Body image a heavy burden for women

IF ACTRESS Cate Blanchett, model Crystal Renn, and comedian Sarah Millican were to meet for coffee, they would probably have a common gripe.

All three have recently been subjected to society’s sense of entitlement to comment on, and criticise, what is most personal to a woman — her body.

Blanchett reportedly found it “a little bit rude” and “a bit annoying” when a cameraman filmed her from head to toe. Looking a woman “up and down like that” made her “feel like a piece of merchandise”.

One-time plus-size model, Renn, has shrunk to a size 12 —her skinnier frame has generated an outcry. Millican’s choice of dress for the BAFTA awards was criticised by Twitter trolls, who said she looked like a nana and that her dress was “disgusting” and “made out of curtains”.

With women’s bodies under such unashamed, relentless, and cruelly exacting scrutiny, it’s little wonder so many obsess, asking: ‘Am I tall enough, thin enough, tanned enough?’

“Women have totally absorbed the cultural idea that their primary value is to be sexually attractive and available. You could be a lawyer, but you have to be a pole-dancing lawyer, because the first rule is to look sexy,” says dancer Marius Griffin, who grew up in 1970s California, where her family had a dance studio.

“I was really aware of the emphasis on what you look like. I saw amazing performers, but they didn’t look ‘right’,” says Griffin, who practised severe dieting from the age of 11. “I really did have a very negative self-image as a young woman.”

In Ireland, a 2012 survey commissioned by Dáil Na nÓg found body image was a burning issue for young people. Seventy-seven percent ranked it as important to them, 43% said they were dissatisfied with theirs, and 60% said they felt pressurised to look good for other people. Girls (70%) were more likely to say this than boys (46%). Fifteen-year-olds were least satisfied with their body image.

Bodywhys CEO Jacinta Hastings says marked over-concern with body shape, weight and size, coupled with low self-esteem, contributes to onset of eating disorders.

According to Department of Health figures, up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders, with anorexia estimated to affect one 15-year-old girl in every 150. Up to 10% of cases occur in under-10s.

“Modern media plays an enormous role in shaping what we consider attractive and acceptable,” says Hastings. Yet many of the images are unattainable, unhealthy and value-laden.

“Higher value is placed on being thinner, with the expectation of having a better life and being a better person. For anyone vulnerable, inadequate or unhappy with their body image, these distorted messages can be extremely difficult to manage and put in context. Particularly for young people, it can be difficult to make realistic comparisons.”

Marie Campion, director of Marino Therapy Centre and author of Hope: Understanding Eating Disorders, would put a health warning on air-brushed pictures of bikini-clad celebrities. She’s against “size-ism”, the obsession with thinness for health reasons.

“We worship thinness. We see people in terms of size and numbers. You hear very skinny mums saying ‘I want to lose 2lb for health reasons’. We’re so brainwashed. Or people say ‘I shouldn’t eat that. I was bold. I’m terrible —I’ve put on weight’. When you put on weight, you’re not terrible —you’re just not listening to your body,” she says.

Campion says women judge their bodies and make war on them. Instead, she recommends “learning to reconnect with your body, seeing it as an instrument not an ornament, as a miracle, a companion that can give you wonderful experiences”.

When Renn scaled down several sizes, most of her critics were women. “Women are both the enforcers and the victims,” says Griffin, who hears from colleagues in offices that lunchrooms are hotbeds of self-hatred. “Women are constantly assessing themselves by what weight they’ve gained or lost.”

She recalls attending a concert where a pop singer with a “tiny, non-existent, flat belly” lamented that she’d eaten too many Cheetos. “I thought: ‘oh God, every 16-year-old girl is going to leave tonight upset because she’s not like her’.” And, of course, there’s a lot of money in the self-hatred industry — annually, in the US, $88bn (€65.5bn) is spent on diet products.

According to the 2013 Headstrong My World Survey, children and adolescents spend up to six hours a day looking at screens (one-third of this is on ads). On average, people see 3,000 media images per day. Instant online communication — via social media — contributes to our obsession with body image.

“Selfies, when people are obsessed with appearance and spend hours looking for pictures of themselves at their thinnest, not only contribute to eating disorders of others, but also keep the person stuck in their obsession,” says Campion.

Hastings, too, says it is trendy to put up personal pictures inviting commentary, endorsement and support from an online, mainly anonymous community. “Comments are often negative, inappropriate, suggestive, and of a sexual nature,” she says.

As models’ body sizes shrink, our ability to see beauty in the human body is shrinking, too. “We need to ask ‘what is beauty’?” says Campion. According to newspaper reports, Renn is asking: “Who says that you — whoever you are — can say what beauty is? Why do you get to decide whether someone is beautiful or not?” Millican reportedly asked: “Why does it matter so much what I was wearing? I felt wonderful in that dress.”

Campion points to the voluptuousness of Renaissance women — a shape then considered beautiful — and urges women to use fashion as a creative expression of self. She asks when last we saw an international fashion show representing all different shapes and sizes.

