The Psychology of Ideal Body Image

ideal body image women Nov 01, 2084

Fat oppression doesn’t just affect fat people or fat women. It really works to keep everyone in line. Fear of fat is rampant in our society and is responsible for the current masochistic race toward a slender body image. We are a culture nearly addicted to individual control and the notion seems to exist in our society that fatness means a loss of self-control – which is considered the ultimate moral failure in our culture, and perhaps the most frightening of all fears.


Statement of the Problem

Everyone is born into a culture – a set of shared ideas about the nature of reality, the nature of right and wrong, evaluation of what is good and desirable, and the nature of good and desirable versus the bad and non-desirable. (Richardson, Taylor, 1983)

The definition of desirable, with regard to body image, has spanned rotund to emaciated, with various ideals in-between. And, the methods for achieving the desirable, idealized image of the times have been equally as varied.

Today we live in a society obsessed with thinness and youth. The emphasis on thinness in our culture not only oppresses overweight women, it also serves as a form of social and psychological control for all women:

“Fat oppression doesn’t just affect fat people or fat women. It really works to keep everyone in line. It’s a whole system of social control that keeps thin women absolutely terrified of being fat or thinking they are fat, and a whole lot of energy goes into dealing with fat. It keeps women who are medium-sized absolutely panic-stricken because they are right on the border. Those of us who are fat are over that border into some state of evil, basically, very much outside of what is permissible within white American culture. If you are fat, then what you are supposed to do is strive desperately to get non-fat…” (Judith Stein, Fat Liberation Movement, Mitchell, Newmark, 1981)

The achievement and maintenance of thinness and beauty is a major female pastime, as reflected by all of the magazines, newspaper articles, T.V. shows, commercials, idealized role models, and books that are aimed at the female audience. This endeavor consumes an enormous portion of the females’ time, energy and money, leaving her little time for other activities and/or important life issues. But, we as women play a major role in perpetuating our culture’s ridiculous ideals by buying into the image with the purchase of the magazines, diet books, beauty books and designer clothes thrust upon us, rather than developing an acceptable, personal idealized image of our own. By refusing to take that responsibility, we indeed perpetuate our own lives of dissatisfaction and self-hatred, and this need not be so.


Review of Literature

Idealized Body Image – Historical Perspective

There are always underlying reasons for the idealized female body image – these reasons appearing to stem from political and economic sources.

In 18th Century America the “idealized” Colonial women were tough, big, muscular, strong and very fertile. (Valentine, 1984)

This was a period of time in the history of our country in which size and strength were important assets for a woman to possess, for her own survival as well as her desirability as a wife, mother and worker of the land. Her fertility was important because the more children she could produce, the more free labor or helpers the family would have to work the land.

By the 19th Century the idealized female body image had changed drastically. It was now necessary for the ideal woman to be sickly, frail, pale, wan and prone to fainting alot. (Valentine, 1984)

The underlying reason for this new ideal was political. Women had to be made frail in order to support or justify slavery in the 1800’s. Actually, what this ideal succeeded in doing was to make slaves of the women too. Womens’ bondage was not in physical labor, but in the restrictive clothing they were encouraged to wear and the restrictive lifestyle they were allowed to live.

The corset came into fashion in the early 1800’s and remained in fashion until the 1920’s. With the idealized hourglass figure in fashion, the corsets were designed and constructed more and more narrowly through the middle area. This inhibited movement as well as breathing. But, the women were desirous of meeting the ideal.

Some women of the time had ribs surgically removed that kept them from corseting themselves into a small enough waist size, which was the desired image. There was strong competition for men and marriage, since women generally had no means of supporting themselves.

This was a time when the family unit was everything and it was a women’s duty to bear lots of children, obey her husband (and men in general) and keep her mouth shut.(Todd, 1984) Femininity was synonymous with weakness, frailty, grace and romanticism. Beauty was defined as pallor of skin, tiny waist and a large bustle. (Todd, 1984)

Women were less than second-class citizens. They were denied the right to an enjoyable life.

Men reflected a lot of status by having a wife who fit the ideal of that time. That fact still seems to hold true. Admiring glances fell upon the fragile waist that could be hand-spanned and lifted by a pair of strong male hands. (Brownmiller, 1984)

For the women who resorted to those extreme physical measures in order to effectively compete for prized men, the removal of their lower ribs actually succeeded in dislocating their kidneys, liver and other organs, as well as causing other medical problems. (Hynowitz, Weissman, 1978)

Another manner in which women could demonstrate and confirm their frailty was by fainting. Charm schools were opened to teach women the fine art of fainting -how to position oneself, who should be present in the room, etc. (Valentine, 1984)

The charms of the fainting female so exquisitely demonstrated the need for masculine protection. (Brownmiller, 1984)

Women assumed the position in society of goddesses and were a demonstration of “the poetry of dependency.” (Stanton, 1851)

The beginning of the women’s movement in the mid 1800’s had a major effect on body image.

The corset was specifically attacked for its restrictiveness – both in breathing and in movement. “If all women should decide not to wear corsets, nothing would be thought of it.” (Connally, 1903)

There is alot of power on reserve for women as a group that they have yet to utilize. However, many women did band together during this time period and converted to a corset-free figure. It seems that when women agitate for equality and start gaining independence, body types and fashions reflect it.

