Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Attitudes to female appearance and body stereotyping: what can women do?

In my first blog on women in sport, I suggested that attitudes to female appearance and body stereotyping present barriers to girls’ acceptance in sport on their own terms. What I didn’t do was consider what women ought to do about appearance/body stereotyping in general.

Perhaps, we could begin by finding a vision to inspire us all? Personally, I’m inspired by the simple ideal espoused by singer and actress, Ariana Grande. In a tweet two years ago, Grande expressed frustration at the continual media focus on issues like her appearance, the boy she might be dating and what she saw as an ever present misogyny in the American film and music business. Her longing was for a world where every woman would be far more valued for their personal accomplishments and who they are as individuals. Who could argue with that?

The only question, then, is how women get themselves there. Perhaps the answer lies in more and more women, as a collective, forcing change by resisting gender stereotyping from cradle to grave? Many feminists, for example, claim that individuals, almost from birth, undergo a process of socialisation through which they are taught “gender appropriate” behaviours, attitudes, roles and activities. According to this theory, girls are generally conditioned to value appearance, while boys are encouraged to value strength and material success. This is revealed in the toys girls and boys play with: the Barbie doll vs. the action figure (or, as feminists might see it, the pretty girl vs. the strong man). Such toys, coupled with parent encouragement, subtly teach girls that their most important attribute is their appearance.

For many feminists, therefore, the notion that girls are normally interested in appearance and boys are strong and competitive is not natural. It is instead artificially inculcated from birth. To feminists, this gender socialisation undermines the natural individuality of both girls and boys. Thus, as girls grow into women, they are encouraged to believe that they will be more widely accepted when their physical appearance conforms to what society values. Since, as feminism argues, we live in a patriarchal society, the valued female appearance and body type is shaped by the contemporary preferences of heterosexual men. This “ideal” is then propagandised through the media and popular culture. The consequences of such valuation, feminists often maintain, is that women, whose appearance does not conform to patriarchal preferences, are more likely to be marginalised and to struggle to earn public acceptance.

For some, the best way for women to overcome appearance and body stereotyping is through what is popularly known as ‘body positivism’. “Embrace”, a Netflix documentary directed by body positivity activist, Taryn Brumfitt, suggests that women, are culturally conditioned to hate their bodies, and that their approximation to beauty is far too often allowed to define their social value. The body positivity movement seeks to challenge this by encouraging women to learn instead to “love their bodies”. Body positivism is not an expressly “feminist” movement and not all the women featured in “Embrace” would necessarily identify as feminists. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice the clear parallels between feminist and body positivity gender conditioning theory. Could this, then, be the action women need to take to break down gender stereotyping and attain the Ariana Grande vision of being valued for her personal accomplishments and who she is as an individual?

Perhaps or perhaps not. I would contend that the modelling industry ought to be regarded as the common arch-enemy of both the feminist and body positivity movements. This is because it is a leading propagator of female body stereotyping in magazines and on TV. Body positivism is rightly critical of the modelling industry for that reason. Yet its attempts to “change the face” of modelling to bring it more into line with the values of the body positivity movement have been, at best, feeble.

In ‘Embrace’, Brumfitt interviews Mia Freedman, former editor of women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, who describes some of the barriers she encountered during her quest to diversify the female body images used in her publication. Freedman banned diets and tried to include more women of different races and body shapes. However, retail brands refused to provide clothes for her non-stereotypical models because they didn’t want anyone bigger than a size 8 (AUS) associated with their products. Photographers and makeup artists also refused to take part in shoots on the same basis.

For me, the obvious conclusion from the Cosmopolitan story is that body positivism’s idea that women can successfully overcome female body stereotyping by learning to love their bodies is wrong headed. Sorry body positivity, but that is not, I believe, what women primarily need to do. What women need to do first is to recognise that the problem here is not their attitude, rather it is the attitude of society as a whole. Therefore, it is society that needs to change, not women. Society should instead be encouraged to ‘embrace’, from cradle to grave, the Ariana Grande vision. All parts of society must learn to respect every girl’s (and boy’s) individuality. It should never be allowed to compress children psychologically into standard, stereotyped gender roles that are, more often than not, entirely unnatural to them as separate and unique human beings.

