Updated: May 13, 2019
I was sitting in the dentist's surgery waiting area the other day and, as usual, there are a pile of glossy magazines on the table to occupy me while I'm waiting. The last time I bought a 'woman's' magazine was in 1992 - I still remember it because as a young woman whose passions were science, plants and people, I swore never to have that inflicted on myself again. But the allure of the glossies can be incredibly strong when you're trying to distract yourself from thoughts of the dentist's chair. And it doesn't require much flicking through the pages to get a handle on the content, which is a systematic tearing apart of women on the basis of their looks. There are lots of books, articles and blog posts on this subject that will be much more informed and in depth than this one, but I thought I'd write a little bit about how this impacts on our holistic health.
The Phantoms Of The Fantasy
We often judge ourselves on what society deems us to be, in relation to its own self-defined idea of 'normal'. We are bombarded with images of what certain factions of society - media, advertisers, marketers - consider to be aspirational. We need only glance at these magazines, casually lying around in waiting rooms everywhere, to see the unrelenting images of what is considered culturally attractive and therefore socially acceptable, while being completely unattainable.
A good example of this is our physicality. The fashion industry considers certain sizes and shapes to be 'normal' - if we are outwith this, we are considered either plus size or minus size, too fat or too thin. While this formula suits the commercial purposes of fashion and its closely associated sisters, the cosmetics and diet industries, it doesn't represent our diversity and therefore is damaging to everyone. Recently there was a 'plus size' model featured on the cover of an internationally popular magazine and this has caused quite a stir. But let's look at what has led to the decision to put this model on the cover.
The main purpose of magazines is to increase the revenue for its advertisers, pure and simple. Huge companies pay to place full page adverts and featured product placements in articles next to photographs of celebrities with commentary criticising said celebrity's appearance. Magazines are not concerned with representing diversity, encouraging self acceptance, celebrating our achievements or making us feel good about our lives because these things don't make money for the advertisers. The decision to put a model, any model, on the cover is a purely commercial one. A marketing executive somewhere thought that, by presenting what appears to be the opposite of what they have fed women for millenia and will continue to do so, would a useful way of deliberately and effectively created a media storm that makes for great publicity and very good sales. All of our diversity still isn't acceptable to the fashion and beauty industries; our diversity is used as a tool to outrage and provoke those who have been conditioned to think that the world should be in the shape of an airbrushed supermodel, while at the same time extending a superficial, commercially loaded hand to those they consider should be grateful to be a part of what's damaging them.
Beauty and The Beast
None of us fit into this unrealistic, artificially created box of aspiration, including the models themselves who grace the magazine pages. Both their own image, and more often than not their own physical self too, has been artificially altered, adapted, created and manufactured into something that deeply damages them too.
I have noticed a rather worrying trend in the images that are being presented to us of what a successful, healthy, happy 'woman' looks like. I place 'woman' in inverted commas here because what we are actually being presented with is a creation, something that has been manipulated to give the impression of a woman but which does not necessarily accurately reflect the common features of the fundamental physiology of the human female form.
The image above is a good example of this. At a quick glance, do you think this is an image of a young woman? Ofcourse you do, because it is intended to encourage our minds to create an instant association with the image and a young woman by using two very basic markers - long hair and a bikini. That's it. The rest is not an actual female body. This is not a woman, it is a distorted creation. If you were to see this when quickly flicking through a magazine, your mind perceives this to be a woman. And much worse than this, it actually perceives it as a model of a woman we are encouraged to aspire to be. We are being encouraged to change ourselves to become something that does not exist.
We often see images of sharp facial features, with a growing tendency toward issuing images with highly defined jawlines, which we often associate with strength and power, long necks which often show unusually prominent, visible tracheae (windpipe), which we are encouraged to associate with aspirational 'thin-ness'. The hips are shown to be a great deal narrower than the shoulders - the shoulders in the image above are incredibly broad but this image is not unique in this. The message here is that having narrow hips is to be 'fit and toned'. Some women do have broader shoulders but, structurally, the skeletons of the majority of women tend to have hip bones which align to the width of our shoulders because Mother Nature, in all of her primitive glory and wise biology, has decided that for us to procreate we are gifted with a hip and pelvic bone structure width sufficient enough to birth children.
Many images we see have dangerously low levels of body fat for a human female, like the distorted image above. Again, this image is not unique in this. Biologically, women have 6 to 11 percent more body fat than men and, according to a study conducted by the University of New South Wales, women actually burn off more fat than men during exercise but we don't lose body fat with exercise as much as men do. This is yet another mysterious and fascinating paradox about being a woman - we burn more fat during exercise but at the same time we continue to store it. This fat storage is strongly connected with hormone levels and the roles these play in menstruation, fertility, pregnancy and menopause and fat storage is often closely connected with women experiencing cellulite more commonly than men.
Ofcourse, none of us fit into the medical book standard of what a human female looks like either but what we need to look at is the lack of real variation in what we are presented with. Many of these images are strikingly similar to each other, seemingly produced from a template, with basic adjustments made to hair, eye and skin colour and are almost devoid of the medical proportions that are scientifically considered to accurately reflect the bone structure, skeleton and biology of a woman. The image above, like so many, seems to be - bizarrely - more in line with a male physiology and bone structure than a female body. Defined jawbone, wide shoulders, hips narrower than the shoulders, long humerus and radius (upper and lower arm bones) and longer femur (thigh bone) are all common traits of a male skeletal structure. (For reference, this link gives an idea of the physical and structural differences between human male and female physiology.)
