Body Shop: Harmful Portrayals of Women's Bodies in the Media

by Priya Thomas

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I've come across the phrase "Body Shop" countless times while reading magazines. It's an interesting idea: the framing of beauty and fitness as a physical place. But like any mega-shopping mall, it's easy to get lost in there. To me, the phrase represents the commercialization of beauty, and feeds into the perception that women should always be seeking new ways to change and improve themselves. There is always a new product, a new outfit, a new recipe to try. You could also think of "The Body Shop" as a workshop rather a store, and it communicates the same message: that female bodies are constant streams of rough drafts and revisions. They will always need tweaking, trimming, rearranging. They will never be ready for publication.

I was eleven when I first peeked my head into “The Body Shop”: the display of tabloids by the checkout counter at Safeway, the life-size lingerie ads and athletic-wear posters decorating the walls of shopping malls, the billboards about dieting on the side of the highway, and the commercials, romantic comedies, and action films chock full of messages for girls like me.  It began with magazines. In sixth grade when I’d go grocery shopping with my mom, I’d make a beeline for the tabloids and sit crouched by the checkout line, nose deep in the glossy pages I loved so much, while my mom piled her wagon with groceries. The first time I saw the phrase “Body Shop,” it was written in bold, black Helvetica, like a victory-banner over a picture of a slender Caucasian women in a black bra and Spandex. She was in the middle of a jumping-jack, but her arms punching the air reminded me of someone who’d just won a race. In my mind she had won the premium package; she was emerging from the Body Shop with beautiful skin and limbs and hair, all top-of-the-line, no expiration date. Beneath her were a list of exercises and diet tips to help readers look like her, but right at that moment, all I could think about was how happy that woman must have felt, doing jumping-jacks for the camera, knowing that a whole world of little girls like me wanted her body. 

This same idea has been communicated through an infinite number of jaunty little slogans: Body Project, Own Your Body, Be in Control of Your Body, Get in Shape, Shape Up, Get Fit, etc. These slogans and catchphrases are, in theory, supposed to empower women to love their bodies. I can’t speak for everyone, but for my eleven-year-old self, these slogans, matched with images of wiry, sylphlike women with frizzless hair and pale faces -- usually dappled with sweat that somehow never dripped and looked more like the gold-glitter spray-paint you can get at Michaels -- was anything but empowering. I wanted so badly to look like these women, not so much because I disliked my body, but because I wanted to enter into that glowing haze of health and happiness that seemed to shroud them like halos. I wanted my life to look as gleaming and triumphant as that model’s -- airborne, muscles taut, and fists punching the clouds. 

If “The Body Shop” were a physical place, magazines would only be the first floor. In Hollywood films, the same kinds of messages are everywhere. Dieting, guilt-driven exercise, and playful self-hate come up ridiculously often in the casual conversations that female characters have with each other, especially in chick flicks and romantic comedies. In Bride Wars, Kate Hudson plays a beautiful, financially successful bride-to-be, fighting with her best friend (Anne Hathaway) over the same wedding date in New York’s famed Plaza Hotel. Over the course of the movie she is referred to, either by herself or other characters, as “former chubby girl” and “ex-heifer.” Her friend tries to sabotage her wedding plans by sending her chocolates and cookie bouquets; halfway through the movie Kate Hudson panics because she has gained five pounds (although she looks no different than she did before.) She half-cries, half-pouts into her fiancee’s shoulder in a black bra and cardigan, her figure just as slender and toned as it was at the beginning of the movie. This scene sparked a myriad of emotions in my eleven-year-old self; at that point in my life I was already starting to feel broken down by all the messages I was receiving from the media, and watching a glamorous female protagonist shame her body, even in a comedic context, made me start to wonder if I should be ashamed of my own. 

Similar issues come up in other films like Love Actually, Mean Girls, and Pitch Perfect. In Love Actually there are three different subplots involving women’s weight: 1) a prime minister (Hugh Grant) falls for an intern named Natalie, whose boyfriend broke up with her because of her “thighs the size of big tree trunks.” 2) Emma Thompson plays a woman whose husband cheats on her with a younger, thinner woman. Thompson wears body padding throughout the movie and mentions “feeling fat” at her husband’s Christmas party, because apparently it wouldn’t make sense for a man to cheat on his skinny wife. 3) Colin Firth plays Jamie, a writer who has fallen in love with Aurelia, his Portuguese housekeeper. When he goes to her house to propose, her overweight sister appears at the door, thinking Jamie has come for her. This scene is meant to make the audience laugh, as if the possibility that heavier women can be sexy or sought after is so ludicrous that it’s funny. 

