Women’s Body Image

I want to talk to you about body image, sexuality, and the tyranny of the cultural ideal – that is, the images of beauty that we see displayed in advertising and in the entertainment media every day of our lives. Given that the average woman is 5’4 and weighs 140 lbs, and the average model is 5’11 and weighs 117 lbs – yet she is everywhere, reminding most of us that we are not her – the question becomes, how do we embrace the beauty of being real? First, I’d like to ask you to think about a few questions. Ready?

  • How pretty do you have to be before you are pretty enough?
  • How thin do you have to be before you’re thin enough?
  • What would you have to change about yourself to fit the ideal of beauty in your particular culture?
  • What would you have to give up to achieve that ideal?
  • If you could trade a certain number of years off your life to have that kind of beauty – how many years would you be willing to trade?

Maybe you think that these sound like crazy questions. If they are, they’re still the crazy questions that most women ask themselves many times a day, every time they look in the mirror. Maybe not in exactly those words, but in some way, those questions arise. And each time we ask ourselves questions like that, they have the effect of devaluing our best qualities and disconnecting us from the authentic source of our beauty, eroticism, and sexuality.

Perhaps the question we really should be asking is how do we love ourselves and revel in our sexuality when we’re exposed daily to media and advertising that beat into our head the message that beauty, thinness, sexuality, and love are all part of one package. We may know up here – in the brain – that that isn’t so, but somehow, emotionally, if we buy into it, we pay a huge price. I’ve worked with many women over the years who feel that they’re alone in feeling legitimately badly about their bodies, that somehow they deserve to feel that way because they REALLY aren’t pretty enough, or thin enough, or acceptable enough. And whenever I hear that, I think to myself – if THEY aren’t, then who is? Only someone of supermodel caliber? Only women whose faces grace magazine covers? I think it helps to look at some of the cold hard statistics about beauty and bodies in western culture. It helps each one of us put our own issues in perspective. Knowing what we are dealing with, and the widespread taint of it, gives us more power in reconfiguring some of our own attitudes.

The research that I’m about to cite comes from many different sources, but taken all together, it creates an astonishing picture. In the United States, upwards of 80% of women say that they are dissatisfied with their bodies. Seven million American girls and women are struggling with eating disorders and 50,000 will die. There are approximately ten million people with serious eating disorders in the United States, and 9.5 million of those people are women. Almost half of all American women are on a diet on any given day. Nine out of ten girls have a Barbie doll that models a figure that is so severely thin that a woman with the same proportions would be ill from insufficient food intake and body weight, and unable to menstruate or have children. In one study, a group of men and women were asked to try on swimsuits. Afterward, the women, but not the men, felt shame about their bodies. They also restricted their eating and performed poorly on math tests.

In Great Britain, 47% of women are a size 16 or over. Where are they represented in the media? Essentially, nowhere. So it’s no wonder that nineteen out of twenty UK women have said they would rather be thin than have a higher IQ. And given a wish list that included never having any money worries and dating the celebrity of their choice, over half of them said they would still rather be thin.

Viewing television commercials with ideal-looking women in them causes adolescent girls to feel immediately depressed, less confident, angrier, and more dissatisfied with their bodies and with themselves. Stop for a minute to think about what this means – if just a few commercials in the space of a few minutes can have that kind of impact, what do you think the effect of seeing images like this over and over, over a period of years, has on women – especially young women? What is the cumulative effect?

The effect is not only on adolescents, however. Older women are becoming more vulnerable than they ever were before to the effects of aging on their bodies, especially when their contemporaries on TV remain rail-thin and never seem to age at all. Women over 35 entering inpatient programs for eating disorders have increased 40% since 2001. The message is that you have to be thin and gorgeous at every age. And the going is toughest for women who counted on their looks for most of their life – because when those start to go, if that’s all they identified with, then they ask themselves – who am I?

How does this affect a woman’s sexuality? Well, 68% of women in a Glamour magazine survey felt self-conscious about their bodies in bed. Among mature women who have lost their desire for sex, 51% say that it’s because they are unhappy with how their bodies look. Women who have body-modifying plastic surgery – meaning breast augmentation, tummy tucks, liposuction – report having a better sex life and more orgasms after the surgery. Women who have facial plastic surgery report no change. So – what that means is that all of these women who were having sexual problems before their surgery didn’t have a sexual problem – they had a perception problem, and that affected their ability to take in pleasure for themselves. This isn’t so surprising when you think that women are not raised to desire – women are raised to be desirable. Instead of practicing having orgasms, women practice being pretty. Instead of being in their bodies while making love, they’re outside their bodies, thinking about how they look, whether their partner is pleased, whether they look good or bad in this position or that position. Studies that look at what motivates women to have sex show that pure desire is the least of the reasons: most common responses have to do with wanting to feel more intimate or closer with their partner, wanting validation, wanting to please their partner, wanting to get pregnant. Sex therapists often marvel at the prevalence of desire and arousal difficulties among women, but it’s actually amazing that the rates aren’t higher, given how we feel about our bodies. We not only judge ourselves by comparing ourselves to a difficult ideal, but we short circuit our pleasure centers when we don’t meet that ideal – in effect, we punish ourselves for not being “good enough.”

How else does a skewed body image impact women in their sexual relationships? It can induce us to use sex to try to feel better about ourselves – to try to feel wanted. It can make us settle for partners who aren’t good for us because they don’t treat us well, or with respect. We can even take extreme sexual risks in order to feel more desirable. We can lack assertiveness in protecting ourselves from pregnancy or disease, so as not to rock the boat with a partner that we really want to be with. It can generate feelings of shame during and after sex. And the way we feel about our bodies can isolate us, and leave us avoiding making intimate contact or reaching out for relationships for fear of rejection. And if all that is true for the average woman, how much more difficult are things for women who are differently challenged: women with physical disabilities, women whose bodies have been the ongoing site of pain and struggle, sometimes since birth? And what about women whose appearance is inconsistent with that of the dominant culture? Wherever you happen to live, there is a particular standard of beauty in your part of the world. To the extent that you do not measure up, you suffer.

