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Body Image: The History Of Body Hate And How To Change It

body image

Here is a good question: Why have women’s feelings about their bodies been so horribly painful to them? In search of the answer, you have probably read a lot of articles about dieting, self-loathing and eating disorders. And you have probably looked in the mirror and disliked some part of your body – as if that “part” were bad or wrong and if it could only be changed everything would be okay. In this article you have a chance to look at why and how women have been encouraged, programmed and coerced into disliking, even hating, their bodies by a culture which perpetuates female self-loathing. You have the opportunity to discover why you may be struggling to love your own body and yourself.

As psychotherapists we are interested in helping women to create a healthy inner-personal life: mind, soul and spirit. As we help women to define and understand who they are as unique human beings, we also want them to recognize that we live in a culture that tells us many things about ourselves – some are true and some are untrue. These cultural messages have a profound effect on us whether we know it or not. Thus, as women in search of emotional well-being, we need to form our own authentic vision and values in the face of cultural messages, especially harmful ones.

Author Mary Pipher, in her wonderful book The Shelter of Each Other, reminds parents that they need to positively influence their children because cultural icons such as The Spice Girls and Madonna, as well as MTV, the fashion industry and every possible advertisement are planting messages in their children’s heads. Because these messages influence the basis of a child’s reality and identity they need to be checked and altered in order that a child may grow up with healthy values and a positive sense of self. In a similar way, we believe that the powerful and negative ways in which the media and American culture commercialize women’s bodies has been extremely effective in getting women to feel discomfort or even to hate themselves.

To begin introducing you to the power of marketing, let’s run an analogy between cult leaders and advertisers. Both cult leaders and advertisers lower self-esteem in people and then promise redemption at the cost of complete and total compliance. In a religious cult, it goes something like this: “You are a sinner. I know God’s truth and if you follow what I say completely, you will go to heaven/win.” In advertising, it goes like this: “You are fat/ugly. This product will make you beautiful and if you buy it you will be attractive/win.” Millions of women accept this rationale whether or not they actually buy the products advertised. In fact, even when they do buy the products, the feeling of redemption is very short lived since there will always be a more beautiful dress, better diet product or whiter toothpaste. It seems that we can never catch up. There is no end to the required total compliance. We will never be good enough. But has it always been this way?

We see ourselves as we are influenced to do so by the culture in which we live. The master artist Rembrandt (b.1606-d.1669) painted pictures of the most beautiful women of his day – voluptuous, round and sensual. And the Impressionist painter Renoir (b.1841-d.1919) is known for his meaty nudes stepping out of the bath. In the l950’s and 60’s the archetypal femme fatale was Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn wore a size l2. She had a tummy, thighs, soft neck and arms. She was a far cry from the emaciated high fashion waif look created by designer Calvin Klein in the form of his favorite model Kate Moss who wore a size 0. What happened to create this shift in female beauty? Why have women gone from accepting a curvaceous form to the familiar dieting, exercising, lipo-suctioning and obsessing over every wrinkle and gray hair?

Since the l950’s there has been a rapidly increasing economic drive in America to take advantage of nearly anything that will make money regardless of the product or the destructive impact of the product. President Eisenhower first sited this drive in the form of the growing dangers of the military-industrial complex and the rapid production of lethal weapons. This money making force naturally found its way into the bowels of Madison Avenue where everything from Hoola Hoops to Pet Rocks swept the nation.

It is no coincidence that female children and women, the major American consumers, were targeted as a vast, untapped market of revenue. And advertisers, having to create a discontent and a need in order to sell products, reacted to cultural forces and created a new model of female beauty: the eternally young and slim woman. The economic climate probably helped determine the shift in female beauty from Rembrandt’s chubby ladies to the waif archetype we value today. In slim financial times the revered image of female beauty has been a larger woman. Her ample body became a sign of financial abundance afforded by the upper class. In times of economic prosperity, when the middle class was not starving, a sleek female image was embraced by the upper class to set them apart. So, what did the increasing prosperity of the 1950’s and 60’s bring?