It is healthy to explore and question society's stereotypes of gender. To place anyone in a defined 'box' of acceptable behaviours according to their gender is damaging. We need not conform to what society deems acceptable, stereotyped behaviour associated with masculinity and femininity because we all have traits that are a combination of both - assertiveness, receptiveness, aggression, creativity - but what we are being presented with are distorted biological physicalities in imagery that are being sold to women as achievable.
Closing The Thigh Gap
I'd like to debunk a common misconception - the thigh gap. A recent, aspirational phenomena sold to women under the guise of health, fitness, healthy body fat levels and muscle tone. The thigh gap is often completely unattainable for many women and this is due to something called the Q angle. The Q angle is the angle degree from the outer edge of the pelvis to the knee. This is why men generally have an appearance of a straighter up-and-down leg stance - and a natural thigh gap - and why many women do not, as the Q angle for women is greater (around 5 degrees greater) than that for men due to the presence of a wider pelvis in women. Ofcourse, some women do have smaller Q angles and have a gap between their thighs because of their skeletal structure and low body fat but it is not as common, or as achievable, as we are led to believe.
So, if you've been knocking yourself out at the gym for months and a thigh gap is continuing to elude you, take a look at your Q angle and how your legs, from your hips to your knees, are aligned. That's Mother Nature's wise biology again, gifting us with these hip and pelvic bone structures. It's not you, it's your own unique female biology and physiology.
Problem - Reaction - Solution
When we don't achieve these fantasy images, and in fact it is impossible for us to do so, we are considered to be failing and that we're never good enough. This makes us feel bad about ourselves and more critical of others. But none of us will ever be good enough for this relentless, devouring media machine because our insecurities are what feed it. The media, which encourages these feelings of insecurity, profit from the sale of the things that promise to make us smaller, bigger, fitter, prettier, younger, sexier, etc etc. It actually creates and magnifies a problem in order to sell us the solutions. Between those flicked pages, next to that paparazzi photograph of a celebrity in her swimsuit with cellulite - which we are encouraged to lambaste, criticize and be repulsed by but which is natural and not an aberration and can occur anywhere on the body where fat is stored - will be an advert for a miracle cream. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we shouldn't buy things that make us feel good about ourselves, quite the opposite in fact. But there's a world of difference between buying the miracle cream because you've tried the sachet tester and like the smell or texture, and buying the miracle cream because you have been shamed into feeling bad about yourself and your cellulite.
All of this produces an internal dialogue of self criticism, triggering feelings of unworthiness, guilt and shame about our bodies. This is an act of psychic violence against ourselves. This might seem strong, but this is essentially what it is. The body listens to these mental and emotional affirmations, feeling their effects, and somehow we never seem to feel good about ourselves no matter how healthy we eat or how much we exercise. Then we start to think that if only we buy that miracle cream, if only we could change our nose / lips / breasts / legs / tummy / insert body part here then we would feel better. We now have apps that give us the opportunity to airbrush ourselves - we can literally change our own bodies and present what we want to the world, creating our own unattainable vision of ourselves. This traps us in a vicious cycle, an absolute gift to the beauty, aesthetics and diet industries.
Flicking The Switch
Sadly, the health industry is also guilty of the same things that the beauty, aesthetics and diet industries are, with photos of svelte, muscular women doing yoga on mountain tops, in zen meditation poses.
But true holistic health is not about trying to attain something that is not achievable. Your health and wellbeing have ever changing needs, sensitive to your environment, your thoughts, your feelings. It asks to be listened to, encouraging an understanding of yourself, accepting who you are, respecting your life experiences, treating yourself with kindness, gentleness and compassion so that you can take good care of the lovely, unique creature that you are.
To begin to do that, we must deliberately avoid anything that doesn't nurture this within us, whether it be magazines, TV programs, apps or people that don't encourage us to appreciate ourselves. The next time you're waiting in the dentist's surgery, take your favourite book, listen to a uplifting podcast or do some colouring-in - the kids' tables always look so much more exciting anyway!
When we are limiting and managing the external influences, we can become more mindful of our own internal dialogue. If you find that your thoughts are running away with you, stop for a second and become more engaged in your thought process - what is it I'm saying to myself? What are my core beliefs about myself? Are they positive and supportive? If they're not, change them - we control our thoughts, not the other way around. We can decide to tell ourselves we are valuable, we are courageous, we are beautiful. There is always something unique about yourself that you have an appreciation for. Is it your ability to organise the most complex of tasks? Do you have a killer wit? Are you supportive and compassionate? Do you connect with animals? Remind yourself of this and feel how good it is to be you! This isn't bragging or self satisfaction, this is acknowledging you are the creation of stardust with a soul of infinite love - yes, you really are - and are so much more than your Earth suit.
Copyright © Andrea Doran, Flourish and Contributors - Original Date of Publication Sept 2018 | For personal use and information only