Moving into the new century, women were gaining in strength, both physically and politically. The Greek ideal of physical beauty – broad waists and Venus de Milo figures – was honored at the turn of the century. Harrison, in the early 1900’s stated: “What is the basis of that grace of outline and contour which makes a body pleasing and attractive to the sight instead of commonplace or ugly? The essence of beauty lies in internal well-being, wholesomeness and harmony. Beauty is the expression of physical excellence and purity, of health and clean blood, vitality and above all, efficiency. The more perfect a body and its condition, the more beautiful.”

During the 20th Century the idealized female form has changed many times. By the 1920’s when women were actively pursuing women’s rights, the idealized female form or image was slim. Fundamental changes in attitude with regard to women’s sexuality had also taken place. Most significant was the idea that women by their very nature were now considered sexual and they should show their sexuality by looking sexy. (Hynowitz, Weissman, 1978)

They had to wear make-up and the right clothing. The hair style of the 1920’s was the bobbed look, corsets were out, and breasts were bound to make women look flat chested, or more like men. Women were now insisting on comfort and freedom of movement in their clothing to match their increasing social freedom.

The womens’ movement of that time period that began as an attempt to liberate the sexuality of women ended with women seeing themselves and being seen by men as sexual objects. To be socially acceptable, to be attractive, to win a husband, to keep a husband, women had to look sexy, free and available. (Hynowitz, Weissman, 1978)

This philosophy carries over in part into today’s values.

By the 1940’s the image had changed again. With WWII in full swing, women had to be tough and strong again. It was not a time of levity in the history of our country. The men went to war and the women to work in the factories. When the war was over, women were returned to their homes and to another change in image.

The 1950’s are often times referred to as the “baby boom era”. One desirable image during this time period was the “womanly” body – ample, a body of substance, capable of great nurturing, motherly and fertile. Another image of this time was the ideal as represented by Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe – the voluptuous figure.

Moving on through the 1960’s and 1970’s the idealized image changed again. Twiggy and other fashion models replaced the “more female” figure. The idealized image was slim again. The similarity of women’s political activities in the 1920’s and the 1970’s is reflected in the idealized body image. When women demanded equal rights, the ideal became thinner and more boyish. (Sanford, Donovan, 1984)

The image of the 1980’s is varied. One ideal is similar to that of the turn of the 20th Century, where women are taking on a much healthier and stronger image. The interest and participation in sports is indicative of this. Another image currently popular is that of the voluptuous sex goddess, such as some of the more popular female movie and television actresses. Large breasts are admired with this particular idealized image. Pornographic magazines and films play to this idealized image. And lastly, the top fashion model image, boyish and skinny. (Sanford, Donovan, 1984)

No woman can strive for or live up to all three images at one time.

Our society promotes contradictory norms for female sexuality as well as female image. The media depicts women as sex objects. Schools and religion demand female chastity and a childlike asexual innocence. No wonder so many women respond to this conflict by becoming too fat or too thin; women starve or eat until their bodies and minds become too damaged to be sexually active at all. (Mickelson, 1984)

“Every society has a way of torturing its women, whether by binding their feet or sticking them into whalebone corsets that are too tight. What contemporary American culture has come up with are tubular designer jeans.” (Yager, 1983)


Idealized Body Image As An Obsession/Self-Oppression

The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Within the structure of that industry there is a great deal at stake to keep women hooked into the obsession about their beauty, their weight and their dieting practices. In fact, there are more health clubs, spas, diet books, diet supplements, diet foods, newspaper and magazine articles, and experts in the field of weight loss than ever before in the history of our country, and there is also more obesity than ever before. It seems that these obsessions have led to big money for the cosmetic and diet industries. The message delivered to women from the advertising industry is that we are not acceptable the way we are naturally.

“We must try to achieve the impossible, for without physical beauty, finding love and acceptance is hopeless; without physical perfection, we are worthless.” (Michelson, 1984)

We come to measure our worth not by our character, accomplishments, or intelligence, but by our body size and shape.

Diet industry billboards catch our eye at every corner with slogans such as “weight no more” or “waist away”. The industry itself really puts the hit on at certain times of the year, such as before and after holidays and in the spring time just before the summer months of bathing suit bodies making their debut. The diet industry reinforces a belief system that says that diets don’t work for permanent weight loss. They take the attitude or assume that you still have or again will have a weight problem and just want to let you know what’s new on the market to help you with your current weight problem. They never assume that you are able to remain thin after losing some weight. They know better. The best kept secret of the diet industry seems to be that diets don’t work (only as a temporary intervention, not as a permanent solution to the problem).

So what about diets. It is estimated that between 20-30% of the United States population are obese; meaning they weight significantly more than what is considered normal or ideal for their height and body frame. (Dranov, 1984)

At first it may seem odd that with all of the programs available for people to lose their excess weight that we are not a nation of slender, healthy people, but the problem lies in part with the available weight loss programs.

