To misquote Jane Austen, “If a truth is universally acknowledged, that a young girl in possession of any kind of media, must be in want of a better body.”
I was about 8 when I first became aware of my weight and size. I guess it was around that age I should have been losing the baby fat that stubbornly clung onto me, especially since it wasn’t considered baby fat anymore; now, it was just fat. It was also around this age that, during my family’s annual visit to Korea, my relatives began to comment on my weight, and it was almost never about how I had lost weight. These remarks were never meant to be snide or rude. They were just a type of bluntness that was considered normal in our family, and Korean culture has never treated these matters delicately. Nevertheless, the idea of what an “ideal body” should look like began to swim around in my prepubescent head. And all I had to do was flip through a magazine or turn on the television to see what I should be looking like.
In this day and age, it is almost a rite of passage for young girls to grow up with a negative body image. How can we not, with images of ridiculously toned 20-somethings appearing in everything we consume? From the Barbies we play with to the Disney princesses we dress up as, our childhoods are filled with iconography of what an ideal body should be — Olympic gymnast abs with Kim K curves and ballet dancer limbs. When we get older, we graduate to comparing ourselves to the Victoria’s Secret models with legs longer than Ariana Grande’s strutting down the runway and CW-featured “regular teenagers” who look like they’ve just walked off an Abercrombie shoot. After all, Cinderella wouldn’t have been able to snag her man if she had cankles, and Blair Waldorf would rather live in Brooklyn than have a muffin top.
I remember having a revelation when watching the female contestants in “Bachelor in Paradise” strut around in their bikinis. Here were supposedly regular women with regular jobs (give or take the occasional “chicken enthusiast” or “aspiring dolphin trainer”), yet every single one of them looked ready to walk onto a Sports Illustrated photoshoot. That’s how the “Bachelor” franchise represents young, single women in America — gorgeous, thin and all in their early 20s. Even in “reality” television, there’s no room for real women.
The media studies major in me (the one that frantically crams every media term an hour before every final) could argue that we aren’t passive consumers. We know that the images we are fed are not representative of everyday Americans. We know that the 30 Lauren B.’s vying for the next Midwestern man are not actually the standard of beauty we all should be held to. We know when we flip through Cosmopolitan or turn on the TV that it’s all professional-grade Photoshop, Beverly Hills plastic surgery and 15-hour-a-day workouts with personal trainers. We know that it’s not what normal people can actually achieve, so we know, logically at least, not to compare our bodies with theirs — it would be like comparing an apple to a very, very fit orange.
But the overanalytical part of me (the one that constantly wonders why I’m getting a degree in media studies) knows that that is an overly idealistic take on how young girls perceive the models that grace the magazines and screens, because even if we understand that these bodies are unattainable to the everyday human, they are the bodies that are presented to us as attractive. They are the bodies we should have if we ever want a life like that of a Disney princess or Serena van der Woodsen, even if we know it’s nearly impossible to have.
For all the body-positive media out there, it is consistently drowned out by a perpetual trope found in practically everything else: When you’re anything more than a size 0, you’re not as attractive as you could be. When every Disney princess is drawn with a soda-bottle waist and every “Bachelor” contestant looks like Emily Ratajkowski, a skewed body image is almost inevitable.
I’m not sure if there’s a positive note to end this on. I — just like millions of other girls — still look in the mirror and wonder how to get Kendall Jenner legs with a J-Lo butt, Gigi Hadid abs, Scarlett Johansson boobs and Michelle Obama arms. And as I doubt social media and Hollywood will be filled with average-sized women anytime soon, maybe the best we can hope for now is a “Bachelor in Paradise” contestant one day having stomach rolls when she sits down.
Julie Lim writes the Thursday column on how media shapes our perceptions of the world. Contact her at [email protected].