“If these designers are so talented, why aren’t they dressing all body types? Is it lack of talent or is it their securities coming through?

“A lot of models look like someone from a concentration camp. We’re experiencing an emotional famine. In an age of information overload, we don’t reflect and our self-esteem drops.

“We sculpt the body and not the spirit. The Romans believed a healthy body is a healthy mind. We forget the body is the home of the spirit,” says Campion, who says we are balanced when we think about life and says young people lack passion, yet are obsessed with appearance.

It wasn’t until Griffin became pregnant at 25 that she began considering her body from a health perspective.

“I changed from viewing myself in terms of ‘am I appealing to others’ to ‘am I healthy?’ If a mother evaluates herself based on her appearance, her daughter will do the same. I stopped dieting — the first three years were tough, but I’ve never stepped on a weighing scale since, outside of a doctor’s office. I never allowed my daughter to look at her body as I did mine. She’s 22 now and pretty fierce,” says Griffin, whose second daughter is 11.

Until two years ago, Griffin worked as a dancer, embracing tribal dance (“the folkloric side of belly dancing,” she says). “I’m a woman of size, but I have a great relationship with my body. I don’t support the idea that women should think of their primary value in terms of what they look like.”

Believing we’re all born to move and dance, Griffin worked in a dance form that allowed as many people as possible to stand up and show themselves.

“The first principle was to stand up with pride and strength, rather than pander to an audience. When I stood up and didn’t let people make me feel ashamed of being a larger woman, it enabled other women to say ‘if Marius won’t take that, I won’t either’.”

At 48, does she worry about her body being on the cusp of big change? “It’s an interesting question for someone who’s such a physical woman,” she says. She’s encountering “the natural limitations because of not being a spring chicken”.

Age is inevitable and she’s wondering how to do it joyfully and healthfully. “I find my similarities to my grandmother beautiful. She didn’t stop teaching dance ’til she was 82. I lived with her. She was a very big character. Living in California, I saw more of her body. We’d be out swimming. She was beautiful to me. Instead of getting upset [about ageing], I’m choosing to remember how beautiful I found her at this age.”

Since retiring from her 21-year practice, Griffin has been developing a non-performance movement programme focused on less stress/ better health and “a bit of room to play” (contact bettermovesouth@gmail.com). In rebellious spirit, she’s refusing to let age make her invisible. “I’d rather chose to be happy than spend my whole life trying to be something imaginary.”

Because — ultimately — images of what beauty’s supposed to be are imaginary, tricks of the eye, fantasy.

Visit www.eatingdisorderselfhelp.com; www.bodywhys.ie; Bodywhys helpline 1890 200 444.

‘I don’t think you should tell anyone your physical insecurities’

Ballerina Monica Loughman, 35, says having her son four years ago made her more comfortable with her body.

“When you hold your child and he’s so small and vulnerable, you understand how vulnerable you are and that your body is just a form of how you look that you didn’t choose.

“I’m pretty comfortable in my skin. My body’s not perfect, but for ballet it’s been pretty close to perfect. I like the length of my neck, my shoulders, my posture. I’m very long from hip to knee. I’d have liked longer legs from knee to ankle — I’d have liked that inch greater in height.

“You’d want to be delusional if you thought there wasn’t pressure to be thin in the ballet world. I’ve been told I’ve been fat a couple of times. I’ve always had a very level-headed approach to weight. It’s something I can fix in a couple of days or weeks — if I had a bad back, knees or hips, I’d be in pain for the rest of my career.

“Five years ago, I’d have said ballet dancers needed to be very thin, fit and streamlined. But an audience can’t connect with a body that looks too sinewy. I’m now more willing to accept a better artist over a better-looking dancer. I see past how high their legs go or how thin they are. Ultimately, that change has made me a happier person.”

Earlier this year, Monica was a coach on Channel 4’s Big Ballet, mentoring 18-plus size amateur dancers. “I didn’t judge the dancers on how they looked. Instead, I focused on how good a teacher I was, if I could make these shapes and lines look good. They did say a few mean things about ballet dancers being skinny. They called us a few names. I stopped it sharpish. I said: ‘ladies, you’re saying horrible things to me, just as you yourselves have experienced from others’.”

Visit www.monicaloughmanballet.ie 

Model Holly Carpenter (right) thinks her best feature is her lips. “I’ve always had big lips. I like my eyes. They’re green like my mum’s. I don’t think you should tell anyone your [physical] insecurities, because then people will know where to target you.

“I don’t compare myself so much with other girls. But when you go to castings, you’re competing. You’re really noting each other, which can be hard. There are high expectations of what’s perceived as perfect. It’s up to you not to get sucked in. Much of the time, shots in magazines are photo-shopped, which isn’t good, because it makes girls think this look is achievable.

“Like any girl, I worry about weight. Everyone goes through phases where you can be obsessed with it. At 22, I don’t really worry about my body and how it’ll change as I get older. It’ll happen so gradually — I won’t wake up one day and find everything has changed. I’ll be used to it. I try to be as healthy as possible — to invest in my future.”


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