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From Chapter Six, "Growing Up Female in a Porn Culture"
In her excellent book on body image and food, feminist philosopher Susan Bordo looks at the ways the culture helps shape women’s ideas about what constitutes the perfect body. The bodies of the women we see in magazines and on television are actually very unusual in their measurements and proportions, with long necks, broad shoulders, and high waists. Yet because these are more or less the only images we see, we take them to be the norm rather than the exception and assume that the problem lies with us and not the fashion and media industries that insist on using a very specific body type. This is what the media do: they take the abnormal body and make it normal by virtue of its visibility, while making the normal bodies of real women look abnormal by virtue of their invisibility. The result is a massive image disorder on the part of society. Since we all develop notions of ourselves from cultural messages and images, it would seem that a truly disordered female is one who actually likes her body.
Bordo’s discussion of the way culture shapes notions of the body asks us to rethink the idea that women with eating disorders are somehow deviants. Women who starve themselves are actually overconforming to the societal message about what constitutes female perfection. They have taken in the messages and come to what looks like a very reasonable conclusion: thin women are prized in this culture, I want to be prized, and therefore I need to be thin, which means that I can’t eat. How can it be any different in a world where anorexic-looking women such as Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham, Mary Kate Olsen, and Lindsay Lohan are praised by the celebrity magazines for their “look”? I do not mean to be glib here about the devastating effects of starving one’s body. I have seen many students with a long list of health problems due to long-term starvation. But somewhere in this discussion, we need to see the society as pathological rather than the adolescent girl in the hospital ward who is being diagnosed with multiple disorders.
Many of the young women I have spoken to who have been hospitalized for eating disorders talk about all the new tricks they learned from fellow patients for losing weight even faster. Not many talk about their hospitalizations in terms of recovery. While many of these young women end up hospitalized for complex reasons, the cultural obsession with female thinness has to figure in somewhere for most of them. Yet these recovery programs do not have classes on media literacy and cultural constructions of gender or rap sessions on resisting sexist imagery. Instead the focus is squarely on the individual female and her assumed psychological problems, which somehow dropped from the sky. One story that demonstrates the cultural components of this so-called individual disorder is writer Abra Chernik’s experience of having a day out from the hospital, where she is being treated for anorexia.13 Close to death, Chernik goes to the mall and takes a “fat test” at a sporting goods store. She learns she is this week’s winner, with the lowest percentage of body fat, and everyone in the store breaks into applause. Chernik then returns to the hospital, where she is meant to recover with intense therapy that explores her personal problems. Meanwhile, the culture is left intact.
Understanding culture as a socializing agent requires exploring how and why some girls and young women conform and others resist. For all the visual onslaught, not every young woman looks or acts like she take her cues from Cosmopolitan or Maxim. One reason for this is that conforming to a dominant image is not an all-or-nothing act but rather a series of acts that place women and girls at different points on the continuum of conformity to nonconformity. Where any individual sits at any given time on this continuum depends on her past and present experiences as well as family relationships, media consumption, peer group affiliations and sexual, racial, and class identity. We are not, after all, blank slates onto which images are projected.
Given the complex ways that we form our sexual and gender identities, it is almost impossible to predict, with precision, how any one individual will act at any one time. This does not mean, though, that we can’t make predictions on a macro level. What we can say is that the more one way of being female is elevated above and beyond others, the more a substantial proportion of the population will gravitate toward that which is most socially accepted, condoned, and rewarded. The more the hypersexualized image crowds out other images of women and girls, the fewer options females have of resisting what cultural critic Neil Postman called “the seduction of the eloquence of the image.”
Conforming to the image is seductive as it not only offers women an identity that is in keeping with the majority but also confers a whole host of pleasures, since looking hot does garner the kind of male attention that can sometimes feel empowering. Indeed, getting people to consent to any system, even if it’s inherently oppressive, is made easier if conformity brings with it psychological, social, and/or material gains. Many women know what it’s like to be sexually wanted by a man: the way he holds you in his gaze, the way he finds everything you say worthy of attention, the way you suddenly become the most compelling person in the world. This is the kind of attention we don’t normally get from men when we are giving a presentation, having a political conversation, or telling them to do the dishes. No, this is an attention men shower on women they want sexually, and it feels like real power, but it is ephemeral because it is being given to women by men who increasingly, thanks to the porn culture, see women as interchangeable hookup partners. To feel that sense of power, women need to keep sexing themselves up so they can become visible to the next man who is going to, for a short time, hold her in his lustful gaze.
Those girls and young women who resist the wages of sexual objectification have to form an identity that is in opposition to mainstream culture. What I find is that these young women and girls tend to have someone in their life—be it a mother, an older woman mentor, or a coach—who provides some form of immunization to the cultural messages. But often this immunization is short-lived. Every summer I coteach an institute in media literacy, and many of the participants are parents or teachers. Year after year we hear the same story: they are working hard to provide their daughters or students with ways to resist the culture, and in their early years the girls seem to be internalizing the counter-ideology. However, at some point, usually around puberty but increasingly earlier, the girls begin to adopt more conventional feminine behavior as their peer group becomes the most salient socializing force. This makes sense because adolescence is the developmental stage that is all about fitting in. Indeed, in a strange way, one becomes visible in adolescence by looking like everyone else, and to look and act differently is to be rendered invisible.
What many of these young women and girls need to be able to continue resisting the dominant culture is clearly a peer group of like-minded people as well as an ideology that reveals the fabricated, exploitative, and consumerist nature of contemporary femininity. Alternative ideologies such as feminism that critique dominant conceptions of femininity are either caricatured or ignored in mainstream media. Absent such a worldview and a community of like-minded people, many young women speak about feeling isolated and alone in their refusal to conform to the porn culture. The stories are the same: they have a lot of difficulty in negotiating the outsider status that they have been forced to take on. They not only refuse to sex themselves up, they also refuse to have hookup sex, which means that they have a difficult time finding men who are interested in them.