The Sexist

The Bizarre Defensiveness of Beauty Expectations

A reader sent in this Live Science piece on a new study that has found that "all women worry about getting fat." All of them! Well, more specifically, the study has determined that ten women worry about getting fat, but the small sample size nevertheless points to some interesting discrepancies in body image and self-worth between men and women.

The fat-alarmist findings reminded me of a book that was recently drawn to my attention: It's called How to Never Look Fat Again, and it's by beauty expert Charla Krupp, New York Times best-selling author of How Not to Look Old. Krupp's book titles aren't just hilarious—they also reveal how women are taught to assume an extraordinarily defensive attitude when considering their own bodies.

But first, the science: According to Brigham Young University neuroscientist Mark Allen, "Even though they claim they don't care about body issues . .. [women's] brains are showing that it really bugs them to think about the prospect of being overweight," he says. Allen's study went like this:

The study involved 10 normal-weight women and nine normal-weight men between the ages of 18 and 30. Both groups were shown images of people with different body shapes (either fat or thin) that matched the subjects' gender. With each image, the subjects were asked to "imagine someone is saying 'your body looks like hers/his." This all occurred while the subjects had their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

When women looked at images of overweight individuals, their brain scans showed a spike in activity in a region thought to be involved in self-reflection and evaluation of self-worth, called the medial prefrontal cortex. Anorexic and bulimic women also show increased activity in this region when they look at images of overweight individuals, Allen said, but their brain activity is more pronounced.

The same spike in brain activity wasn't found when women pictured themselves as thin. And men showed no change in activity in this brain area regardless of whether they pictured themselves as fat or thin, suggesting they didn't experience the same self-reflection that women did.

When these women are asked to reflect on being compared to a fat person, they experience a spike in self-reflection; when the women are asked to perform the same exercise with a thin person, their brains relax. Perhaps this explains why Krupp publishes books based in scare tactics against looking old and fat instead of building her beauty tips around the (still extremely dubious) pursuit of appearing young and thin. When women's bodies are framed in negative terms instead of positive ones, women are more likely to focus on potential deficiencies, and that self-reflective spike in brain activity might just be enough to convince a woman to, say, buy Krupp's books.

Here's what that woman will find inside: How Not to Look Old specifically situates itself in opposition to the idea that women ought to be happy with their bodies. "Forget getting older gracefully—This is the beauty and style bible every woman has been waiting for!!" the book's press materials announce, before listing all the products that women must buy in order to never, ever look old: "hair color, brows, lipstick, wrinkle-erasers, jeans, shapewear, jewelry, heels, and more." How to Never Look Fat Again promises to inform women "which fabrics, colors, and styles make women look fat," and how to avoid them. "So, if you've ever put on a piece of clothing and asked 'Does this make me look fat?' Finally, here is the book that will answer your question." (The answer is yes).

Obviously, the idea that "looking fat" is such a horrible fate to befall a woman that we must all labor to never, ever appear that way at any time from any angle in any pair of pant or winter jacket is extremely fucked up. But putting the patently offensive particulars of our beauty ideal aside—whiter, younger, thinner, sexier!—it's telling that the beauty industry so often focuses on how women should not look. I think that the defensive, negative approach helps to instill the idea in women that none of us are anywhere close to looking youthful enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough to strive for the ideal. And so, women of all ages, weights, and appearances must instead compete to stay not-fat, not-old, and not-ugly. Perpetually situating women as barely above the level of acceptability won't make us feel any better about ourselves, but it will at least keep us in a state of mind that encourages the consumption of Krupp's catalog.

  • Lori

    I was kind of pissed off at today's big NYT article about whether or not exercise leads to weight loss. Shouldn't the more important question be whether it makes you healthier?

  • Jamie J

    'How never to look fat again' - wow, that 'again' is one nasty sucker-punch to the self-image.

  • Molly Ren

    Whenever they do these kinds of studies I always wish I could see the pictures they show people to get reactions. If someone told me I looked like Crystal Renn or Beth Ditto I wouldn't mind!

  • Eo

    I dont think we are going to be able to get away from needing to look healty, fit and fertile to be considered among the more attractive and the competition will stay there too, thats just biological reality. IMO the problems that are there are caused by the fact that these biological drives, and the competition in particular, are monetised.

  • chris

    Looks like the answer to that question is photoshop.

    And Eo, healthy/fit =/= thin. Google Kate Harding or HAES.

  • Jenny

    Eo, please try to be a little less predictable.

  • Eo

    Yes, chris thats right, healthy fit and fertile looking doesnt necessarily mean thin, but it often does IMO, it is a generalised truth thats there in mate selection and thats why its an issue, that and the fact that competition to look healthy fit and fertile is monetised.
    The weight industry depends on this competition and insecurity about competition.

