She stands on her toes, body arced, eyes scrutinizing the gaunt figure before her. In the mirror’s reflection, her body is a Picasso. She sees a round girl with pudgy face, bulges spilling over the borders of her body. Behind her is a window. It tells a different story. In its sympathetic glass, an angled, concave frame hangs limp with lethargy and lack of nutrition: the specter of a once healthy teenage girl.
Why is it that in their teenage years, men find puberty empowering and women find it debilitating? What is it about the process of becoming a woman that makes us lose our power at the very time we should be claiming it?
I have heard it posited that girls who have suffered from sexual abuse sometimes develop eating disorders in order to transform and desexualize their bodies, removing the curves that signal womanhood, that tempting and cursed allure.
Regardless of their causes, eating and body dysmorphic disorders limit a girl's agency and ability to self-actualize from children to adults. They serve as barriers to education, sucking dry their victims’ energies and youthful passions that should be applied to learning, love, and life.
There is nothing simple about solving this problem. But one state is taking steps toward mitigating it. Israel is toeing the battle line in the fight against eating disorders. In direct confrontation to the fashion industry’s portrayal of waifish models that promote unrealistic and unhealthy body image, Israel has enacted the “Photoshop Law,” which went into effect this year (2). Its guidelines are twofold. First, under the close supervision of a doctor, a working model must maintain a body mass index (BMI) over 18%, which the World Health Organization considers the border line for malnutrition. Second, advertisements which use Photoshop or other visual editors to trim and gloss fashion photos (almost all do) must explicitly state it in their promotions.
Critics have voiced various complaints: the law limits freedom of choice, BMI is not the best measurement of health, and more. But the fact is that women all over the world are struggling with their bodies based on unrealistic standards and this law is one of the singular government attempts to advance and protect women’s mental and physical health by changing the standard. In a country such as Israel that has one of the highest rates of eating disorders and plastic surgery in the world (3), the new law sends a critical message.
In 2004, Dove launched an iconic “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which portrayed wholesome images of real-looking women. In 2009, Dove’s researchers conducted a five-year follow-up study, in which they noted a marked shift in perception about what women wanted from the fashion and advertising industries after extended exposure to their campaign (4). Specifically Dove found that the current standards made them feel “more self-conscious” and “inadequate” “about the way they look,” and that “95% of women would like to see more real women used in beauty advertising” (up from 74% in the original study).
Ladies, there is hope. Just as the media and fashion industries have the capacity to harm our self-esteem through repeated, dominant imagery of unattainable ideals, the Dove campaign has proven that if given the opportunity, the media can make real, positive change in our perceptions of self as well.
Moreover, positive imagery of women and girls can be transferred to other societal battlegrounds: to promote agency, encourage community engagement, and advance pro-social initiatives. Yes, the media is powerful, but with the burgeoning strength of Web 2.0, it is within reach to take the reins into our own hands.
It all comes down to education – of ourselves and our communities. We can use what we know to change the world by improving the lives of women and their families as purveyors of their own truths and tellers of their own tales. By using our abilities to amplify women’s voices, we say no to the sad girl in the broken mirror, smashing the glass and turning her around to the bright, sunny day. When we take control of our own power, it clears our heads to attend to the truly important matters of the world. There is much learning to be done.
Update: End Note
In sitting with this finished essay for a few days now, I think I should add an endnote as not everything I wanted to convey came through in the way that I wanted to convey it.
Why are eating disorders and body obsessive disorders so detrimental to girls' fulfillment of their academic capacity? Because they consume headspace and mental energy that could be positively applied in the rest of their lives, most importantly to their education, which is the number one way they can advance themselves and their families.
Teenagers, especially, can be obsessive, or when positively channeled passionate. An eating disorder can literally take up every waking moment of a girl's life, from how she feels when she wakes up in the morning, to her clothing choices through to what she eats, how she exercises and treats her body, her presentation and communication with others, how she connects with members of her family, friends, school, community, and on.
If I were to rewrite my essay, I would focus more centrally on how representations of girls and women in the media affect their valuation of self, and in turn how portrayals of women as powerful and beautiful can be empowering to girls in all aspects of their life.
Thanks for reading.
1. Image: Picasso, Pablo, “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” (painting), www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jconte/Images/Picasso_Demoiselles.jpg.
2. Minsburg, Talya, “What the U.S. Can—and Can't—Learn From Israel's Ban on Ultra-Thin Models” (May 9, 2012; retrieved April 18, 2013): www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/05/what-the-us-can-and-ca....
3. Women and Their Bodies: “Statistics about Women’s Health in Israel” (retrieved April 18, 2013): www.wtb.org.il/english/womens-health-information-center/data/.
4. Arjowiggins Graphic Press Office, “Impossibly Beautiful,” (November 27, 2009; retrieved, April 18, 2013): http://smr.lexispr.com/dove/impossibly-beautiful.
5. Image: comparing Victoria’s Secret and Dove campaign images (multiple sources, original source unknown).
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Girls Transform the World 2013.