The elusive ideal body: Its construction and impacts on contemporary youth

Standard

By Chu

Many studies have been conducted on the subject of youth’s body image, as well as the causes and potential impacts on young people’s behavior aiming to alter their body. Youth’s attempts to body modification are being constantly stigmatized and pathologized in the media. Youth, in many reports and researches, are infantilized and theoretically ripped off their agency. It is only by giving their voice back to youth that we can understand how the body is perceived by them, and in which ways the body is used as either a weapon for self-empowerment and resistance, or a tool to conform to social conventions. Therefore, in this paper, I have allowed more space for individuals’ subjective experiences, including those of myself, regarding the impacts of the ideal body image.

Is beauty globalized?

With a cup of coffee in hand, I was talking to Emine, a Turkish girl from the city of Istanbul. When I brought up the subject of ideal beauty in Turkey, she shrugged:

“It depends on where you live.”

How is that?

“Well, Istanbul is very much westernized. There if you are a blonde fair-skinned with blue eyes, you are gonna be really popular.”

Do you also have to be slender?

“Yeah. Being slim is not the norm in Turkey. We have big butts. You go to a jeans’ shop and all the big sizes are out of stock. But girls are trying harder and harder to lose weight, to look like those models on magazines or Hollywood stars.”

This casual conversation raises a question that has been much debated recently: are our standards of beauty homogenized by globalization? Or to put it in a more explicit and provocative way: does there exist a “western imperialism of beauty” that pushes young girls and boys to adhere to a westernized ideal body image?

I suggest a materialistic perspective to answer this question. The entire globalization process was initiated through free trade and based on principles of neoliberal capitalism. The exchange of goods therefore preceded the exchange of values. If certain values become globally accepted and recognized, the practice of industries would be the biggest contributor. Western-based industries so far still occupy the top of the pyramid of the world’s economic structure, which led to the predominance of consumerism on a global level. The most crucial strategy for the maintenance of this consumerist culture is to create dissatisfaction, especially dissatisfaction towards one’s self. Global capitalism is capable of manufacturing and manipulating desires through a set of perfection codes, and the emphasis on individuals’ “trainability,” creating the illusion that one can reach this artificial state of perfection if fully devoted, and consumption is a vital part of such devotion.

This strategy has been used on female consumers by fashion and beauty industries for years. When the female market has reached a point of saturation, the industries extend their scope to male consumers, and since the 1950s, to the youth. Therefore we witness the same strategy being applied to a new generation of consumers in order to yield maximum profit. One indispensable step for triggering dissatisfaction is to provide ideals that are impossible to attain, and the more homogenized these ideals are, the easier it is for industries to promote their products to a wider range of audiences. In the case of ideal body image, or ideal beauty, the general tendency of westernization is obvious, since Europe and North America are still in control of the production and circulation of most values. But to see this process as monopolized by the West would oversimplify the reality.

Yeeun, a South Korean exchange student, told me about the aspirations of girls and boys regarding their appearance in her country:

“Every girl in Korea wants a body and a face like the members of girl bands such as Girl’s Generation. They are tall, thin, have long legs, but have curves as well. They dress and wear make-up in a cute way.”

What is a cute way then?

“It means you apply your make-up subtly: even though you are wearing a lot of it, nobody can tell unless they look very carefully.”

How about guys? What kind of guy do you and your friends consider as good- looking?

“Well, that would be a guy who is tall and has muscles. But not too   much… subtle muscles I would say. He should have a cute face, like those boys’ band members. And definitely no beard.”

The South Korean example here illustrates how the western ideal of beauty is deterritorialized and reappropriated by the local fashion and entertainment industry in order to increase its appeal on the South-Korean youth. Some elements of the western ideal are selected, such as a well-developed bosom and a curvy derriere for women, and toned muscle for men. However, recurring words and descriptions like “subtle” and “cute” indicate that Korean values are incorporated into the construction of an ideal body image. The emphases on subtleness, preservation and even androgyny on the side of men, probably did not originate from the West, where the ideal beauty is usually more sexualized and men’s virility is rendered more visible through body shape.

It is undeniable that globalization dominated by the West exercises enormous influence on youth’s beauty standard. Nonetheless, diversity does exist in more or less evident forms due to different cultural and social environments. Yet the commonalities focused on slimness and muscularity are alarming. Why do both of these standards persist despite all the variables? If the economic approach can no longer explain this peculiarity, we might have to look at the overarching structure that governs economy, even arranges every aspect of our social life: the male-female dichotomy.