“Diets are the single biggest cause of obesity in this country today”. (Rodin, 1983)

Dieting can reduce the rate at which the body burns up food in a resting state by as much as 45%. And, to make matters worse, the metabolism doesn’t bounce back when the dieting stops. (Rodin, 1983)

Statistics show that less than 5% of the people who diet lose weight permanently. (Patton, 1984) Approximately 90 of every 100 pounds lost in this country is regained. (King, 1984)

The Washington Post reports that only one out of every two hundred loses all of their excess weight and keeps it off by dieting. (Schwartz, 1984)

The bottom line is that diets just don’t work to solve the problem of obesity. In fact, diets by their very nature are a temporary intervention. (Bruch, 1973)

After the person goes off of the diet, they return to their old habits and regain all of the weight back plus some. If the state of deprivation is imposed over a long enough period of time, it becomes a way of life. There is no safe method for rapidly losing a significant amount of fat and then keeping it off for even two years. (Wooley, 1984)

People want quick results though, and become impatient when they don’t lose weight immediately. Since weight is such a visible symptom, it is often conceived of as a measure of that individual’s success or failure. (Bruch, 1973)

One of the most serious consequences of dieting is that it causes people to think obsessively about food. (Patton, 1984)

Food becomes the enemy. On a diet there are “good” foods and “bad” foods. “Good” and “bad” are moral judgments. “Good” foods are low-calorie, dietetic foods that a person is supposed to eat to lose weight. “Bad” foods are high-calorie foods that are suppose to be fattening – “cheater’s foods” – foods to feel guilty about during and after eating them. These moral judgments of “good” and “bad” are then extended to the person eating the food. If you eat “good” foods, you are a “good” person and if you eat “bad” foods, you are a “bad” person. This is taking the statement “you are what you eat” entirely too literally.

Diets keep people a victim of food forever. (Arenson, 1984)

They reinforce the belief that food has the control and a great deal of power over peoples’ lives. Food can seem to call out, beckon, and its will must be done. The food must be consumed or else. And once the food gets into the body, it does its “dirty work” so to speak. And if the food just happens to be a food that is “forbidden” on the current diet program, feelings of guilt pour forth, along with a dialogue of negative self-talk about the lack of self control or willpower once again.

Diets keep us just like children. (Arenson, 1984)

They get us to give up our control over our food choices, time schedules, food likes and dislikes, eating habits and internal cues in exchange for the “ideal” dietary plan. The diet industry takes on the role of our parent – and a critical, demanding parent at that. Diets perpetuate a feeling of helplessness akin to childhood feelings. We are at the mercy of an industry who says they want to help us, yet we feel helpless while they get rich – at our expense.

Diets perpetuate deprivation and set people up to cheat. They don’t allow us (if we are to stick to the program) to eat the foods we enjoy. In fact, they teach us to hate the foods we love and to love the foods we hate. (Arenson, 1984)

When dieting, you are not allowed to eat according to your body’s needs or desires. This builds up a back log of deprivation that brings on a binge cycle. (Patton, 1984)

At that point you have become like a starving animal – starving for the desired food – and when you finally get it, you seem to go out of control with ecstasy and gorge yourself. (Patton, 1984)

In fact, the harder and more often you push down a desire, the stronger it becomes. You keep reinforcing the denial of the dietary need.

Denial of individual needs perpetuates a separation of mind ad body, yet the two are interrelated. We were all born with the right internal cues. As babies when we weren’t hungry, we would push the food away. If it didn’t agree with us, we wouldn’t force it down (like we do as adults), we would spit it up. As children, we refused to eat particular foods that didn’t appeal to us. We would pick at our food to get exactly what would please us. Perhaps we were even accused of being a “fussy eater”. We stopped eating when we were full or not hungry anymore with a simple statement like “I don’t want any more.” Other things in life were more important than food. If we had an important place to go, food could always wait. Living a full life, every moment, was more important than eating.

From early on in life we are trained to respond to external cues with regard to food. This promotes a lack of self-control and self-discipline, which is what dieting is all about. We are made to believe that we are powerless and need to be “other directed”. We are taught to eat at set times, according to the clock, not at hunger times. We are desensitized to our true food preferences and bodily sensations. Dieting encourages portion eating, which ties in with external cues rather than internal ones. We learn to eat according to what our eyes tell us rather than what our body says. But our body has the final say so because time and time again we experience the discomfort of our overindulgence. The expression “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” holds true when we let ourselves be dictated to by external cues.

Diets deal another blow in the area of self-esteem. We may feel completely in control and competent in all other areas of our life except with regard to food and weight. And because of the social push to conform to the idealized image and/or lifestyle, we end up feeling totally incompetent as people. (Arenson, 1984)

Yes, diets cannot afford to work permanently. If they did, everyone would go on just one diet, get thin, and the weight loss craze would be over. But the great thing about diets, from the diet industry’s vantage point, is that for anything and everything that a person can or cannot eat, a diet can be created. The history of diets bears that statement out. And there will continue to be new diets developed, new ways to combine food for a temporary weight loss, and mass consumption of diet industry products as long as the diet mentality is alive.

And alive it will stay. New hope is born with each new diet that is published that this will be the one, the answer we have all been waiting for. But it never comes and it never will – not in the form of a diet, that is. The diet industry banks its money on that reality – both figuratively and literally. There is alot of money at stake, and alot more to be made by perpetuating a lie, and an unrealistic ideal for women to strive for. And then after awhile the ideal will change, a little or alot, just to keep the public consuming. We will continue to play our role in this charade it seems because we have been conditioned, at great expense, to do so.

