Wednesday, May 30, 2012

They're in My Brain! Media and Body Images

Do you know how when you read a novel for a very long time (like, say,  a few hours) the words start to sink into your brain and you begin to narrate your own life as you move through your day. (This isn't just me, right? Is this an English major thing?)

Well, depending on the author I've been soaking up, that self-narration can take on a very different tone. When I've been reading Hemingway, suddenly everything is very terse.

Wisteria & door
From hortulus
She walked to the door. She opened it. She started her morning commute, calmly. 

And when I've been reading Faulkner, it's quite a bit more detailed.

The door, having stood through many other mornings, mornings she'd never seen, mornings she'd never even imagine, other people's mornings, distant mornings, filled with anger and love and emotions long forgotten, was ajar. She'd left her keys lying on the coffee table next to the discarded magazine that bore the scars of a toddler's excitement but now wore the forgotten sag of an item just waiting for the recycle bin, so she turned back, exasperated but not yet late. 

Or maybe I've been reading some Audre Lorde poetry.

The door beckoned
with its promise for a new
day. Left unfulfilled 
and somehow empty, 
even before breakfast. 

(This isn't just me. Right?)

Anyway, I was thinking about how these authors can get inside my brain and start filtering the way that I see my world. Their words impact me, alter the way I see things, change the way I think. It was with that in mind that I approached statistics like these:
The researchers discovered that after just ten minutes' exposure, it was the group who watched music videos featuring thin, idealised models who exhibited the greatest increase in body dissatisfaction, compared to those who merely listened to the songs or had completed the memory task. -Research study by Dr. Helga Dittmar
A study in 1995 found that three minutes spent looking at a fashion magazine caused 70% of women to feel depressed, guilty and shameful. 
If reading Faulkner can make me think of my world in long, never-ending sentences, then why shouldn't flipping through a magazine that narrowly defines "beauty" make women and girls who can't live up to those photoshopped standards feel guilty and depressed about their looks.

That's also why I find the thinspo movement so depressing. It's bad enough that we're constantly bombarded with unrealistic standards of beauty in everything from commercials to movies to billboards, but now there are entire communities of young women who consciously seek out these images for "inspiration" to lose weight. What does it do to our brains to soak in so many specific messages about beauty?

And I also think that the flip side of this effect is so interesting. When we see so many narrow views of beauty, what happens when we consciously seek out alternatives? Can we retrain our brains?

That's the premise behind blogs like Down With Thinspo, Up With Beauty and sites like Healthy is the New Skinny.

Sure, images from these sites still reinforce some patriarchal notions of what it means to be beautiful (most of the women are long-haired and curvy in all the "right" places, for instance, and most of them are wearing makeup), but I think that images like these go a long way toward making us rethink what it means to be beautiful.

From Evans (and here's the link to the swimsuit, cause I think it's pretty awesome)
And while I find it shocking that images like this one are considered abnormal, our standards for beauty have slipped so far into the altered and unattainable that I guess even this is considered too "real":

From beautemodel
So, yes, the media's standards for beauty are ridiculous and damaging. While we can certainly insist that they make changes (like that awesome teen did with her petition to Seventeen to include one unaltered spread a month), that can't be our only line of defense (because, as you may have heard, Seventeen's not budging). So, in addition to trying to change mainstream media from the bottom up, we also have to be conscious of our media diet. If all the mainstream media gives us is photoshopped images of bodies that are unattainable, then we can carve out our own spaces to showcase bodies that are real and beautiful. If all that's offered in the world is fast food, you don't just give in, you plant a garden. We have to take care of ourselves.


  1. I have noticed in the past that I get all crazy if I immerse myself too much in a particular tv show, start seeing the world so warped!

  2. I'd love to get your take on the recent (semi-recent) "fatkini" movement. While I wholeheartedly support and approve of the "healthy" body vs "skinny" ideal...I feel like this is something meant to simply grab attention in all the wrong ways. Not female empowerment... more along the lines of the journalist who said "I'm too attractive."

    1. I hadn't heard of this, but I looked at the gallery, and I think those women look beautiful and confident. If it's about grabbing attention, then I don't think it's any different from the attention that ANY woman grabs when wearing a bikini. I think we've been programmed to see a body that doesn't fit the thin ideal and to say "Gross!" without thinking about it.

      I think we also use health and fitness as a justification for that reaction, but body image and health are NOT intertwined as closely as we like to think they are. For one, health is not a moral imperative.

      People are allowed to be unhealthy if they choose to be. For two, we don't seem as invested as a society in placing that moral imperative on people who meet the body ideal and are obviously unhealthy. I know several people whose bodies are thin but who eat nothing but junk food and never exercise. We make jokes about those people: "Haha. I don't know where you put it all!" But someone who works out and eats healthy and has a larger body is seen as lazy and ridiculed for any body confidence. It's insane to me.

      While I don't always agree with everything in the Fat Activism movement (I think it's an individual's right to choose to lose weight and I hate when people are demonized for doing so, for instance), I think that this list from Kate Harding does a good job of summing up some of the main issues.

      I know that's a long-winded answer to your question, but I think that the "fatkini" movement gives women the opportunity to feel good about their bodies and to show that confidence to the world. Could they be using it to draw unhealthy attention? Sure, but so could a woman with a thinner body. I think they could equally be using it to feel confident about themselves, and I would never say it's my place to decide which it is, just as I would never say it's my place to tell a thin woman in a bikini that she shouldn't wear it because of the attention it would draw.

  3. I saw this related article on Jezebel yesterday:

    It's nothing new, but the title is provocative and, I think, supports what you're saying here. In some senses we're talking about life imitating art, which can either be mind-expanding (as, perhaps, in the case of your narrations) or self-defeating and destructive. And so really you're getting down to the very, very old argument (I'm thinking Philip Sidney 'An Apology for Poetry' and so forth) of what art "is" or "should be." Should it present the world as it actually is or should it present the world as its author or creator would like it to be? Sidney meant that poetry (or art) should create a world better than nature or reality in order to 'teach and delight'-- and to make us better human beings. But when the creators of the 'art' are marketers, the goal seems much more sinister because their image of the 'better' and always unattainable human being is predicated on a profit motive--'you probably can't have this body or this awesome life, but you can buy this perfume and it will help approximate that life for you.'

    Do you watch Mad Men? You absolutely should because it's right up your alley!

    1. "But when the creators of the 'art' are marketers, the goal seems much more sinister because their image of the 'better' and always unattainable human being is predicated on a profit motive"

      Yes! I think you've really cut to the heart of this conversation exactly. I honestly think there's a space for art to do both, and I even think that there's a place for this type of fantasy creation (maybe even to sell thing; it doesn't HAVE to be so predatory). But the problem is that media is under such a narrow band of control (have you seen this infographic) that there's not much space for competing narratives. I can switch from reading Toni Morrison all day to reading some Hemingway and turn off (or at least change) the lens I'm filtering my thoughts through, but when all of our media is controlled by such a narrow band of people, we don't get that option.

      I'm hopeful that independent media on the internet can be a solution. I'm seeing a lot of great online shows and websites that offer alternative lenses, and maybe their popularity will even push some to the mainstream.

      And I do watch Mad Men, but only on Netflix, so I'm woefully behind at the moment.