    OT here - models on the cover of mens mags wont be digitally slimmed down and if the are the mag. wont sell as well, its the opposite for womens mags. for some reason, a real figure on a front cover damages sales.

  • Eo

    Yes Jenny Im sorry I forgot, science is tool of the patriarchy and it should be mocked, live on the interweb.

    I see the dig at the student that cant get laid there on your, mocking people because of their lack of physical attractivness or game is not very nice now is it?

  • TJ

    @Amanda, thanks for reading the original article. I had a feeling that you would have an opinion on it.

    One of the first things that stood out in my mind was the participants in the study. Only ten females and nine males? And they are only between the ages of 18 and 30? Seriously? You can make a generalization for ALL men and women from 19 folks? Really? What about the folks that don't fall into that category (I'm 32, so I fall JUST outside of their participant criteria)? And what is exactly considered "normal weight"? Wouldn't normal be about a size 12-14? And what were the nationalities of these folks? Did that make a difference or did the good scientist not care?

    There were so many things wrong with this study that I wonder why Newsweek thought to do an article about it... and then not point out all the holes. I shook my head the entire time I read it.

  • squirrely girl

    EO - you're failing to recognize/acknowledge that beauty and attractiveness are socially constructed and change over time. For example, full figured women were the norm during much of the 50's and 60's. The waif-look was in during the late 80's and most of the 90's. Today, the movement is the near impossible balance of large breasted and small waisted women. What will it be 10, 20, or 50 years from now? Who knows?!

    "Looking" attractive and healthy/fit for mate selection is so much of a farce in contemporary culture anyways. All of the things evolutionary psychology argues that men "look for" in women can be faked...

  • squirrely girl

    EO - another point - if anything, thin would NOT equate well with fertility. Women need a certain amount of fat on their bodies, particularly through the abdomen, hips, and thighs, to become pregnant and carry that pregnancy to term. Many thin women experiencing difficulties with fertility are told to put on weight.

  • Jenny

    Squirelly Girl - and the point at which excess fat would begin to affect fertility is a much higher level of fatness than is considered socially acceptable.

    EO - what makes you think your ideas are scientific? Or that science is not impacted by the patriarchy? Also, the bingo card doesn't say why the dude can't laid. Lack of attractiveness or "game" is your own interpretation of the situation, not mine.

  • Shinobi

    Ugh that Never Look Fat Again book made me so mad. Did you know that you should make sure to pluck your eyebrows right or you will look fat? Heaven Forfend that one might appear to have any amount of adipose tissue on one's body (except boobs, which must be naturally huge), much better that we should all subsist on cigarettes and diet coke in the name of being "healthy."

    Sometimes I'm glad I actually AM fat so I am freed from the trouble of worrying about whether or not I look it.

  • Lizrd

    I love when the comments are inhabited with sociologically conscious comments. Makes my day. I agree sexist readers!(Except with Eo, but I'm not going to address a boring evo psych analysis. Additionally, LOVE evo psych bingo! I'll be sure to take it to the next Male Studies faculty meeting)

  • Eo

    Squirrley girl, when i sat thin i dont mean skinny - btw the skinny trend was started by gay men in the fashion industry, they, for a while fooled women into thinking that a boyish frame was the ideal.

    Women will compete with other women to aquire the looks and symbols of the beauty and fertility ideal, even if its elongated necks in South Africa, they are competing with each other... its not the hyper-monetised and hyper-marketed competition that we have here but its the same thing.

    As for the socialised v nature argument that a few people have brought up, its not either or, its a combination of the two, the symbols are often expressions of the biological and its the symbols that change from culture to culture.

  • squirrely girl

    Eo -

    So are you referring more to height/weight proportionate?

    You're totally correct that women will compete with other women... but the appearance focus is still a relatively recent development (as in the last half century).

    For example, take a look at magazines geared toward young women over the last century and you'll notice an increasing trend toward appearance orientations. Take a look at the covers and articles of these magazines during the 50's and 60's and you'll see a STARK contrast in the content such that women were encouraged to focus on improving their academics, participating in extracurriculars, developing homemaking skills, and being "pleasant" as opposed to attractive. You'll read articles about "improving health" as opposed to the current trend of "losing weight." Quite simply, women were encouraged to develop their inner selves as opposed to focusing exclusively on their outer appearance.

    And yes, there is a tendency toward the "uber skinny" in fashion because the "clothes look better" on a "flat" canvas during runways shows - but this isn't "new" - and as the general social body standard has become thinner, the models have become EVEN thinner to set them apart from the "normal" people. At any rate, you'll have to do a lot more to convince me that the current thin ideal is because of the "gay man." :)

    Sorry to ramble on - this is just my particular area of research :)