A few quick notes on body policing

A small row broke out in the comments under the post on Topshop and its use of a photograph of a model who was unrealistically, unattainably thin. The row was essentially about body policing and how it applies to women of all shapes and sizes.

Gwendolyn made this good point:

I am a size 4. There is nothing wrong with being a size 4. Size 4 and 6 girls get so demonised by people who forget there are a lot of people who are naturally small and slim. I have never dieted or over exercised, i am just healthy, being my size and shape is what is healthiest for my body yet bloody Gok Wan, the media and other women tell me and all the other women my size and shape that we’re not ‘real women’.

It is certainly true that the “real women have curves” ethos is just as harmful as the notion that the ideal body shape is that of the unattainably thin model.

Another commenter, Zoe Rose, then said this:

One of these days, I’m gonna snap. One of these days, some lady is going to say those stupid little words – ‘you’re so lucky to be so skinny!’ – and I’m going to snap.

And then I’m going to tell her that it must be awesome being so fat.

Zoe Rose does make a good point about the body policing thin women face, and that it is sometimes disguised as barbed comments about luck. The retort and solution, however, is completely wrong. One does not react to body policing with more body policing. That is never right.

Then commenter Het won the internet with one of the finest, most eloquent summaries of the harms of body policing I have ever seen:

It’s hard being A WOMAN. Of whatever size. If you’re thin, as you say, you have those problems to contend with, of inconveniences of finding clothes that fit you, or being excluded from some bogus definition of “real” femininity. But it’s not as if bigger (both fat and also those who are not particularly thin) women don’t have to face different but equally important problems.
At least if you look in a magazine you can see people who look like you. At least you’re not being encouraged to have dangerous and unnecessary surgery.
But it’s not a competition. Capitalism benefits from women fighting each other instead of it.

My point is, the fact of the matter is all femininity is an unreal construct. It seems to me that the issues you are describing that affect you are part of the same problem faced by bigger women: the problem of society feeling it owns all women’s bodies and has the right to control them and to make money from that control. The fact that you can say that you are made to feel that people think you are not a “real” woman, and that I as a fat woman can say the same surely proves that we are in the same boat: that of the impossible and self-contradictory demands made upon women’s bodies that aren’t meant to make sense but rather to procure money from our discontent and divide our gender in arguing about who has it worse.

One minor quibble with this, though: body policing is not only harmful to women: it is also harmful to men. This rather fantastic blog explores the unattainability of the masculine body ideal, providing examples of the horrifying things male models must go through to present the ideal male body:

And the illusion being sold by the fitness magazines is that this hyper-masculinity is attainable. If you just work out longer and harder; if you’re just more careful about your diet; if you just take the right supplements and drink the right sports beverage… then you, too, can have a body like a fitness model. A cartoon image of fitness is being sold to men as if it were actual fitness. And men are being taught that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get there.

But this ideal of masculinity isn’t just difficult to achieve. It isn’t just narrow; it isn’t just rigid; it isn’t just out of reach for some or even most men. It is, quite literally, unattainable. Even the fitness models themselves can’t attain it: not without nightmarish physical ordeals, camera tricks, and Photoshop. It is a carrot being dangled in front of a donkey — which the donkey will never, ever get to eat.

Body policing and idealised body shapes and sizes are harmful to all, and inextricably linked to prescribed gender roles. This is another reason to fight patriarchy where we see it.

9 thoughts on “A few quick notes on body policing”

  1. Are these hyper-masculine models a product of patriarchy (which has been going on for millennia), or is it something more recent though? I’m not disputing that patriarchy should be fought, but it strikes me as interesting that we’ve gone from a situation where the ideal man is a big fat ginger chap (Henry VIII) with a pot belly, to this unattainable ideal. Much of what’s happening with the likes of Men’s Health magazine seems to me to be about capitalism in general – it’s about manufacturing desires for Shit We Don’t Need – supplements, vitamins, gadgets, gym wear, gym membership, weights, personal trainers & all that crap, which they’ve been doing for ages to women, till you started to say “Hold on, this is wrong”. We men haven’t cottoned on, generally, that this is all Shit We Don’t Need, but I’m pretty sure it’s not so much a gender-role thing as a fitness industry thing. If we were tottering around in high heels & minis, we’d still get sold SWDN in the form of makeup & miniskirts for the meatier guy. Capitalism makes everything a market, whatever role you try to take.

    1. It’s an interaction, though: capitalism feeds from selling gender roles and ideals. It’s gone about as far as it comes for women. Now it’s the time to profit from men.

  2. I’m not sure about your points re: body policing and men – I think there’s quite a difference between societal expectations on the appearance of men and women (obviously) and I wonder if it’s a little unwise to equate the two. Most of my female friends, of varying body types, will confess to being uncomfortable with their body image and the wider media depictions of it. Most of my male friends don’t really give much of a shit, in truth. OK – if (like myself) we’ve got a proper pot bellies and are genuinely unfit, yes we do often think we could be healthier. But only one of my friends that I’ve talked to about this feels the need to try and emulate the ‘Men’s Health’ physique – and he’s someone who, bless him, is very insecure about his appearance. Many of the rest of my friends find that kind of ‘buff’ look a bit, well, prissy – not at all ‘hyper-masculine’. And I think that’s the point – the discomfort that women feel at the idealised form is widespread – it’s a patriarchal/societal pressure; men’s discomfort at a male idealised form is fairly rare – patriarchy gives us a lot of slack to be fat bastards; the patriarchal pressure on men is to be ‘wealthy and successful’, not ‘beautiful’. PS- the google ad that popped up for this blog entry for me was for ‘slimming hotpants’… yeesh…

  3. I’m with Ben. Having a beer-belly, or insufficient hair, height or muscles, doesn’t merit the same moral condemnation that being a Fat Girl does (greedy/lazy/chavvy) or Not A Real Woman (no tits, anorexia is a crime not a life-threatening mental illness). Being an ugly man makes you an ugly man. Being an unattractive woman makes you a bad human being. We get the luxury of not giving a shit.

    1. Idealised body shapes befitting gender roles: women should be either “voluptuous” or “frail” (see Madonna/whore dichotomy). Men should be big and strong and MACHO.

  4. I’m a 5’9″ male and I weigh 115lbs. I have a 27″ waist and I’m 19. I am incredibly self conscious about my weight and skinnyness. I hate it when people talk as if only women have body image issues and only large people have body image issues. I also want people to accept that not all body types are attractive to everyone. We see all over the internet people hating on other people because they prefer skinny girls or more muscly men and we need to accept that. If its socially acceptable to prefer a certain hair color, accent or facial features, then why are people being scrutinized for finding certain body shapes attractive or not?

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