We all know that media dictates and culture accepts what “good” body image is. These mere words are enough to set teeth grinding at best, and create food issues in girls at worst. In the interest of transparency, I’m letting you know I’m a size 0 but one that is both naturally athletic (read: healthy) and because I’m short — yet another media “negative” body image, but one I embrace in my usual Snap!-like way, and thereby escaped having issues with. So why am I writing this?
Sadly, this makes me some kind of sociological anomaly. Because I was (unfortunately rare) mostly unaffected by negative body image, the first time I remember connecting the dots of how powerful media images were to girls’ body image and what “sex sells” really meant in relation to same, wasn’t until I was 14. (Today studies show 60% of 11 year olds have started dieting.) My BFF that semester was the sensitive, over-looked and majorly-family-transiting Julie who had once described herself in freshman English as a big boned girl. The latest issue of Cosmopolitan, our then-fave mag — which back in the day productively focused on NY Times Best Sellers about psychology and building careers than today’s What 6 Things He Wants in Bed articles — had just hit our mailboxes. She called me to lament in deep detail how she’d pored over the bikini cover girl for about four hours straight, “I’ve been staring and staring, and going over that thing with a fine tooth comb,” she said. This amazed me, so I cradled the phone with my shoulder and casually flipped over my copy to see what the heck was the big deal to her. The pretty cover girl in the silver bikini (cool!) with her slicked back hair looked totally “normal” to my eyes. The only thing remarkable about that cover for me was that she had goosebumps on her upper thighs, and was glistening like she’d gotten out of the pool about a minute earlier without a towel handy. I vividly remember naively wondering if that imperfection was a mistake on their usually ideal covers. Julie continued, “She’s too perfect. I hate her. I’ll call you back, I’m still checking it out. I’ll let you know if I find anything wrong with her…”
The Eyes Have It
I have always been very visual. Mine and my brother’s childhoods/adolescences climbed securely on a solid mountain of drawing paper our (once-) art teacher dad brought home daily. I was endlessly fascinated with the art direction of Cosmo’s covers — it’s monthly color palette, and coordination of text to accessory styling helped shape my sense of space and taste. To my eyes, this issue Julie was so negatively consumed with, was a heavenly union of cool to icy blues, silver and a hint of white. It made the model’s coppery skin and even her (obviously a mistake!) damp gooseflesh all pop. It was beautiful! I hoped to create anything that amazing. But sadly, in this pre-Photoshop airbrushing era, Julie could only see (and perceive) an impossible perfection that she would never attain. And hate herself for it.
Later that weekend, my family visited our relatives in the south bay. My cousin M. had obviously become obsessed by this cover girl image. He asked if I was done with the magazine yet, and if so maybe I could let “them” borrow it. Ew.
It was our disparate reactions to the same single image that finally hit me how deeply even recognized-as-airbrushed “perfection” sold: magazines, consumer and lifestyle ideals (damn!, I coveted that cool ass silver bikini), boys’ their idealized impressions of feminine sexual desirability, and (directly connected) too many girls’ suggestions/concepts/sense that their own amazing and healthy bodies are…failures. At 14, I just didn’t know what to do with all that information.
Today as an adult, when I feel hypnotized or taken over by a picture in a magazine, or lifestyle promise of some ad, I stop and meditate on the image per se. I allow myself to recognize and really feel its powerful sway over me. Usually I am able to let the most trendy or frivolous things go as false, unimportant or not fully of me — on the rarer occasions when I still can’t stop obsessing, I just keep the image around and in plain view, so it loses its immediate gratification, lustful importance, its lock on my attention. This immersion therapy-mediation may sound odd but I am attempting to release the power of the thing, while trying to feel, connect with better feed the actual need it represents in me.
Back to the Future
But what would adult me say to the insecure adolescent Julie today? I would tell her to just stop staring at and unconsciously allowing herself to become seduced by that magazine cover! I want to let Julie know now (and we are in touch) that my own mom had much empathy for her life transitions when we were 14. Deeply importantly, she was wrapped in a mother’s wish for her to experience more unconditional love and self-acknowledgment so that she wouldn’t feel she had to seek these things outside of herself only. Adult me could only add to that brilliance that she was loveable, acceptable and perfect just the way she was.
What images have shaped the way you look at and judge your own body, defined what you sexually lust after, or want to buy or emulate/become? What can you say to the young, impressionable Julies in your life to help them see their own beauty in the face of relentless idealized cultural images?
Image: Hearst Publications
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