Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
  • Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
  • Beauty Campaigns: Victoria's Secret versus Dove

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.

Sources:

  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).

Topic Leadership

Take action! This post was submitted in response to Girls Transform the World 2013.

Comment on this Post

Comments

Maya, your blog is so interesting and so true, as many of us will attest! Body image can be crippling or empowering, so thank you for starting this conversation, keep going, please.

"Be the change you want in the world." Gandhi Debra K. Adams, MA Survivors In Service: Self Empowerment Strategies (SiSSeS) Consultant/Speaker/Author & Owner/Founder. Please learn more about me here: http://re.vu/debrakadams

Thanks very much, Debra. I love a good "hurray!"

In keeping: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," Eleanor Roosevelt. Another favorite.

~ Maya

I do believe Maya that there is hope for portraying a woman in a more realistic and sensible way. Media can play crucial role and with the help of web 2.0 its much easier for women like us to reshape our image from sexualised object to a real human being with intelligence and emotion. And yes, its high time to transform our perceptions and empower women's agency and ability of self-actualization. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece. keep writing!

Thanks, Sangita. I'm glad you "got it" as I wasn't sure I was getting my cental message across - and actually added an endnote just today for clarification.

I'm glad you commented because somehow I'd missed your posts before. What a beautiful writer you are. I especially like your titles. Off to read your work.

Where are you doing (or did you do) graduate studies in development?

~ Maya

Dear Maya, i still wonder why you thought that your post was unclear in any way. It was clear and precise. In fact, I really loved the term self-actualization and woman's agency, which are my favourite since college time.

Thank you so much for taking time to read my post. They are not as good as yours or some other ladies here who are gifted writers but somehow I try to write about things that matter most to me. Im studying at the College of Development Studies, Purbanchal University in Nepal. My thesis is due and im having hard time balancing thesis writing and work. Its yet another ordeal that i must overcome. Glad to meet you here and would love to read more from you.

Thanks for bolstering my confidence, Sangita. And yes, it feels good to use those terms. They really get the message across, I think. Very college. :) I had to ask myself if they were self explanatory or needed further background and explanation, but decided to go for it as written.

Good luck with your thesis. Remind yourself that it's a privilege, if you can. That sometimes helps. What are you writing on? (Or if you simply aren't in the mood to talk about it, that's completely understandable as well. I've been there.)

Warm wishes to you,

~ Maya

Yes Maya, I know its a privilege if we could accomplish it. Im writing (not actually writing these days though) my thesis research on Gender and Conservation Policy of Nepal. Im so frustrated to see the results, but have long way to go in terms of developing it into a fully researched paper. Thanks for the interest! I hope to finish it before its too late.

Wishing you luck and perseverance, Sangita. I know how frustrating writing a thesis can be when you're in the middle of it and it's not coming out how you want it to.

~ Maya

Dear Maya, I'm pleased to go through your post. You have put forward the real picture of the setting. Women shouldn't be used as a tool to promote things. The mindset needs to be changed.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Love

Taha Mirani

Nicely said. And you have raised quite a valid and important point that we need to consider in our journey for women emancipation.

It amazes me that women are "used" as advertising muse for all variety of good ranging from electrical appliances, industrial goods to beauty items. It's just so very belittling when a women's figure is more important in the sale of these products.

Keep writing Maya.

Regards, Aminah

Salaam Aminah

Thanks, Aminah. There are many reasons I don't own a TV - and why I won't let my kids watch Disney movies when they get older. How often do we watch a commercial or see something advertised where there is a suggestive portrayal of a woman's body completely unrelated to anything. Electrical appliances may just be the best example.

I think you'll connect with this image of American comedians (Steve Carrell, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert) on "How men would look if they had to pose in ads the way women are expected to": https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151375914405163&set=a.10150556...

~ Maya

For sure.

It's nice having women in my timezone. I'm used to having to wait until the evening to talk to people. (Part of my work is with Americans, so they don't get started until 4 pm or later my time.)

~ Maya

Thoughtfully written, Maya. I spoke with some teen girls recently and they came to the conclusion that they need to learn to love themselves and accept their bodies as they are. Simply said. Hard to achieve. Changing mindsets that are constantly bombarded with images in the media is a challenge. Thanks for highlighting this Miss Representation.

The latest Dove advert (Real Beauty Sketches) is powerful too: http://realbeautysketches.dove.com/

Creatively, Stacey

Your Pin board is a comprehensive collection worth sharing, Maya. Thanks for puting all your findings together in one place. Is it ok if I share it with others?

