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.