If men want women to have better body image, maybe they should stop focusing so much on our bodies

As Susan Cox brought to our attention yesterday, a man has single-handedly resolved the problem of women’s and girls’ body image issues.

Dr Aric Sigman, author of Body Wars, has professed that women will stop trying to starve themselves thin if boys tell girls they are actually willing to touch and/or look at the “hated female pear-shaped body.” He told The Telegraph that boys should tell girls “that there are women who appear model-perfect visually but are just not sexy and there are girls who do not seem model material but are very attractive.” In essence, Sigman is trying to convince us that women and girls will stop obsessing over and hating their bodies if men approve of them and their bodies, failing to realize that a large part of the problem is that girls are told the most important thing in life is to be approved of (and found “sexy” and “attractive”) by men…

In a speech at a teachers’ conference in London this week, he addressed eating disorders, saying that “Men are an untapped army … Knowing what men think can serve as an antidote to the prevailing assumptions that feed body dissatisfaction.” Sigman seems to believe that if men can manage to find us fuckable even if we don’t look like extremely thin models, we will feel better about our bodies.

The Telegraph also reports that Sigman has “found evidence that female dissatisfaction over their body shapes has grown over the last three decades or so as body shapes in the media become smaller” and also that “social media and the internet have only just exacerbated girls’ discontent over how their body looks.”

Wait, I'm confused now... Which will make me a better fuck object?
Wait, I’m confused now… Which will make me a better fuck object?

Now, agree that social media has taught young women and girls to obsess over their fuckability and to self-objectify even more than before, but with the year of the ass behind us, it’s clear that women aren’t just vying to be as thin as possible. There is always some new body part we are meant to obsess over and hate — sometimes it’s that our thighs are too much like thighs and not enough like bones, sometimes it’s that our hips and butts aren’t big and juicy enough, and sometimes it’s that our bodies are female and, therefore, always wrong and bad.

I will admit to worrying, often, about “getting fat.” I will also admit to never having been truly happy or satisfied with my body. When I was a teenager I was constantly insecure about my lack of curves, wearing leggings under my jeans to bulk up, refusing to wear t-shirts because my arms were “too bony,” and shorts — HA. Not with those pointy knees! My sister told me I looked like a boy for lack of hips and ass (we both freely insulted one another, lest you become concerned these were one-way sisterly put-downs). Even during my “I’m 19-years-old and have boobs and male attention therefore I am the shit” phase I think many young women misguidedly go through, I still felt insecure about my non-washboardey stomach and pale skin. This is to say that women will always find flaws. We will always find things to hate about ourselves, whether we’re too thin or too fat or too old or too hairy or too human. Because the message is that we are our bodies and our bodies are not for us.

I am fully aware that we live in a culture that abhors “fat” women and that imposes dieting on girls from a very young age. I remember telling my mother I was going on a diet when I was, like, nine or something. I don’t think I even thought I was fat (I was, in fact, an extremely skinny, bony, child) — I think I just thought that’s what girls did, so I put on my mom’s Jane Fonda workout record and went at it for maybe a day or two till that got boring. (For the record, my mother did not support my “dieting” endeavour in any way and was like, you don’t need to go on a diet, crazy.) So I’m not going to pretend like “thin-shaming” holds the same weight in our culture as “fat-shaming” does — the enthusiasm with which movies and television make non-skinny women the butt of the joke is grotesque and we tend to treat larger women as if they are slovenly and out of control somehow, certainly less-worthy of love and respect than thin women… But, in the end, no woman is free from the male gaze, and obsessing over whether or not men approve of us is the problem — even if those men tell us they like some male-approved level of body fat.

“Talking to women is key, as well,” Sigman says. “Often body insecurities are passed down from mother to daughter and have little, if anything, to do with men.” Oh really?? So you mean to tell me that the self-hatred women pass on to their daughters has nothing to do with misogyny or male-owned industries like advertising, porn, and media? I suppose this is one of those “women wear high heels and shave their vaginas and get breast implants for themselves” kinda arguments, huh.

He goes on to explain that “Men are often surprised to discover how even the most intelligent, capable, rational and empowered women can be laid low by body dissatisfaction. Many of us just don’t get it.” Yeah, we know you don’t get it. You want us to be “confident” and never express any of our insecurities to you despite putting us on display and forcing us to perform femininity day in and day out. You don’t want us to worry about dieting or wrinkles but treat us as invisible and irrelevant and gross if we gain weight or age. You want us to not obsess over our flaws yet you point out how “pretty” or “hot” women are above all else, failing to realize that the first thing you comment on when you describe men is not their appearances. You want us to be “natural” but also hairless. I’ve heard this old song and dance a million times and it is a load of shit.

