Bodies are tangible, concrete objects. We can touch them, move them, see them, we know that they exist. But our perceptions of our own bodies as well as others are socially constructed by the world around us—our parents, other family members, friends, magazines, books, movies, television, advertisements, and so on.
While reading Chapter 6 in Body Image by Sarah Grogan, I reflected upon my own experiences with weight and body image as a young girl and a teenager. I am a white cisfemale, and I was raised by a single father. Grogan (2008) notes that much research on preadolescent girls has found that girls as young as 5 years old value a body size smaller than their own, and that they follow in the footsteps of older women in that they convey a concern about weight gain, and express dissatisfaction with their bodies. As a child, I don’t recall being concerned with weight gain or feeling disdain towards my body. I attribute this to the fact that I was very small to begin with, and that I was around men more often than women. Grogan (2008) notes that heterosexual males are socialized to feel that discussion about their bodies is not appropriate with other males. My dad almost never talked about his own body, although, he has also always been very small but muscular and may feel less inclined to feel insecure. However, my dad did talk about the weight of strangers out in public, often using the word, “fat” as a derogatory term. I learned from this that “fat” was a thing I wanted to avoid, and as a result, when I gained 30 pounds in my early twenties as a side effect of the birth control I was on, I was devastated. Throughout high school, I was accused of having an eating disorder, been told by people of all ages that I needed to eat more. Interestingly, all of the people who said such things were girls and women, I was never once told to gain or eat more by a man. And no, I did not have an eating disorder. I ate quite a bit, and even boasted about my ability to eat half of an extra-large Neopolitan style pizza by myself. I would challenge my much larger male friends to eating contests and often beat, or match them. This brings to mind discourse that I have seen across the internet about women and weight. When a thin woman is seen eating copious amounts of “bad” foods, she is revered by men, and considered even more attractive. But when larger women do so, they are perceived as lazy and unattractive. Grogan (2008) touches on this perception of larger people as lazy and slow, and this perception of women and their eating habits is a manifestation of such perceptions. For example, participants in one study “believed that overweight people were slow workers, that slim people did the most work,” and were more successful (Grogan 2008:163). Furthermore, participants felt that jobs were more readily available for thinner people and that employers held preference for slim people over overweight people.
Generally, as a child and an adolescent, I was pleased with my body. My only wish was for larger breasts, as is the ideal for most women (Grogan 2008). As a teenager, I would wear push-up bras in an effort to make them appear larger, likely an attempt to achieve that male-centric ideal portrayed in magazines such as Playboy—that of women with small waists and large breasts (Grogan 2008). Grogan’s discussion about women’s breasts also details the social construction of female breasts as belonging to public space—our breasts are judged by men and women alike, and others make assumptions about our identity and who we are based on characteristics that are naturally out of our control. Women who are “too busty” may be assumed to be promiscuous, shallow, and lacking in intelligence, while women whose breasts are “too small” may be perceived as less feminine. Grogan touches on assumptions associated with breast size in her book, noting that large breasts are associated with “confidence, popularity, and being likely to succeed” while “the only positive characteristics associated with small breasts were athleticism and intelligence” (Grogan 2008:175). A coworker expressed a similar sentiment just the other day, when commenting on society’s obsession with breasts: “I feel like if you have tiny boobs like I do, you have to have something else going for you, but if you have big boobs, you’re fine and nothing else matters.” Reinforcing this belief that women’s bodies and breasts are incredibly important aspects of her identity is the term “butterface” which signifies that everything about the woman in question is “fine” except her face (“but-her-face”). I have heard this term uttered by incredibly immature boys, but also and unfortunately, by young men as well.
Our bodies are important. They help us accomplish the things we wish to achieve in life, but there are social definitions and constructions attached to them and we are instilled with these through socialization. Many of the constructions surrounding different bodies are harmful, dangerous, and based upon incorrect assumptions. It’s up to us to rethink how we think of our bodies as well as the bodies of others, so that we may be kinder and more accepting of all bodies.
Rebecca Morales is currently pursuing her M.A. in Applied Sociology at Old Dominion University, as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. She received her B.S. from ODU with a major in Sociology and a minor in Women’s Studies. Her academic interests include race, class, and gender, but she is especially interested in the ways in which American Indians and their various cultures are constructed, portrayed, and appropriated in the U.S., as well as the impacts of gender based violence on tribal communities.