The Time Has Come
Tannis Hugill MA, RCC, RDT, ADTR
Ideals of beauty are a part of every culture. If we look at images throughout Western History alone, we can see these ideals change according to what is valued and needed by the culture’s world view. Historically, women’s bodies have been the primary images representing human beauty. Women have long been valued mainly for pleasure, adornment, and procreation. Often a culture’s ideals oppress the body. This is true of our era where the oppression of women and the cult of thinness are linked to the objectification of all living bodies. We live in a society that emphasizes the surface, not the substance of the human being. After over 25 years of feminism, women’s’ self-image, as well as social and economic success are still largely determined by their looks.
Standards of beauty and fashion are often intertwined. How we choose to dress is a complex cultural phenomenon, an art in which we create ourselves, participating in cultural norms of acceptance and self-expression. An essential part of being human, this helps us to connect, while affirming our differences.
Slenderness came into fashion in North America and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, manifesting the esthetic of modern mechanization, and coinciding with the increasing freedom of women. Fat phobia began after World War II, when the health industry and insurance companies began to persuade Americans to loose weight, and has intensified throughout the century. Weight loss techniques proliferated, the fitness craze developed, and plastic surgery expanded. The bare-boned adolescent image of Twiggy appeared in the 1960’s. Now fashion models weigh 25% less than the average woman – a diagnostic criteria of anorexia nervosa. In 1950’s models weighed 4% less. The current fascination with altering the body is poignantly demonstrated by the popularity of TV shows like “Extreme Make-over.”
Weight prejudice in this culture is rampant and not significantly challenged. Fatism is as damaging as sexism, or racism. The corporate world, advertising world, cosmetic world, diet industry and cosmetic surgery industry have huge amounts of money invested in deluding us into starving, cutting and mutilating our bodies. In this environment where normal weight women are considered overweight or ‘fat’, it is no wonder that so many women and girls have the negative body image and chronic low self-esteem that leads to eating disorders. Simultaneously, more and more people are poorly nourished with fast foods and obesity is on the rise, causing a new wave of fat phobia. The pressure to be thin is now affecting men. One in ten who present with eating disorders now are men and boys.
Though obviously damaging, it is socially, even morally, acceptable to support our life -denying standards of beauty. The mandate to be ultra thin is everywhere: in magazines, newspapers, billboards, movies, stores, and on TV. The cult of thinness promises that if we fit this image we will be successful and happy. We are brainwashed at a level that evades our conscious, critical intervention so we cannot see that the promise is false. We live in stressful times and displace our anxiety on what we imagine we can control – how our bodies look. Driven by guilt and shame, many castigate themselves, diet, limit their self-image, disable their imaginations, and keep themselves in a sado-masochistic spiral of self-hate.
We must break this addictive pattern and discover the true beauty that is our birthright.
Culture is made up of individuals. If we become media literate, develop a healthy relationship to food, nourish our self-esteem by loving the bodies that we have, and focus on what really fulfills us, we can challenge the collective obsession with distorted ideals of perfection. We can talk to each other and validate the ways we are each beautiful inside and out. By joining together, speaking out and stepping out, we can create and celebrate new images of beauty that reflect diversity and humanity of all.