Heteronormativity and the gendered body

Youth, especially teenagers during the age of puberty, undergo a crucial phase of their social life. As they reach physically sexual maturity, they are prepared to be sexually active citizens through internalization of a set of rules regarding gender and sexuality. These rules, either tacit or explicit, all point to two major principles: androcentricity and heteronormativity.

In his work Masculine Domination (1998), Pierre Bourdieu describes our society as “androcentric” and “phallonarcissistic”. This vision is firstly based on the dichotomy between male and female, an opposition that was historically and socially constructed through a series of dispositions and interactions. The human cosmology, according to Bourdieu and his studies of primitive and archaic societies, is composed of countless dichotomies homologue to a male-female opposition (for example, big-small, high- low, bright-dark). The ceaseless playing of metaphors and connotations work to associate masculinity with active and progressive characteristics and gestures, while passivity, even degeneracy is assigned to femininity. This cognitive schema becomes even more detrimental to women’s already vulnerable position as it is naturalized as neutral facts and legitimizes, in turn, the male domination. Bourdieu argues that women themselves also contribute to the domination they are suffering, as they recognize and adhere to, consciously or unconsciously, androcentric values that have proliferated in their public and private lives.

Aimée from France described to me how she started her first diet at the age of 14:

“It was during the winter holiday. My parents and I went to a ski resort with another family. The mother of that family was a generalist practitioner. I got my period not long ago and I started to grow boobs and stuff. I always felt hungry at that time. One night after a day of skiing, we were having dinner together. I finished my plate and still wanted more. When I asked for more food, the woman (mother of the other family) looked at me, and said to me in a very serious tone that she had noticed that I had been putting on weight recently and that I shouldn’t eat more. My parents were shocked: how can you say that to a child who needs lots of nutrition to grow! But I cried at the table because no one had said that to me before. When we returned home, I decided that I would go on a diet.”

The 14-year-old Aimée lost 7 kilograms in just one month. I asked if she was satisfied with her new image, to my surprise, she shook her head:

“Not at all. I still thought that I could be more perfect. Every time someone took a photo of me, I could only see those flaws: my thighs are so huge, my cheeks are too chubby and so on. But no one else who looked at the photo would point out any flaw that I thought I had.”

I asked her then if she felt that her slimmer figure made her more popular, to the opposite sex, that is. She replied with a sarcastic smile:

“At first I decided to lose some weight because I wanted more attention from kids in my school. After I succeeded, some boys showed interest in me. But I was so preoccupied by my diet and I had zero confidence in my look. I had no energy for romance. My focus of life was my diet, my food. ”

Yeeun also shared with me her own experience:

“When I am not in a relationship, it is hard for me to lose weight. I am not motivated at all. Besides, it is much easier to lose weight when you are going out with a guy.”

Interesting. I thought when you live in couple, you feel happier and eat more. I saw a lot of girls and boys packed on a few pounds once they are in a stable relationship.

“Well not for me. When I had a boyfriend and we dined out together, I ate slower, and I talked a lot. And of course I would pay more attention to my appearance and watched my weight closely.”

Judgment and the opinions of others, especially of the opposite sex, as illustrated in the two individual cases above, are strong motivations for young girls to lose weight, which validates Bourdieu’s theory about women as beings-perceived (être-perçu). A woman’s body, under the masculine domination, is a “body for others” (corps-pour- autrui). One’s relation with one’s body has two inseparable dimensions: one is “body image”, or better described as “self-image”: a subjective representation of self that is closely associated with one’s self-esteem. The other dimension is the objective representation of the body, in the form of descriptive and normative feedback from others. According to Bourdieu, as men are “naturalized” as the dominator and women as the dominated, and both share the same schema of perception and appreciation, women are very often inclined to a sort of auto-depreciation, even a systematic auto- denigration. As a result, women are trapped into a state of permanent corporal insecurity: a woman exists primarily in other’s eyes.

This tendency is further reinforced with the arrival of the Internet era. The photos that one uploads online are available to almost every user on the Internet. Teenage girls and young women now have a larger audience, and the construction of a perfect virtual image becomes a preoccupation for the wired generation of girls. Taking a perfect photo of oneself, most of time the selfie (a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone, and usually taken in a slightly tilted manner), then posting it online and waiting for “Likes” has become a regular ritual for many.

Back in high school, I had a female friend who would spend hours taking selfies, selecting, then embellishing the one that she was most satisfied with using tools such as filters or Photoshop. The major motivation of such an endeavor is the approval of her audience. Once her new selfie did not get as many “Likes” as the previous one, she would be frustrated, and ask me whether she had gained weight recently. The impact of judgment and recognition on the Internet is not limited to the online sphere: it significantly affects the individual’s self-perception off-line, especially at a time when the presentation of the self has become a worldwide obsession.