If you don’t understand what it’s like to live in this world as a woman, ask a woman (there’s one thing Sigman is right on: talking to women). If you think it’s so unattractive for women to have insecurities or to worry about their bodies and appearances, stop focusing first and foremost on women’s bodies and appearances. Stop watching porn, stop objectifying women on the street, stop describing women’s physical traits as though they speak to her personhood. “She has a cute ass,” is not relevant to anything, ever.

The way that patriarchy works is that it tells men that they are the default human and that women, therefore, exist only in relation to men. And this is precisely what Sigman’s theory reinforces. Stop making our existence about you. There. Problem solved.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • I was also a very skinny child obsessed with a Jane Fonda workout routine, though mine was on VHS. I enjoyed the article very much and agree 100%.

  • Andrew

    But if men stop focusing on women’s appearance they’ll be forced to treat them like people, and they’ll have to use their other head, which is probably atrophied.

  • Yoda

    I too wanted to go on a “diet” when I was around 8 or 9, thouh I didn’t really have a concept of what that was or why people did it. I just knew it was something all the young, pretty, cool girls I saw on TV talked about.

  • C.K. Egbert

    Here’s an interesting study that’s made some waves in philosophy and is relevant to this article: Both men and women were much more likely to sacrifice a woman who is described as plain, but men were willing to do so at significantly higher rates than women. People were also more likely to sacrifice people of low socio-economic status or disabled.

    (For context, the “trolley problem” is an old thought experiment in ethics, in which people are asked to imagine that they can whom a runaway trolley is going to run over.)

    http://dailynous.com/2015/03/20/new-way-trolley-problem-shows-were-awful/

    • Andrew

      Interesting, though it seems to me you should always pull the lever as not pulling it is not the same as doing nothing–it’s the same as killing four people instead of one.

  • I don’t think thin-shaming is as big a problem as fat-shaming is, but I also don’t think that fat-shaming is somehow a seperate problem from appearance-related prejudice in general. Furthermore, the fact that overweight women appear at all in television and films (occassionally in positive roles) suggests that they are less stigmatised than women with acne or leg hair. The latter traits never appear in films or on television, even advertisements selling products designed to “fix” these traits, feature women applying the products to clear, hair-free skin. That is how censored these totally harmless physical features are (meanwhile graphic violence and sex is all over the place and the, mostly male, proponenets of those things still scream “censorship”.)

    I don’t defend fat jokes, but I can’t help but feel that the main aim of women in the fat-acceptance movement is to climb up society’s “prettiness” ladder. They want to make sure that they are included in society’s definition of pretty/sexy, instead of trying to abolish those categories, that is why so many of them throw their whole-hearted support behind “feminist pornography” and sexualised depictions of their “identity” group in general.

    Their lack of concern for women’s physical health also bothers me. Maybe I am being a bit nit-picky, but the idea that women’s bodies are “for us” seems to imply that the body is a piece of property seperate from the woman herself, kind of like a canvas or a slab of clay and thus she can do what she wants with it to make it prettier or sexier. In reality, while women are not their bodies, they do inhabit their bodies, so I think it is important that they keep their bodies healthy and pain-free. If the fat-acceptance movement wants to argue that there are zero health issues associated with being overweight or obese they have a right to do so (though there arguments seem very individualistic and ultimately unconvincing to me), but often they just claim that “bodily autonomy” is more important than living long, full lives. Last time I checked bodily autonomy meant the right to make one’s own decisions, not the right to make everyone else agree with those decisions or at least act like they do, but in any case their obsession with “bodily autonomy” seems very short-sighted to me, as does liberalism in general.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “I don’t defend fat jokes, but I can’t help but feel that the main aim of women in the fat-acceptance movement is to climb up society’s “prettiness” ladder. They want to make sure that they are included in society’s definition of pretty/sexy, instead of trying to abolish those categories, that is why so many of them throw their whole-hearted support behind “feminist pornography” and sexualised depictions of their “identity” group in general. ”

      Yes totally, good point.

    • “the idea that women’s bodies are “for us” seems to imply that the body is a piece of property seperate from the woman herself, kind of like a canvas or a slab of clay and thus she can do what she wants with it to make it prettier or sexier. ”

      Yes. This is a key foundational concept to the naturalization of woman as object/man as subject – AKA “males are the default humans”

      The platitudes about “a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body” does my head in – what with the dissociation that premises the statement (not to mention the narcissistic individualism of the “right to do what you want” part.

  • Sabine

    “The way that patriarchy works is that it tells men that they are the default human and that women, therefore, exist only in relation to men. And this is precisely what Sigman’s theory reinforces. Stop making our existence about you. There. Problem solved.”

    Exactement!

  • jo

    – “She has a cute ass,” is not relevant to anything, ever.

    THANKS.
    Now if only male internet commenters could internalize this. I can’t even watch a youtube video with any sort of female individual in it without seeing comments from dudes about their boners or lack of it. No one wants to hear that. Or well, perhaps other men do, they bond over that don’t they. Over women’s bodies.

