February 20, 2014

Representations of the Female Body

Our society is obsessed with thinness.  That is, thinness has become more or less equated with health and success for women in the contemporary society, thereupon causing many women to strive to get closer to what is perceived as the “normal” body.  Canadian Women’s Health Network (CWHN) points out that this “normal” body, however, is not an accurate image but rather a male vision of female beauty and that women are sacrificing comfort and health by manipulating their bodies through continuous dieting, plucking, cutting and constricting to fit into the misperceived “norm” (Odette 2).  While this culturally and socially constructed norm is, in fact, unattainable for most women, many nonetheless desire to embody this societal and cultural ideal.  As a matter of fact, most of my girlfriends from high school and university have once struggled, or are still struggling with body image and weight.

Who suffers the most from this fat phobia?  Lesbian and queer women are often assumed to be individuals who do not struggle to pursue the dominant cultural ideal of thinness because they do not seek men’s approval and are therefore “immune” to the culturally embedded norm of slenderness (Pearson 2).  However, this, as CWHN suggests, is not the case.  These individuals are, just like heterosexual women, raised and educated in the patriarchal system and therefore not exempted from submitting to patriarchal standard of beauty (2).  In fact, in order to cope with their feelings of ‘otherness’ in society resulting from their sexual orientation, lesbians in general strive harder to prove that they are as attractive as heterosexual women by fitting into the ideal body image of women (3).   

As our society classifies certain bodies as desirable and others as undesirable, many women including myself not only struggle with body image but experience oppression resulting from this culturally and socially constructed norm.  Consequently, CWHN asserts that re-conceptualization of normal female body and women’s autonomy regarding their own bodies needs to be achieved through accurate information sharing and improved education that will help them make informed choices about health.  Such opportunity for access to valuable health information and education is essential for poor, black, lesbian women as much as it is for middle-class, white, heterosexual women, as the culture-rooted conceptions regarding women’s body and health exert serious influence on all women from poor to rich, white to black, heterosexuals to homosexuals. 

Indeed, women suffer from fat phobia and struggle to fit into the socially constructed beauty ideal regardless of their race, class and sexual orientation.  And I was no exception. 

Here is a poem I wrote a few years ago, just a few weeks before my high school prom.

A Broken Night’s Sleep


Still wide awake

No more bleary eyed studying

Or all night cramming

Or endless sleepless nights

Partying and celebrating high school graduation

Am I hallucinating?

Hope so, I really do

But I’m awake

From a sleep

Or a nap I should say

And yet, another day begins

Constantly obsessing about

An almost skeletal image

Yes! Another 0.1 pound off

In the hours of darkness

I give myself a pat on the back

As pale as a pining ghost

I stand in the washroom mirror

But I’m happy or so I think

I’m tired

I’m sleepy

I’m cold

Three things I mumble to myself through the day

Until I’m happy again

Standing on a small square electronic box

With a number smaller, but not yet the smallest

Crawling into bed

I wish myself a goodnight

But I know, that it will be another restless night

And yet one more dreary, famished day.

Once I hit puberty and became more conscious of how I look, to hear someone say that I look different from my identical twin sister no longer sounded like a compliment that we are both unique in our own ways.  It started to sound more like “why are you different from your sister?”  Since then, having my sister – who has always been about fifteen pounds lighter than me – stand next to me whenever we had to introduce ourselves to friends and relatives or had to be in a group photo began to bother me. 

‘Will I look fat next to her?’

When I spotted people looking alternatively at me and my sister, I automatically assumed that they were making comparisons.  Having been called the “chubbier one” my entire life, I was determined to make myself fit into a size 0 dress for my prom.  Thinking back to those days when I consumed only 600 calories and spent two hours at the gym everyday, I remember that the only thing on my mind was to lose weight.  But I managed.  I did wear a size 0 dress on my prom day.  But the weight I had lost all came back so quickly once I started eating slightly more and exercising slightly less.  It took 2 months to lose that much weight but only a few weeks to gain it all back.  That’s when I began to wonder, ‘Is it really worth sacrificing my health and comfort?’.Is it really?  Just to look like my sister?  From there on, I began telling myself that bodies differ and that, as Glenn Marla puts it; ‘there indeed is no wrong way to have a body’.     


Canadian Women’s Health Network Website. Canadian Women’s Health Network n.p., n.d. Web. 8    

       Nov 2011.

Odette, Francine. “Body Beautiful/Body Perfect: Challenging the Status Quo: Where Do Women with           

      Disabilities Fit In?” 1998. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.  <www.nedic.ca/resources>.

Pearson, Jennifer. “Broadening Our Understanding of Violence Against Women: Lesbian Experience        

     and Fat-Oppression.” 1993. Web. <www.nedic.ca/resources>.

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