preoccupied with their appearance. Specifically, women are highly
conscious of their weight and their bodies. Research shows that nearly
half of girls aged 12-17 have dieted (Patton, et al; 1997), and more
and more very young women are showing signs of anorexia (Kilborne,
1997). A survey by Glamour magazine asked women what they would
accomplish if they could achieve any possible goal. An overwhelming
majority indicated that they would lose weight (Wooley and Wooley,
1984). Another study published in the New York Times found that
women who had lost weight would deliberately choose to be blind, deaf,
or have a limb amputated rather than regain the weight (Angier and
Kolata 1992). What is happening in our society, and in our selves, that
is causing this widespread problem? What has convinced us that we, in
our natural state, are inherently not good enough?
One need not spend too long
surveying the racks of popular magazines to come to the conclusion that
beauty is young, very slim, and most often white. Only one body type is
presented in the media, that of the very tall and very thin woman, a
woman who is well below the recommended weight for her height (Kilbourne,
1997); a woman who would meet the criteria for anorexia as 15% below
normal weight (APA 1994). Furthermore, this constant bombardment of
images of one body type sends the message that only this is beautiful,
and those who are shorter, thicker, or browner are not. In fact, the
body type presented is unattainable to 99% of women (Kilbourne, 1997).
This is very convenient for those selling weight loss products, because
99% of the female population will be deemed unattractive, and therefore
will be more likely to buy their products.
Many times, even these
"beautiful" women are deemed not good enough, and their photographs are
airbrushed or otherwise altered. For example, one program that aired on
Lifetime TV, The Changing Face of Beauty, detailed the experience
of a 17 year old model, whose photograph was altered to remove "lines
and wrinkles". The young woman then stated that she believed that she
was past her prime for the modeling business. A popular magazine
airbrushed Cindy Crawford's thighs to make them appear smaller. An
interview with Cybil Shepard revealed that as a young model, she often
felt terrible when she was not able to naturally look like her image on
magazine covers. Recent photographs of Demi Moore were airbrushed to
remove inches from her waist and hips. Photographers use lighting and
angles, makeup artists and hairstylists are used, and then the images
are airbrushed, removing any scars, lines, too bigness, too smallness,
anything less than perfection. This is the image that comes to define
what is beautiful. An image that is entirely false and unnatural. Women
and men see these images everyday, and internalize these images as
defining the beauty standard. So what is there for the woman who does
not have makeup artists and stylists, who lives in the real world
un-airbrushed? Products. Hair products, weight loss products, facial
products, perfumes, polishes, even surgery. And those who market these
products are reaping incredible rewards from increasing the insecurity
of modern women.
Pressure to be Thin and The
The pressure to be thin
starts early. A recent research study showed that children aged 4 and 5
consciously used body size to categorize someone as “nice” or “mean”.
The chubby figure was consistently labeled as mean, while the thin one
was labeled nice. The study also showed that children as young as 3
years old ascribed more negative adjectives to the chubby figure than to
the thin figure. The children also were shown to prefer slender
playmates. These findings were true, and in some cases enhanced, when
the children themselves were overweight (Cramer and Steinwert, 1998).
It is becoming common to
hear of very young girls dieting, and many developing eating disorders.
Dieting and eating disorders are also very common among high school and
college women. One study of a community found anorexia nervosa to be a
common chronic illness among the 15-19 yr old women (Lucas, Beard,
O’Fallon, and Kurland, 1991). Individuals with eating disorders often
judge their self worth primarily in terms of their weight and shape
(Fairburn and Garner, 1988). So even at very young ages women are
objectifying themselves, and focusing primarily on their weight.
Media images may increase
the concern about weight and shape. In a recent study by Posavac,
Posavac, and Posavac,(1998) body dissatisfaction of college females was
measured, then the participants viewed slides of slim fashion models or
of neutral images. Then weight concern was once again measured. The
results showed a significant increase in body dissatisfaction and weight
concern in the females following exposure to the slides of the fashion
models . Another study revealed that women who viewed the media's image
of beauty as ideal are more likely than any other group to have a very
negative body image (Pinhas, et. al. 1999). These results suggest that
the media may play a part in the increasing drive toward thinness for
Not only does the media offer images of the desired
appearance, it also offers methods to achieve this appearance in the
form of diet products. One would have a great deal of difficulty opening
up any magazine targeted towards women without finding an abundance of
ads promoting weight loss products. It is no surprise that these ads
target young women to create a need for their product, and to profit
from this need. Unfortunately, along with product demand, they are
potentially creating the foundation for devastating life long eating
problems for these young women.
The dieting industry,
including diet books, pills, and programs, like Weight Watchers and Slim
Fast, makes an incredible $33 billion a year. These programs have a
great deal of incentive to keep you thinking you are too fat, and that
too fat is unacceptable. In fact, one researcher reported reviewing the
recommended weight charts from one of the weight loss programs, then she
compared this chart to that of her doctor. Not surprisingly, the
"normal" weight chart offered by the diet program showed normal weights
to be approximately 20 lbs. less than those on the doctor's chart. So
the researcher was determined to be of normal weight by her doctor, but
conveniently too heavy by the weight loss program (Hesse-Biber, 1996).
