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Identity: Body Image


Maggie Millar is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her film credits include The Mango Tree, Phar Lap, Bushfire Moon and Pieta. she has had major roles in the TV series Bellbird, The Sullivans, Prisoner, Possession and All the Way. Since leaving the industry, she has been conducting seminars and workshops on media influences, body image and self-esteem. Here she explores the connection between image culture and the increasing incidence of eating disorders.

'She smiles down at you from hundreds of billboards as you make your way to work... In various stages of undress, she coaxes you to come away to an island holiday, to buy a new car... sometimes she implores you to change your brand of cigarette and the next minute she is telling you to strive for better health. She is young, slender and so very happy... She is there again as you shop in the lunch hour... she appears in films, television and books as the sexy heroine. She is loved... She is young and has promise... She stands next to us in our mind's eye so that we can see how we measure up. We always fail. She sets the impossible standard by which we judge ourselves and others. But who is she?... Where does she spring from? Who puts her on the billboard and why is she there? Hers is not a neutral image. She has power and influence. She is our cultural ideal. She is the perfect woman.'Kovel, Ramona: Eating Your Heart Out, 1996 (Penguin)

It's enough to make you sick. And thousands of women are doing just that: starving themselves, vomiting, purging, obsessing about food, over-exercising, having dubious plastic surgery and engaging in countless other activities, to fit this utterly impossible mould. After all these years of struggle for equality, why do so many women still believe the myth that they're only as good as they look?

It's not a comfortable thing to live with your worst enemy seven days a week, yet for increasing numbers of women this is the case. The female body has become something to be fought, subdued, reduced or artificially added to, in an effort to fit that ever-changing, impossible image.

One of the most disconcerting things about this 'ideal woman' is her propensity to change shape. Early this century, the ideal was a voluptuous hour glass figure which was achieved by wearing a tightly-laced whalebone corset. It's no wonder the ladies of that era were so prone to fainting, severe menstrual pain, and a high incidence of miscarriage.

The next extreme came with the 1920s 'flapper' look, where women showed a lot of leg, but weren't supposed to have breasts. To this end, women actually bound their breasts with tape or tight bandages. Studies at New York State University found that: 'In the mid-twenties... an epidemic of eating disorders appeared among young women. That is, history is currently repeating itself. Thin is in while women starve and abuse their bodies'.Tavris, Carol: The Mismeasure of Woman, 1992 (Touchstone [Simon & Schuster])Throughout the ages the female body has been subjected to extraordinary shifts in emphasis on its various parts. This is particularly true of the female breasts. They have been pushed up, squashed in, bound, and now, surgically lessened, lifted, and 'augmented' by inserting silicone bags or saline solution.

'A 1984 career guide for women advised its readers: "The sex goddess look is at odds with a professional business look. If you have a large bust don't accentuate it".'Ibid, Tavris

The ideal today is a sort of hybrid: tall and slender-waisted, narrow-hipped and long-legged, but full-breasted - not unlike the barbie doll in fact! The movie stars of the 1950s, when I was a teenager, were typified by a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe. The dress she wore in Some Like It Hot was a size 16. If she turned up at a film studio looking for work today, she'd be told to lose at least 12 kilos, and Meg Ryan would get the role!

The latest modelling sensation in Europe, Gianne Albertoni Vicente (whom Georgio Armani described as the most beautiful woman he had seen in years), is a thirteen year old schoolgirl The Guardian, reprinted in Tempo, The Age, 3rd May, 1995.. A few years ago, the editor of Vogue Australia said in a TV documentary that she would consider a model of 23 'old' Video 'Eating Your Heart Out' (Trout Films, 1986). Most photographic models today are in their teens, yet they are made up and posed in sophisticated sexy ways, to appeal to the women to whom the 'market' is geared.

It is common practice for photographic images to be technologically altered: blemishes removed, waists made smaller, breasts made fuller, whatever is necessary to make the image 'perfect'. A generation ago, the average model weighed 8% less than the 'average' American women; today she weighs 23% less.Palmer, Verne: May 1987 (The Outlook) Therefore, women and girls are comparing themselves to images that have less and less to do with reality, and certainly cannot be considered 'normal'.