But what of the negative consequences to both the individual woman, as well as society, for all of this obsessing? As discussed previously, women have resorted to extreme measures in the past to conform to the social ideal of their times. Some women surgically had their lower ribs removed in order to be corseted into the proper shape and fit the social ideal. (Hynowitz, Weissman, 1978)

Today it’s not ribs we remove but fat. We attempt to melt it away with chemicals applied to the skin’s surface, we exercise strenuously to burn it out of our bodies, we go to have the excess fat sucked out of areas that displease us by their appearance, we get the fat surgically removed, cut away, and have ourselves stitched back up again. We also get plastic surgery to increase, lift, or reduce the size of our breasts, to tuck away excess skin on the face or other body areas, get noses reshaped and jawlines redefined. We dye our hair, pluck our eyebrows, shave or wax our legs, wear high heeled shoes to cripple our feet, long nails that keep us from using our hands freely, make-up to enhance what we are convinced must be natural ugliness, perfume to cover our natural scent, tight clothes to cause us vaginal infections – all in the name of femininity. (Orbach, Eichenbaum, 1983)

According to Norris (1978), “body image is the ever-changing total of conscious and unconscious information, perceptions and feelings about one’s body as different and apart from all others. It is a social creation, developed through reflected perceptions of the surface of one’s body, investments one makes in parts or the whole of the body and responses to sensations originating at the inner regions of the body as the individual experiences a kaleidoscopic variety of activities.

The body image is basic to identity and has been referred to as the somatic ego.” Bard and Sutherland (1955) found evidence that for some women, self-worth and self-acceptance were predicated on body attractiveness throughout their lives.

A principle reason so many women perceive their bodies as problems is that we live in a culture that says women must be beautiful to be worthy, and then sets up standards for female beauty that are not only impossible for most women to live up to, but are unhealthy as well. (Donovan, Sanford, 1984)

Our images of womanhood are almost synonymous with thinness. (Orbach, 1983)

Fashion lets us know what our culture expects us to be, or to become, or to struggle to become, in order to be acceptable to it, thereby exercising a devastating power over our lives on a daily basis. The image of women that appears in the advertisement of a daily newspaper has the power to damage a woman’s health, destroy her sense of well-being, break her pride in herself, and subvert her ability to accept herself as a woman. (Chernin, 1981)

According to fashion, large size, maturity, voluptuousness, massiveness, strength and power are not permitted if we wish to conform to our culture’s current ideal. (Chernin, 1981) “It is now fashionable to be thin, but if it were fashionable to be fat, women would force-feed themselves like geese, just as girls in primitive societies used to stuff themselves because the fattest girl was the most beautiful. If the eighteen inch waist should ever become fashionable again, women would suffer the tortures of tight lacing, convinced that though one dislocated one’s kidneys, crushed one’s liver , and turned green, beauty was worth it all.” (Una Stannard – Chernin, 1981)

No matter what the historical period, the common denominator for women has been to conform. (Boskind-White, White, 1983)

Women attempt to conform to what others find pleasing and attractive and also what she perceives them to consider pleasing and attractive. (Orbach, 1983) Women are made to believe their body is not satisfactory as it is. (Orbach, 1983) This fact keeps women “off balance”, in a constant state of confusion.

Again, we can look to the diet industry as well as the advertising media for insight. The diet industry became big business when Twiggy appeared on the fashion scene. (Boskind-White, White, 1983) Young women came to believe that if they could conform to the ideal, and be perfect in body, life’s major problems would magically disappear. (Boskind-White, White, 1983)

The television and printed word advertisers are at us constantly with the message to conform. They provide visual reinforcement of our role in society and play on our psychological side for a need for approval, acceptance and a sense of belonging. What a group to belong to. Images of idealized female role models are flaunted at us and we are told they are the ideals to strive for. And oddly enough, we as females sometimes attempt to keep each other in check.

Women tend to judge their bodies on a part-by-part basis. (Shontz, 1963)

The media advertisers teach us this way of analyzing ourselves. The media uses “parts” of women to advertise a product, whereas men are used in their entirety. (Sanford, Donovan, 1984)

A women’s hands, legs, breasts, waist, buttocks or lips, for example, are used rather than the entire woman and women learn from the media to analyze, accept or reject more often their individual parts rather than seeing themselves as a whole person. Within western society at the current time, the image of the beautiful female is one who is thin (Goldblatt, Moore and Stuckard, 1974) and perfect in every part.

Being thin, or more particularly, not being obese, is culturally desirable in our society. There are adverse social reactions toward obesity. Obesity is a social liability which obviously must influence the values and lifestyles of the individuals so afflicted. (Jupp, Collins, McCabe, Waker, Diment, 1983)

Fat symbolizes power in a man, never in a woman – it symbolizes inferiority and worthlessness. (Donovan, Sanford, 1984) And even if a woman does have the looks of the cultural ideal, she must still cope with the fact that she will not fit the ideal forever. (Donovan, Sanford, 1984)

“Fear of fat grips America by its most tender part: its moral code. Fat, in short, is seen as bad, and thin is good. Preoccupied as people are with food and dieting, fat people and thin people alike seem to share the notion that fatness means a loss of self-control – considered the ultimate moral failure in our culture, and perhaps the most frightening of all fears.” (Mackenzie, 1984)

We are a culture nearly addicted to individual control. “The stress associated with shame and discrimination may have more to do with the pathology attributed to fatness in our society than to the mechanical fact of the fat itself.” (Mackenzie, 1984)

Women who focus so much of their attention on how they hate their bodies, also tend to separate their bodies from their person as if they are not one in the same. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

This act of depersonalization is common among the weight conscious. The face becomes the identity rather than the entire person. Worrying about dieting, worrying about being skinny or fat, is just a smoke screen. The real issue has to do with how you feel about yourself. (Bruch, 1973)

Waxler and Liska (1975) defined body image as the conceptualization of one’s body structure and its functions that grew out of an awareness of the self and one’s body in interrelated actions. The body concept includes perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions which the ego has in reference to its own body.

