Body obsession is contemporary Western culture’s default state. When it comes to matters of the flesh it increasingly feels there is no space for neutrality, only neurosis. Catwalks and red carpets parade lean limbs; magazine headlines herald new crash diets and magic detoxes; billboards alternately thrust heaving cleavage or jutting hipbones into our collective psyche – impossible Venus and Adonis figures reigning over cityscapes. On every smart device bulging muscles, bouncing buttocks and ever shrinking thighs vie for position. In all probability the average Instagrammer will have seen at least five super-toned midriffs on their phone screen before seeing themselves in the mirror, every morning.
Body anxiety is actively encouraged as the norm. There may have been an outcry when Protein World plastered the London Underground in posters insisting the only way to get “Bikini Body Ready” was through a rigorous programme of meal skipping (their special potion handily illustrated by a female assistant, a modern-day Venus emerging from the sea, complete with prominent ribcage), but the idea is nothing new. Bold yellow signs may be easy to spot, denounce and graffiti, but the insidious belief in the ‘bikini body’ is more difficult to tear down. God forbid your body should be exposed to the world in its natural state; with every beach and poolside doubling as a Facebook album fashion show your two week holiday requires at least two months of preparation. “No carbs before Barbs / Marbs / drinks at the Shard, amirite?!” In the digitised, ever-connected world where anyone can enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame if they garner enough followers, all bodies can be subject to the same scrutiny celebrities face. Facebook stalking is often only the privatised version of the tabloid red circle of shame.
By creating a culture where week long juice detoxes are hailed as the epitome of ‘wellness’ we have created a Frankenstein’s monster, as competing visions of bodily perfection are stitched together into a horrendous unattainable whole.
Tina Fey’s description of the current female ideal reveals the ridiculous nature of this collective fantasy: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.”
Fey is clearly being satirical. Yet while this jigsaw puzzle creature appears absurd, a grotesque figure of parts, each piece is also utterly recognisable. We may realise that this collection of traits cannot be easily stitched together (no, not even with a special shredding potion), but that doesn’t stop us berating ourselves and our parts for not living up to the fantastical ‘ideal’. Whether ‘not thin enough’, ‘not big enough’, ‘not strong enough’, the message is consistently ‘not enough’. The imaginary creature has enormous power.
And, increasingly, its not just the ‘dolls’ scrutinised in such a way, but the guys too. Bulky-but-not-too-bulky muscles in a lean-but-not-too-lean frame without one ounce of body fat, standing at 6 foot 2, who isn’t a neurotic, gym-obsessive? Daniel Craig ditching the damp bikini babe and emerging from the ocean in tight swimwear himself may have been a plus point to feminism in some senses, but it sure didn’t do anything for bodily self esteem.
Children as young as 8 are now reported to experience dissatisfaction with their bodies. In the largest UK study ever undertaken on children and eating disorders nearly 10% of 8 year olds were unhappy with their bodies’ shape or size. This jumped drastically at age 14, to 32.3% of girls and 16% of boys. At that age, 38.8% of the girls and 12.2% of the boys were involved in what the study calls ‘eating disorder behaviours’. These are children who were born in 2001 – before the surge in social media, apps and online sharing we have seen in the last 6 years. If Instagram’s first post has just turned 5, what will the these statistics be when it turns 15?
It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Social media also allows for grassroots activism. Protests about the fashion industry’s obsession with an anorexic aesthetic, or still-dominant restrictive gender norms, or the lack of older female faces (but presence of younger female breasts), can spread across online platforms like proverbial wildfire. But, despite attacking a jigsaw fantasy creature, these attacks cannot be piecemeal. Defacing a billboard here or a page 3 spread there simply will not cut it. It must be a constant barrage, for the 8 year olds of next year. Body neurosis is a tough beast to battle, but the fight is vitally necessary. How can we address poverty and inequality if we’re all too busy hating our thighs?