In addition, there is
evidence that many of the weight loss remedies common on store shelves
are actually hazardous to your health (Fraser, 1999). Records from the
American Association of Poison Control Centers show that in 1989, 47,000
people called poison control centers to complain of reactions to diet
pills that required hospital stays or medical care. Many weight loss
pills, like “Dexatrim”, “Acutrim” and “Appedrine” contain the drug
phenylpropanolamine (PPA), which is known to cause the blood pressure to
rise among other adverse effects. Other pills like Herbalife’s
Thermojetics, and “Herbal phen- fen” contain ephedrine, a chemical
similar to amphetamines. A report from the FDA states that 18 deaths
have been caused by use of ephedrine, and 800 complaints of adverse
reactions to ephedrine, including myocardial infarction, cardiac
arrhythmia, psychosis and seizures. Ephedrine in small doses does cause
the metabolism to rise, which is why is has been marketed as a diet aid,
but in larger doses can cause the heart to speed up to dangerous levels.
Even the use of dieter's tea has been linked to death in several cases
The FDA has considered
banning some of the diet pills, or requiring them to have warning
labels. However, the only legislation passed has been the 1994 Dietary
Supplements Act, that states the following:
The product label must
bear the statement ‘This statement has not been evaluated by the
Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to
diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.’ Unlike health
claims, nutritional support statements need not be approved by FDA
before manufacturers market products bearing the statements,
however, the agency must be notified no later than 30 days after a
product that bears the claim is first marketed (US FDA, 1995).
The law makes it very easy
for manufacturers to make claims about weight loss on their products
packages, as long as they include the disclaimer statement. One need
only to visit the
dexatrim website to see the minimal effect this legislation has had
on packaging. In large letters, the company boasts their claims of
dramatic and easy weight loss, while in barely visible letters it
includes the FDA statement. Even when visible, the disclaimer is not
sufficient to warn people of the adverse effects of these over the
counter drugs. Many people assume, often erroneously, that if a product
is sold without a prescription, and easily available over the counter,
then it is not a health risk.
The cosmetics industry is
also reaping hefty rewards at the expense of women. The cosmetic
industry's advertising creates an idea of "defect" in the consumer, a
defect that can only be remedied by the product they are selling. This
method is very effective. The constant creation of new appearance
problems opens the markets for new products. When was the first time
you realized you needed : lipstick, cellulite cream, self tanner,
eyebrow groomers, mascara, foundation, wrinkle cream. What was it that
gave you the idea that you needed that product? Chances are it was an
advertisement (with a slim, red-lipped young woman pictured) that made
you think that only something other than your natural state was
acceptable. Advertisers are well aware of the amount of suggestibility
in the consumer, particularly the young ones. Unfortunately, along with
selling products they also inherently sell the belief in the defects the
product claims to cure.
After WWII, the cosmetics
industry began to take hold of American women and girls. Advertisers for
cosmetics like Cover and Revlon promoted their products with illustrated
ads of flawless beauty. The ads made the use of the product central to
achieving the feminine ideal (Peiss, 1998). The feminine ideal presented
in the ads was perfection, something most women could not attain. Women
writers of that era recall the intense pressure to conform to the beauty
images, and the feelings of inadequacy when they could not. About this
time, social researchers began to report that teenage girls wanted to
change their physical appearances more than anything else (Brienes,
1992). A 1942 survey of Baltimore consumers polled women over forty,
those who had come of age before cosmetics became a huge industry with
widespread advertising. These women reported that beauty preparations
and cosmetics were inessential (War Production Board, 1942). However,
younger women who had been exposed to the cosmetics industry’s
advertising viewed lipstick, powder, blush and cold cream as necessities
It is no accident that
advertisers use a great deal of airbrushing in the photographs. Even
the models are deemed imperfect and in need of products to fix their
imperfections. If the beauty goal is unattainable, then the consumer’s
goal appearance will never be met, and therefore the need for the
product will never decrease.
The number of people getting
plastic surgery is increasing, particularly young women. Seventy percent
of people seeking plastic surgery are women (Morgan, 1995). Breast
implants, liposuction, and nose jobs are among the most popular
procedures. What is it that would make a healthy person opt to have a
very painful surgery? Some people have died having plastic surgery, and
many women with breast implants complain of complications regarding that
procedure, such as leakage, or hardening. It is also known that as a
result of breast augmentation, a loss of sensation occurs in the woman’s
nipple, so her breasts literally move from being objects of her own
pleasure to objects of someone else’s pleasure (Kilbourne 1997). That is
the underlying idea behind undergoing a painful surgery, ones own pain
or pleasure is disregarded in order to become the object of someone
else’s viewing pleasure.
