The beauty bias: How views on female bodies shape us

May 15, 2013

As a rule, I try not to think about Kim Kardashian much—especially her pregnancy, because I’m concerned her child might be the anti-Christ. However, a friend recently made me consider Kardashian in a different light.
 
Kiki Kirk wrote an article last week for In Our Words about an experience she had riding the Metra. Kirk shared it with four women who were having an open dialogue on Kim Kardashian’s body. One of them inquired about the state of Kim Kardashian’s weight gain, asking if she was "getting big," and the others quickly chimed in: "She’s huge!" "You could seriously fit two Kate Middletons inside of her at this point." "And her boobs are the size of my head, but not in a good way."
 
This is hardly the first time that formerly thin celebrities have been shamed for putting on pregnancy weight, and holding women like Jessica Simpson to a higher standard of beauty says a lot about what we expect of women. They aren’t allowed to be real or "own their own [bodies]." Kirk says those women talked about Kardashian "like she wasn’t even a person."
 
Such gossip is indicative of the internalized body shame many women feel and a culture that tells us to tear down women when they don’t fit our expectations of womanhood. Body shame is the 21st century corset, binding us to one acceptable shape.
 
Looking at the women on the train, Kirk thought about their children, who would receive many of these same messages about their bodies.
 
Kirk writes, “I wanted to tell them that no matter how many times you tell your daughter she’s 'beautiful no matter what,' when she hears you gossiping with your friends about how fat and ugly so-and-so is, she will look in a mirror and see fat and ugly. She will begin to hate herself because of the hate she heard spewing from your mouth."
 
Girls are receiving these messages at increasingly younger ages—so much so that One Direction songs now include lyrics like, "You still have to squeeze into your jeans / but you’re perfect to me."
 
After the band’s clunkily written "Little Things" debuted, Entertainment Weekly’s Grady Smith asked if young girls need those messages directed at them"
 
"Last I checked, One Direction’s fans aren’t composed mainly of aging obesity victims — they’re little girls who range in age from about 8-14," Smith argued. "The carefree 9-year-olds who nibble on fruit roll-ups on the way to gymnastics class. The ones who watch Good Luck Charlie before bed, getting one last year out of their Sleeping Beauty nightgowns."
 
Although I agree that the song feels strange and disingenuous coming from One Direction’s line of Abercrombie models, Kirk’s example shows exactly why better messages of body positivity are needed. This ideal version of a girlhood free from shame doesn’t exist.
 
In high school, I worked with a Teen Counseling program that provided classroom resources for local elementary and middle schools on issues facing their students. In the fifth grade class I facilitated, most of the girls were already on diets, and others were graduates of fat camp. One girl had already battled an eating disorder. She was 11. None of these girls looked like there was anything wrong with them to me, but I’m not a preteen girl.
 
These girls aren’t alone. Research has shown that girls as young as three  internalize messages of body shame from the culture. In a study conducted on pre-schoolers, 3-5 year-olds were presented with "fat and thin" dolls, and those the children identified as "fat" were universally rejected.
 
They were then shown images of big-bodied and skinny women, and "children consistently labeled the 'chubby' figure as 'mean' and the thin figure as 'nice.'" Children were more likely to identify the skinny girl as the one they would most like to be friends with or "be like," and this was true for respondents in every body type bracket.
 
According to another 2003 study, when "presented with pictures of children who were in a wheelchair, missing a limb, on crutches, disfigured, or obese, most young children voiced that they would least prefer to play with the child who was considered 'fat.'"
 
Such sentiments can have incredibly harmful effects on female self-perception, and studies indicate that "the mental well-being of [big bodied] women to be worse than that of the chronically ill or even severely disabled."
 
As the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Zaslow argued, this shame will last them the rest of their life, and it’s especially crucial we fight negative self-perception at a young age.
 
In 2009, Zaslow followed up with fourth-grade girls he profiled back in 1986, when 80 percent of their peers were dieting. Instead of getting better, their body perception was "even worse."
 
"They and their peers have never escaped society's obsession with body image," Zaslow explained. "Some told stories of damaging diets and serious self-esteem issues regarding their weight."
 
By the time girls reach college, around 8 in 10 report a negative body perception, and one in 10 will suffer a "clinical or nearly clinical eating disorder." In 2012, a survey from Glamour magazine "found that 41 percent of 18 to 24-year-old women retouch their own photos before posting them to social media sites." Photoshopped images of models tell women how they look doesn't measure up. "Perfect" isn't good enough, and even Kim Kardashian doesn't fit the mold.
 
Much focus is placed on the media’s agenda-setting function in setting standards of female beauty, as the average girl receives around three hours of media exposure each day. Most of the images they receive of women will be directed toward their appearance, as 37 percent of articles for young women and 50 percent of ads targeting them focus on beauty. In film, research tells us that "58% of female characters had comments made about their looks," a rate twice as high as their male counterparts.
 
However, Kirk shows that the problem isn’t just the media. It’s all of us, as our culture affords a privilege to those considered beautiful. UK’s Social Issues Research Center argues that attractive children are more likely to be favored as job applicants and co-workers, where they are more likely to be promoted or earn higher salaries. They are less likely to be found guilty of a crime by a jury of their peers and if convicted, they face shorter sentences.
 
Throughout their school years, it’s not just other students that shower affection on attractive kids. The SIRC found that "teachers give higher evaluations to the work of attractive children and have higher expectations of them, which has been shown to improve performance." Although adults should be setting an example for children, they are contributing to our "beauty bias."
 
Do you think my fifth grade girls were enrolling themselves in fat camps? They had to be put there.
 
In an article for PBS, Catherine Steiner-Adair argued that the pressures we place on young women starts when they are born, when parents instill "gender-based expectations on how girls should behave and what should interest them."
 
"Adults respond so much to what a girl looks like that by age five or six, young girls are getting the notion that their body is their selling point," Adair wrote. "When body image, clothes, marketing for girls is so sexual, it is that much harder for girls to develop a healthy, non-sexualized relationship with their bodies."
 
We learn so much about the world from our parents and raising a body positive generation of kids means de-emphasizing the premium we place on looks. The One Direction model of body positivity means telling girls they are secretly beautiful—but only you can see it, as their mate or parents. It's what Alexandra of Feministing argues is the problem with Dove's "Real Beauty" campain: "The message—that you’re thinner than you think you are—reinforces the assumption that thinness is valuable."
 
Instead, Adair argues parents should compliment girls on their intelligence, stamina, perseverance, courage or ability to be a good friend—the same way they do for boys. Rather than continuing to oversexualize young girls, adults need to change the conversation and tell girls life is more than about how you look. It's what you're made of.
 
I’ll never meet the women who rode the train with Kiki Kirk, who expressed concern and sorrow for Kim Kardashian’s unborn baby. "Sh*t. I feel so sorry for that child,” one woman said. I might dislike Kim Kardashian, but it’s not her kid I’m worried about. I feel sorry for theirs.
 
Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.