‘Reveal: The Real Vs. The Ideal Body Image’

Article promoting Cork Feminista’s public meeting titled ‘Reveal: The Real Vs. The Ideal Body Image’ on Tuesday, August 26. Published in the Evening Echo. The time has passed but this issue is never out of date. – Claire. 


Fear is one of the most primordial human characteristics and has been exploited effectively for generations in propaganda campaigns. We exist in a society addicted to individual control and the notion seems to exist that being overweight means you have lost self-control. This kind of moral failure in our culture may perhaps be the most frightening of all fears for some as we are constantly reminded of the ‘ideal’. When a propagandist warns the audience that disaster will result if they do not take a particular action, the audience are being appealed to by fear. Our goals of success and happiness are linked to our fears of failure, but what we may consider ‘failure’ is a standard that is set by profit-orientated corporations who want to appeal to our fears of embarrassment. The Social Issues Research Centre states that the current media ideal for thinness for women is achievable for less than 5% of the population. The range of body types has not changed in reality and instead of marvelling at the assortment of body shapes we objectify and compare our own and other women’s bodies. There’s an abundance of business that depend upon the desire for thinness, or fear of being over-weight, to survive. Unfortunately, limits on the ‘ideal’ thinness are non-existent and the majority of those who consider themselves “overweight” are in fact perfectly healthy. Even “normal” weight and under-weight girls want to be thinner.

Furthermore ‘body image’ is a complex fusion of the physical and active psychological awareness of oneself and our perception of what others think. For example, overweight women in our culture tend to have a very poor body-image sometimes resulting in severe anxiety and depression but these problems are not caused by obesity itself – in cultures where fat is admired, overweight people show no signs of these effects. A concern for our appearance has reached extremities as unrealistic and impossible ‘ideals’ have been put in place and these ideals are far removed from the ‘real’. This concern has always been present in society, women going to such extremes as wearing corsets that restricted breathing and caused digestive problems, but the degree of concern has changed. With mass media and social networking the concern has developed into an obsession, and there are numerous documentaries which investigate the reclusive nature of overweight people in our society. Nobody should be afraid to go outside because of what people think.

Speaking to a GP earlier in the week, in an attempt to gain insight into the body image issues people have in my small suburban town, she revealed to me that she treats thirty female patients weekly for health problems associated with being under-weight. We are constantly reminded in the media of health issues related to being over-weight but in a culture obsessed with being slim and avoiding obesity, health issues associated with being underweight receive relatively little attention. The risks of being underweight are in fact comparable to the detrimental effects of obesity. In addition to increasing your chances of dying younger, malnutrition and early onset osteoporosis are two of the most severe consequences. Due to the essential roles played by nutrients in your immune system, being underweight lowers your body’s ability to resist and recover from illness, battle infections and heal wounds. Reality cannot compare to the controlled conditions of a model’s life, and most of us cannot afford to visit a nutritionist and doctor weekly in order maintain a severely underweight figure without dying or suffering from life-threatening illness.

Body image will not be improved unless we learn to realise that human beings are misrepresented physically everywhere we look. Being able to recognize and differentiate between the ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ will empower those struggling with body image. The shape of our bodies is mostly determined by our DNA, that precious structure which makes us both unique but also gives us the features that we share with our families. It is important to stop judging people because of their size, but rather admiring them for having a shape that is refreshing to see in between the constant hordes of gaunt and lack-lustre bodies that are clearly hungry for a ‘healthy glow’. If you’re worried about not being considered attractive or fitting in, please understand that the one consistent feature that all people look for in a partner is that they be themselves. Do not restrict this to you character but embrace the body that you were blessed with. Broaden your perspective, as Oscar Wilde said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. The blue supergiant Rigel in the constellation Orion is a star with seventeen times the mass of the Sun, and puts out 66,000 times as much energy. When it comes to the universe bigger means better, so don’t even think about trying to squeeze yourself into the gutter of the social ‘ideal’, you really should be looking at the stars.

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