“Most women feel their bodies fail the beauty test, and the American health and beauty industry benefits enormously from continually nurturing feminine insecurities. If women are busy trying to control their bodies through dieting, excessive exercise, and self-improvement, they are distracted from other important aspects of selfhood that might challenge the status quo.* In the words of one critic, “a secretary who bench-presses 150 pounds is still stuck in a dead-end job; a housewife who runs the marathon is still financially dependent on her husband.”**
In creating women’s concept of the ideal body image, the cultural mirror is more influential than the mirror reflecting group attitudes. Research has shown women overestimate how thin a body their male and female peers values. In a research study using body silhouettes, college students of both sexes were asked to indicate an ideal female figure, the one which they believed to be most attractive to the same-sex peer and other-sex peer. Not only did the women select a thinner silhouette than the men did,*** but when asked to choose a personal idea, rather than a peer ideal, the women chose an even skinnier model. Women are also more self-critical than men. In another study, a woman was twice as likely to rate her attractiveness as low, between 1 and 3 (on a scale of 1 to 10), than a man was. In general, women are more accepting than men of flaws in their partners, but less than half of women believe that others consider them physically appealing.****
Food and weight-loss industries keep consumers in a constant battle over what they eat, how they eat, and how much control they have over their own bodies. This struggle starts with the media depicting unreasonably “perfect” bodies as attainable and continues with the confusing profusion of beauty, diet, and “health” advice from profit-making corporations.”
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene. 2007. The Cult of Thinness. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Page 63, from the sub-chapter “There’s No Business Like the Body Business, I: Profiting from Women’s Bodies”. Notes below are as they appear in the text, but the urls are mine.]
[*] Ilana Attie and J. Brooks-Gunn, “Weight Concerns as Chronic Stressors in Women,” Gender and Stress, ed. Rosalind K. Barnett, Lois Biener, and Grace Baruch (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 218-252.
[**] Kathy Pollitt, “The Politically Correct Body,” Mother Jones, 7, no. 7 (1982): 67. I do not want to disparage the positive benefits of exercising and the positive self-image that can come from feeling good about one’s body. This positive image can spill over into other areas of one’s life, enhancing, for example, one’s self-esteem or job prospects.
[***] See: Lawrence D. Cohn and Nancy E. Adler, “Female and Male Perceptions of Ideal Body Shapes: Distorted Views among Caucasian College Students,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 16, no. 1 (1992): 69-79. See also: A. Fallon and P. Rozin, “Sex Differences in Perceptions of Desirable Body Shape,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 94, no. 1 (1985): 102-105.
[****] “Marketing to Women – Addressing Women and Women’s Sensibilities,” Marketing to Women: Addressing Women and Women’s Sensibilities, 17, no. 1 (2004): 1-2.