In the Eyes of the Beholder?

A couple of weeks ago, I sparked a small firestorm on my social media feed. While ‘checking into’ my local gym on Facebook, I made the self-deprecating comment that I was “not yet beach worthy.” Several of my friends and colleagues quickly took me to task for that statement, accusing me of buying into socially constructed stereotypes of health and beauty.

Anyone who knows me well likely knows that my Facebook comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. For a middle-aged professor who spends most of his time in mental endeavors rather than physical pursuits, I am in pretty decent shape (my lack of functioning hair follicles notwithstanding). That is in part because of genetics: I am naturally rather slim although I can put on weight if I do not eat right or exercise regularly. This is also in part because I have the luxury of time and the financial means to purchase healthier foods, to go to the gym, and to hire a personal trainer.

That said, my colleagues do have point. As Americans, we constantly judge ourselves and we constantly judge others according to largely unrealistic and entirely artificial expectations of physical perfection. But these expectations are not universally shared. They vary from culture to culture, from generation to generation, and from era to era. In one cross-societal study of “beauty,” for example, researchers found that a slim body was the feminine ideal in six societies while a plumper body was the ideal in thirteen societies. Similarly, in 17th century American society women were expected to have full hips and bust, a tiny and corseted waist, and a pale white complexion. By the late 20th century this American ideal had changed. Women were now expected to be slim but muscular, and have a dark tan.

According to feminist scholars like Naomi Wolf, author of the seminal text The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, these cultural standards of beauty are constantly being reinforced by the images we see in magazines, movies, television, and on social media. Men and women alike – but more so women – are expected to adhere to these social standards of physical beauty, regardless of the personal or financial sacrifice required. Commercial companies like Revlon, Nutrisystem, Planet Fitness, and the Hair Club for Men all use this as a marketing tool, promising each and every one of us that we too can attain this physical ideal through diet, exercise, a judicious use of cosmetics and other beauty products, and even invasive plastic or bariatric surgery.

Moreover, if and when we fail to achieve this ideal (as most of us will), we become easy targets for criticism by ourselves and by others. Such criticism can have devastating consequences. Consider the case of actor Wentworth Miller, who became famous playing the buff and tattooed hero on the television show Prison Break. When that show ended in 2009, and he was no longer in the public eye, he fell into a depressive spiral. He also gained a lot of weight and, as a result of an unflattering photo taken by a Hollywood paparazzo, became the subject of an Internet meme that included such vicious taglines as “Fit to Flab” and “Hunk to Chunk.”

More recently, after being included in a special “plus size” issue of Glamour magazine alongside other stars as actress Melissa McCarthy and singer Adele, comedienne Amy Schumer was quick to take the editors of that magazine to task. Pointing out that she is a svelte 140 lbs. and usually wears a size 8 dress, the scathingly funny and stunningly beautiful Ms. Schumer was quick to point out that “young girls seeing my body type [are] thinking that is plus size.”

Amy Schumer has a point. Media studies have found that nearly three-quarters of high-school age girls report that magazine pictures and other media images shaped their concept of the perfect body. Of those girls, over half wanted or were trying to lose weight in order to achieve that largely unattainable physical ideal.

No wonder then that rates of potentially deadly eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia continue to rise in the US, particularly among adolescents. According to statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly 30 million Americans have some sort of eating disorder. Upwards of 5% of adolescent girls will suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and another 5% will experience some sort of binge-eating disorder. While eating disorders are less common among adolescent boys – only about 10-15% of those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia are men – young gay men are particularly susceptible; in one survey, nearly 15% of gay men were suffering from bulimia and over 20% were anorexic.

Despite what the images presented in magazines, movies and television try to tell us, health and beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The two-hundred-and-fifty pound woman whom you are mocking in the grocery store may actually be an elite triathlete who happens to suffer from lipedema. The one-hundred-and-ten pound runway model that you idolize may achieve that weight only through the use of laxatives, purgatives, and stimulants.

Furthermore, and again in contrast to what we are told by the popular media, notions of self-worth and identity are not (and should not) be tied to how we look. Rather, they are defined by what we do, how we act, and whom we love.

Only until we realize that can we be truly “beach worthy.”

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 7, 2016, and is available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
This entry was posted in Advertising, Discrimination, Education, Health Care, health literacy, Obesity, Public Health. Bookmark the permalink.

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