Television shows the blatant double standard regarding age and body type of both actors and TV presenters. Most female characters in popular 'soaps' and series fit the current ideal, and when you realise that the camera makes those in front of it look fatter, these women have to be very slim indeed. Yet there is a much wider range of male characters, again with regard to age and body type.

Female news-readers and presenters must also conform to a very narrow ideal, whereas the men can be as old, large, or ordinary looking as they like. This supports the notion that women filling such roles on TV are chosen primarily for their appearance. Until we see women of all ages, shapes and sizes in such prominent roles, what else are we to think?

On the other side of the coin are the assumptions often made about women who do fit the ideal, and the expectations placed upon them. Beautiful women are often treated as brainless idiots, simply because they're beautiful. They are only expected to fulfil the role imposed on them by society's response to their beauty. They are often the recipients of other women's anger and hatred.

'Women who have suffered from the inability to meet the stringent requirements of the ideal can feel very threatened by beautiful women, and show this by a lack of sympathy towards them, regardless of the issue at hand. Some women misdirect their anger at thin women, whom they see as perpetuating the ideal. For many women who have a tendency to thinness, changing their shape is as difficult as losing weight is for others.'Ibid, KovelAnd that's what it's all about: changing our shape, as if this is something over which we have complete control. We don't. But we persist in believing the myth that if we don't find the ideal, we just haven't tried hard enough. And who perpetuates the myth? Author Kaz Cooke calls them the body police: those who have a vested interest in its promulgation, many of whom make a great deal of money out of it.

Nutritionist Rudolf Liebel says failed dieters can take comfort from his research into the body's 'set point'. There is a biological side to the 'problem': they are not lazy, slothful or gluttonous. 'It's not your fault if the pounds come back', says Leibel. 'People in the dieting industry have known this all along. Most of their business is repeat.'Leibel, Rudolph: New Scientist, 22 April, 1995As we now know, dieting can often lead to more serious problems. And all because fat is supposed to be the villain. Fat is the big no-no. Yet, the very thing that is necessary to function as a woman is FAT. Women are genetically programmed to carry fat - because that is where oestrogen is stored. If women don't have enough fat on their bodies, they cease to menstruate and cannot have babies. So what are we to say about a culture which actively encourages women - and even younger girls - to hate the very thing that makes them what they are?

As more and more studies are showing, one of the effects of dieting is precisely the opposite of what is desired: diets make you fat. But is fat the villain i's made out to be? A certain percentage of fatty tissue is absolutely essential for women to fulfil their biological function. That is why most women put on weight at the onset of menstruation, at various times during their reproductive lives, and at menopause.

The thin ideal with which image culture bombards us daily is, for the vast majority of women, unrealistic, unachievable, positively dangerous and, I believe, a profound denial of the so-called feminine principle. It is causing serious health problems for growing numbers of every younger girls, and women, and must be rejected with the utmost vigour. Those who gain financially from the body-hatred of thousands of women must be called to account.

'As the media appear to be able to influence people's thoughts, desires and self-concepts, their role in promoting obsession with weight, chronic dieting and eating disorders among women deserves not only further study but also, perhaps, pressure for change'Ibid, Tavris. An effective education program has been carried out, in some countries, to combat smoking. The same sort of campaign is well overdue in this arena.

As Kaz Cooke says:

*There are millions of gorgeous body shapes - yours is one of them.

*Dieting doesn't work.

*Your things are pretty cute.

*Advertising lies.

*Plastic surgery sucks.

*Modelling can be miserably.

*You can recover from an eating disorder.

*You can read magazines and watch television critically.

*You can fight the body police.

*You are not your buttocks! Cooke, Kaz: Real Gorgeous, 1994 (Allen & Unwin)

Maggie Millar

Last update: 2000-02-12 20:20:50 (EEST).
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