  • Andrew

    Not sure if anyone has seen this yet, probably, but I just found it and thought I’d share since we’re talking about the male perception of women’s bodies.

    http://www.upworthy.com/the-next-time-someone-says-sexism-isnt-real-show-them-these-shocking-role-reversal-images

    My apologies if this is old news here.

  • Kathy Bowen

    Asking men to stop focusing on women is like asking men to stop focusing on food. Feminism definitely needs to focus on how medias portray women but we can’t blame men as a whole for being attracted to women. Most of the men in my life are surprised and maybe a little annoyed at the insecurities we have because men have a hard time understanding why it takes more than 2 minutes to get ready or how we compare each other with other women. I’ve also been surprised to realize that some men are actually just as insecure about their own bodies. I dated a man who was ashamed his penis was less than average size and another man who lifted weights constantly more than likely because he was teased in school for being scrawny. These are also examples of people being insecure because of media portrayals.
    This makes me think about what my fav comedian Dave Chappelle said about those magazines for women:
    “I see the shit in the magazines. I don’t read ’em, but I be seeing the cover. You ever be in the grocery store, fellas, you look at one of them magazines like, “What is this?” And it say on the cover:
    “A hundred ways to please your man” by… some lady.
    Get outta here, man. come on.
    Ain’t no hundred ways. That list is four things long.
    Just suck his dick, play with his balls, then fix him a sandwich and don’t talk so much, and they’re going to be happy.
    That’s it.
    And then the magazines trick the women. The magazines start picking at your self-esteem. Every page you turn, you start feeling fatter, and uglier, and you feel like your clothes aren’t good enough.
    And the magazines have you forgetting how fucking beautiful you are.
    And that’s what happens. Now look what happens.
    And then you forget how beautiful you are, and we all suffer”

    • Andrew

      I feel like you are missing the most important distinction–things that are optional for men are required for women.

      Sure, a few more doors may open for an attractive man, but doors don’t really close for him if he isn’t. The same isn’t true for women unless they are truly extraordinary.

      The fact of the matter is that men are considered to have intrinsic value regardless of what they look like and women aren’t. Their very worth as a human being is constantly being evaluated by people of power (mostly men) to decide if they deserve recognize for what would be given to a man by default.

    • Christine

      I love Chappelle, too, but Andrew is right.

      For another example of the double standard, read almost any newspaper or magazine interview of a woman. It will usually open with a physical description, even though most modern style guides forbid that practice. Then check out an interview in the same publication with a male subject. There are always exceptions, but I’m betting you will notice there is a big difference.

    • amd

      Society is still run by men. Pretending that women have the power and the money to reshape the media while men as a sex are happy to continue objectifying and degrading women is disingenous at best.

      And nobody is asking men not to notice women’s bodies. We are telling them to shut up about it. Think what they want, and stay silent. Not comment, either positively or negatively, on any woman unless they are already in a pre existing relationship of some kind with her. And otherwise, if they wouldn’t say it of the man behind her, don’t say it of her. This is in no way difficult for men to understand, though sometimes they will pretend otherwise.

      Women don’t exist for men’s approval or disapproval. They need to learn to keep their thoughts to themselves. It’s that simple.

    • Dana

      No one said men couldn’t be attracted to women. Though once again as always in these discussions, here comes someone ignoring the existence of gay men and neglecting to remember that three different guys will have five different opinions on what is attractive about a woman.

      The problem isn’t that they feel attraction but that they don’t have the self-control to avoid announcing it to the entire damn planet and especially to the object of their boner. And they DO see her as an object, make no mistake.

      One of the problems with this is the guy is often only attracted to the woman’s appearance, so when he goes straight from Me Think Woman Hot to Me Tell Woman Me Think Woman Hot to Let’s Make Hot Monkey Love, not even stopping to find out who she is as a person, next thing you know he finds out they’re not compatible in interests or values and that’s when you start hearing the whining about how he’s landed yet another “psycho hosebeast.” (Do guys still say that? They did 20 years ago.) Oh no, she’s crazy. Oh no, we got a divorce and she got everything. Wah.

      So even if they weren’t bothering us with their looks-only nonsense they are still hurting themselves. Maybe it’s time to grow up a little.

      I’m het and I find men attractive but you don’t see me hollering at them as I drive by with my tongue hanging out, or rearranging the messages the media sends to them to make them hate themselves. There’s no need for it.

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  • Interesting read about the male’s perception of women’s bodies. Since we live in a media-saturated world, it’s important to understand and dissect what the media is telling us. Please check out About-Face, a nonprofit organization based in San-Francisco, to see how they aim to help young girls and women understand how the media works! Check them out here: http://www.about-face.org