The Journal of Feminist Construction.
Candace De Puy, PhD and Dana Dovitch, PhD.
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?