Thinking we are defined by our bodies is holding us back

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!

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 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.

3 thoughts on “Thinking we are defined by our bodies is holding us back

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  1. I can’t help wishing I was “plus size” in the way Robyn Lawley is.
    I’m one of those size 22-24’s, with a reviled body type. Although since discovering size acceptance and Health at Every Size some three years ago I’ve stopped calling myself names like “fat pig” and “disgusting hog” and such, I can’t say I like the way I look.
    Sometimes the size acceptance blogs feature women of my size in attractive clothing looking happy. But this never happens in mainstream media. Women who look like me tend to be treated as jokes.
    It’s not that I’m saying everyone needs to look at me and go “ooh, what a babe.” I’m nearly 50 years old and live with chronic pain. I really don’t want that kind of attention. All I want is the basic respect that all human beings should be entitled to.

  2. The Real Cie – I know exactly what you mean. It’s worth remembering that a “plus size” model is different to a “plus size” in real life! Hence why I used the quotation marks…

    I wish you well on your journey to body acceptance. It’s certainly not an easy road, but let’s hold out hope that it will get easier soon!

  3. Great for you all! I’m with you, this topic really gets me steaming. God made us the way we are. True, we can gain weight, lose weight during the course, but we’re all beautiful!! I love it! My first time to your blog, powerful. Awesome!!!

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