An archaic self-image/body-image is a residual from the past. As long as we cling to it, it does not allow for choice in the present moment. Every time some portion of the old image is remembered, feelings, thoughts, and behavior are influenced to some degree. Our past has been transported to the present. Our outward expressions are guided by this old image.

It is not what a woman is that holds her back, it is what she thinks she is not. This type of thinking does not let new possibilities present themselves. They get rejected because the individual believes that they are not that type of person.

When a person changes their self-image, their personality and behavior follow. (Waitley, 1984)

There are alot of old associations stored away in the mind which influence us constantly – unless we change them. We cannot exceed the limits of our current self-image, so we must first open the door to see ourselves differently so new possibilities may enter. Unfortunately, we generally behave as we think others expect us to. This protects us from our own fears of what we would inflict on the other person by not doing what they expected us to; i.e., embarrassment, rejection, etc. These fears are old haunts from the past and it is necessary to put them aside in order to please or satisfy one’s own needs.

Self-image is the set of beliefs and image we all have and hold to be true of ourselves. (Donovan, Sanford, 1984)

If we as women continue to believe that we deserve no better than second-class, or a second-rate life, then that is all we will ever have. We must believe we are worth more to give ourselves more and thus have more.

Self-esteem is the sum total of all that a person feels about himself/herself. (Schain, 1980)

This includes four major aspects: (1) the body self: which has a functional (what can I do?) and an aesthetic (how do I look?) subfactor; (2) the interpersonal self: which is comprised of both social and acquaintance relations as well as intimate, sexual interactions; (3) the achieving self: which contains elements of work or competition efforts such as career or school behavior; and (4) the identification self: which is comprised of those attitudes and behaviors which are related to spiritual, ethical or ethnic matters.

Genuine self-esteem is how you feel about yourself privately, not whether you can put up a good front or accumulate wealth and status. (Briggs, 1970)

Self-esteem is the measure of how much we like and approve of our self-concept. Self-esteem is the relationship you have with yourself. It is the integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect. It is the conviction that one is competent and worthy of living. (Branden, 1981)

With low self-esteem and a poor body-image or self-concept, a feeling of helplessness can set in. Stotland (1969) states that a person who has “failed in a variety of tasks is less likely to raise his level of aspiration on a new task after a success than a person who has failed on only one.” That person has “developed a higher level of hopelessness” and is “therefore less influenced by success.”

Webster’s dictionary defines self-esteem as having “confidence and satisfaction in oneself – having a good opinion of oneself – self-worth, self-respect”. Obesity promotes low self-esteem and as a result, life is put on hold. The fantasy that “life begins when I get thin” is just that, a fantasy. Life is now, every moment. There are no time outs. Low self-esteem only increased the amount of deprivation a woman forces herself to accept.


The following Declaration of Self-Esteem by Virginia Satir, would do well to be integrated into the belief systems of all people – women in particular.

I am me.

In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. There are persons who have some parts like me, but no one adds up exactly like me. Therefore, everything that comes out of me is authentically mine because I alone chose it.

I own everything about me – my body, including everything it does; my mind, including all its thoughts and ideas; my eyes, including the images of all they behold; my feelings, whatever they may be – anger, joy, frustration, love, disappointment, excitement; my mouth, and all the words that come out of it, polite, sweet or rough, correct or incorrect; my voice, loud or soft; and all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself.

I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears.

I own all my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes.

Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing I can love me and be friendly with me in all my parts. I can then make it possible for all of me to work in my best interests.

I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know. But as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for the solutions to the puzzles and for ways to find out more about me.

However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is me. This is authentic and represents where I am at that moment in time.

When I review later how I looked and sounded, what I said and did, and how I thought and felt, some parts may turn out to be unfitting. I can discard that which is unfitting, and keep that which proved fitting, and invent something new for that which discarded.

I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me.

I own me, and therefore I can engineer me.

I am me and I am okay.


Further consequences to women as a result of the current idealized body image obsession is the self-oppression suffered by the bulimics, the anorexics, and the women who use food and/or fat in place of being able to cope with life.

In our society, where a woman is the caretaker or nurturer of others’ needs, by and large her own needs remain unfulfilled. Under these conditions many women often turn to food, either to repress their needs or to comfort themselves in some way. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

Food is able to serve this purpose or meet these needs, in a symbolic way, because of the power that has been invested in the food itself.

We allow food to serve as a reward to us. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

This may have started innocently enough when we were babies and we walked/talked and were rewarded with food. Once in school there were snacks for us after school because we had had a long day and worked hard. As adults this reward system could now extend itself to jobs, careers, housework, errands, etc. We tell ourselves internally that we deserve to eat (which we do) and that we earned it (which is questionable). Did we only perform in order to get the reward of food? Or was the act we performed meaningful in and of itself?

