Women are die(t)ing to be thin: Is media responsible for this?

We live in a society dominated by media- an institution which has the ability to control our motives, preferences and dictate norms. Since media plays a significant role in our lives, we welcome as right whatsoever it presents to us. This is particularly the case in advertising, more precisely “beauty” and “fashion” advertising. Bordo’s article Never Just perfect: Bodies and Fantasies reinstates the fact media controls us.

In this article, Bordo explains the relationship between advertising and body image. Advertisements have always been used to emphasise a certain idea or a product.  The article first begins discussing the undesirable attention media gave the “svelte” Alicia Silverstone when she seemed a “smidge” bigger at the 1997 Academy Awards than she was in her movie, Clueless. Bordo states that making a news of this is nothing short of ridiculous, and it is because of instances like these that we believe that “fat is the devil”.  

Further, Bordo looks into the idea of a socially constructed ideal body image, to elucidate the way in which advertisements induce people to look a certain way- by employing models with eating disorders. There is an avalanche of photographs of skinny bodies of models in magazines, billboards, and on television. Looking at these advertisements and the undernourished models, people feel the desire to imitate eating disorders, in order to look like them.  She articulates that, “Our ideas about what constitutes a body in need of a diet have become more and more pathologically trained on the slightest hint of excess. This idea of the body beautiful has largely come from fashion designers and models.” We’ve been conditioned to think that any amount of fat, even if it is a little bit of it is unwelcome. Our notion of a healthy person is someone who undergoes a life changing diet to comply with societal views on beauty.  She summarises this belief by articulating that, “The fashion industry has taught us to regard a perfectly healthy, non-obese an unsightly 'before'."

Advertisements often reflect society’s beliefs. Numerous designers know how to market their products in order to appeal to the minds of people by using such societal beliefs to their benefit. In her article, Bordo expounds the ideology behind clothing manufacturers of how they advertise their product; “Clothing manufacturers, realizing that many people—particularly young people, at whom most of these ads are aimed—have limited resources and that encouraging them to spend all their money fixing up their faces rather than buying clothes is not in their best interests, are reasserting the importance of body over face as the “site” of our fantasies” Some researchers too have studied that advertisers on purpose normalise unrealistically thin bodies, so that a desire can be created to drive product consumption. (clothing consumption in this case,) A market for frustration and disappointment is perpetuated. Considering that the diet industry has generated $33 billion in revenue, advertisers have been effective with their marketing strategy. 

Bordo also clarifies the correlation between the image of a thin body and a sense of control, by stating that people with a thin body may be assessed as having more self- control and discipline that someone who is fat. Fat people are perceived to be lazy and having a poor work ethic than a fit person or someone who is detrimentally thin. She further emphasises that:  "Eating disorders are also linked to the contradictions of consumer culture, which is continually encouraging us to binge on our desires at the same time as it glamorizes self-discipline and scorns fat as a symbol of laziness and a lack of willpower."

She details the societal beliefs- known as the “societal Psyche”- that circulate at any given time. She often remarks about the issue of eating disorders and how the notion of a thin body has become predominant in our society. Bordo points out that eating disorders have a far more profound meaning than just an image: “Eating disorders are over determined. They have to do not only with new social expectations of women and ambivalence toward their bodies but also with more general anxieties about the body as the source of hungers, needs, and physical vulnerabilities not within our control”

Western Culture has amassed a principle of achieving dominance and high status. This implies having a sense of discipline and willpower in order to be superior to ones counterparts. An eating disorder imitates this principle as it is entwined with discipline and possessing the will to achieve something out of the ordinary for the person. A thin body implicitly states one’s capacity to shed the cravings and desires which lure them. In a culture where desires and cravings are obstinately prevalent, it takes enormous amount of resolution to say “no”. Eating disorders, then, represent a person’s inner character as being able to disrupt ties from the cravings and having full control over oneself.