And to be fair, what about the woman who everyone else envies because she embodies the ideal on the outside? She is the fantasy figure, but she doesn’t feel at all on the inside like the sex goddess that she is portrayed as. In my own experience as a therapist in LA and Hollywood, I observed a high proportion of desire problems among models and actresses, not because they were ill from starving themselves, but in part, because they are sought out more for their appearance, their trophy power among men, than for who they really are. It isn’t long before women lose desire in relationships when they don’t feel loved and appreciated. After all, beauty confers power – but not upon the woman who wears it nearly as much as upon the men who flaunt it. A beauty of supermodel caliber is like a Rolex or a Ferrari – a sign of success and worth among men, a fluffing of tail feathers among strutting peacocks, one for the other.

Perhaps nothing so reflects the extremes to which women are these days encouraged to go as the latest transformation scheme – female genital cosmetic surgery. One LA plastic surgeon has been especially prominent in leading the burgeoning “designer vagina” movement. And he claims his success is driven by women’s desires. But what makes women want surgery so that they can have symmetrical labia all on their own? When women bring photos of adult movie stars into a plastic surgeon’s office, and say, “I want to look like that” (or worse, “my boyfriend wants me to look like that”) – shouldn’t someone be asking how many vulvas she has seen in her lifetime? Is the doctor going to show her photos of 50 or 100 other normal women, all with very different shapes and sizes and colors and textures and beauty of female genitalia, and then say, “is there anything you recognize there? Maybe you should go home and think about whether you really want to change yourself.”

Understanding the enormity of the body issue is really the first step in reclaiming your own sense of individual beauty, and protecting your sexuality from being tampered with by cultural myths – myths that are even embedded in our fairy tales. Think about one classic: who is the fairest of them all? It goes back that far, and that early, and so it’s no wonder that it’s so hard for most women to shake. So, what can you do to spare yourself the worst of this body battle? Here are some suggestions that I hope will help.

When you begin to think negative thoughts about your body, do something positive WITH your body.

Go for a walk, get a massage, apply moisturizer to every lovely inch of yourself. Dance alone in your living room! Ask your partner to touch you in ways that remind you that your body is there to be felt. Go do something for someone to help them, reminding you that your body is there to be utilized.

Look at the images that you surround yourself with.

Do most of the images reflect women who look like you, or do they reflect women who look like the ideal? Do they remind you of your own shortcomings? Try changing your surroundings for just a month and see how that makes you feel. Clip out photos of voluptuous, full-bodied women and strong, powerful, physically challenged women, and surround yourself with them. Create your own altar to women’s diversity and beauty. Add reproductions of classic beauties from other times, to remind yourself that the very slender woman was not always the ideal. Refresh your perception of yourself by looking at new and alternative images every day, just for a month, and see what happens.

Listen to the inner dialogue you have about other women.

Are you critical, judgmental, envious? Here’s a quick story: recently I was watching an awards show on television with a group of friends. When an actress who had clearly gained quite a bit of weight came on stage, two of the women simultaneously made comments. One of them said “wow, does she look sexy!” The other one said, “whoa, did she get fat!” And then, a little later, an older, more mature male actor came onstage – someone who everyone knew from his days as a leading man. The same woman who had criticized the actress said, “oh, he’s gotten so…OLD!” as if he’d somehow committed a crime by not being able to stop time. The interesting thing for me was to realize that the woman who was so busy criticizing was in fact someone who is probably the most unhappy and self-deprecating person I’ve known in a long time. She didn’t like herself very much – and the criticism that she applied to others was no different than the painful criticism that she applied to herself. So listen very carefully for the kinds of words you use in your head, applying to yourself or others. And remember that as you change what you put out, you will change what you invite in.

Body acceptance often starts in the family.

British entertainer Dawn French, who is a self-described “fat” woman, recently did a television special called “On Big Women.” A camera followed her to nude and glamour photoshoots for Esquire magazine, to see what kind of responses she would get and what would happen. And she talked about the fact that she had never felt self-conscious or uncomfortable about her size. She believed that that was perhaps because her family had never given her a hard time or hangups about it. And I think that she may have a point there – people who feel good about themselves early on, and whose families encourage and validate their beauty, tend to hold that much later and don’t let the cultural perceptions get to them, or at least chip away their self-esteem quite as severely as other women. So if your family is less than supportive, recognize that you have a right to say that any discussion about your size or your looks is strictly off-limits. You can set your own boundaries with family members or anyone you choose.

Exercise for strength and health.

Exercise grounds you in your body and its sensations. Do what you love – don’t do what’s painful. If you love to hike in the mountains, hike in the mountains. Do yoga, dance, Pilates, lift weights – whatever you enjoy, do it. But do it mindfully. Feel the movement of every muscle. Be conscious of every breath. Learn to let your feelings, not the mirror, guide your form. And finally, exercise for sexual arousability. New research shows that exercise primes the body for sexual arousal, and that women are more easily aroused after having exercised. Advice to help women get in the mood in the past has often instructed them to relax, to take a bubble bath, or meditate, when in fact that may not be the best advice at all. It may be far better to rev up your nervous system and ready it for a sexual rev-up, via vigorous exercise.

Knowing, respecting, and revealing our bodies is an act of rebellion in this society. However, it takes time to learn to cherish our bodies, to revere our sexuality, and to unlearn decades-old lessons. So give yourself that time.