And since food can be used as a reward, it can also be used as a punishment. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

We can not allow ourselves to eat foods we truly enjoy (thereby punishing ourselves) or we can eat the foods that we truly desire, but since we believe that these foods will make us fat, this is a means of punishing ourselves with the end result.

Eating is a great way to procrastinate. Even thinking about food takes up time. One could choose to do something else other than the thing one is procrastinating about, but that would not be as rewarding. One could choose to do nothing and accomplish the procrastination just as well. However, this leaves time open to get bored, which is another way compulsive eaters use food – to fill the boredom or emptiness. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

Eating takes up time and nurtures a woman when she believes no one else will or could.

Food can also serve as an anesthetizer, to numb intense feelings or stifle feelings that we do not want to experience or are afraid of. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

This use of food does not give us an opportunity to grow. Food is used as a block to risking, and without risk there is no change, no progressing. Risking is moving from a known to an unknown in search of a new known – perhaps a better known. Food, when used to stifle feelings, does not allow them to surface and be examined. You have to move through your thoughts and feelings to get to the other side.

And lastly, we can buy into the current dream that life can begin when we get thin, and since we aren’t thin, we can indulge ourselves in food to take our mind off of the real issues we need to be dealing with. We become obsessed with food and eating to the exclusion of almost anything and everything else.

The use of fat is equally as creative. It can be used as a means of maintaining the status quo (I can’t change anything until I’m thin). (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

But these women have the story backwards. For things to change (meaning them), they have to change. (Rohn, 1978)

Things in life will change, but not for the individual so long as they don’t change themself. You have to take action to make things different.

Fat can also be used as an excuse. If a woman sees her fat as an excuse then she can use it that way with a clear conscience, and believe herself. She can validate that she is not in a relationship because she is fat. Who would want someone like her? And if someone did, she certainly wouldn’t want someone who would want her the way she is. It becomes a vicious cycle of excuses. The excuse can function as an extension of a fear. The fear of failing, succeeding, of rejection can all be excused with fat (if one chooses). (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

Fat can serve as a form of rebellion or communication. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

It can definitely communicate that the woman does not choose to conform to the social ideal (nor should she be made to feel that she has to). Fat can communicate pain and/or anger that the woman does not know how to communicate otherwise.

In our society men have power by size and a woman may choose to be acknowledged by her size to feel that she has more power also. This would serve to counter, in her mind, the current belief that women should take up less space, thereby getting smaller and smaller in size.

And what better way to protect oneself than inside a fortress of fat? Fat can work to isolate, insulate – whatever the need might be. It can serve to protect us from our own fears – sexuality, relationships, commitments, risking, growth, change, unknowns, life and more. But it is very important to remember that the only reason that food and fat can accomplish what they do (symbolically speaking that is), is because we empower them to do so. It is our belief in the power of food or fat that protects us, not the food or fat. Just as it is our belief in ourself that can set us free.

Our societal obsession with food, eating and body image is masochistic. (Shainess, 1984)

Even as we eat our food, we inflict verbal or mental abuse on ourself for doing so. Our eating disorders are primitive manifestations of masochism, expressions of self-hate and self-punishment, that have crystallized around the issue of eating. (Shainess, 1984)

Anorexia nervosa is voluntary self-starvation to the point of losing 25% of body weight, which sometimes leads to death. (Arenson, 1984) An anorexic is someone who chooses to starve herself. Her focus on controlling food intake is a cover-up for feeling powerless and ineffective in other areas of her life. Anorexics suffer from major body image distortions and inaccurate sensing and interpreting of bodily sensations. (Bruch, 1973)

According to Levenkron (1982) the following are the psychological symptoms of an anorexic: (1) phobias concerning changes in bodily appearance; (2) obsessive thinking about food intake; (3) obsessive-compulsive rituals; (4) feelings of inferiority about self and aspects thereof; (5) all or nothing thinking and behavior; (6) disinterest in sexual activities; (7) denial of reality with delusional thinking about visual input.

Modern western societies place definite expectations and prohibitions on women’s activities. (Orbach, 1983)

Women are expected to be petite, giving, passive, nurturing, understanding, loving and attractive. They are discouraged from being assertive, active, competitive and unattractive.

If the female stays thin and doesn’t resemble a “real woman”, she doesn’t take on the social responsibility of her role to love, care for and nurture others. Being frail gets you looked after, cared for and you don’t have to return the attention. Anorexics feel compelled to do extremely well, to excel at everything. They are perfectionists. They keep going at all costs. Perhaps these women are attempting to give themselves a broader definition than the female social role of our society allows. (Orbach, 1983)

Women are taught it is right to put ourselves last, even though such behavior may compromise our health. (Steinem, 1980)

Anorexics are struggling for control because they feel so out of control in all other areas of life except the body. There is a great sense of power and control in being able to stop bodily changes. And since they are also meeting the social ideal, in a manner of speaking, there are positive strokes to be gained for female compliance in this social structure.

Hunger is a physiological as well as a psychological experience. (Bruch, 1973)

So when the anorexic starves herself, she is using the avoidance of food to punish herself on two planes.