Creatively, Stacey

Hi, Maya, thank you so much for your unique vision. You have essayed a positive process in which individuals, government, media, academe, the corporate world of manufacturing and advertisement, artistic communities have converged to hurdle the challenges of guiding and ensuring that girls growing up strong and beautiful inside and within.

Blessings, libudsuroy

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

I can imagine how both words move and dance. Also: it was my turn to see how the first and last paragraphs of your piece served as frame for the treatise.Lovely.

Blessings, libudsuroy

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Can you say this another way? I'm not sure I understand what you mean here.

Also: it was my turn to see how the first and last paragraphs of your piece served as frame for the treatise.

~ Maya

Hi, Maya, this reply comes late, I am sorry. Didn't get email notification that there was something I need to clarify. I remembered a comment from you, saying that I write like I was painting. And here you used graphic, descriptive images of the girl/woman in the first and last paragraphs. It looks to me that these paragraphs form a frame of the entire work. I hope this is clearer.

Blessings, libudsuroy

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Maya, it's true media and fashion industries have the capacity to harm our self-esteem. I like the way you have brought out.We only have to know that most of the media industries are dominated by men who are also gender bias so they tend to bring out stories that portray women as negative. If you could share with us how you or your community what they are doing such that such misconceptions do not limit girls' accessing eduction, I will still be grateful.

Regards, Flavia

Hi Flavia,

Thanks for your thoughts.

I live in Israel, so the "Photoshop Law" described in the essay applies to my nation. If you'd like to learn more about this issue as it affects Israel, you can visit my Pinterest board here (scroll down) for some more articles that I've collected: http://pinterest.com/thenewjew/israel-challenges.

I hope you'll write more in your journal soon. Your voice is powerful. Please let me know when you do as I'd like to read you.

All the best,

~ Maya

Maya, Thank-you for the post. I am so encouraged by the steps being taken by your government with the "photoshop law". It is so important to see the beauty in every women and to have a more realistic view of what real women and real beauty look like!

I love this question: "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?" It is really making me think about myself and about the solution. How can we empower girls and women today to know that being and becoming a women is wonderful, valuable and exciting?

Thank-you! Many blessings to you, Traci

Thanks, Traci. I'm glad you mentioned that question as it touched me to include it when writing the essay.

As for your profile (http://worldpulse.com/node/65107), I feel exactly the same way as you: "I am very inspired by all the women here on World Pulse. It is hard for me to put words to how it touchs my heart that women are coming together to support, listen and empower other women. I thank-you all for how you are touching my life."

It looks like you are also new to WorldPulse - we both joined in March - so from one newbie to another: welcome. Look forward to reading you when you get a chance to write more.

Blessings to you,

~ Maya

Dear Maya

What a well written piece! Erudite, hard hitting, impactful and mind blowing! I have learned so much from you, your perspective on many areas gives me food for thought eg the reasons why you do not own a TV The photoshop law sounds like a fantastic idea and I hope many other countries adopt it, starting with the US of course.

I very much look forward to reading more of your pieces!

Asha

Carpe Diem

Thanks, Asha! I'm touched by your kind words.

From one WorldPulse newbie to another: welcome. Let's keep writing together.

Warm wishes - and yes, carpe diem,

~ Maya

Maya, Thank you so much for sharing. I'm very intrigued about the photoshop law and what Israel is doing to mitigate eating disorders and body dysmorphic. Perhaps this will open the way for other governments to take similar action. I really like your introduction paragraph and this quote in particular: "They serve as barriers to education, sucking dry their victims’ energies and youthful passions that should be applied to learning, love, and life." What drives you to write such an inspiring piece? Have you personally been affected by this issue? Keep up the good work!

Dear Cassie,

Sorry for my late reply. I am just seeing your comment now. Thanks for your thoughts.

In the world I grew up in, negative body image issues, including dysmorphia, was and is a pervasive problem. As I wrote, it dominates women's lives via conversations, self perception, and each and every crack in between. I see it as a pernicious vine on the side of a building, covering up the original facade so that in the end, little of the original brick shows through and we are left with only its cover and shield. Sure, the foliage appears at first glance to be pleasing, but it does not honor the architectural beauty of the building itself as it was intended to be seen and experienced. I'm hyperbolizing for the sake of the analogy, of course; hope my intent comes through. :)

How about you?

~ Maya

Related to this Post

Leadership

Just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it will take a united global community to create the kind of world we wish to see.