Young women are indeed more inclined to alter their body according to the ideal female body. However, young men, who are not yet in full possession of symbolic capital, are definitely not immune to the constraints of a masculine ideal and are also under the constant pressure of judgment. The male-female dichotomy and the naturalized inferior position of the female can lead to a phobia and resentment on the side of men of traits that evoke femininity. While women are often not satisfied with their body parts that are “too big,” men, on the contrary, are usually anxious about certain body parts being “too small.” As Terry, a British young man, recalled about student life back in high school:

“The tallest, biggest guys always won the most respect. …And you have to be sportive. The athlete kind of body is the ideal. If you are tall but skinny, people call you a ‘lanky’. You never want to be called a ‘lanky’ at school. If you are tall, you’d better be bulky as well.”

However, there is one exception.

“But if you have a giant penis, people would be really impressed. For instance, I had this classmate who was very skinny, and had a hunchback. Every boy at school respected him because his penis was huge.”

Terry’s story is an example of how virility, as the essence of ideal masculinity, exercises its normative power on young men. Both the dominator and the dominated are confined to the dichotomized cognitive structure of gendered bodies. To ensure the masculine identity, a man is counted to possess and render, as visible as possible, his virility. Judith Butler’s (1999) theory on gender performativity provides deeper insights into the maintenance and reinforcement of one’s gender identity. She claims that gender itself is socially constructed instead of being innate, which resonates with Bourdieu’s view of gender and the gendered body as man-made yet naturalized as objective eternal truth. Butler goes further by defining gender as performance. The body and the way it is presented constitute a decisive element of one’s masculinity or femininity in a heteronormative context, which requires coherence among anatomical sex, gender performance and gender identity.

It is intriguing to see how the heterosexual norm frames youth’s expectations of the male and female body. In order to obtain a more generalized, yet not purely quantitative, picture of youth’s perception of the body I carried out a micro-project in class. I asked my fellow students to draw sketches of a “hot guy” standing next to a “hot girl,” whom they would qualify as “beautiful” and “attractive.” By comparing the sketches made by male and female students, we can observe that the differentiation between the male and the female body is achieved through a high level of sexualization: a beautiful body is an object of desire. Nearly all the female figures, especially those drawn by male students, have long hair, well-developed breasts and a tiny waist. While students depicted the ideal male body as taller than the female, muscular, sometimes with a beard. A few students did not hesitate to add an erected giant penis to their ideal model of masculinity. Here is a selection of the obtained drawings:

Chu - Illustration1 Chu - Illustration2  Chu - Illustration4 Chu - Illustration5

How about the voice of those who do not “fit” in the heteronormative scheme? How do lesbians and gays perceive their body and what kind of body do they aspire to? Terry, during the interview, told me that his gay brother suddenly decided to work out and gain more muscles before he came out. Sexual appeal, whether towards the opposite or the same sex, might be the most prominent factor in determining the ideal body image. A gay or lesbian’s “taste” in men or women regarding physical appearance might not be that different from straight people: in gay porn the actors featured are often no less bulky or muscular than those in “straight” porn. The popular stereotypical image of a gay man as “sissy boy” is derived from the male-female dichotomy: in a gay couple, there must be one “playing the male” and the other “playing the female.” Our understanding of homosexual relationship is usually biased, therefore we find it hard to imagine that gay men also take their virility very seriously: being virile, muscular or athletic does not come in conflict with one’s sexual orientation.

This incoherence between one’s sexuality and one’s ideal body image does not signify a transgression of the heteronormative scheme: it only demonstrates how deeply the heterosexually based beauty standards are engrained in our consciousness. Distinct male or female features are always expected, and are bases of recognition from the society. This might explain why behaviors and identities that blur such distinction, such as transsexuals and drag queen, are usually scandalized and ridiculed.

In or out of control?

So far I have examined how some major power structures have imposed on youth an unrealistic ideal body image, and how the inability to reach the ideal may cause frustration and even self-loathing. The discussions above might give the impression that young people are completely passive and powerless facing multiple social dispositions. Indeed, how youth practice their agency to either achieve their ideal body or to reject the values forced on them is usually ignored.

