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How Feminism Influences Body Image and Beauty Ideals

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

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In today’s world, everyone seems to have an opinion about what women should look like, what they should wear, even what they should eat. It’s no surprise, then, that this judgment can lead to mental health conditions like low self-esteem, low self-worth, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. In today’s blog post, I want to look at a few examples of the negative impact that our patriarchal society can have on body image and beauty ideals and then focus on the good work being done by two current movements.

The Negative Impact of Our Patriarchal Society

Unfortunately, regardless of appearance and size, women are oppressed by patriarchal norms. These norms can make women feel shameful about both their bodies and their appetites. As Charlotte Lieberman writes in an eye-opening piece for Marie Claire, “To be a hungry woman, according to patriarchy, is to be voracious and pleasure-seeking, devoid of discipline and principles.” The opposing choice, then — to starve or contain yourself through diet, disordered eating or an eating disorder — is one that fights against the natural quest for desire, serving as a show of strength and discipline despite the often dangerous outcomes. So a good woman, by society’s standards, must not take up too much space, be more focused on the needs of others, be cautious with her needs, and be able to contain the “voracious” and pleasure-seeking desires that would challenge the values of morality, humility, and passivity. Sounds restrictive, right? Well, it is -- and it causes a lot of distress and mental health issues in women!

There’s also an oft-accepted idea that thin is good and fat is bad, especially for women — so accepted, in fact, that people sustain it without even realizing it. For instance, when recounting a story, they will frequently associate descriptions like lazy and unmotivated with being overweight and adjectives like enthusiastic and committed with being thin or even “healthy.” Here, there’s an inherent idea that everyone is striving for goodness and thus thinness. This dieting mindset and the negative self-talk that often accompanies it (i.e. “I’ll never fit into those jeans if I eat like that at every meal!” or “I won’t be successful unless I lose 10 pounds.”) is harmful to everyone, especially women who are more likely to base their worth on their weight or size due to society’s encouragement of these norms.

The focus and strive for thinness by women in our society is actually a mechanism of keeping women contained and controlled by the system. What else could women be doing if they weren’t focusing on their appearances, bodies, and food or comparing themselves to the bodies and appearance of others? What if women’s contributions to society were not measured in our appearance and ability to be a good mate but instead more focused on our character, contributions, strengths, and experiences?

The Body Positivity Movement

In response to these negative effects of patriarchy, women have formed the body positivity movement, which calls for a focus on personal worth and the establishment of unique beauty qualities that women and men of all sizes, races, and cultures can find in themselves. It seeks to challenge that there is one right way to be beautiful and pushes for all people to see and acknowledge their inner and outer beauty as well as to challenge beauty norms that seek to oppress people.

The body positivity movement, while motivated by the negative impact of the patriarchy, is a direct result of feminist beliefs. Put simply, feminism is a social movement that intends to end the unjust treatment of women and simultaneously creates opportunities for their progress. Thus, by its very definition, it goes hand-in hand with body acceptance and body positivity.

The Body Is Not an Apology Movement

Similarly, The Body Is Not an Apology (TBINAA) movement works to counter the devastating impacts of “body terrorism,” both towards the self and from others. This effort includes fighting against racism and racist violence; assault, murder, and suicide of members of the LGBTQIA+ community; rape and sexual/physical/emotional/psychological assault on women; and the shame caused and perpetuated by media images, which can lead to body hatred, eating disorders, addiction, and more. Further, this movement and organization seeks to help people -- women, in particular -- to see and challenge the negative beliefs they have about themselves that stem from influences of white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, and other categories of privilege that oppress minority groups and establish unobtainable beauty ideals.

The ultimate goal of both of these movements is to foster self-love, to help all women see past the limited beauty standards and skewed images and messages that are so prevalent in our society and instead see their beauty and worth beyond a number on the scale, color of their skin, or any other aspect of physical appearance or ability.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, CEDS at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.


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