Why can't we find peace with our bodies?

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Stylist Team
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We can be wealthy, healthy, successful and loved – but many of us are still unhappy with how we look. Stylist investigates why…

Words: Kate Graham

For some it’s a mild dislike, for others a ferocious, deep-seated hatred; that bumpy nose or post-baby tummy, the patch of grey hair or that insidious fear of ‘fat’ that can only be kept at bay with constant calorie vigilance. Doctors, engineers, academics; coupled up or happily single; boasting PhDs, families and running thriving businesses – scratch beneath the surface and, chances are, you’ll find a complicated tale of shape and weight, mirrors and make-up.

It isn’t just digits on the scales that make for challenging reading: 41% of UK women are unhappy with their body weight and shape, up from 36% in 2004. Just 4% of women worldwide describe themselves as beautiful and one in five women under 20 has considered cosmetic surgery. It’s been 10 years since Dove launched its paradigm shifting Real Beauty Campaign, yet its recent 2014 study (which includes the above statistics), makes for sorry reading.

In response, there’s been an explosion of awareness-raising groups like international initiative Endangered Bodies (‘challenging our devastating acceptance of body hatred as normal’) and the UK-wide Campaign for Body Confidence. The issue even has political clout, thanks to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image. But despite our incredible individual and group successes as women – economic, educational, social – many of us continue to struggle with what we see in the mirror. Take Dr Rebecca Chicot, 45, who has three children, a PhD and co-founded The Essential Parent Company. “Most of my life has been dedicated to academia, so I like to think I’m quite intellectual. I know most images I see of women aren’t necessarily real, but it still bothers me I don’t look like them.”

It’s a topic psychologist Linda Papadopoulos is passionate about. “In our hyper-visual world, the way we see ourselves now is validated and expressed through body image. This world expects a hell of a lot, especially of young professional women, so what better way to indicate that you’re perfect than to display a body you have successfully ‘controlled’?”

Abigail Tazzyman, from the Centre for Women’s Studies, at the University of York, researches how much our appearance outweighs other aspects of our lives. She interviewed 30 UK women, aged 18 to 25, and her findings are disheartening.

“Appearance is held up as the most valued attribute of a woman and as the critical factor which defines their worth,” she says “Irrespective of their other achievements or attributes, it is appearance they’re ultimately judged on by society.”

This can only spell bad news for the future. Younger generations are increasingly influenced to view their bodies as abnormal or repelling. What is changing, say academics, is the way we interact with images. Studies have shown that we see, on average, 5,000 photoshopped images a week, and we’re also watching more television than ever. Consider the 1995 study carried out by Harvard Medical School which followed teenage girls in Fiji after television was introduced to the island for the first time; it found that after three years with TV, 74% of girls described themselves as ‘too big or fat’. Things are looking decidedly grim indeed.

The body ideal

Wanting to achieve a beauty ideal is nothing new. Papadopoulos explains humans are hardwired to seek approval and today’s society tells women that approval will come by being slim and young. What’s different now is that our ‘body project’ is never finished. We may achieve the new job or solidify a great relationship but the body goalposts keep moving – thinner, tighter, younger – and so we keep chasing.

At first glance, social media and our interconnected world should help us, increasing the number of people we see and widening the beauty ideal. But in reality, our peer groups are shrinking, with serious self-image consequences. “Now we ghettoise people of the same age together,” says Papadopoulos. “I grew up with cool women of different ages who were able to moderate the beliefs out there about how big my waist or boobs should be.

Now, the progress of our ‘body project’ is being dictated by a bunch of people getting together with the same insecurities. When we talk about ‘the media’ we’re not just talking about magazines; it’s about how we are producing our own media and comparing ourselves to that, in a vacuum.”