Various studies demonstrate that eating disorders are attributed to unhealthy obsession with food, diet and appearance and a lurking belief in an ideal body weight and shape. Young adults diagnosed with serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia often mentionthat their symptoms can be linked to bullying they often received from their peers and unrealistic media images offered as an ideal for them to emulate. When overweight people are shown, they are either presented as a comic relief or are  fat shamed. One such advertisement that comes to mind is the one for SOFY Befresh,sanitary pads wherein a slim and conventionally attractive woman turns into her fat self after she gets her period. Throughout the advertisement, the fat alter ego is shown as binge-eating and an emotional mess.

Calling a woman fat is comprehended as a serious insult to her. There’s a burden on womenand girls to be small and take up less space. body shaming is a technique to shame and silence people. It is entwined with eating disorders. Despite beauty norms being subject to feminist critical analyses, we are still conditioned to ascribe to certain notions of beauty- Tall, slim and fair, among other Eurocentric norms. Fear of fat is a tool to control and belittle them; which can fuel eating disorders. For this reason, 20 year old footage of Machado being forced to exercise in front of reporters and Trump’s interview criticising her for putting on weight were distressing for her, and for Trump now as well. In a video by Hillary Clinton campaign Machado mentions that she developed eating disorders because of Trump, expressing “I wouldn’t eat, and would see myself as fat, because a powerful man had said so”. She also claims that he called her ‘Miss Piggy’, which affected her immensely.  What makes it even graver is our gendered double standard. . Dr Oz Show revealed that Trump’s body mass index places him in the “overweight” category, bordering on obese. Then too his feels entitled to ridicule other people’s weight.  .Even though trump has fat shamed women and men, the targets of his insults are women’s bodies. Male bullies feel entitled to attack women’s on the basis of how they look no matter what they themselves look like. This reflects that body shaming and harassment is not only about looks, but more about power. The inclination to shame is more determined by asymmetrical power relations, i.e.  people who inhabit social positions that lack authority experience more shame than others because social norms are set by these more powerful others. What can also be noted is the deeper double standard at play here, which is that Machado’s story escalated in a big part because she is not actually fat.  If she was fat, it is questionable whether she would have been featured by Clinton campaign and media the way she was now.

Fat shaming does not stop at TV advertisements . They extend to internet spaces such as twitter, facebook, and so on. Elliptical Reviews found 30 most common fat and body- shaming phrases and terms including weight-focused names, such as “fat bitch” and “thunder thighs”. It has been documented that overwhelming majority of victims of online harassment are women. The nature of abuse they face is gendered and sexualised than men. Although men undeniably deal with body image issues and fat shaming off the internet, maximum statistical studies point out that most of these fat-shaming phrases are directed at women. 

Amidst the grim reality characterised by excessive glorification of a particular beauty ideal, there have been instances wherein advertisements and the fashion industries attempt at defying beauty norms. For instance, Elle made a statement when it represented myriad women in order to shatter the prevalent eurocentric beauty standards of being thin and white. It invited under-represented models- white and non-white, with vitilgo, pregnancy, downs syndrome, an albino model, transgender activists, androgynous persons, transsexual models, plus size models- who walked the ramps at various fashion events.  Dove India, in collaboration with Culture Machine’s lifestyle Blush came up with an advertisement on a well-known rhyme on “rosy lips, chubby cheeks” to facilitate a conversation around contemporary beauty standards. The attempt here is to portray women in sports, who are working hard to achieve their dreams, despite of falling and picking themselves up numerous times. It demonstrates that it is time to put an end to unreasonable beauty standards and glossy photoshopped pictures that try to sculpt one definition of beauty on stone.  Reshma Qureshi, an acid attack survivor who lost her eye and whose face got mutilated in an acid attack walked the New york catwalk.  Such instances give women in the margins greater representation, and sends across a powerful message to the people and women at large with similar experiences that it must be acceptable to not conform and contribute to warped and limited notions of beauty. It challenges the beauty industry to make it more inclusive of women with all body types. 

Kanika Sud