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Unhealthy U.S. body images affect world beauty standards

By Andrea Falkenhagen. First published Wednesday, December 11, 2002 in The Daily Cardinal.

Last week, after tumultuous riots in Nigeria, Turkey's Azra Akin was crowned "Miss World" in front of a television audience of more than 1 billion viewers. Earlier in the month, CBS shocked television viewers by airing a parade of scantily clad models in the Victoria's Secret fashion show. While these events are really quite commonplace, they serve as excellent examples of the media images of beauty that bombard us on a daily basis.

The promoters of such events say they are just celebrating fashion and the beautiful female body--but what kind of beauty do they reward? How many women can hope to attain the standard of beauty these models set--and, really, why should they even try in the first place?

The standards of beauty from the fashion and pageant industries, as well as media, invalidate women's natural beauty and disrespect the diversity inherent in women of all shapes, colors and ages.

The weight standard these "beauties" set is getting increasingly harder to attain. According to a study done by the American Medical Association, contestants in the 1920s Miss America pageants had a Body Mass Index within the range that is now considered normal. However, this has declined over the years and more winners have BMIs that the World Health Organization considers malnourished. Some winners have even been well below this level. Why is our cultural standard of beauty that of starvation? When millions of people do not have enough to eat, why are we glorifying hunger?

To make women who do not fit this beauty ideal feel even worse, the newest spin on thinness is that it is really just "fitness." The Miss America Pageant covers up its sexualized judging of women's bodies under the guise of "lifestyle and fitness in a swimsuit."

Girls grow up idolizing these images of beauty. Is it any wonder that recent studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that as many as 50 to 75 percent of adolescent girls are dissatisfied with their weight and body image?

Even more upsetting is that through increasing globalization, our twisted cultural beauty ideal is being exported to other parts of the world, along with a subsequent increase in eating disorders.

A study by the Harvard Medical School found that the infusion of Western cultural images on TV changed the way young Fijian girls viewed their bodies. In a 1995 study, conducted just after TV was introduced to the island, only 3 percent of girls reported having vomited to control their weight. Three years later, that percentage rose to 15.

A study by Chinese University compared body images in rural Chinese villages, where residents had little contact with the West, to those in Hong Kong. The women in Hong Kong weighed less, dieted more and strove to be thinner. The study concluded that, in the minds of the women, modernization equates success with "young, slender, more glamorous women."

A recent New York Times article reported that, for 51 years, an African woman was never crowned as Miss World. Many ethnic groups in West and Central Africa consider bigger women to be beautiful--but these women were considered "fat" by Western standards. However, last year the Nigerian "Most Beautiful Girl" judges used the tactic of sending a skinny contestant to compete for the Miss World crown. Agbani Darego won, and is now a national hero. While older Nigerians find her unattractive, younger girls see her as a role model. According to the article, Nigerian films and music are now praising slim girls, and women are increasingly dieting and exercising.

These examples of the Western ideal woman being exported to other parts of the world are alarming. Such images will no doubt tear at women's self-esteem in Africa and Asia every bit as much as they do in the United States. As more and more women do not eat because they fear being ugly or unwanted, a new type of violence will permeate their lives. Some feminists refer to women who have starved or manipulated their bodies to conform to the ideal as "beauty survivors." Such women must deal with the physical effects such as osteoporosis, malnutrition or surgery scars. They also face some of the same symptoms of battery or rape survivors--difficulty having personal boundaries, disconnection from their own sense of body, difficulty believing in their own decision-making ability, emotional distance and lowered self-esteem.

In addition, concerns about weight and appearances will only serve to distract and hinder women from fighting for things they really need. In the United States, as well as abroad, women face discrimination, violence, a lack of health care, child care and education, just to name a few. All these forms of oppression are connected, and they are all more important than the size of a waistline. For this reason, it is imperative to challenge these negative images about women's natural bodies whether they occur in the media, on the street or in conversations with friends.

Reproduced with permission. Copyright (c) 2002 The Daily Cardinal/Andrea Falkenhagen.

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