As our bodies change, so do our perceptions of the body types we consider “normal.” As a young white girl growing up in a small town, surrounded by other young white girls, it was easy to pick out my own flaws in comparison to theirs. In the classic coming-of-age fashion, I came to realize that the world of bodies was incredibly diverse outside of my community, yet in spite of this, the representation of bodies in media is still focused narrowly on the same young, white, feminine bodies with which I was so familiar. 

For centuries, there have been women who have been unhappy with the way they look. Though trends have changed, this commonality of a negative body image has remained. This critical self-perception is most prominent through adolescence and typically persists into adulthood. Various literature suggests that perfectionism, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable,” is a core factor in body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among women.

What I quickly learned was that the University of Michigan is home to an exceedingly large population of perfectionists, which explained both the intense academic standards to which students held themselves and the consistent physical regime which those very same students follow. I personally do not have the necessary determination and work ethic that is required for a perfectionist personality, but many of my friends and peers do. While in various circumstances such a personality is useful and rewarding (by holding oneself to high standards, one is more apt to travel upward in terms of career and success), in terms of body image and the perfectibility of the body — specifically among women — perfectionism quickly becomes dangerous.

The prevalence of thinness in the media can explain the ideals to which women so strictly hold themselves. What various studies (and common sense) show us is most media outlets portray women as thin, and representation matters. This topic has many branches, but focusing specifically on body type, ask yourself how many female television characters you can think of with body types that would wear anywhere between a size 16-18 (the sizes of the average American woman as reported by Psychology Today).

A dangerous mix is created when women are told that the admirable body type is incredibly thin and toned, and these same women are taught to work rigorously to achieve their goals by any means possible. While it’s obviously healthy to exercise and eat well, excessive habits in any form become problematic quickly. This is occasionally apparent in the young women who go to the gym seven days a week without fail, who’ve vowed to cut sugar and carbohydrates entirely from their diets. (I cannot and do not wish to define what is or should be considered “healthy” because that term is purely subjective. What is healthy for some may not be for others. This subjectivity is the kryptonite of dealing with eating disorders.)

But when this behavior is flaunted and praised, as it often is on college campuses, we come to consider it as the ideal. While for many this lifestyle is healthy and at times necessary for mental well-being, this is not universally the case. When subjective methods are applied objectively, problems arise. The adoption of a strict diet and exercise regimen may result in significant bodily and mental change for some, and not for others, thus perpetuating distress among young women who are so desperately striving for physical perfection.

Even further, there is certainly a class divide between those who are and are not able to afford gym memberships and health foods, which are considered necessary for these idealistically healthy lifestyles. The distress of lacking requisite resources to attain this bodily ideal is greater than is immediately visible, and the various racial, cultural and class-based setbacks to young women attempting to achieve this ideal are innumerable.

So we ask ourselves, “How do we change this?” One possible immediate response is simply to call for more realistic representation in media or to advertise healthier, less extreme lifestyles. But these solutions fail to account for the damage that is already done. What’s more, this norm is already perpetuated by the young women it affects and those around them.

I do believe that, over time, bodily ideals can be modified into more attainable and inclusive forms on a global scale. However, change such as this does not happen overnight, and there are more personal and individualistic efforts that can be made in the meantime. Instead, I argue, we should utilize mindfulness. Do not discuss with your friends how little or how much you’ve eaten that day. Do not boast how much weight you’ve lost or gained in the past week. By focusing less on physical aspects of one another, we can end the personal perpetuation of these potentially harmful ideals and simultaneously focus on aspects of our peers that do not need to be changed by diet restrictions and gym memberships. Be mindful of how others might perceive your words. What seems harmless to you may not seem so innocent to another.

Megan Burns can be reached at megburns@umich.edu.

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