However, my interviewees, when talking about their dieting history, frequently mentioned a sense of empowerment gained through self-control. Aimée, who described herself as “mentally anorexic” when she was on the diet, told me in detail her eating behavior:

“I got up in the morning, weighed myself, then started to plan how many calories I could eat that day. I counted the calories of every bite of food before I put it in my mouth.I watched carefully my portion size and stayed away from ‘bad’ foods like pastries and fries. When I saw people eating greasy food, I felt very proud of myself because I had the willpower to not eat ‘unhealthy’ stuff… I always loved cooking and I still cooked for the whole family occasionally when I was on diet.”

Would you eat together with your parents?

“Oh no. I would just try the taste then nothing more. It was an incredible feeling: you felt you are stronger than everyone else because food was right there and you can control yourself not to even eat a bit.”

The logic here might seem odd to many, but it is very familiar for me. I first decided to “drop some weight” when I was 16. I was dancing in a local hip-hop dance crew. Because of intensive training, I ate a lot and never worried about my weight. When I entered high school I was astonished to see how skinny other girls were, and how little they ate compared to myself. I was constantly made fun of due to my slightly muscular thighs, which I reacted to at first with self-mockery, but very soon it became my secret anxiety. I was convinced that once I would become thinner, I would have toned, skinny legs.

I still remember that the night I decided to go on a diet, I wrote down “inspirational” quotes and my target weight on a small piece of paper, since then I always carried it around in my wallet. Two of the first rules I set to myself were 1. Never empty your dish, 2. Don’t eat dinner even if you are starved. I followed them without any difficulty, and was surprise to realize how strong my willpower was. The discovery of one’s ability to restrict food intake for the cause of “slimming down” is very encouraging and can boost one’s self-esteem. It was the joy of reclaiming one’s agency and individuality against the hegemonic yet ambivalent requirements from society.

The sense of being “in control” can be addictive when the individual constantly tries to outperform him or herself and reaches a new goal, “push your boundaries” so to speak. The pleasure of conquering hunger is a turning point from simply dieting to anorexic symptoms. In her article, ‘Being anorexic: Hunger, subjectivity, and embodied morality’, Sigal Gooldin (2008) describes anorexia as using hunger, a corporeal experience, to construct a sense of heroic selfhood. By gradually reducing my portion size and limiting my food choice, I indeed felt like a hero superior to the “crowd” who “indulge themselves”. Having this heroic self-image in mind, I started to enjoy hunger and needless to say, my weight dropped dramatically. Then I was confronted with a completely new challenge: the stigmatization of anorexia.

As I have discussed above, the very first experience of anorexia can be empowering for youth as they use their body, “the weapon of the weak,” to exercise their individual agency. However, dramatic weight loss and deviant eating behaviors often lead to the stigmatizing label of anorexia, and therefore marginalization of the anorexic. Maartje, who came from a city close to Amsterdam, told me a depressing story of an anorexic girl.

“We were studying in the same middle school and we always had lunch together at the canteen with other friends. She would wait until we all finished our food, then she would pack up her own lunch, explaining that she had no appetite now and that she would have her lunch later. The fact was that she threw away her lunch in the dumpster every time we walked out of the canteen. Everybody knew and was talking about that behind her back. One time in the winter I saw her hands turned freaking purple. I asked if she was okay and she told me that her hands were always like this when it was cold. I was really worried about her and reported her situation to the school doctor. He called immediately her parents and told them their daughter was anorexic. The girl was so furious of me. She found me in my class and asked why I thought she was anorexic… I bumped into her on the street recently. Her thighs were the same size as my arms.”

Extreme thinness caused by anorexia attracts negative judgmental attention from others. Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people” (L’enfer c’est les autres), applies perfectly to the embarrassment, unease and shame many anorexic girls and boys experience while being exposed in the eyes of the public.

In Gooldin’s (2008) article, an Israeli girl tells the author what happened to her when she only weighed 39 kilos and walked on the street:

I used to walk in the roads of my Kibbutz and watch the reactions of the people who were walking past me. They all looked at me with these looks….They were saying to me: ‘Look how you look like’; ‘You look like you have cancer’; ‘You look like you just came out of Auschwitz’; ‘Go to a concentration camp. You look like that’s where you belong’; ‘What are you doing to your mother?’ You know, stuff like that.