Mean Girls and Pitch Perfect are slightly different because the directors exaggerate the fat shaming in order to make fun of our society’s obsession with thinness. However, some scenes can still be difficult to watch for anyone who has struggles with body image.  The problem remains that heavier characters are rarely taken seriously; Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect is meant to be the comic relief. She is part of the Barden Bellas more for her personality than her vocal talent, and her romantic relationships are meant to be laughed at. Similarly, in Mean Girls, the main characters hate on their bodies as a kind of pastime, despite the fact that they are all slim and perfectly made-up all the time. Early in the movie, while protagonist Cady Heron is looking for someone to sit with at lunch, she divides the students into various categories based on common high school stereotypes. Two of them are “girls who eat their feelings” and “girls who don’t eat anything.” This kind of crude categorization is meant to be self-critical; girls who watch it are supposed to realize that decent human beings aren’t supposed to think and act this way. This works just fine for many girls, but others can’t help but internalize these messages, regardless of how they’re intended to be taken. No one wants to be labeled “a girl who eats her feelings.” However, it is perfectly normal, even fashionable, to be slender and still complain about being fat.

I know many people might react to this by saying, “If you’re that sensitive, then just don’t watch those kind of movies.” The nature of film is that it critiques and satirizes prevalent social issues; sometimes it sacrifices political correctness for humor and story-telling. My only objection to this would be that “sensitive” girls can’t just find relief by avoiding Hollywood films. The same messages pop up everywhere they look: in grocery stores, shopping malls, bookstores, school, sports teams, and other venues where they must interact with the media, or with girls who have already consumed and internalized this media. Regardless of whether or not girls feel consciously disturbed by such images and ideals, over time the messages add up, and begin to spark cognitive and behavioral changes.

There is another kind of film that deals with body image in a different way, but it can be just as damaging to girls with eating disorders or body-related anxiety. While comedies often use weight-related humor as inconsequential side-stories or social criticism, dramas often martyrize, and thus glamorize, women who are genuinely sick. The “overworked, perfectionistic, self-denying” prototype is common among films with female protagonists; their asceticism is their most marketable trait. They are the quintessential “damsels in distress;” they are ripe for rescue. Their gaunt bodies are meant to be physical manifestations of positive character traits like humility and selflessness. For example, in Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina, an anorexic ballerina who literally works herself to death. Although her behavior is meant to frighten and repulse the audience, in many cases it does the opposite: it drives girls to shift their perception of what it means to be ambitious, beautiful, and hard-working. Nina is all of these things - until she’s dead. And what’s worse is that her death is portrayed as a kind of fairytale escape from the brutal reality of her life. In the last scene of the movie, she is barely conscious while she is dancing. As the audience applauds, she falls onto a feathery white bed, ruby-lipped, lashes thick with mascara. The other dancers shower her with praise while blood spurts from her stomach. Her last words are, “I was perfect.” This portrayal of death is problematic for so many reasons, the main one being that it looks more like a scene from Sleeping Beauty than an authentic picture of suicide. The message that girls and women are left with is that yes, Nina suffered, but in the end, she was perfect.


These kinds of messages follow girls outside of the theater and into their daily lives. While it may seem like common sense that the primary takeaway from a movie like Black Swan is that women shouldn’t do what Nina did to herself, in reality, many woman came away motivated by Nina’s starved figure. It is because of characters like Nina that the term “thinspiration” has become an entire world - a subject of blogs, websites, and day-to-day conversations. People have also used Natalie Portman’s dramatic weight loss for her role as personal incentive to exercise. In the process of praising Portman for her discipline, we lose the message that the movie was actually trying to communicate, which is probably a sign that the message was not communicated well to begin with.

It is easy to lose yourself in a culture so saturated in fat-shaming humor and skewed body-ideals. It is easy to let your self-esteem float on the breeze of whatever movie is popular, or whatever magazine you happen to pick up at the grocery store. In “The Body Shop”, sometimes you will feel empowered, but the longer you linger, the more frequently you’ll find yourself plummeting. As someone who has “plummeted” many times, all I can say is that in a way, judging your health and appearance is like shopping: there is no sense in buying something that looks good on a mannequin that you know will never fit you. In the same way, don’t glorify certain models or actresses just because everybody else seems to be glorifying them. Don’t exercise from fear of other women’s bodies, or hatred of your own.  It’s much easier said than done to “love yourself the way you are,” but I think getting to know yourself can be a good first step. To the best of your ability, try to leave “The Body Shop” behind, and instead spend some conscious time in your own body. Appreciate what it can do, make peace with the things that it can’t, and know that nobody’s else’s could ever fit you better.

[in]Visible MagazineComment