Society’s Harmful Beauty Definition
So this month is all about body image. I ummed and ahhed about whether or not I should write this post. But in the end I decided that I can’t cover body image properly without it. Without discussing society’s beauty definition and how it contributes to body image.
Before I go any further I’d like to explain that beauty is a social construct. Oxford dictionaries define a social construct as “A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.”
The most interesting part of this definition is the phrase ‘a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group‘. When you consider that traditionally, a woman’s purpose in life was to find a husband, it would suggest that the social group that cultivated the modern beauty definition was men.
As I wrote this I asked my husband to have a read through because I wasn’t sure I was getting my point across. After reading the last paragraph he said he thought that it wouldn’t have been only men who decided what beauty was. In years gone by, mothers would have pushed their girls to find husbands. My reply was that yes that’s probably true. But they would still have been pushing their girls to conform to the beauty definition of that time. I have no evidence to prove my point either way but that’s what I think.
What is Society’s Definition of Beauty?
Thin with a flat stomach, small waist, boyish hips, large breasts, be muscular and have flawless skin is what society says is beautiful right now (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002; Harrison, 2003). Every day we are bombarded by images of this beauty in the media. In magazines, on social media and billboards just to name a few. Every one of these images reinforces the idea that this is something to aim for, something to strive for. Most of the time the images aren’t even real, but we still compare ourselves to them. They’ve been airbrushed, hair and fashion stylists work with models to make them ‘perfect’ for a fraction of time.
The weird bit is that historically, during times of famine women with fuller figures were seen to be the ideal. This was because it reflected a higher status being well fed and healthy.
What else is really weird is that way that people react to others not conforming to the ‘ideal’ beauty definition. For a long time now it has been normal for women in the UK to shave their legs. I recently read about Swedish model Arvida Byström who posed for an advertising campaign for Adidas trainers with unshaven legs and received abuse and rape threats. Just think about that for a minute. Rape threats and abuse just because she hadn’t shaved her legs! Seriously what is the matter with the world!?
Why this Beauty Definition is Harmful
This definition of beauty is harmful because it’s unattainable. It’s NOT REAL. Almost all of the images we see in the media are edited in some form to make women look more like society’s beauty definition.
For women to get pregnant they need to have enough body fat for their bodies ovulate. Women can have periods without ovulation, but can’t get pregnant if no egg is released. This is why girls gain more body fat during puberty, because the body needs a certain amount of fat for reproduction and periods. I get so angry that this is the total opposite of what we’re told is beautiful.
As a result, eating disorders are on the rise with a 34% increase in hospital admissions between 2005 and 2014. With them becoming more common, I think we often forget how dangerous eating disorders can be. According to Anorexia & Bullemia Care, eating disorders have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders (1). Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence (2). These are horrific facts. Until I wrote this post I had no idea just how serious eating disorders are.
Women are turning to cosmetic surgery and other treatments to ‘improve’ their looks. In 2016 nearly 8000 women had surgery to make their breasts bigger. The operations are getting less risky, but there are still risks involved any time someone goes under a general anaesthetic.
Although I couldn’t find any specific statistics for the UK, it is thought that the number of non invasive treatments is on the rise, such as botox, chemical peels and hair removal.
Poor Body Image and Self-Esteem
This is the topic of next week’s post but it is still relevant here. Society’s unreachable beauty definition can lead to a poor body image which leads to a lack of confidence and self-esteem. I dread to think how many women and girls across the world don’t have the confidence to follow their dreams.
Society’s Harmful Beauty Definition: Conclusion
To my surprise I found this quite a hard post to write. I have strong views on beauty and how society’s beauty definition affects the way that we feel about ourselves. I’d like to pretend that I’m above it all, that I’m this super confident plus-size feminist parent blogger who doesn’t care what the world thinks. The reality is that I’m not, but I’m a lot more comfortable in myself than I used to be. Partly, I think it’s due to me getting older but also I’m much more aware now of the effect that this ideal has on us, when we see pictures of it everywhere.
The lengths women and girls go to to try to make themselves attractive can be extreme. From cosmetic surgery to eating disorders, the effects can be permanent. In some cases life-threatening. There are risks involved with any surgery, and although these procedures are getting safer there is still the chance that something could go wrong. I’m more worried about the statistics on eating disorders, as they’re more likely to affect teens.
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(1) Arcelus J, Mitchell AJ, Wales J. et al, “Mortality Rates in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating Disorders: A Meta Analysis of 36 Studies.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 2011, 68: 724-31. Sonnenville K, Micali N et al., “Common Eating Disorders Predictive of Adverse Outcomes are Missed by the DSM-IV and DSM-5 Classifications.” Paediatrics 2012; 130:e289-95
(2) NICE Guidelines 2004 page 7. “Eating Disorders Core Interventions in the Treatment and Management of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Related Eating Disorders”