I still remember the first day when I returned to school after the summer holiday of the second grade, during which I harshly constrained myself and weighed only 40 kilos when the new semester started. People were scared to see how boney I was. I felt like a freak walking in the hallway. Everyone was staring at me and murmuring. I will never forget the reaction of my political science teacher; the middle-age rounded man looked at me when I entered the class, then he said, in a sarcastic tone, in front of everyone: “Come on, tell me what’s your secret to lose so much weight? Look at this fat belly here!” He pointed at his stomach. People laughed. I tried to laugh although I felt very uncomfortable about the joke. “Well…I was studying too hard during the holiday…I had to pass my IELTS and l had French course everyday…” Although this was the lamest explanation ever, I tried to act as normal as possible. His reply: “So you think I don’t work hard enough?” My classmates laughed harder. I did not know how to react anymore so I went to my seat, and for the first time, I felt disgusted of myself.

Years later I met a classmate back in high school. It was only then that I learned that outrageous rumors about me were circulating in school. Few of my peers in school had any knowledge about anorexia, so they made up stories to explain my dramatic loss of weight. Some even claimed that they saw me snorting meth in the toilet.

Rejection and unfair judgments from the surrounding environment turned the initially empowering anorexic experience into self-doubt, even self-loathing. Here I am not trying to “normalize” anorexia by adding a heroic halo around it, neither am I blaming any individual of pushing anorexics into a desperate situation. However, it is true that the lack of understanding, even the refusal to understand anorexia, contribute to the transformation of anorexics’ perception of the self: from “in control” to “out of control”. In many cases, anorexia is followed by other forms of eating disorder such as bulimia (binge-eating) and purging, which cause extreme harm to the health and general well-being of the individual.

I suffered from binging/purging for several months after I underwent a medical examination and found out that something was wrong with my liver due to malnutrition. I was forced to eat, which induced in me a feeling of nausea. I was furious that I “lost control” of my appetite, of my body, which I was free to alter, to modify in any way I want. As if my agency was totally deprived, I cracked.

Every form of body modification by youth, mild or extreme, can be seen as an individual’s attempt to exercise agency. Motivations are diverse and often derived from external rather than internal factors, but the sense of achievement and empowerment during the process are common. Therefore, pursuance of the ideal body shape, though futile indeed, cannot be seen as a completely passive experience.

More and more young people have been exercising their agency towards the opposite direction: resistance against the hegemonic, unrealistic ideal presented by the media and industries. Promoting one’s reconciliation with one’s own body, such resistance and movements can be considered as a reclaim of the symbolic capital once controlled in the hands of the minority. A recent example would be the boycott of the brand Abercrombie & Fitch, triggered by its CEO’s comments on body size. The CEO, Mike Jeffries, in an online interview with Salon, claimed that he wasn’t bothered by excluding fat people from his stores (Abercombie & Fitch does not provide XL and XXL size for women’s clothing). He stated that “fat kids” could never join the “cool crowd” at school, and Abercombie & Fitch was made for the fit/thin/beautiful people who lead the tide. These elitist statements put the brand into crisis, and the brand became a target of criticism and parodies. A series of photos, named Attractive & Fat, features plus-sized girls posing in A&F clothes: a graceful yet powerful backlash against the hegemonic beauty standard.

Conclusion

A combination of different forces contributed to the construction of the ideal body. While the dominant neoliberal capitalist values aim to create a sense of dissatisfaction towards one’s self, social norms regarding heteronormative gender and sexuality impose constraints and standards on youth’s body. Young women are more inclined to feel insecure about how their bodies are perceived by others, due to the general objectification of women within a patriarchal society. Young men cannot escape from the heteronormative scheme either: more and more are pressured to demonstrate their virility through physical traits to validate their male identity.

However, individuals are still capable of exercising their agency within the socially constructed constraints. Through the pursuit of the ideal body image, the youth can experience a sense of empowerment and “in control.” This can result in detrimental effects on the body and sense of self-worth. But the use of agency can also manifest itself in the recent counter-trend: by rejecting the elusive ideal body and accepting who one really is, the youth shake the corner stone of our androcentric, consumerist society.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context.)

References

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998). La domination masculine.Edition de Seuil.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

Connell, R.W. (1995). Masculinities. Allen & Unwin.

Evans, John, Emma Rich & Rachel Holroyd (2004). ‘Disordered eating and disordered schooling: what schools do to middle class girls’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 25(2): 123-142.

Gooldin, Sigal (2008). ‘Being anorexic: Hunger, subjectivity, and embodied morality’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 22(3): 274-296.

Greenfield, Laurent (2006). Thin, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXikadbbnoo

Kerr, Simon & Laura Sauriat (2001). Swallow it: A society’s struggle with eating and body image, http://vimeo.com/36394133

Rich, Emma & John Evans (2009). ‘Now I am NObody, see me for who I am: The paradox of performativity’, Gender and Education, 21(1): 1-16.

Cover illustration: Aline Salazar.

Advertisements