by Robyn Banks
Eating disorders and low self-esteem in women and girls have been making headlines in both feminist discourse and the mainstream press for years, usually being linked in a variety of ways to the media, be it advertising or the homogenous representation of women. 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from some form of eating disorder, of which 89% are female, and anorexia nervosa has been reported in girls as young as six.
The issue has resurfaced again recently after Dr Aric Sigman, a professor in child psychology, has said that boys are an ‘untapped army’ who can prevent girls’ diet disorders by telling them how attractive they find ‘curvy’ women. At the same time, France unveiled a plan to ban models deemed too skinny from the catwalk. Both of these prevention measures are well meaning, but both are rooted in a profound misunderstanding of eating disorders that could do more harm than good.
It’s true that the media perpetuates a narrow standard of beauty which is as unhealthy as it is Eurocentric and discriminatory, and which is unattainable for most. It’s also true that girls are sent the message from an early age that their looks are their most valuable attribute and the singular thing they will often be judged by, and both of these things likely go some way to explaining why eating disorders primarily affect women and girls.
However, as Hadley Freeman wrote last week, “saying that eating disorders are essentially about silly women wanting to look like models is precisely the kind of condescension I long ago learned to expect from people when they talk about a mental illness that largely affects women and girls”. There are always complex social and environmental factors which contribute to the development of any mental health problem, and trying to ‘protect’ women from discourse deemed to be unhealthy almost certainly won’t address every facet of the problem.
But even if you do believe that media celebration of very thin women is wholly responsible for an epidemic of eating disorders and low self-esteem, celebrating another body type — in this case ‘curvy’ women — as the bastion of good womanhood will do women no favours. Women and girls are already faced with an onslaught of mixed messages policing their looks and their behaviour, and are encouraged to participate in policing each other.
But even if you do believe that media celebration of very thin women is wholly responsible for an epidemic of eating disorders and low self-esteem, celebrating another body type — in this case ‘curvy’ women — as the bastion of good womanhood will do women no favours.
The media and society will openly criticise the too fat and the too thin, the too soft and the too muscular, stretch marks, body hair and natural signs of ageing — all while placing the blame of low self-esteem on women’s shoulders. And now, Dr Aric Sigmen wants classes for girls to contain ‘more input’ from men, claiming that “knowing what men think can actually serve as an antidote to the prevailing assumptions that feed body dissatisfaction”.
The problem here is that men already feel entitled to pass judgements on women’s bodies, and this tends to do women’s sense of self-worth no favours. I have been subject to the unwarranted judgement of men in person too many times, from ‘I like your legs, love’ and street harassment, to the many times I’ve heard things such as ‘I like women with more meat on their bones than you’ and ‘girls with piercings are really unattractive’.
The problem here is that men already feel entitled to pass judgements on women’s bodies, and this tends to do women’s sense of self-worth no favours.
Men I associate with will openly judge women on the street in front of me (“why would a girl with no boobs wear a top like that?”) and all this before addressing our male dominated media culture- — from Hollywood homogeny to the Mail’s sidebar of shame.
Compliment or insult, it doesn’t feel good to be suddenly assessed by a stranger, in fact it feels more like one of those nightmares in which you’re suddenly taking an exam you haven’t prepared for, and naked. It may be true that men have a kinder take on body fat than women, if they’re that way inclined, but everybody is attracted to different things and one man’s sick insect is another’s willowy beauty.
Compliment or insult, it doesn’t feel good to be suddenly assessed by a stranger, in fact it feels more like one of those nightmares in which you’re suddenly taking an exam you haven’t prepared for, and naked.
We don’t just need to celebrate more diversity in women’s bodies, but we need to step away entirely from the idea that women’s attractiveness to men is their most important source of self-worth. Allowing school age children to openly pass judgement on their peers will surely do nothing to combat this culture, especially since new research has linked eating disorders in young girls to a fear of development and the resulting sexualisation they will undergo from society.
I have a different suggestion; instead of lining girls up and telling the what we think of them, let’s extend to them the same privileges we do to boys — the privilege of being able to view your body as a tool with which to navigate the world instead of as an object for another’s pleasure, and the desire to improve themselves for their own happiness and wellbeing, not that of their voyeurs.