Breast implant surgery has
become one of the most popular procedures, at times taking over the top
spot from liposuction. Breast implant surgery involves cutting under
the breast and inserting the implant, usually made of silicon, saline,
or more recently soy. There has been a great deal of controversy over
silicon implants. The manufacturer, Dow Corning, has had numerous law
suits filed against them by women who claim that the implants caused
them a variety of adverse effects, including the implant hardening,
leaking, and breast cancer. The FDA banned the use of silicone breast
implants for cosmetic surgery in 1992 (E.B. 1997) The Mayo Clinic
conducted a study of 749 women who had had breast implants between 1964
and 1991. The researchers found that 178 of these women had required
subsequent surgery from a problem associated with the implants. 131 of
the women had problems with the formation of scar tissue around the
implant, called capsular contraction, and had to have it surgically
removed. Forty-three of the patients experienced a rupture of the
implant, and others had infections or blood blisters (E.B. 1997).
Cosmetic surgeries carry
some substantial risks, including pain, infection, swelling, bleeding,
scar, numbness, and even death. Injections of Botox, a toxin causing
botulism used to remove lines around eyes, can migrate and cause eyelids
to droop. Skin resurfacing procedures use acids and lasers that can
cause inflammation and discoloration if they go too deep. Eyelid surgery
can leave patients with eyelids that wont close. Facelifts can also go
wrong, leaving scars, hair loss, or injuring nerves (Gross, 2000).
One case involves a former
TV newswoman who underwent a facelift in an effort to keep her career in
a field that she says classifies women as “over the hill at 30, ancient
at 35, and unemployable at 40.” Mary Nissenson’s facial surgery somehow
went wrong. She now lives in excrutiating pain, and is unable to
tolerate loud noises, direct light, or the touch of a feather on her
face. Her plastic surgeon claims that she is either exaggerating or the
pain is caused by some psychological reason (Gross, 2000). She was,
however, very attractive according to the interviewer.
Along with the sinister
implications of having such a surgery, there can be some very adverse
consequences of having plastic surgery. Each type of surgery comes with
its own kind of risks. The current most popular surgery among both men
and women is liposuction, where pockets of fat are removed surgically.
This surgery can be performed on nearly any area of the body, including
the abdomen, hips, thighs, face, and chin. Different types of
liposuction procedures involved different risks. In the UAL type of
liposuction, ultrasound heat is used to liquefy fat cells. The heat may
cause injury to the skin or deeper tissues. The long-term effects of
ultrasound energy on the body are not yet known. The tumescent type and
super wet type of liposuction the anesthetic fluid injected may cause
lidocaine toxicity (if the concentration is too high), or the collection
of the fluid in the lungs (the cosmeticsinstitue.com, 2000). One in
5,000 of these surgeries is fatal. Recently, one famous television star,
Kathy Griffin, comedian and star of Suddenly Susan, underwent
liposuction. She was a size four, and wanted to become a size two. There
were problems during the surgery, and as she wrote in a story published
in Glamour magazine, she nearly died due to the surgery (USA Today,
A recent article in Ladies
Home Journal (Jan 2000) detailed one woman’s account of her “successful”
liposuction surgery. The article states that patients can expect 3-5
days of aching and burning, and it may take a month before they can
resume normal activities. “Was it painful? Absolutely.” The woman
explained. She went on to state that despite the pain, “When it’s all
over you really have something to show for it. That first weekend home I
put on these Capri pants that I hadn’t worn in years- which canceled out
a lot of the pain.” What is wrong with our culture that putting on a
pair of pants that are a size smaller can possibly cancel out a month of
aching and burning? Why would a sane person mutilate herself in order to
fit into a pair of pants? Any other type of self- mutilation is
considered by the DSM IV to be characteristic of mental impairment (APA
1994). Why does it suddenly become acceptable, normalized, and published
in glossy women’s magazines when it contributes to female
Author Sharlene Hesse-Biber
makes the point in her book Am I Thin Enough Yet? that many of
the current measures for female beautification are very similar to
Chinese foot binding practices. There is a clear analogous relationship
between the ancient practice of footbinding and modern cosmetic surgery.
Women or girls undergo a very painful experience, often with lasting
negative consequences, in order to become more appealing to the male
eye. Mothers in China wanted their daughters’ feet bound in hopes that
they could get a wealthy husband (Peiss, 1998). Modern cosmetic surgery
is also a method to increase a woman’s “market value”.
There are a great many
industries that thrive from women’s insecurities. They strive to
convince you that your face and body are not adequate and need a boost
that their products can provide. When self worth depends on an
attractive appearance, and an attractive appearance depends on products,
an incredibly profitable industry is generated. Women must begin to
overcome this climate of insecurity fostered by advertising, women must
challenge themselves not to view their bodies as merely objects to be
beautified whatever the cost. By shifting the focus from how we look, to
how we think or feel, we can begin a change that will effect how we view
ourselves and each other.
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