Term Paper: Social Issue of Body Image

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¶ … Social Issue of Body Image from a Feminist Perspective

Women experience the world in ways that are inextricably connected with the perceptions of body image. Not only do American women experience a number of physiological phenomenon that are uniquely female, they are also subjected to a wide range of powerful cultural forces that affect their perceptions of their body and how they relate to their own sense of self-worth. Feminist authors such as Dr. Nancy Chodorow and Rosemary Tong have suggested these forces continue to be played out in the social sphere because there is a lot of money at stake, and it is just good business sense to keep women insecure about their bodies. This paper provides an overview of the social issue of body image from a feminist perspective to determine how meaning and identity are constructed in this social issue. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. According to Tong and Tuana (1995), "There are a series of boundary challenges inherent in the female physiology -- challenges which make it impossible to maintain rigid separation from the object world" (p. 78). Dr. Nancy Chodorow also makes the point that menstruation, coitus, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation all represent challenges to women's bodily boundaries. Chodorow (1978) addressed the fundamental relationship between psychological and sociological asymmetries in men and women early on; masculine traits, she maintained, serve to complement men's role in the public sphere, in the "competitive and ruthless world of capitalist production; feminine traits serve women in the reproductive realm and, by functioning as the opposite of masculinity, help to prepare boys and girls to accept and excel in their differentiated roles" (p. 78 in Tong & Tuana, 1995). Chodorow has been an outspoken critic of Sigmund Freud's work as it has been applied to women.

According to Sonia G. Austrian (2002), Chodorow was influenced by the work of Ernest Jones, Karen Horney, and Melanie Klein, and was highly involved with the feminist movement; she published the Reproduction of Mothering in 1978 and in 1994, in Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond, Chodorow continued to deconstruct Freud's evident paucity of interest in and devaluation of women. Chodorow wrote that although the majority of Freud's patients were female, he was not interested in them, he was not very knowledgeable about them, and rarely wrote positively about them. "She sees him as a product of his milieu, a patriarchal society, and feels that he made unfounded assumptions about how men and women ought to be, guided by his misogyny" (Austrian, 2002 p. 17). For instance, Freud equated "maleness with humanness" (Chodorow 1978, p. 143). Freud also devalued women early on by maintaining that women differed from men in that they inherently have less of a sense of justice, are routinely overwhelmed by jealousy and shame, and are generally vain and tend to make no contribution to civilization.

Further devaluing females, Freud argued that all children are initially masculine, with "femaleness" becoming an issue only during puberty (Chodorow, 1978). Chodorow maintained that Freud considered the clitoris as being masculine because it is sexually active and can be gratified without penetration; in contrast, femininity is vaginal and passive (Austrian, 2002).

Elizabeth Grosz (1994) proposed a feminist theory that did not disassociate itself from the body; rather, Grosz, like Irigaray (1985), made the preeminent distinctions between visible and invisible, and subject and object, which are the preconditions for contemporary concepts about body image. According to Grosz (1994), puberty separates the biological from the social body, as "a period in which the biological body undergoes major upheavals and changes as an effect of puberty. It is in this period that the subject feels the greatest discord between the body image and the lived body, between its psychical idealized self-image and its bodily changes" (1994, p. 75). The issue of body image and how it affects adolescent girls relates to several of the same factors that relate to puberty, since puberty can be conceptualized as a systematic institution of the self in relation to normative body images. According to Grosz, the understanding of adolescence as significant for "the development of the body image" depends on its close alignment with "major upheavals and changes as an effect of puberty" (Grosz 1994, p. 75). Driscoll points out that this framework for understanding female puberty is based on psychoanalysis, a discipline that has significantly influenced modern theories of identification and body image. Likewise, Luce Irigaray seeks deconstruct this dominant dualist separation of the body as visible object from the mind as invisible subjectivity. In her critique of psychoanalysis as a continuance of Western philosophy, Irigaray argues that the feminine body insists on the interrelationship of the visible and the invisible, "the object and the subject" (Irigaray, 1985).

Body Image Distortions in Pregnancy. Pregnancy in particular is a potentially life-threatening and world-shifting condition that women uniquely experience, and it is little wonder that so much focus has been devoted to it in the feminist literature. Merleau-Ponty points out that the integrity of female body is diminished during pregnancy by the fact that the boundaries of the female body are themselves in a state of flux. "In pregnancy," she says, "I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends and the world beings. My automatic body habits become dislodged; the continuity between my customary body and my body at this moment is broken" (p. 410). Perhaps this is why many American men become so uncomfortable around visibly pregnant women (pers. obs.), but the fact remains that women do not live in a world of nebulous promises about the "wonders of motherhood"; rather, they live in the here and now with another human being growing inside them - larger day by day: "In pregnancy my prepregnant body image does not entirely leave my movements and expectations, yet it is with the pregnant body that I must move" (Merleau-Ponty, 1995 p. 410).

Body Image Insults as a Result of Surgical Procedures. One of the most common, and perhaps unnecessary surgical procedures that has been foisted on women in recent years is the radical mastectomy. According to Audre Lorde, "Some women obscure their painful feelings surrounding mastectomy with a blanket of business-as-usual, thus keeping those feelings forever under cover, but expressed elsewhere" (p. 420). The emphasis on physicality during the post-mastectomy phase tends to have two negative effects on women:

1. The emphasis tends to encourage women to live in the past rather than a future. Lorde points out that this keeps women from assessing themselves in the present, and from coming to grips with the changed planes of their own bodies. "Since these then remain alien to her, buried under prosthetic devices, she must mourn the loss of her breast in secret, as if it were the result of some crime of which she were guilty" (Lorde 1995, p. 420).

2. The emphasis on physicality also encourages women to focus their precious energies on the mastectomy as a cosmetic event, to the complete exclusion of other factors in a process that could potentially result in their own deaths. "It removes her from what that constellation means in terms of her living, and from developing priorities of usage for whatever time she has before her. It encourages her to ignore the necessity for nutritional vigilance and psychic armament that can help prevent recurrence" (Lorde 1995, p. 420).

Social Forces that Influence Female Perceptions of Body Image. According to Sharlene Hesse-Biber (1997), American society sends a clear message to its female citizenry in a process that begins at birth and continues throughout the socialization process. This point is echoed by Catherine Driscoll (2002) who writes, "The girl of the girls' magazine is a body/subject in process, a collage of identification and discipline through a profusion of technologies of the self. The uncertain borders around girlhood and puberty enable this dominant mode in discourses on feminine adolescence" (p. 97). Driscoll points out that these body-self processes of feminine puberty are also manifested in the toys that are marketed to and consumed by predominantly prepubescent girls.

As a result of these and other powerful social forces, by the time women enter college, they have come to intuitively understand what is required to achieve success according to these arbitrary social standards concerning what women should look like: "There is an 'ideal' body image a woman must conform to if she wants to become a cheerleader. Society expects to find petite women on a college cheerleading squad, 'girls' whom male cheerleaders can tumble and lift in cheerleading routines" (p. 3). This same social message is communicated in other popular collegiate groups as well such as sororities and high status cliques; in these cases, a thin woman is viewed as a "valued" woman.

The problem with mass media in America, then, is that the dominant culture frequently communicates messages that serve to perpetuate stereotypes of women and a distorted understanding of human sexuality and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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