Body language: let lockdown alter the way we talk about women’s bodies

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Don’t be too fat. Don’t be too thin. Don’t be too large. Don’t be too small. Eat up. Slim down. Stop eating so much. Don’t eat too fast. Order a salad. Don’t eat carbs. Skip dessert. You need to lose weight.
The launch of the “Be a Lady” video in February harnessed support from women in all corners of the world who were sick of fluctuating standards in the media. Prior to the pandemic, the Mental Health Foundation exposed how 25% of women felt shame, 43% of women felt down or low, and 26% of women felt disgusted by their bodies, with exposure to idealised body ideals in the media considered as a correlated factor. During lockdown, eating-disorder charity BEAT has seen a 72% spike in demand for support. So, why could lockdown be the perfect time to alter the way we talk about women’s bodies?

In the UK, approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, with women making up 75% of these figures. The problems with gender and the media are vast – from limited female bylines, to narrow representations, to issues like body shaming. When it comes to talking about women’s bodies, the media have body shamed petite, tall, skinny, curvy and plus-size shapes, but have reservations talking about women’s bodies when it comes to their health.

Gender and the media – an ongoing battle:

The “Be a Lady, They Said” video encapsulated the media’s fluctuating standards for women. Body shapes have ranged from the 1990s “Waif” with Kate Moss at the forefront, to Brittany Spears’s washboard-abs flaunting the 2000s “Buff Beauty”, to the Kim Kardashian era of “Booty Babes” more recently. The media is quick to pick up on these trending body types, but fails to recognise that one size simply does not fit all.

Just before lockdown, Professor of Gender and Media studies at Newcastle University, Karen Ross, spilled the tea on her research regarding representations of women in the media.

Tea Time with Holly Spotify podcast: Professor Karen Ross talks about her project “Me and my Menopause”, as well as her research regarding gender and the media. Make sure to have a listen!

Professor Ross explains the problems with “living in a society that is fixated with how we look“, but how “recognising what the media is doing to us doesn’t mean we won’t stop colluding with that fantasy. We still live in a world, we still relate to people, who make all sorts of judgements because of how we look.”

Karen Ross, Professor of Gender and Media studies, Newcastle University

Whilst the media is renowned for shaming, commenting and overstepping the line when talking about women’s bodies, news this week that a Tampax advert was banned in Ireland reflects just how uncomfortable we are talking about women’s bodily health. The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland banned Tampon advert after receiving complaints that it “demeaned women, was unsuitable for children and contained sexual innuendo”. Yet the advert, run by Procter & Gamble, was created in response to findings that suggested 42 per cent of women who use applicator tampons do not insert the applicator correctly and that 79 per cent experience discomfort while wearing tampons.

Ciara Kelly spoke about this decision on air. She said: “I totally get that to most men, a vagina is a sexual thing. But do you know what? To the body that I live in, and the body that 51% of the population live in, it’s just a bit of our body. The only reason it was taken down is because it’s about shame about women’s bodies.”

Ciara Kelly, an Irish former medical doctor and radio presenter.

On the brink of lockdown, Professor Ross was launching her own project named “Me and My Menopause”, which aimed to move a conversation about women’s bodies from coffee tables into mainstream culture.

She told Spill the Tea: “This forms part of a larger project around women’s leaky bodies. How do we get rid of the taboos around talking about periods? Or talking about the menopause? Anything that any woman, at some point in their lives, is going to experience. How do we find ways to inform people, particularly the medical profession, about what it’s actually like to emotionally experience painful periods, or hot flushes?

Karen Ross, Professor of Gender and Media studies, Newcastle University

The pandemic:

During to the ways the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our usual routines, charity BEAT has noted how increased stress and anxiety could trigger eating disorders, whilst charity MIND suggests that those living with mental health problems are facing extra challenges too.

But during this time of heightened worry, the media’s response to changing body types has remained static. Whether it’s been Love Island’s Molly Mae getting accused of being “lardy”, outlets unpacking Adele’s diet and exercise regime following a birthday-lockdown picture, or ways in which we can lose the lockdown flab, the way the media talks about women’s bodies is exclusive and unprogressive.

A correlated spike: Google Trends even suggests a pattern in search terms surrounding “weight loss”, “Adele” and “Covid-19” in May.

Instead, when lockdown eased in the UK, the media published ways in which we can get “summer body ready” in just a few weeks. Professor Ross suggested that the way the media regards women’s bodies is particularly problematic for young women.

Ross said: “Part of the issue seems to me that younger women’s experience is about pressure to look a certain way and to look in ways which haven’t changed. If I think about the stereotypes that I see in women’s magazines, on Love Island, in popular media, you tend to see the same narrow range of stereotypes that I used to see when I was a young woman forty years ago. That’s really disappointing.”

Karen Ross, Professor of Gender and Media studies, Newcastle University

Agency on social media?

Professor Ross highlighted the ways in which social media could be a source of agency for young women, as they move away from narrow representations in mainstream media and curate their own profiles.

She said: “In some ways things are changing – especially on social media. Women have more avenues to explore themselves and their own interests and not to be determined by what The Sun decides, or The Mirror, or even the BBC. I think there’s a huge potential for young women to tell stories which mean something to them.

Karen Ross, Professor of Gender and Media studies, Newcastle University

But Professor Ross also recognised the harmful impacts of social media with things like “pro-ana” and “thinspo”, as well as “people like Kim Kardashian, who are advertising these appetite suppressant lollies as if that’s not a problem.”

In February, Professor Ross questioned how we changed the narrow representations of women in the pages of magazines and beyond. But since then, there has been a fight back against harmful body discourses from celebrities and body positive influencers, who have been reassuring young women that not everything they see online is accurate during lockdown.

People have started petitions like this, which aims to remove the comments section from the Daily Mail website after Molly Mae was the subject of trolling. Plus-size model Ashley Graham reminds young women that stretch marks are normal in her untouched shoot for a swimwear campaign. Body-confidence Instagram influencer Alex Light has been advocating a change to the way we glorify weight loss, as well as rewriting the captions from old magazine issues.

Start-ups like Daye have also launched to expose and close the gender pain gap surrounding women’s menstrual health. They are “raising the standards of female health products” with their CBD infused tampons for pain relief. Their website and Instagram page has a whole glossary of female-related health terms, in which they explain the gender pain gap and why different groups of women may be more susceptible to things like BV and thrush.

These platforms, away from traditional news outlets, have the potential to be a space in which women all tell their unique story, share their own image confidently and to speak out about women’s health concerns. But Professor Ross explains that this agency comes in a collective effort to refuse an outdated narrative where we begin writing our own, without replications of the same story all over again.

Featured Image: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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