Bulimia often starts out as a way of “having your cake and eating it too”. (Arenson, 1984)

A bulimic is involved in the binge/purge cycle, whether it be by way of self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics or in some cases excessive exercise. The bulimic has low self-esteem and relies on others’ opinions to validate her self-worth. (Boskind-Lodahl, 1977)

Bulimia is not a physical disorder as with anorexia. It is a group of behaviors that become an obsession for the sufferer. (Arenson, 1984)

Characteristics of bulimic behavior are recurrent binges (large quantities of food consumed in a very short period of time); sneak eating; self-induced purging; repeatedly attempting to lose weight by way of excessive and strict dieting, vomiting, laxatives, diuretics; frequent fluctuation of weight due to binge/fast cycles; depression and self-hate as a result of obsession; preoccupation with exercise as a means of weight control; intense fear of being or becoming fat. (Arenson, 1984)

What differentiates bulimics from others who binge eat is the purge. (Arenson, 1984)

The bulimic does not allow the food to be assimilated into her system for fear of becoming fat. All of this attention to the rituals of food and eating as with the anorexic, is a way to avoid confronting issues in life the individual feels out of control with. We all tend to nibble a little when we get nervous, however, the bulimic has a good orgy and then purges themself of the food as a purification rite, to cleanse themself of the self-hate and self-loathing that they feel so they can gain control again. (Dranov, 1984)

Bulimics are afraid to stop purging least they get fat.

The largest handicap for bulimics is their low self-esteem. The constant flow of verbal/mental self-abuse (self-oppression) over their imperfection is typical of bulimic behavior. Constant exposure to the media ideas reinforces in the bulimic’s mind her lack of perfection – lack of control over food. She may believe that all men want perfection and thin is perfect, and until she has perfect control over her perfectly thin body, she is unworthy, unfit, and undesirable. It takes time, but the anxiety/depression felt by the bulimic can be dealt with effectively in the therapeutic setting as well as changing the negative behavior and dealing with feelings that have been suppressed. (Dranov, 1984)

Compulsive eaters use food as a constant coping mechanism, independent of biological hunger. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

They binge, eating alot of food in a short period of time; sometimes eat secretly, are a compulsive weight watcher and dieter, have frequent weight fluctuations, mood swings based on weight, depression and self-hate. (Arenson, 1984)

Bulimics have a fear of becoming fat, while compulsive overeaters fear becoming thin (although that may only be known to their subconscious). They make weight loss the number-one problem in their life and the primary arena of attention. “It’s alot safer and more comfortable to obsess about weight, fat and food than it is to deal with the real stuff of life.” (Haber, 1978)

Weight is being used as a shield to protect them from what they fear. Whether the fears are of starvation, sexuality, a new job situation, dating and relationships, career choices, family issues or just life itself, the weight may be serving the purpose of insulating them from those fears, from feeling, and thus avoiding personal growth and change. As soon as they understand these issues underlying their weight problem, women can see that their extra weight is just that – extra weight – not something that disqualifies them from enjoying life. That’s when the weight can be lost. (Haber, 1978)

Most compulsive eaters relate to themselves from the neck up. Their bodies are disowned, alienated, foreign – but not a part of the real self. But even though the body is despised, women are obsessed with perfecting its shape and size. The alienation of the fat body from the self is reflected in the aphorism, “Trapped inside every fat person is a thin person trying to get out.” The body is a source of pleasure only in the act of doing the very thing, eating, that creates the alienation. (Millman, 1980)

Compulsive overeaters are also not in touch with their body messages of hunger and satisfaction. Dieting has taught them deprivation and when they’re deprived for prolonged periods of time, they naturally rebel and binge. Within a short period of time this becomes a way of life.

The “thinness fantasy” is way oversold in our society, particularly to women. It is suggested that when you are thin, your life will work. That all of this struggling is going to be worth it because when you gain control over your body and your weight, your whole life will come together. Trying to live up to the fantasy is so difficult. And, with the expectations that women learn to attach to their weight loss, if those wonderful events don’t take place, frustration sets in and they revert right back to the old habits, comfortably nestled in the safety of their excess weight.

So, the truth of the matter is that the fantasy just doesn’t exist. Losing weight means losing weight; it doesn’t mean changing your life. (Greenfield, 1983)

A woman’s life will only work when she makes it work and not a moment sooner. It’s the inner motivation for achievement that makes the difference.

As has been discussed, anorexics, bulimics and compulsive overeaters all deal with food and fat a little differently. Anorexics become obsessed with food intake and body control to the point of severe illness and perhaps even death. Bulimics alternate between gorging and purging to attempt to meet the social ideal of “having their cake and eating it too”. Compulsive overeaters use food to cope with life’s problems or as an accompaniment to life events. None of these are appropriate behaviors in that they side step the real problem issues in lieu of a surrogate problem to obsess on. The bottom line is that obsessing about food, fat and weight is a complete waste of time.

Perhaps our quest for thinness is a kind of self-mockery of the experience of being a woman, since it demonstrates the physical discomfort, self-denial and self-sacrifice required in the conventional female role. (Millman, 1980)

Women have been socialized to be second-class citizens. We have learned to submit to the will of others and to perpetuate our own misery by living in fear that we would somehow offend someone if we were to stand up for ourself. (Shainess, 1984)

If this is so, we have delivered the bondage to our own doorsteps.

The primary symptoms of masochistic behavior are: self-doubt, fear of authority, a terrible desire for approval, fear of abandonment, feelings of humiliation and guilt. (Shainess, 1984)

It is no wonder that fat is, generally speaking, a feminist issue. We are prime candidates for jumping on the band wagon of our media’s message to conform to the current idealized slender image. As expressed before, there are positive payoffs to the female in our society who complies with its ideals.

