“Shocking Body-Image News: 97% of Women Will Be Cruel to Their Bodies Today”
When a link to this story popped up on my Twitter feed, I instantly pictured what it would say. Given that it emanates from Glamour Magazine, I assumed that it would be yet another attempt to blame the media for women’s low opinion of their bodies. Link here.
When I opened the link, I was welcomed by an alluring picture of an exquisitely beautiful naked woman. Whether or not her body was perfect, it was surely close enough.
It felt like some kind of cosmic irony. Glamour was going to explain that 97% of women have at least one, but mostly more, negative thoughts about their bodies because they are constantly being regaled by pictures of beautiful naked female bodies in places like Glamour magazine.
I also expected the article to be sprinkled with psychobabble about women’s low self-esteem and narcissism, followed by advice for all of these women to go out and get even more therapy. People who write such articles rarely imagine that women might be suffering these problems because they have had too much therapy.
And I guessed that it would end up blaming it all on men.
As it happened, I was wrong, in a good way. Shaun Dreisbach’s article avoided all of those pitfalls. She even avoided the usual therapy-speak about root causes and unresolved issues. She explained to her readers that self-deprecatory thoughts are a bad habit.
A habit is not a meaningful experience. It will not go away once you gain insight into what it means.
A negative thought may begin innocuously, but once it takes hold, it will become your best friend. However abusive it is, you will have a great difficulty disembarrassing yourself of it.
Dreisbach summarizes the kinds of abusive statements women direct at themselves on a daily basis: “’You are a fat, worthless pig.’ ‘You’re too thin. No man is ever going to want you.’ ‘Ugly. Big. Gross.’ Horrifying comments on some awful website? The rant of an abusive, controlling boyfriend? No; shockingly, these are the actual words young women are saying to themselves on any typical day.”
One cannot help but notice that these ideas bear a very close resemblance to the self-critical thoughts that Aaron Beck identified as the causes of depression.
Beck invented cognitive therapy when he recognized that depressed people tend to indulge in constant self-deprecatory thinking. They tell themselves: “I am no good,” “I fail at everything,” “I am worthless,” “I never get anything right.“ He then devised mental exercises that would attack the thoughts and diminish their hold.
Beck did not care where these statements came from; he did not want them to become a meaningful expression of some past trauma.
One of the psychologists that Dreisback quotes has clearly been influenced by Beck. This professional declares that it does not much matter where a girl first hears the negative message about her body Once she hears it, and hears it again ,and starts repeating it to herself, it will come to take over her thoughts about her own body.
Worse yet, as Dreisbach points out, these negative thoughts have become something of a shibboleth. If a woman sits down with her female friends and admits that she does not hate her body or is not concerned with its imperfections, she will be immediately chastised as a liar and a fraud. Among women it is socially unacceptable to admit to feeling good about your body.
Those of us who are not women will find this hard to believe.
Be that as it may, Dreisbach deserves praise for not falling into the trap that has caught so many dimwitted academics: she does not blame it all on the male gaze.
This psychological phenomenon involves women abusing themselves. Dreisbach notes that if a man or any other human creature had dared say the same thing to a woman, he or it would be beaten to within an inch of his or its mental life.
As we all know, the male gaze is much more forgiving of bodily flaws than is the female gaze. When it comes to the female body, men are less critical; women are more critical.
We might also ask ourselves what role the activity that is euphemistically called “self-abuse” plays in this mental habit. Out of respect I will not call it by its other name and will not attempt to explore the topic.
If social interactions tend to aggravate the problem it might also be the case that certain behaviors contribute to its durability.
For example, when a woman acts as though she does not respect her body, by hooking up with strangers and by giving it away as though it has little value, will she be more likely to enter into the kind of mental self-flagellation that we call self-deprecatory thoughts?
Are these thoughts the modern equivalent to the self-punishment that medieval monks and nuns inflicted on themselves for their sins of word, thought and deed?
Do they, in other words, serve a function in a woman‘s psychological economy?
Or else, do women who are trained to think ill of their bodies when they are young girls tend to be more likely to hookup or to be less discriminating about their choice of lovers? Are they less likely to be able to form relationships because they keep telling themselves that a man cannot possibly continue to want such an imperfect body?
I would also ask one other question: do women in America today like being women? Is there anything in the culture that makes women feel inferior to men, as though they belonged to a victim class?
If women have all learned reflexively to think that gender distinctions are merely social constructs, then perhaps this effort to neutralize gender masks a refusal to take pride in being a woman.
It’s one thing to know that women have a feedback loop in their minds that is telling them that their bodies are defective. Nevertheless, as Dreisbach noted, women who were happy with their careers and relationships: “tended to report more negative body thoughts than women who were content in those areas.”
She added that when women have problems or challenges in other areas of their life they tend to fall back on the habit of thinking negative thoughts about their bodies.
Obviously, this represents a withdrawal from the world and from its challenges. Regardless of how the habit started these critical self-referential thoughts function as a distraction.
The more a woman is focused on bodily imperfection the less she is focused on the task at hand and the situation that requires her attention.
In another feedback loop, this avoidance behavior increases stress and causes her to continue to think ill of herself and her body.
This tells us that when a woman is having these negative thoughts she should take a step back and ask herself whether there is a something in her life that she is avoiding, that she is not dealing with.