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Body Image Hell August 3, 2005

Posted by Winter in body politics.

I came across a report in yesterday’s Independent giving more details about the recent “body image” survey in Top Sante magazine. I haven’t read the original article so I can only deal with the information second hand but it makes for very depressing, if predictable, reading. 2000 women were questioned for the article. I don’t know for sure, but I’m gathering they were for the most part university educated, middle-class types.

Apparently 51% of the women thought good looks were key to a successful career. This may not be the case in reality, for as a commentator at GenderGeek said the other day, a pretty face and feminine appearance are quite as likely to consign you to the “secretarial pool.” I’ve worked in a few offices in my time and I have to say most of the women in upper management were not exactly “girly.” This is not a good thing of course – no one should suffer discrimination for their appearance, but I suspect the women questioned may be overestimating the amount of respect sexist men have for feminine “good looks.” That said, it’s probably true to say that having the “right” kind of look is more likely to at least get you noticed by the aforementioned sexist men. With hindsight, I now realise I got my own first job thanks to my (then rather more “nubile” and feminine) appearance. One of the men on my interview panel turned out to be a revolting old troll who appointed young women in the hope of shagging them. I know it does go on, but whether it would have got me promotion is another matter. I generally found my appearance led to sexual harassment rather than career advancement. A friend of mine was very proud to get her first job. Sometime later a man in the office told her that when she’d been appointed someone had come in and announced “It’s a blonde and it wears short skirts.” Nice. Personal anecdotes aside, it’s the women’s perception that their looks count that matter here and we all know where that comes from. They obviously believe it to be case. But this is actually one of the less horrific findings in the survey.

83 % of the women felt celebrity culture had made men’s expectations of women’s bodies too high. I have no idea if this is true or if it’s yet more internalised sexism. Quite a lot of individual men I’ve met seem to find women’s extreme self-loathing rather baffling. 78% said that women were more critical of their bodies than men. My own experience does sort of bear this out, I found that women were in charge of the general female body surveillance in the offices where I’ve worked, especially diet and weight surveillance.

This survey implies that frankly terrifying levels of female misery are being caused by the “beauty myth.” We all know the situation is dire, but it’s still not fun to read: 95% of the women said they felt unhappy about their bodies every day. 71% felt their body image was preventing them from living the life they wanted to live, and 41% would definitely consider plastic surgery. 64% thought their while lives would be better if they had a better body and 92% wished they were slimmer. As is to be expected, they were also terrified of “getting old,” with most thinking it was all downhill from age 31. If they’re going to live to be 80 or 90 years old, that’s 50 or 60 years of added misery and self-hatred due to their horror of ageing. Now that’s one hell of a long psychic prison sentence. If this survey accurately reflects the self-image of your average career woman it’s extremely worrying. These presumably intelligent and probably educated women are living in a nightmarish state of passive self-enslavement to a beauty industry which seeks only to exploit their insecurities to get to their purses. I can only hope it doesn’t tell the whole story and, for some reason, the group of women questioned was weighted towards women with particularly terrible body image.

But, as I have said elsewhere, things are getting worse, the beauty myth is becoming more deeply ingrained and more dangerous all the time and we, as feminists, need to think seriously about how we’re going to address the problem.



1. Snow - August 8, 2005

I just want to comment on the interview issue for women. I was recently invited to interview for a senior post with a county council. The job was two grades higher than my previous post and I didn’t really think I had a chance of getting it. So, aside from working on a presentation and perfecting my interview technique I started to feel quite anxious about the way I should present myself on the day. When I got my last paid job I stuck to the ‘rules’ and wore a smart skirt suit, with heels, hair up and subtle makeup. I like to think that it was my knowledge and understanding of the area that got me that job, but on arriving in an almost entirely female work team I did begin to wonder!

Since then I’ve been to a few more senior interviews and despite sticking to these ‘rules’ I’ve been unsuccessful. So, on re-reading the dress advice on a well known graduate website I decided that perhaps the ‘feminine open-collar shirt, above-the-knee skirt, heels and manicure’ approach might be impeding my progress.

So, with this senior interview I decided to take a different approach and break the golden ‘rules’. Instead, I wore a well tailored trouser suit, smart flat shoes, a shirt buttoned up to the collar (oo.. controversial), minimal makeup, and a neat but relaxed up-do for my hair.

I left feeling like it had gone well, having answered all their questions and steamed through my presentation without a problem, but with the niggling worry that I may have gone a step too far with the buttoned-up shirt!

The next day I got the phonecall I’d been waiting for. I’d got the job and successfully leapt two big steps up the career ladder into junior management!

I’d like to think that my self-presentation did little more than remove any unnecessary distractions and convey a certain self-confidence and maturity that was fitting for the post. But, I can’t help wondering if I would have been as successful if I’d taken the more commonly prescribed approach to interview dress.

It begs the question, is all this ‘well-meaning’ advice encouraging us to aim high, or is it ensuring that we stay ‘in our place’, looking pretty and making the tea?

2. Winter - August 9, 2005

I suppose it must depend on the job. In some eviroments appearance will be considered more important than in others. You’re going to work for a county council and I’d say – from my own experience in a council office – that to get any respect, it’s best not to play the “pretty girl” game or you will end up making the tea, rather than being promoted.

At the end of the day, what feminist wants to work for an employer who only wants her there for her looks anyway?

Still women really “think” this matters and that’s a big problem, because as long as they continue to play this particular patriarchal game, they remain complicit in perpetuating the mythology.

3. Naiades - August 10, 2005

I think the well meaning advice on a lot of websites is probably contributing to a conformity culture where people end up waering a kind of uniform to job interviews. while it may be smart, it does encourage a kind of, your looks don’t fit attitude which can;’t be healthy.

On the other hand, it might be that wearing something you personally are comfortable in, rather than waht you are expected to waer may reveal individulaty of thought and imagination, it may help you stick out as someone who can manage themselves thankyou very much, which i’m sure is what employers are looking in people likely to actually climb the career ladder, rather than just cling onto te bottom

much love


4. Winter - August 10, 2005

Yes and conformity culture encourages women to conform to certain norms of feminine appearance.

I always think it sad at university graduation ceremonies when most of the students show up with almost every trace of individuality erased, dressed as if ready for their jobs in the civil service. For the girls it’s beige skirts, white shirts and high heels everywhere you look. All the young men uncomfortable in their suits and ties. I’m not saying they should turn up for graduation or job interviews in scruffy old woolly jumpers, but it would be nice to see their individuality shining though more in their dress. You usually get one or two non-conformists, sticking it out, still in their Goth or hippy gear.

5. Naiades - August 11, 2005

I think society doesn’t value individuality enough, actually. we have all this kind of advertising which is all be your self, your wonderful just as you are, and you’d be enen more wonderful with this firming cream/ moisturiser/ mobile phone, look everone else has one.

the media is spewing out so many mixed messages that people are more and more settling for just fitting in.


6. Winter - August 11, 2005

Perhaps feminists need to talk more about how the “beauty myth” fits into consumerist, conformist culture. There’s an incipient male “beauty myth” in the process of development right now. This is a BAD thing. We do not want equality of opression for men and women!

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