This, to me, is what feminism is all about. And it is only when society is fully altered through feminism that women will truly become more ‘body positive’. Feminism therefore, to me, is exactly what women ought to do about appearance/body stereotyping and is the true path to the Ariana Grande vision.


B. Williams said...

Great blog, Aoife! I do feel like the body positivity movement is helpful in changing how young girls perceive their own bodies. I think it's especially effective on social media where the gatekeeping effect of the traditional advertising/modeling industries are somewhat diluted. Despite the presence of toxic imagery and messages (#thighgap, anyone?) social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr allow body-positivity icons -- not just the "traditional" bombshells like Ashley Graham and Iskra Lawrence -- to have a strong presence. I am thinking, for example of Jessamyn Stanley, Gabi Gregg, and Tess Holliday.

While the body positivity movement encourages women to look inward and practice self-acceptance, I do think the effects of the movement ripple outward. I know that it certainly gives me a self-confidence boost to see non-traditional body types rocking swimsuits or other cute outfits on the Instagram accounts that I follow. I also think it helps popularize and create a bigger market for brands/retailers that produce products for women who aren't size 0-12, which I think is a step in the right direction (

Suzanne Connell said...


I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on how women can combat the omnipresent weight of judgment on their physiques, an aspect of womanhood I believe no woman is able to navigate entirely unscathed. I was particularly interested by your labelling of the modelling industry as the "common arch-enemy of both the feminist and body positivity movements". I agree with your sentiments in that I also believe that the modelling industry has encouraged an acceptance of unattainable body standards for women, that more often than not imperil the lives of these women who embark upon a career in this industry. It got me thinking about the role of the legislature, if there is any, in regulating and policing the fashion industry, which is apparently worth a staggering $3 trillion dollars to the global economy.

France, particularly Paris, often viewed as the birthplace of fashion and the cradle of couture, has recently enacted laws to help target the rampant eating disorders in the modelling industry that have been borne out of the pressures society have placed on what the "ideal" should look like. Models are now required to have a medical certificate, valid for up to two years, confirming their general physical well-being and the fact they are not excessively underweight. In a separate vein, any "commercial" image of a model who's appearance has been digitally altered or otherwise will have to be expressly labelled so, with fines of up to €37,500 for those who do not disclose this. Employing a model that does not conform with the new health criteria also carries a fine of up to €75,000 and six months in jail.

While these legislative measures taken by France are a step in the right direction, culturally there needs to be a huge shift in the direction of accepting the unadulterated female form.

Joterias! said...

Great blog post! You’re right: the problem isn’t just how women see themselves, but, more importantly, how society compels women to see themselves. I see the body-positive movement in more positive terms than you, however. I think that by encouraging individuals to embrace their bodies without regard to other images as reference points, the body-positive movement undermines standards of beauty propagated by mass media. Thus, the body-positive movement’s immediate concern is reorienting how society compels women/individuals to see themselves for the better. Personally, I’m delighted that my godchildren are growing up with ads that feature more diverse bodies and elicit “hey, I look like that!” responses, rather than “why don’t I look like that?” responses.

On a related note, men also experience body-image issues related to societal expectations about how men are supposed to look. There’s little room for fat, short men in mainstream media or for men who lack a certain “look,” for example—a few months ago that look was the “lumbersexual,” and before then the “metrosexual.” (see Additionally, as the male body is increasingly exposed and objectified in mass media, more men are experiencing insecurities related to, for example, appearing physically fit. (see Given that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number of men who self-identify as having body-image problems soon converges with that of women who self-identify as having body-image problems.

K. Russell said...

I agree that the notion of being aesthetically pleasing is indoctrinated into women from birth. When looking at the impact the media, pop culture, and societal expectations on women has changed over the years, it becomes clearer how profound of an effect it is.

I most strongly agree with Taryn Brumfitt that women culturally conditioned to hate their bodies. This reminds me of a study that found that the number of women with eating disorders sharply increased on the island of Fiji after they were introduced to the western media.

In Fiji, after Western television became available on the island, the number of girls with eating disorders went from almost 0 to extremely prevalent.

To me, this itself proves how women in the US are taught from infancy to hate their bodies. To be able to change the attitudes of an entire of island of girls about their bodies in just a few years shows how impactful and dangerous the media is to women.

I agree with you that it is not women who need to change in order to combat this, it is society. It is extremely hard as a women to decide to love your appearance and body in the face of a constant barrage telling you otherwise.