Body Image Hell August 3, 2005Posted 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.