I have three young nieces who are all below the age of six and I keenly observe their development – physical, mental and emotional.
What I see is that they are headstrong and have their own unique personalities. They have been raised by feminist parents who are keen to not limit their ability or personality. They have been exposed to gender neutral colours, toys and books. They see women in roles that have traditionally been held by men. In fact, once when I referred to Sheriff Callie (a cartoon character) as a man, I was sternly told she is a woman. Doc McStuffins, another of their favourite cartoon characters, is a smart girl who can fix anything. She inspires my nieces to think boldly.
As I reflect on my own life, I realise that in contrast to them, I make assumptions based on gender due to being conditioned by the cues around me. Growing up, we didn’t necessarily have the reference points that my nieces have. I immediately assumed that the Sheriff and the Doctor were men, even though I know that a woman can be whoever she wants to be and can achieve anything she sets her heart on. I am glad they have these role models.
Whilst they are young and oblivious to the socio-cultural norms around them, I am deeply aware that they might be influenced by popular culture in negative ways, specially around body image, as they advance in age.
We are constantly bombarded by pop culture around us through advertising, films, memes and songs. How often have we seen women being stalked in a film, women being objectified in an advertisement or a song? What this does is that it normalises these notions of a woman and de-humanises her in real life. She becomes a commodity. Over a period of time, we expect all women to live up to the same standard being portrayed – of beauty, of conduct, of aspirations.
This puts a huge burden on women and girls to constantly look beautiful and the expectation is for girls and women to be seen but not heard. The idea of beauty is narrow and is typically of thin, tall and white women, which is not representative of a majority of what women around the world look like.
In the effort to conform to societal norms or ideals of a woman’s beauty, women and girls go to great lengths to meet these standards. They may undertake cosmetic surgery to enhance or reduce body parts and look younger and thinner or end up with eating disorders. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons states that there has been an explosive growth of 132% more procedures being done from 2000 to 2016. These include nose reshaping, breast augmentations, face lifts etc and do not include reconstructive surgeries in response to injury, disease, or gender confirmation.
One’s body image is a reflection of one’s self esteem. Pop culture has a role to play because if your body does not meet the standards that are considered “acceptable” or are the norm, you may feel and believe you are an outsider.
Because so many people absorb stereotypes of beauty, if you don’t meet society’s impossible standards, people may make fun of you, reject you and in some cases attack you. One’s body shape might be rated on a desirability index and the aspiration to fit in might further put pressure on the person to conform.
The loop is never-ending.
It can negatively impact one’s health and wellbeing.
However, with a concerted effort by a variety of stakeholders we can change the narrative to be positive. For example, advertising and media can showcase a diversity of skin tones and body shapes of women in their advertisements and films. Dove has been running a ten year campaign Real Beauty that celebrates the diverse body images of women. Despite their progressive ad campaign, they are still prone to mistakes like that of a recent ad which appeared to be racist, and should continue to work towards being more sensitive.
Clothing manufacturers can redesign labels so that one does not feel guilty if one’s size is XL or more. Size 14 happens to be the most common size in the US but the average shopper feels guilty buying it!
Toy manufacturers could create a range of toys that promote diversity. Whilst it may be a marketing tactic, gendered toys are harmful as they reinforce the stereotypes of masculine and feminine traits. Barbie dolls for example reinforce the stick-thin image of a woman and add to the trope – “treat a woman like a Barbie doll”. Having more curvy dolls in all shades of skin and hair textures would be representative of actual women around the world.
Finally, education in schools about body image, self-esteem, bullying and sexuality is critical and must be introduced at a young age so that all children can feel comfortable discussing these topics without feeling peer pressure. We are all conditioned by stereotypes and unlearning them is going to be a challenge for people of all genders. We can encourage women to feel comfortable in their own skin and shape without judgement or creating labels. Men can be allies in this effort by appreciating women and accepting them as they are.
As I look at my nieces growing up, I do hope they do not feel pressured to be different. Rather, I would love for them to set their own trends whilst being comfortable and beautiful in their own image.