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Thinking we are defined by our bodies is holding us back

By September 9, 2013 3 Comments

It’s hardly news that we’re constantly surrounded by images of the “ideal body.” But evidence continues to point out how damaging this ideal is, and how it holds women back from achieving in many areas.

And this really gets me riled up!

About-Facers in their undies with self-love signs outside of Abercrombie & Fitch.

The recent About-Face action in San Francisco was intended to show a diverse range of scantily-clad bodies.

My own experience of existing in this world, of walking down the street, of changing and showering at the gym, shows me that there is a huge spectrum of colors, sizes, shapes, and abilities of female bodies.

And yet, for some reason, the media hasn’t got the message that when we look into a store window, we want to see ourselves reflected back to us. Instead, we still see a frustratingly homogenous representation of bodies.

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that exposure to a diversity of bodies makes us more tolerant of differences.

Our recent action, in which we stood outside Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret in our underwear, was intended to do just this: show a more diverse range of semi-naked bodies than the images we are bombarded with.

Sure, there is the occasional plus-sized model (who still doesn’t represent the reality of women’s bodies, only “plus-sized” according to the fashion industry) selling a mainstream product.

But for the most part, any body that is different from the incredibly narrow norm is ignored by the media, making the women who inhabit these bodies quite preoccupied with feelings of otherness.

Australian “plus-sized” model Robyn Lawley.

Australian “plus-sized” model Robyn Lawley is outspoken on the media’s representation of diverse bodies.

Australian “plus-sized” model Robyn Lawley was recently interviewed in The Guardian. For a fashion industry insider, she has a refreshing view on size diversity:

I feel terrible for the size 22s, 24s, who never see a woman in the public eye who represents their size, or modeling the clothes they’re being asked to buy. I hate it, but I have to remind myself that this is a start. I’m helping in a small way to move things on.”

Is it possible that seeing ourselves represented in films, on television, and in advertisements would perhaps lift this oppressive obsession, leaving us free to concentrate on more important matters?

Lawley continues: “We could be getting angry about unequal pay and unequal opportunities, but we’re too busy being told we’re not thin enough or curvy enough. We’re holding ourselves back.”

Writer and professor Melanie Klein similarly laments:

“The time and energy that girls and women expend in pursuit of a culturally crafted, ephemeral, and illusive beauty ideal is time and energy that could be spent on other things. It’s not just a personal loss; it is a cultural siphoning off of talents, skills, and creativity that we desperately need.”

At some point, we need to realize that our bodies don’t define us. What do define us are our actions, our beliefs, how we treat people, and so many other aspects of our personalities.

Constantly thinking about worrying about what our bodies look like is a huge distraction. Imagine what we could be, if we spent all that energy on something else!

Tessa Needham finished her PhD in Performing Arts at the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2008. Her thesis explored the potential of performance to provoke change, and part of her research was Bodily, a solo theatrical performance about body image. She loves technology and the creative arts, and is passionate about the different cultural forces affecting the body image of girls and women. She teaches computers and does freelance creative work: www.tessaneedham.com.