Of course, throughout history the beauty ideal has changed. The bleached white face of Elizabeth I (when tanned skin showed you worked in the fields) kept the pale-is-beautiful trend going right until Coco Chanel’s famous 1923 trip to Cannes made the visualisation of leisure time fashionable. Between 1570 and 1590, a contraption called the French panseron was in vogue, a fake belly that made the wearer look well fed and therefore rich, but by Victorian times a corset, and a tiny waist, were a social necessity. Huge crinolines, protruding bustles and heavily boned corsets restricted movement but created the muchcoveted feminine hourglass silhouette (which has been shown to send subliminal messages that a woman is fertile).

The fad diet gained popularity in the 18th and 19th century too, as real women strove to emulate these ideals. Instead of eating for health and wellbeing, women began to focus on their aesthetic. Diets such as Fletcherism – chewing food until the ‘goodness’ was extracted, then spitting out what was left – became common. Even Queen Victoria was reported to be ‘terrified’ of putting on weight.

But the key to understanding our unhappy relationship with our bodies may lie in technological development, says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, historian at Cornell University and author of The Body Project. “If you had acne in 1870, with no mirror or proper lighting at home, you couldn’t obsess about it. But with the invention of electric lights and mirrors in bathrooms, everything changed. Think about the shift from handmade clothes to standard clothing sizing in the late 19th century. Suddenly, there are numbers to your size, you can chart your body’s ‘progress’ and compare yourself to other women.”

Diaries through the centuries show that as women moved away from the external control of the corset to the internal control of diet and exercise, the way they saw their bodies changed too.

“In the 19th century, girls’ diaries were concerned with good works and character,” says Brumberg. “Over the 20th century, they become more preoccupied with looks as a measure of self-worth. They ask, ‘How do I compare?’ and the word ‘image’ starts to appear.”

Little wonder when you think about what the removal of the corset actually meant. Women may have been able to finally breathe but swapping a corset for a flapper dress also meant exposing underarms and legs. Suddenly they needed hair removal for the first time, and to diet because there was no more whalebone. As each new insecurity arrived, so did a product to ‘solve’ it. Gillette’s first razor for women arrived in 1915, triggering ‘aggressive’ advertising campaigns from companies demanding: ‘Shave yourself!’, ‘Reduce your weight’.

Our current technological climate has encouraged a world where women feel under constant scrutiny. We now see ourselves reflected in photographs or videos on a daily basis, many taken from the most obscure of angles, which in turn encourages intense thoughts. “The notion of beauty has been democratised, now we all have to be beautiful whether we’re five or 75,” says Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue and Bodies. “You used to get fixed up to go out, now you’re supposed to be on show all the time. Women doing ordinary tasks – having sex or pipetting in the lab – think, ‘How do I look?’ They have critical eyes on themselves rather than enjoying their experience.”

This idea that women are always being watched, and so self-police their appearance 24/7, is called the ‘panopticon’ idea, says activist Amy Godfrey from AnyBody, Endangered Bodies’ UK arm. “This springs from a neo-liberal agenda that places responsibility for everything on the individual, and includes the idea that we control our own behaviour because we believe we’re always scrutinised. Women in particular are made to feel that our bodies are always being watched and we must control them or be judged accordingly.”

As any online comment section shows, individual fears and intense scrutiny turn, all too easily, into criticism of other women. Papadopoulos has a theory as to why: “In our culture, male competition is celebrated in a healthy way, through sporting events, or in the boardroom. But women are socialised into competing covertly, and the one area where we have a very open comparison, to see where we stand in relation to each other, is the ‘thin’ ideal. It gives us a sense of agency, to say ‘I’ve said no to that chocolate cake, I’m in better control of my life that her.’”

Under scrutiny

Perhaps our anxieties should be assuaged by the ideal that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this doesn’t protect us from a genuine self-loathing of being too thin, too big busted, unhappy with our noses or pregnancy stretch marks. Even those who we feel should be content with their bodies aren’t.

“People assume that because I’m a model I must be happy with the way I look, but I’m not,“ confesses 23-year-old Lois Mallet-Walker, who has modelled for Saint Laurent Paris and John Frieda. “If I over-indulge it goes straight to my thighs. I already feel past my best.”

