Body Policing in Mainstream Media

Body policing  in the media isn’t anything new. For as long as I can remember in my magazine reading life there has been articles on how some poor celebrity has gotten too thin, or how some other fool has gotten too fat. We are treated to a plethora of magazine articles encouraging their readership to love and accept their bodies, which will often times be placed right next to an article on how to lose 10 pounds by summer. Mixed messages whaa?! You can see why I try to avoid most women’s magazines these days (Except for Take a Break, gotta love their craay “IT HAPPENED TO ME” true life stories). It has become a hypocrisy so ingrained in the tradition of women’s magazines at this stage that I have even begun to forget to feel outraged when I do notice it. It is accepted and normalised, after all, aren’t women’s bodies just another aspect of society to control? Every so often something happens to make people (or perhaps just my own endlessly outraged self) realise or just reaffirm the fact that this isn’t okay. It serves to confirm the fact that women will never truly be equal in society until their bodies stop being treated as fair game for unwarranted criticism and also, stop being used as a method of pitting women against each other.

What reminded me of this fact  again is the recent kerfuffle with Lady Gaga’s apparent horrendous weight gain and the absolutely gleeful response from the general media. From such witty one liners as “Did Lady Gaga chow down on her meat dress?” to comments on how she is “Looking Meatier!” , the snarky criticism has been relentless, to the point where she has even felt the need to explain herself.  I know not to expect much from the tabloid media, but really?! I then saw this picture being used on an event page for a Dublin Club night which basically brought my blood to boiling point.

Because, you know, how skinny you are dictates how great a person you are and stuff. Allegedly.

Such judgment then starts the debate over what is ‘fat’ exactly is and what exactly is a normal weight. My answer to this question is; who cares really? Why does it matter? And why does the word ‘fat’ have to carry such negative connotations? Why can’t we just use it as an adjective rather than something that is inherently bad? People like to use their concern over a person’s health as an excuse. Fatness can’t be used as a gauge of good health nor can thinness. In the end, it’s nobody’s business but the person in question about the state of their own health. Leave your concern trolling at the door people, because it is just yet another method of body policing in the guise of being a good citizen.

Of course, it’s not only a woman’s problem. But just by being a light consumer of media it becomes clear quickly that women are the ones who bear the brunt of such criticism. Women in western societies have come so far in the latter half of the last century in terms of independence, but sometimes it really feels like we’re taking a step backwards when it comes to this. Yes, many of us have the freedom to work, vote and have a certain amount of bodily autonomy (*side eyes archaic Irish abortion laws*), but in the end the appearance of a woman is still heavily dictated by the male gaze. I am fully aware that in theory I take part in this. I like to dye my hair, wear pretty clothes and wear make-up. However it can be argued that this is a form of self-expression. I like to think that it is a choice; I do these things because I like to and not because I feel like I have to. For women and men alike there is a certain amount of pressure ‘to take care of themselves’. However this pressure is still more of an issue for women. After all, how often to you see an editorial on how badly dressed a man is, about how he’s let himself go and how he just generally looks like a mess. Not often, right? Women are still expected to maintain an attractive appearance, no matter how great her other achievements may be.

Furthermore, we have such activities like lingerie football becoming a popular past time. What inevitably crops up alongside such activities is the argument that a woman can do what she wants with her body. This is true, of course. I don’t have a problem with objectification in itself, if someone wants their body to be portrayed in such a manner and it is truly their wish to take part in such an event, then I really don’t have a problem with it. My problem arises from the fact that for the most part it is women who are being objectified (if you mention that one Diet Coke ad from the 90s I’ll scream; one advertisement catered for hetero ladies does not cancel out hundreds of years of women being treated as objects, soz hun). Not only does it reinforce the notion that women and their appearances are public property and made for male consumption, it totally undermines a woman’s own sexual desires. Where are the male page 3 models? How come men don’t have a whole sport dedicated to running around in sexy underwear? Are we too not avid consumers in this capitalist society? I want my sexual desires to be pandered to dammit, and I want it now!  And let’s not forget the denial of the existence of LGBTQ people in all this.

That last paragraph may seem a tad tangential, but the truth is it’s all connected; the combination of the media’s treatment of prominent women and how women portrayed in advertising and elsewhere creates a standard for which women feel they must live up to. This is a standard that is for the most part unattainable. Until women of all body types, ethnicities and sexuality are portrayed equally in the mainstream media, it doesn’t seem like this crazy pressure will go away any time soon.

– Cora

2 thoughts on “Body Policing in Mainstream Media

  1. A brilliant post.

    They police us and try to make us police ourselves and each other because they are afraid – *afraid* on a “turn-yer-bowels-to-water” level – of women and female sexuality.

    [There is an interesting neo-Freudian thesis here, to the effect that boys and men not only fear us but that they despise us because they so desperately feel the need to obliterate from their consciousness the fact that their earliest emotional identification is with their *mothers.*]

    And it is not only that they fear us as individuals. Many men become surly, some become aggressive and some even go into absolute toxic meltdown when they think women are “banding together against them” – castration anxiety, perhaps.?

    Apparently, groups of men banding together against women is ‘natural,’ but women must be prevented from doing the same by every method available, from ridiculing our attempts to understand their oppression and articulate a response to it — the media’s attack on all forms of ‘feminism’ being a prime example — to creating rivalries between individual women, encouraging them to compete for ‘favour’ and ‘status,’ to singling out the more outspoken for ‘special treatment’ to “put them in their place.”

    Throughout much of the world, and for much of human history, women have known that opposing men, let alone “banding together against them,” is a recipe not merely for social death, but often for physical extermination. Because women are not stupid and actually enjoy being alive, they develop a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in their dealings with men and hand this pattern of behaviour down to their daughters.


    • Thanks for the really interesting, thought provoking comment! I have definitely seen aspects of such behavior from men and women in my life. And when you point out these patterns of behaviour oftentimes people deny that they even exist *sigh*

      – Cora


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