But what of the backlash suffered as a result of that compliance? Because of the limited arenas made available to women in which they can achieve recognition or compete, they become obsessive in an area which they can control – their bodies. They strive to be the most attractive, polite, sexy, youthful, slender of women. They compete against other women as well as themselves. Women’s insecurity keeps her in a constant state of dissatisfaction – forever needing to improve on a good thing.

Compliments are near impossible to accept, and if one is extended, the woman will generally call fault to some other area of her life in which she comes up short. This sets up a dichotomy in that the woman is striving for the recognition but doesn’t feel that she deserves it when it arrives.

So, what better way to play into this nature than with dieting. Obsessing about food and fat gives us a place to invest any masochistic tendencies we may have, and at the same time avoid the underlying reasons for those tendencies. By dieting we can receive the approval of others because we are doing “the right thing” in confronting our weight problem. Our real problems are totally ignored. Socially speaking, dieting shows the world we don’t want to have a weight problem. It’s just that diets don’t work for permanent weight loss and so we must continually prove our desire to be thinner by always dieting. It’s a vicious cycle.

Diets force a person (by their own choice) to be things they may never choose to do in other areas of their life. Forced feedings, forced starvation, tasteless foods, small quantities, regimented feedings – all of this we do because someone else tells us to, with the promise of success on our part if we just do what they say. We are totally ignoring the best authority, which is our own body. It is only natural to rebel against such deprivation and limitations. That’s one of the reasons why people fail to stay on their diet, and cheat, and feel guilty. It’s all built right into the system. First you try to conform but you feel deprived so you cheat (which is actually becoming true to your own needs) but you feel guilty about not sticking to the plan and so you binge to feel better (self-punishment/self-reward). Then you feel guilty over the bingeing and so you have to go on a diet again. All of this failure stems from a failure to confirm to others ideas or rules (which one obviously chooses not to). We ourselves are not failures, although we tend to believe otherwise. So, our fears, our guilt, our need for approval drive us to attempt to conform to the social norm. (Shainess, 1984)

But, with all of this conforming, what are women conforming to? The social ideal is definitely not what’s best for the individual woman.

As stated earlier (Connally, 1903) “if all women should decide not to wear corsets nothing would be thought of it.”

He is alluding to the power that women have but don’t acknowledge or utilize. If all women were to establish their own ideal body images, what would be thought of it? Perhaps we are afraid of taking that power in light of our being socialized as the “weaker sex”.

If we as women obsessively buy into (as we have) the ideals of our society, we are falling to the whims and desires of others. Who is to say what will be demanded of us next.

Perhaps we conform out of a fear of what will happen to us if we don’t. But when we are filled with such self-doubt about our body image or personal achievements, it is easy to become the victim of others’ control. If women would band together for the common purpose, they could put an end to this idealized obsession. It must end somewhere, some time soon, because people are dying in the pursuit of conformity.

A woman’s self-image is the very foundation of her personality, and hence, she acts like the sort of person she thinks and believes she is.

Napoleon Hill states “whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

We are all products of our thoughts. The choices we make are in accordance with those thoughts and our current self-image. If we believe that we need to be punished because we are somehow had, unworthy, imperfect, we will continue to do so. We oppress ourselves.

We all play roles during our lifetime and roles have built-in limitations. Playing the role of a self oppressive individual as discussed in this paper; there are certain behaviors and beliefs a woman must manifest in order to perpetuate that role. She must believe that self-deprivation is for her own good and that all of the suffering will be worth it in the end. However, the suffering never ends. She continues to feel dissatisfied with herself, her body, and hate its imperfections.

Women have to learn to stop judging themselves by their body size. This is just a cover for the real underlying problems being experienced by the woman. Freedom from the obsession with idealized body image lies in the identification and acceptance of the problem. It is important for women to identify those aspects of their lives that are unfulfilled, so that rather than continuing to avoid those issues, they begin to see options that are available to them. (Hooker, Convisser, 1983)

A therapy approach that seems valuable is one that allows women to discover their own abilities and inner capacities for thinking and feeling. (Bruch, 1973)

One of the greatest gifts that a woman can give herself, if she has not already done so, is to accept herself unconditionally for who and what she is. This gives her a place to start her process of change if she so desires. If she negates who and what she is, or what she looks like, what resources does she have to work with? We must have a starting place, and that is exactly where we are right now.

It is important to love ourselves, our bodies just because they exist. We deserve all of the good things life has to offer, without having to perform for any of them. We are deserving individuals by our very existence.

People whose lives are full do not use food to fill them. They feed themselves with worthwhile goals and exciting activities. They nourish themselves with positive relationships and a positive attitude toward life itself. In fact, accomplishments seem to reduce the tendency toward self-criticism. (Wooley, 1984)

If a woman is unhappy with her body size/shape, and it keeps her from actively participating in life, she has given away her power to her body to make her feel unhappy. That is another way to keep the pattern of self-abuse going. There is no single standard of what is right or beautiful where bodies are concerned. Bodies have traveled the road from rotund to slender, with many changes in-between. And since beauty is subjective, every body can be and is beautiful, we have only to see it that way.

(Listing of References available on request)

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