March 17, 2014

Representation of girls and women’s bodies and their repercussions

             Through mass media, women are and have been the target of powerful and insistent messages every day, many of which provoke self-doubt. Judith Krantz, a novelist, said that “a man will never buy a magazine that makes him feel insecure and unattractive. [Men’s magazines] make them feel like heroes, whereas magazines make [women] feel like failures” (Duella, 1986). Images of thin, blonde women are predominant in mass media, and these characteristics are portrayed as being ideal (Gentry and Martin, 1997).   Heiss (2011) states that representations of idealistic beauty not only affect what society, as a large, believes about the body but also how individuals define and value their own bodies. The objectification of women’s bodies in the twenty-first century is perpetuated through the male gaze, beauty pageants and media promoting the “ideal” image of a female body, therefore leading to women struggling with their weight, low self-esteem and even suppression of their racial and ethnic identities.

            On average, individuals consume thousands of pieces of media every day, be it TV shows, movies, or advertisements in magazines, billboards, etc. A substantial amount of those ads feature women of a certain shape and size, who are almost always, presented using the male gaze. Male gaze is when women are presented as “objects, rather than possessors of gaze” (Mulvey, 1975) and which takes the assumption and viewpoint of a heterosexual man as the default target audience. Examples of male gaze can include the director/cameraman focusing on breast, legs and other parts of a woman’s body that is considered to be sexual, even though the scene or the film may not necessarily require such gratuitous shots. Male gaze is one of the prominent ways that women are showcased and presented as objects of desire rather than a character that can be respected or sympathized with. Megan Fox’s character in the Transformers movies is an example of male gaze and how it reduces women to mere objects. In her essay “Exacting beauty: Exploring women’s body projects and problems in the 21st century”, Rice says that not the image of the female body in the ads can also operate for female audiences and that the “model becomes an object of desire for imagined spectators who want her and who want to be her” (2013). Male gaze lends a big hand in the objectification of the female body and is responsible for women being seen as mere objects of desire.

            Male gaze and other forms of objectification present only a certain body type as desirable. This “ideal” woman is thin, with a flat stomach, long legs and “curvy” breasts and hips, and is usually white. According to the British Associations of Model Agents, female models should have dimensions around 34-24-34 (breast, waist and hip measurements in inches) and be at least 5ft 8in. This very specific body type leaves out a majority of women and models with only these characteristics don’t represent the majority. But since these models are the ones that are going to walk down the runway in fashion shows, like Victoria’s Secret, and be photographed and displayed in magazines and billboards and be on TV, this is the image that the general public will get, which will be found desirable and which women will strive towards. Through social learning “women tend to equate physical attractiveness with self-esteem” and because a woman’s sense of self-esteem is related to the societal confines of thinness and attractiveness, she may “engage in a number of behaviors in an attempt to meet their expectations” (Bragg, 2002).

            These strict and uniform beauty ideals can also be found in beauty pageants, like Miss Universe, which judges women based on their looks, and all of those women are tall and fit and thin with perfectly toned bodies and flawless skin. TV shows such as America’s Next Top Model also adheres to these standards. ANTM will usually have some “plus-size” models, which are just average women, but the show and the host will constantly draw attention to the model’s “plus-sized” body. Makeover shows make over women to bring them closer to the well dressed and polished ideal. Rice says that these shows and pageants allow young girls and women to feel like “they can bridge the gap between their bodily differences and images of desirability by re-envisioning their differences as desirable” (2013). According to Rice, the thin female body is seen as healthy, fertile and has associations with wealth, sexiness, success and self-discipline. Anything other than the ideal is seen as other and unattractive. Fat people are usually blamed for their obesity and are called lazy or are described as having no self-control, when in reality there can be a number of factors affecting their health like genetics and mental illness to name a few. A lot of advertisements and diet ads have elements of fat shaming in them and automatically promote the thin is equal to healthy mindset. In the entertainment media, the characters we do see as fat are made fun or used as comic relief and usually bemoan their lack of a thin body and constantly strive to become smaller. We’ve seen such an example in the hit 90’s TV show “Friends”, where the character, Monica, loses significant weight compared to her college days and is suddenly seen as attractive and desirable.

            Such extreme representations can alienate and distress a lot of people and can have harmful effects. A survey done by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute on girls aged nine and ten years old showed that forty percent have tried to lose weight. Each year millions of people in the US are affected by eating disorders and most of them are adolescent and young adult women. Young girls and women suffer from body distortions where they see their bodies as not being ideal and may sometimes take extreme steps to achieve that perfect weight. In recent times, young girls seem to be obsessed with the “thigh gap”, where when one puts their legs together, their thighs don’t touch. Medical professionals have said that dieting to achieve this can lead to serious health complications and that having a thigh gap doesn’t mean you are healthy or fit. Constant ads proclaiming weight loss and dieting, geared towards women, send out the message that thinness is something everyone should strive towards and achieve and “testimonials” from people tell women that they will be much happier and their life will change for the better once they become skinny.

            When one thinks of the words “body image” many people automatically think of women and the female body because in our culture and society today, women’s bodies are monitored and objectified to a gross extent. Women of colour portrayed in the media conform very closely to white beauty ideals. Racialized women not only have to deal with achieving a thin body but also to supress characteristic that can be seen as “other”.  In a lot of parts in South Asia, women use skin whitening creams to lighten their skin tones because white skin is seen as a sign of a beautiful, prosperous woman. Black women straighten or relax their natural hair because they don’t want to be seen as exotic and “good&#x
201d; hair is equated with straight, soft and long hair. Many women said that following these practices allows them to not only avoid being seen as “other” but can also evade racist and sexist comments that might otherwise come their way. We also rarely see women with disabilities in the media, which along with fat or average sized women, racialized women and old women can be seen as deviating from the “normal” thus leading to stereotypes.

Women put so much of their self-worth on their appearance in order to “fit” in and feel like they belong. As a result of the media and society objectifying women, women start to objectify themselves. Women have also been socialized their body is ultimately for the male gaze and anything they should do with their bodies should be for men. That’s why magazines offer up advice on “what he’s thinking when you’re naked” and “hairstyles to blow him away”, among many, many more. As Rice said in her essay a way for women to have a higher self-esteem is for them to redirect their energies into basing their self-worth on things other than their appearances and stop thinking that there is a perfect body. Feminists can start deconstructing these perceived notions of an ideal female body and start accepting and embracing diversity by watching their language and creating an inclusive environment for everyone.


Bragg, A. N. (2002). Women’s ethnic identity, self-esteem, and perceived body image: Differences by ethnicity. (Order No. 1412202, California State University, Fresno). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 57-57 p. Retrieved from (249994624).

Dullea, G. (1986). At a party for Judith Krantz, life imitates art. New York Times, p. A24, May 2

Laura Mulvey (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Screen 16 (3): 6-18

Martin, Mary C. and Gentry, James W. “Stuck in the Model Trap: The Effects of Beautiful Models on Female Pre-Adolescents and Adolescents.” The Journal of Advertising (1997): 19-34

Rice, Carla. “Exacting Beauty: Exploring Women’s Body Projects and Problems in the 21st Century.” Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain. Toronto: Women’s, 2013. 390-406. Print.

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