The new image of female beauty was best exemplified in the form of the Barbie Doll, the fantasy girl which made Mattel the zillion dollar company it is today….and perhaps one of the greatest forces in planting the seeds of body image distortion in little girls who became discontented adolescents and women. The billion dollar diet and cosmetics industries also took root as women witnessed the image of the seemingly 9 foot tall woman floating down the model’s runway in her Coco Chanel gown with hardly a hint of body beneath her clothes and not a line in her face. (Americans spend $33 billion dollars a year on diets and diet related services. This amount does not include plastic surgery or lipo-suction. This figure totals more than all the money America spends each year on social services and education combined!)

The movement toward beauty embraced by our contemporary culture and relentlessly promoted by the mass media has been very effective. It has gotten millions of women to hate themselves while feeding billions of dollars into the marketplace. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once noted that, should advertisers support women’s emotional well-being rather than undermining it, our economy would suffer a devastating blow!

The standards for the l990’s female body are impossible to reach. Did you see the May issue of Vogue Magazine? Cultural ideal Elizabeth Hurley was on the cover. She is quoted as saying that she is extremely uncomfortable being photographed in a bikini and that she never stands up at a pool! Could there be a more perfect cultural litmus test than this? The woman who walks around in the ideal female body isn’t even satisfied herself! She knows that self-esteem does not come with physical excellence.

Healing Issues and Actions:

Some women have revealed to us the destructive belief they hold near and dear: just how closely they can approximate the “perfect body” is a sign to them (and to others – they believe) of how well they are doing in life. They have placed their personal value solely on their flesh. One woman we know confided that she was more upset having eaten a donut than having been caught using the company stamp machine for personal mail. The problem isn’t that women should be thin. The problem is that our values are thin.

In spite of the bombardment on our souls of absurd body ideals, it is up to each and every woman to recognize the absurdity of the advertising industry. Each of us must define our own personal values – those that are right for our individual authentic self. Each of us must discover who we are inside, what our innate talents and gifts are and then find the joy and strength to nurture those gifts to their fullest – regardless of anyone else’s opinions.

Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, states “Why does [wo]man accept to live a trivial life? Because of the danger of a full horizon of experience, of course.” (We added the “[wo]” part!) This is a profound statement for any woman struggling with a negative body image keeping her from being all that she can be. Focusing endlessly on HOW ONE LOOKS is living a trivial life. It does not include who and how we love, why we believe what we do, what we give credence to, a recognition of our inner talents and joys, our spiritual values, our philanthropy, or anything else other than how we look to others.

Further, we must keep in mind and pay homage to the fact that our natural bodies are influenced in form and shape by our genes. To negate or hate our bodies is, in effect, to reject our ancestors – our mother line. Doing the best with what we have inherited is not only self love, it is respect for all those women in our blood line who have come before us.

Even given what we have inherited, the body had a transitory nature. Everything and everyone ages and changes. Regardless of the most advanced medical and cosmetic devices and procedures, we age. The denial of this and the fight against it can create an obsessive-compulsive drive for an ideal appearance that not only makes an individual woman miserable, it also perpetuates the industrialization of the female body.

To be whole, human and truly expressive of our beautiful authentic selves, you would benefit by doing several things:

We wish you a fresh and inquiring mind, body, spirit and soul. Don’t live a trivial life. Live a well rounded life. Your dog doesn’t care what you look like when you rough house on the front lawn and you shouldn’t care nearly as much as you probably do. Carry that inner sense of joy every minute. You’ve got just the body your mother line sent to you over thousands of generations. Don’t let corporate advertisers rape you of your inner or outer self. Enjoy.

For more information, please visit Dr. Du Puy’s and Dr. Dovitch’s web site, Healing Choice

This article has been contributed and published with the due permission of, with the goal of Good Health for all women Everywhere!

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