…And Man Created “Woman”: Representations of Women’s Bodies in Western Culture

“The 20-plus years of my professional life as clinical psychologist has been spent working with women who hate their bodies–women who feel “too fat,” although most of them are not “fat.” […] They feel they have failed at being beautiful […]. They have allowed me to see that their body hatred registers, silently, voicelessly, in isolation, the hostility that our patriarchal culture feels for women. One of the participants in our program hated her body so much she cut the word “fat” on her abdomen–literally, scarlet letters of shame. Similar feelings have led millions of women to pay for obesity surgeons and plastic surgeons to do much worse things to their bodies.

Because I care about my clients and want to understand them, I have examined the representations of women’s bodies in our culture. Those objects, women’s bodies, that are the source of much that men hold sacred (i.e., objects of fear, dread, awe, envy, hostility, art, beauty, even worship) are often despised by the women who actually inhabit them. […] These efforts [to understand how this could be] have led me to question whether it is possible for women not to feel pathologically self-conscious–for them ever to feel comfortable with their bodies in a culture that is, on the one hand, flooded with idealized images of women’s bodies; and, on the other hand, conditioned to see real (really real) women’s bodies as being in need of change, repair, improvement, better “health.”

I have strong support for the conclusion that women’s body hatred is “structural” (i.e., not accidental, but built into the system); that it is political; and that nothing short of a radical change–a revolution–will restore to women a sense of body ownership and safety. The feminist movement is and must be first and foremost a bodily movement.

One of my own efforts at understanding has been to conduct studies of body dissatisfaction among women and girls. These studies have shown that women are most dissatisfied with their bodies between the waist and the knees–the part of the body that is most sexual, that is the focus of the most obsessive media attention, that is the site of most cosmetic surgery and other size-reducing efforts and, that has been the target of most violent sexual attacks since the time of Jack the Ripper (Caputi, 1987*). This dissatisfaction is greatest among the women who are targets of fashion ads: white women old enough to have some money to spend, and still young, powerless, and insure enough to be manipulated by the criticisms implicit in fashion ads. Men, black women and girls, the very young and the very old, and nudists (including white female nudists) all feel more body satisfaction than the women in this target group. “[F]emale beauty is becoming an increasingly standardized quality throughout the world. A standard so strikingly white, Western and wealthy it is tempting to conclude there must be a conscious conspiracy afoot” (Chapkis, 1986**, p. 37).” . . .

P. 18-19 of Wooley, O. Wayne. 1994. “…And Man Created “Woman”: Representations of Women’s Bodies in Western Culture.” Pp.17-52 in Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, edited by P. Fallon, M. A. Katzman, and S. C. Wooley. New York: The Guilford Press. [Bolding and picture not in original, references by Wooley below.]

Caputi, J. 1987. The Age of Sex Crime. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State Popular Press.

Chapkis, W. 1986. Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance. Boston: South End Press.

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