Body image: Young women speak out!

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By Marika Morris

Wow! These are the best of 600 essays about body image by young women aged 13-19 from across Canada, chosen from a national competition launched two years ago by the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) and Chatelaine magazine. You name it, these young women have an opinion and a personal experience with it, ranging from:

  • Clinical depression and anxiety attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Developing breasts, shopping for a first bra
  • Body hair: To shave or not to shave
  • Body piercing, tattoos, hair dyes, driving Mom insane
  • Dancing, including belly-dancing
  • Physical as well as mental self-torture
  • Controlling your body as a way of controlling your life
  • The ecstasy of sport, building up muscle, being strong
  • Dealing with unwanted touching
  • Discovery of the body's secret places
  • Impact of sexual experimentation on self-esteem
  • Living with disabilities
  • Exploring cultural traditions through the body
  • Feeling ugly, feeling beautiful, feeling whole
  • Gaining confidence and self-awareness

The perspectives in these essays are as varied as the young women themselves. Some view their growing breasts as a horror ("goose-bumped pendulums of fat"), others as a wondrous delight. One speaks of the pros and cons of being the last one in her class to develop. One comments that she has "the body hair of an orangutan." Some are anxious about change, others welcome it. One sixteen-year-old says, "I still look more like a gardening utensil than a woman." Some view their body as an enemy, others as a beautiful sculpture, and some as a friend with whom to go dancing, running, camping, biking, canoeing, swimming and mountain-climbing.

One disturbing fact is that we received more essays about anorexia and bulimia than any other body image topic. This happens when, as one writer describes it, one's "sugary expectations" of growing Baywatch boobs and looking like "Cindy, Shalom, Pamela, Naomi, Elle, Linda, Bridgit, Amber" turn into the "vinegar reality" of having an ordinary, imperfect body. Never before have young women been given so many unrealistic body images to live up to: Today's magazine pictures are not only airbrushed, they are digitally remastered. Products and services such as laser hair removal, dangerous weight-loss pills, breast implants, plastic surgery, new and improved make-up, cellulite creams, liposuction, promise that you can look digitally remastered too. Well...guess what.

These young writers speak of the calorie-reducing tricks of feeding your dinner to the dog, turning up your stereo so your mother can't hear you vomit, viewing chocolate as a threat. One young woman pretends she is wearing blue lipstick because at 5 foot 4 and 78 pounds, her lips really are blue from the cold which envelops her bony body. Some blame the media, like Much Music and YM. Others speak of high expectations of parents, or the standard-setting "bored middle-aged men and the women that stand by them and don't correct them." Some blame the teasing of peers and boys at school, friends who think Baby Spice is too fat and should be renamed "Pudgy Spice". Ultimately, they blame and punish themselves.

Many of the writers who have been through a lot of horrifying stuff have retained a great sense of humour, which has probably helped them survive. One describes her interesting perspective on her mother's best friend who worships a fat goddess, and talks about Scary Spice grabbing Prince Charles' butt. One dreams of winning an Academy Award and thanking her dog on national television. One got away from societal expectations in a fabulous camping trip with girlfriends in which they became wild women in the forest, gleefully ignoring all rules of fashion.

One young woman speaks of leaving a controlling boyfriend, and another about the men and boys she knows going gaga over silicone-enhanced young women in the media. We expected more about relationships with young men, but there were far more about the relationship with the self, parents, friends, Clairol and pink disposable razors! The message: Body image is more about what's in your mind than what's in the mirror. It's more about your relationship with yourself than with potential love-interests.

Anna Humphrey, the winner in the 16-19-year-old category, writes in a creative and hopeful way about her struggle in overcoming anorexia. Charmaine McCraw's story about her joy in dancing pow-wow in a special jingle dress won in the 13-15-year-old category. However, it is absolutely truthful to say that the choice was a difficult one, and that all of the essays in this collection are superb.

Parents and teachers may not appreciate all of these stories, as we did not screen out those whose views do not conform to what is considered good and acceptable for young women. One essay, for example, is about how the writer's tattoo, obtained against her mother's will, is a symbol of strength for her. These are young women's own words and thoughts. That is their power.

These body image essays deal with more than the physical transformations all young women experience, but the spiritual challenges of overcoming life-threatening eating disorders, sexual harassment, or intense depression and self-hatred. One young woman who comes a long way from being deathly ill to going back to school says, "All flesh is beautiful; this body is mine." Most of these essays are stories of hope, some arising from a long litany of pain. Many women twice their age have yet to learn the wisdom and insight these writers have to share.

The book also contains young women's artwork about the body, as well as a resource section including books, videos, web sites, educational kits, and organizations of use to parents, teachers, youth leaders, and young women.

That Body Image Thing: Young Women Speak Out, edited by Sara Torres, is available from CRIAW just in time for the holiday season, for $11.95. Le corps en tête: les jeunes femmes se prononcent will be published separately, containing the French-language winning essays from the contest in Châtelaine, and resources for Francophones.

Marika Morris is Research Coordinator for the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women. You can contact CRIAW at:
408 - 151 Slater Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5H3
Phone: (613) 563-0681 Fax: (613) 563-0682


 Excerpts from the essays of young women, aged 13-19, in That Body Image Thing:
"When you're thirteen and just getting used to the changing world around you, the last thing you need is the constant reminder of what you are not, and what you and hundreds of others wish they could be but most likely will never become." - Denise Fuller

"I would not change my body to anyone else's, even a model. Every scar and wrinkle on my body represents moments of my life." - Candice Jwaszko

"I have learned to love my body as it is: because it is beautiful, because it is healthy, because it is mine. I have learned that confidence shows through in your eyes and your stride, and people respond to it more strongly than anything else in your appearance." - Sarah Jasper

"I know people half my [dress] size, double my intellect, who still have not discovered the grey area that lies between beauty and ugliness. They've yet to realize that beauty isn't achieved through fashion or make-up. It isn't even achieved through the insult of others. Beauty can't be achieved in any form. It is possessed by all. It's just matter of uncovering it." - Cheryl Amanda Gullage

"My fingers paint a love story across my flesh and the image in the mirror slowly smiles." - Gillian Burrell

"I will climb mountains with this body." - Emily Bodenberg