We’re approaching the fifty year anniversary of Our Bodies Ourselves. First distributed as a zine and later as a book it is still lauded as one of the great works feminist literature. But how far have we come in how we understand and appreciate our bodies?
It may seem like we’ve come a long way. Body positivity is trending, after all. But when you start to peel away the layers, there’s something hiding underneath the skin.
The voices around us
What happens when our bodies impact our earnings, our friendships, and the quality of our medical care?
In the 2016 New York Times article Why Do Obese Patients Get Worse Care? Gina Kolata dives into the life-threatening situations that can arise when doctors, and even patients, aren’t able to see past weight.
Body image, presentation, and perception can not just impact health, but it can take a toll on already gender-reduced wages among women. A 2014 study showed that for women, being 13 pounds overweight means losing $9,000 a year in salary. In her Guardian article shedding light on this issue Suzanne McGee notes that, making matters worse, women considered “very heavy” earned $19,000 less.
And it’s not just salary. In Allison Van Dusen’s Is Your Weight Affecting Your Career? she notes that weight-based discrimination affects every aspect of employment from hiring to firing, promotions, pay allocation, career counseling and discipline.
Think it’s just about weight? Think again. A variety of body-presentation factors influence workplace disparities.
Blondes may have more fun – but maybe that’s because they make more money. In her article that chronicles the attributes that influence earnings, Alyson Shontell notes that Blondes earn 7% more than female counterparts with different hair colors. Those that are taller benefit also: for every three inches taller than average they are, women earn 5 to 8 percent more money than women of average height.
Worried? Don’t be, just make sure to put on some lipstick before you head to the office. NBC News – Style reports that women who wear make-up rank higher in competence and trustworthiness. (The study demonstrating this charming conclusion, by the way, was funded by cosmetics giant Proctor & Gamble.)
If that doesn’t sound bad enough, there are costs associated with not being “pretty” enough. Comila Shahani-Denning discusses pretty privilege in her study on Physical Attractiveness Bias in Hiring. What Is beautiful can also be lucrative – women of ‘perceived beauty’ earn an average of 9% more than women deemed unattractive.
Things get even worse when you begin to look at not just body image and aesthetics, but health and chronic illness. YoonKyung Chung’s 2013 study showed that chronic illnesses can negatively impact wages and earnings from 12-18% from the onset of the illness and through its. Consider the exacerbated problem that occurs when you combine chronic illness with the preexisting condition of womanhood – delays in diagnosis, misdiagnoses, and treatment ignored outright.
So – a particular body type can result in lesser wages medical dismissal, and more. What else? Cisgendered white male body norms can also be deadly. In “The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes,” Caroline Criado-Perez discusses the consequences when the world is built around male data. Harnesses, eye-masks, stab vests, and other necessary safety equipment don’t fit most women (or men of other ethnicities, for that matter), leaving their bodies at risk in highly dangerous situations.
Turning on ourselves
So, knowing these disparities, what are we to do? Spend lots of time and money to try to “correct” our bodies, it turns out. A Groupon-commissioned study in 2017 showed that women spend an estimated quarter of a million dollars on body improvement products, procedures, and processes over the course of their lifetime.
Think pieces that followed the study labeled this level of spending “vain,” “obsessive,” and “self-absorbed, as opposed to the necessary outcome of a system where women are shown through every external aspect that their bodies are a factor in everything from work to play.
Addressing the “problematic” aspects of our bodies isn’t just expensive, it can be dangerous.
Coco Khan’s article on the phenomenon of skin lightening creams discusses the danger. In spite of widely sourced evidence on the risks of using skin lighteners, business is booming. It’s no surprise. In addition to preferential treatment in workplaces among a number of other perceived and actual benefits for lighter-skinned women, a landmark US study in 2011 found that light-skinned black women also receive shorter prison sentences than dark-skinned black women.
And in spite of studies old and new demonstrating the complications of plastic surgery, including new studies linking implants to rare forms of lymphoma, Americans are spending more on it than ever.
Beyond shape and size, there’s also seniority – and a dismissiveness of it, that is. Amy Keller Laird attests that there should also be a place for aging bodies in the fight for body positivity. Apparently Hollywood isn’t the only place that erases women older than a certain age.
When body image problems become internalized
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” – Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
What does this constant and expensive vigilance do to our mental health? Negative body image is linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and low self-worth. When you consider that an estimated 85 percent of women believe they should feel more body-positive than they do, you’ve got a national health crisis in the making.
It’s no surprise, notes Soraya Chemaly in Rage Becomes Her. It is not only the societal factors and constraints around a woman’s body image, but also the suppressed rage that comes with continued otherness, that impacts a woman’s mental health.
Sadly, this isn’t just a spectrum reserved for adults. Kelly Wallace, CNN correspondent reports that kids as young as 5 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size.
There are also the ‘gifts’ that have been passed down to us – bad and good. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands and the article “Healing Your Thousand-Year-Old Trauma” Resmaa Menakem discusses the health implications and effects of generational trauma, as well as the effects of white-body supremacy.
From a very young age we are taught that there is a hierarchy to bodies. Kids learn this in how adults treat them, we learn it through where we are able to buy our clothes, and what is acceptable to wear to school, work, and home. We learn that there are different kinds of bodies and there is a strict and demonstrable hierarchy to their value based on their height, weight, color, and able-bodiedness.
One thing is consistent from attractiveness, to age, to ability: there is no place in that hierarchy for women to place their bodies that doesn’t fall within a spectrum of shame.
Some good news
Though there are still problems within the healthcare system, the Affordable Health Care Act has given more women access to medical care, a huge stepping stone particularly for those with chronic illness and pre-existing conditions.
And all that money we spend? Well, it talks. More and more brands are noting the problems in their own representation and the profitability in body positivity. Brands like Aerie and others are linking big increases in sales due to more inclusive ads and size offerings.
The body positivity movement, which has roots in the fat acceptance movement, is itself beginning to broaden. The current wave of body positivity is more inclusive of all forms of body acceptance. Advocating for long overdue compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act, addressing its own problematic language that exclude trans persons, and creating safe spaces for men and boys struggling with body dysmorphia.
It’s not just what is fed to us via advertisements – we can build healthier environments for ourselves as well. Rachel Cohen notes that there are positive results in terms of body image when women curate a better “visual diet” for themselves on social media instead of chasing an ideal.
In What Do Women With Positive Body Images Have That Others Don’t? Charlotte Markey suggests that focusing outward rather than on our appearance helps to nurture body positivity.
Related, women who report higher rates of body positivity tend to volunteer more and are more active in their community. They offer greater interactions of peer support to other female colleagues.
While it may not be a causal relationship, there are other correlating benefits, such as a structure with which to tackle those workplace disadvantages. In Power Of The Pack, Shelley Zalis demonstrates that women who support other women tend to be more successful, earn more, and have more success tackling the unconscious biases that face them in the workplace.
We should be encouraged, and encourage each other, to step away from the systems and schemes that shame us. The electricity of the body positivity movement powers the light of a needlessly controversial truth: that life is more than how you look.