Ironically, this desire to take ownership of our bodies might seem like a form of control, but actually we’re reneging our power. Anxiety about body image impacts most on our self-esteem. Research by film-maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, exploring the under-representation of women in politics, found that women who are high ‘self objectifiers’ (who see their bodies like an outsider would) are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. They are also significantly less likely to run in politics and less likely to vote. There’s a final theory that Godfrey floats – that the creation and perpetuation of the beauty myth is simply a way to control women.

“This can be traced back to the Fifties, when men came home from war and women had been out at work. The earlier aim for women, which had been to be the best housewife in the world, didn’t cut it any more. As Naomi Wolf describes it, the Iron Maiden of the perfect wife could no longer contain women’s desires and skills, so the Iron Maiden of perfect beauty was created so they would feel compelled to pour all their efforts into that instead.”

A conspiracy perpetuated by the patriarchy? Perhaps. But with a growing gender pay gap (currently 19.1%) and significant under-representation of women on boards and in politics, it’s worth considering that time spent on self-criticism is keeping us from true equality. Although male body image anxiety is on the rise, women’s issues still outstrip men’s, with 90% of us reportedly experiencing body image anxiety.

It’s something that Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson has considered. She’s spoken to teenage girls who won’t leave the house until they’ve spent an hour on their make-up. “That’s an hour they’re not spending studying, building relationships, or exercising. That hour is energy that can’t be put into other things, such as educational opportunities. There is a very real cost to this, therefore it is a political problem.”

It’s affecting our self-esteem, harming our relationships with other women and, most worryingly, hamstringing the next generation. And while the root causes are complex and varied, there are ways and means of loosening its grip. Talking with friends, colleagues, mothers; changing the language we choose to use; tapping away at this false and dangerous ideal of beauty. Because while the mirror we hold up to ourselves is unnecessarily critical, our friends see us in an infinitely kinder light.

For instance, below you’ll see a page of perfectly normal-looking women, but like you, the Stylist team all have body niggles. Proof, that despite outward appearances everyone has a body hang-up. The more we talk, and redefine what’s normal, the more chance we have of accepting – and even liking – our appearance. We’d love you to join the conversation. #BodyImage

“I’ll do whatever I can to hide my birth mark”

Delphine Chui, Stylist acting entertainment editor

I’ve got a reddish birth mark on the side of my face, just beside my right ear and I still haven’t learnt to 100% accept it. If I wear my hair up, I will cover it with concealer (which often draws attention to it, anyway). It’s got to the extent where I will intentionally walk or sit on the other side of whoever I’m with to avoid them seeing it and it coming up in conversation (you will also never see a photo of the right side of my face). I avoid tucking my hair behind that ear, too, because I get tired of having to explain it. I’ve had all sorts of comments, from someone asking me if I’ve got hair dye on my face to another asking, worriedly, if I’ve hurt myself. I hate how self-conscious I am. I guess it stems from a desire to blend in and not have anything that makes me stand out.

“I stare enviously at other women’s perfect legs”

Elinor Block, online writer,

“I’ve worn a bra to bed for the best part of 20 years”

Joanna McGarry, Stylist associate editor (beauty)

“I was happy with my appearance until the age of 16”

Shannon Peter Stylist beauty assistant

It took me a whole 16 years to recognise that I have one eye closer to my nose than the other. And had it not have been for a more-than-honest classmate (teenage girls don’t tend to hold back) I may have continued my life blissfully unaware of my facial imperfection. It sounds minor and potentially absurd, but since the moment she commented on my facial symmetry (or lack thereof) it is always the first thing I notice when I look in the mirror. Now I’ve mentioned it, it’ll be all you look at too. No, it doesn’t keep me awake at night but it will forever be the reason I turn my head slightly when having my photo taken.


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Stylist Team