Body image - are we getting it right?

by Dr Samantha Thomas
Senior Research Fellow, and Head of the Consumer Health Research Group (CHaRGe) at Monash Unversity.


Mia Freedman's appointment as Chair of the Australia's National Body Image Advisory Group is one of life's very strange ironies.

Let me pose a question. How does someone that writes a blog like Mamamia become the Chair of Australia's National Body Image Advisory Group?

How? Does? That? Happen?

For me, this is a fundamentally important question to ask if we are going to take Body Image initiatives seriously in Australia. It is a question which will help us to understand what 'Body Image' means, the boundaries that have been set up in the Body Image advocacy space, who is included and more importantly who is being left out.

As an academic, what I deal with, day in, day out is evidence. As dull as that may seem, my life is about facts. Those facts come in different shapes and sizes. The facts I deal with are predominantly qualitative. They are about people's views, their experiences, their attitudes and opinions. And, as an excellent Professor once told me, academics should always be prepared to change their mind in light of new evidence. Let me tell you that my mind has been changed on more than a few occasions because the evidence was just so compelling (climate change and fat are great examples of this!).

So in thinking this through I have looked in great detail at the Mamamia blog. I'm not going to link the blog here. You can search for it if you like. But I'm not going to proactively encourage you to go there.

For me, this blog, given who it is written by, and the position she also holds as Chair of the National Body Image Advisory Group is supremely problematic. Mamamia (which I'm assuming is a business) creates an interesting dilemma for the National Body Image Advisory Group. Because it is not what Body Image is about. In fact, is probably as far removed from it as you could possibly get.

At the most basic level, this is the definition of Body Image:

“The way a person thinks about his or her body and how it looks to others”

So for me, initiatives which seek to foster positive Body Image (note that this is different from Body Image, and people get them confused all the time which does my head in) should simply be about activities which:

“help all individuals to think positively about their bodies” Full Stop.

Now in light of these definitions, I had a good look at Mamamia, particularly under the Body Image section. And here is my take on what I saw.

* (Mamamia web site) Body image is predominantly framed as being about 'healthy' weight. And because of this, there is an abundance of derogatory weight based language that occurs on the site, both in the blog posts and in the comments sections. 

Dr Sam: There is a convenient assumption that is made throughout the site, that 'curvy' is okay (as long as you are also drop dead beautiful see the posts about Layne Bryant and Christina Hendricks). That being a little bit above or below 'average' is acceptable too. But being too fat or too thin is not (as are encapsulated in the Gainer and Skinny Girls are Liars posts). And this is where we get into this strange notion that Body Image is about promoting 'real women' (who seem to only be a size 10-14). That a few more of these 'real' women on catwalks or in magazines are a really helpful thing for creating en masse self esteem in women.

So if we go back to the definitions about Body Image, and how to create positive Body Image, is this a helpful approach? Nope. It's not even close.

 

* (Mamamia web site) That 'being fat' is still a bad thing, as is gaining weight. That is it associated with a fundamental character flaw of being 'naughty' 'self indulgent' 'undisciplined' (I could go on and on and on...)

... with a multitude of damaging posts – like the one where the bloke calls her chubby and she goes into a monumental meltdown and hours of chick debriefing to get over it. Or the one where her kid says that a size 12 fairy at a play was 'fat' and she spends a whole angst ridden car trip trying to reassure her kid that the fairy wasn't fat (because obviously calling someone fat is a REALLY bad thing to do..... because having a quick discussion about the values of people being different shapes and sizes would have been very destructive – my words not hers). Or my favourite one which also appeared in this weekend's paper – the time when she went on an overseas holiday and OMG had a really awful relationship with food because she put on 11 kilos and 20 years later still seems ridden with guilt about it. Or the one where she says that women are facing a dilemma because a “good ass” requires a low % of body fat but a “good face” requires a high one.

Dr Sam: Accepting of people for who they are? A healthy approach to encouraging EVERYONE to feel good about their bodies? I don't think so.

 

* (Mamamia web site)  That it is still okay to judge people for what they choose to wear, or choose to have done to their bodies (aka tattoos and plastic surgery).

Dr Sam: Obviously this blog represents some pretty mainstream fashion views. That's okay and there is nothing particularly wrong with that. This probably is as good a place as any to declare that I love a bit of Saturday morning mummy fashion from Country Road. But the problem is that the blog posts constantly compares what is 'hot' with what is 'not'. The 'best' with the 'worst'. And it is that comparison that is extremely dangerous in a Body Image context. It's even dangerous when you put up fashion posts which are all about how a colour makes you look (like the black doesn't make you look skinny but it can make you look older post). Or her video blogs about what fashions we should be buying this winter. Or denigrating people for having plastic surgery. The positive Body Image take on plastic surgery would be to look at why women feel pressured to have boob jobs, botox, whatever. Not to write OMG YOU IDIOT posts about women who make choices about what they do with their own bodies. There is a big difference.

Because that DOES NOT encourage all individuals to feel positively about their bodies – which includes being able to wear things that they love and that they personally feel good in. Because it creates a sense that you should worry about what others think of you. Which is really really wrong!

Let me share a little secret with you.

Positive Body Image is not about creating an acceptable body 'norm' or about trying to make yourself look thinner, more beautiful, younger, or whatever. It's not about trying to 'hide' or 'make the best of' who you are. That is called “Marketing”.

Because where bodies are concerned, there is no norm. Because we ARE ALL DIFFERENT! Which is what makes us REAL. And celebrating that difference is what positive Body Image is about.

The sad thing is that the content on Mamamia probably represents the views of sizable minority of people in Australia. And it means that the blog also provides a voice for that sizable minority. And that voice has at sometimes been very critical of people who have tried to raise some sensible debate about Body Image and what it means. That's a shame. Because it doesn't help to create a space which is about promoting positive Body Image for all Australians (and that includes our blokes too!). Or in creating an important cultural change in the way we perceive beauty, self worth or body acceptance.

I know some people who read this will disagree with what I have written. That is important, and I really welcome the feedback. Because it is through these very discussions that we will hopefully create change, and end up in a place where we come together to listen to and understand each other's perspectives about this important issue.

History has shown us that popularity doesn't necessarily make for the most fair, just and sensible leaders. Maybe this is just a case of history repeating itself (again). But I know that there is an amazing positive Body Image revolution on its way! It's coming from the grassroots. And it will have a bigger impact than any government taskforce could ever have.

And that is just too exciting for words!

Sam's email address is samantha.thomas@med.monash.edu.au

First published on the web site, http://mymilkspilt.wordpress.com

< Back