A recent movement of body acceptance among women has gained popularity in certain circles by sending the message that men prefer women “with some meat on their bones” to pencil-thin supermodels, and it’s starting to piss me off.
On one hand, promoting healthy body acceptance is essential in a society that encourages women, especially young ones, to look and act a certain way. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, a whopping 91 percent of women on college campuses have felt pressured to manage their weight with dieting.
But pop icons — such as singer Meghan Trainor with her song “All About That Bass” — who tell young girls they shouldn’t be skinny because boys don’t like thin girls are playing into the same societal problem that contributes to anorexia: the idea that women have to change themselves to cater to men’s desires.
Another example is European pop star Mika’s song “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful).”
For one thing, the song suggests thin women are less valuable than curvy women in the lines, “You take your skinny girls / Feel like I’m gonna die.” But more importantly, in the next two lines, those curvy women are still made into objects of male desire: “’Cause a real woman / Needs a real man.”
I think it’s obvious Trainor is trying to improve girls’ self-images when she sings, “Every inch of you is perfect from the top to the bottom,” just as I believe Mika is genuinely promoting body positivity among women in his song. But why, as a society, are we so afraid to tell women they can accept their bodies for their own sakes?
“I think this comes from a long history of seeing women’s bodies as objects,” said Associate Professor and Coordinator of Women’s and Gender Studies Jill Eichhorn.
Historically in Western society, men are successful if they can “bring home the bacon,” and women are successful if they are attractive and/or can look after the children and the home. The result is an environment where men are encouraged to go above and beyond, but women are told to stay put.
“We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much … otherwise, you will threaten the man,’” said writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a Ted Talk that has gone viral since being sampled in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless.” “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, … but for the attention of men.”
It seems a woman who thinks of her own wellbeing instead of her sex appeal or her ability to take care of children is often not praised for taking care of herself, but rather criticized for defying societal norms.
These arguments may be met with cries of, “Not all men make women sexual objects,” or, “I don’t objectify women,” but both of those statements miss the point. Many studies suggest society’s values as a whole affect people’s actions as much, if not more, than their individual motivations.
“[G]roup pressures and social situations … tend to override individual character, values, and inclinations,” said Noam Shpancer, psychologist and writer for Psychology Today. Shpancer’s message here is that even if a majority of men respect women’s right to make decisions for themselves, a loud minority that doesn’t afford women this right still dominates the society and, thus, individuals’ behaviors.
“The [body positivity] movement is going to have to come from real people in everyday life,” Eichhorn said.
This is why I can’t meet Trainor or Mika halfway. While body acceptance is a good thing to preach, we should not extend that message at the expense of the real goal: for all people to accept themselves regardless of what anyone else wants.
As Adichie said, “Imagine how much happier we would be … if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”
For everyone’s sake, let’s stop telling girls that boys like them curvy or thin. Let’s stop telling boys they have to objectify their wives or girlfriends to be considered masculine. Let’s stop pretending gender is an unbreakable role each person steps into at birth, and instead recognize the basic right we all have to respect.
Because if Trainor got anything right, it’s that no matter what, every inch of you is perfect from top to bottom. So why don’t we make society reflect that reality?