looking role models giving advice on how to love ourselves? I see issues around self-esteem and body image increasing while very little action is taken against those delivering negative messages. Is this idea of loving oneself just paying lip-service to political correct ideals, while not doing anything useful to challenge harmful imagery and unrealistic physical expectations?

I don’t want to take away from people out there who are doing good work around body image issues. However, there are also many out there seeming to support a healthy body image while only conforming to the unrealistic ideals they are supposed to be against.

Recently, reading a gossip magazine, I came across an article about Cara Delevingne missing out on the Victoria’s Secret runway show this year, due to increased weight gain. She was looking “bloated”, reported the article with other quotes to support this story such as, “if they [the models] let go – even a little – then [Victoria’s Secret] don’t want them.” But, if this is true, one has to question the validity of some of the Victoria’s Secret campaigns that often appear with slogans, such as: “I love my body”. Typically, these slogans appear with images of sickly thin models. Are they saying: “love your body, but only if you look like this”?

Another magazine in the same month sports a ‘bikini body’ feature, including a quote from Martha Hunt (A Victoria’s Secret Angel): “You don’t want to get too thin, [Victoria’s Secret] do want their model to have curves. For me, it’s a relief to have a company that is a down with that. They like you better when you look healthier.” Now, I have no insider knowledge that Cara was 100 per cent dropped from VS for being bloated and gaining weight, but I struggle to see how the decision to drop Cara from the show, and the ethos Martha Hunt attributes to Victoria’s Secret match up. In the photo that appears next to the quote, Martha looks worryingly thin, her ribs and hip bones are visible, there’s not an inch of fat on her, and her thighs are not even close to touching. It left me wondering if this is what it means to have curves these days? How can a company who supposedly wants their models to look healthy and promote women to love their bodies, use sickly thin models in their own campaigns? I do love some of their underwear but, unfortunately, not the mixed messages they send to women about their bodies. (Don’t even let me get started on the VS parade!)

Flipping through a few more women’s gossip magazines at the hairdresser’s recently (can you tell this is my guilty pleasure?), I flipped through countless pages of beautiful, thin models and realised how easily women can begin to question themselves. A constant barrage of seemingly flawless beauty can only serve to send messages of insecurity. But it also baffles me how the same magazines will, without any irony, discuss body image issues, self-esteem and, even applaud themselves for showing the occasional plus-size model (plus-size is a term I disagree with) in order to ‘help’ women whilst being a possible source of women’s insecurities in the first place. I picked up three gossip mags for the month of January that contained page after page of weight loss stories, some of which were from drastic measures but supported by multiple photos of a boasting bikini clad female (who cares though if she can no longer even eat another proper meal in her life). It really leaves you wondering what messages we are being sent.

The same magazines year-after-year, page-after-page promote an ideal type of woman: invariably, they are thin, beautiful models. For most women, this is just not naturally attainable – no matter how often they work out or how much money they spend on their wardrobe. It is worth noting that just 1 per cent of the population are naturally blessed with what is considered, by the exacting standards of the fashion industry, the perfect model body. What are the rest of us supposed to do? Why is only 1 per cent of the population represented? Does the media discuss body image simply to placate the remaining 99 per cent? I wonder if they’d they sell more copies if their pages represented images of their audience? It’s so ironic for a magazine to talk about body image while simultaneously and consistently pushing images that make women feel insecure.

Even the plus-size industry is not safe from these false ideals of positive body image. It has left me wondering if anyone really loves their curves? I was told of insider secrets, where models pad up (yes, strap on extra curves) in order to make the grade as plus-size. Some of these women, who are supposed to be trailblazers for modelling a curvy figure, obviously do not even believe in what they are selling. This might be a case of doubling up on work for some models, but I also suspect some of these women are not comfortable with the plus-size label. Even the term ‘plus-size’ contains so many issues. With the average size in Australia these days being around a 14–16, it seems odd these women are still labelled as plus-size. So the average Australia women is being told she is plus-size and where does that lead her train of thought?

What’s the solution? As a sexologist, who’s job it is to empower women, I question if the body image battle can ever be won. But, seeing it as a battle is perhaps what is hurting us. Maybe we just need to stop fighting so hard, get real, and say what we really think (which is what I’m trying to do in this article).

These days, it’s common to see attractive people on a public platform discussing body image issues. But what concerns me is that there are women out there looking at these so-called role models and thinking, “Of course you would love your body if you looked like that”. It’s not to say that women who seem perfect don’t have bad days or self-esteem issues (sometimes people who are judged for their looks can be more insecure than the average person), but I want to see all women talk about body image on a public platform. I want to see the variation of women and their bodies represented, tall, short, thin, curvy, muscular, etc. ( Some of these so called sickly thin women I have spoken about in this article might yes be healthy but It is also the variation I crave to see and the concern that women who do not naturally have this thin body type might hurt themselves in order to get there if the repetition of this image is flaunted enough and they are made to feel like it’s the norm) I want to see real women talking about real issues, the struggles they have, when they have them and how they overcome them not merely one person lecturing on how we are all beautiful and should love ourselves. It’s sometimes easier said than done and that advice just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Women should aspire to be healthy and in the best shape they can be, but we also need to be drumming in the message that women are different sizes and shapes, and that’s OK. Two women could be a size 10 and look completely different. It’s this variation that needs to be represented in magazines, catwalks, advertising campaigns and clothing labels. The media needs to stop telling women what they think they want to hear, and actually do something to embrace differences. We shouldn’t encourage women to look the same – it’s impossible, anyway. We also need to let women know it’s ok not to be or feel perfect all the time and we all have days where we don’t love ourselves or feel down in the dumps about the way we look.

One definite culprit of low self-esteem and self doubt, social media and I’m fed-up with seeing photos where everything looks perfect. To be honest, it’s exhausting. When you see first-hand the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to take that perfect photo, one must wonder if it’s worth it. Aren’t we all fed up with Instagram filters and apps like Beauty Face and Quick Fix? Even the idea of “perfect” is unattainable to people considered naturally attractive, because images are so digitally enhanced not even a surgeon’s knife could achieve the same look. Yet it is flaunted without the warning label “not real”. It just seems we are raising the bar of perfection higher and higher, to a level that is synthetic, and the issues around body image are only getting worse. Not just for women, but men, too. I want to see real people in the real world; the one that we live in, not the one that happens online.

It’s about time we got real about body image. We can no longer just accept certain publishing and advertising decisions; rather we need to be challenging them. It’s up to us as a society to do more than a hashtag. The answer isn’t straightforward, but the pursuit of it has to start somewhere with each individual asking, “what they can do to help?”

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