Editor's Note
Dr. Elizabeth Graham
Foot-Binding Heels
Stacie Zollen
The Perfect Body
Esther Baum
Female Body Modification
Aynsley Hyndman
Females in Children's Lit
Teya Cherland
Body Image & Well-Being
Jennifer Oakes
Young Girls and Body Image
Susan Burns
Unachievable Standards
Melissa Mason
Objectification and Well-being
Heather Tornblom
Intimate Partner Violence
Celeste Taylor
Sex Trade - The Case of Thailand
Courtney Wielenga
Unachievable Standards - An Analysis of the Female Gender Role and Body Dissatisfaction
Melissa Mason

Personal Statement:

My paper is called Unachievable Standards- An Analysis of the Female Gender Role and Body Dissatisfaction. This paper discusses the discontent that most women experience in relation to their physical selves. In many cases a woman's body image is a central feature of her total self-concept. Thus, the way she feels about her body largely influences how she feels about herself in general. A woman's appearance has become such a large part of her self-concept that a perceived deficiency in her appearance immediately leads to a perceived deficiency in her global-self worth. In addition, a woman's heightened awareness and preoccupation with her physical appearance may permeate into all aspects of her well-being and reduce her ability to appreciate her abilities and her individual power.

This topic is personally relevant to me. I grew up an overweight child. In our fat-hating culture, it is very difficult to deviate from the ideal standards for physical appearance. Thus, as I grew up, I developed body image issues that I still hold today. I am continually working on accepting myself and my body as it is right now. I know how it feels to be hindered and caged in by destructive thoughts about ones self, stemming from one's body image. I think it is incredibly important that this issue be brought to life so that more programs can develop and more people can become aware of the epidemic that is taking place in our society right now. Body dissatisfaction keeps women in silent agony and limits them from experiencing their own lives to the fullest. We cannot spontaneously change society ideology, but we, as women, can take the first steps by accepting ourselves for who we are. Acceptance begins with awareness, and it is my hope that with our personal steps we can begin a motion towards a normative content, with our bodies and ourselves.

This paper will analyze the effects of the North American female gender role on body dissatisfaction. Research on body dissatisfaction provides evidence to support the notion that women experience body dissatisfaction at a higher frequency than men (O'Dea, 1999; Hoyt & Kogan, 2001; Wardle & Foley, 1989; McCabe & Davison, 2005; Altabe & Thompson, 1993). It is thought that, as the whole of society becomes increasingly appearance oriented this phenomenon will be perpetuated generation after generation through the socialization process.

Gender roles are acquired through the socialization process. Socializing agents such as the family, peers and the media all communicate the behaviors and characteristics associated with each gender. It is through these agents that attractiveness as a highly valued characteristic, for the female gender, is learned. These agents also convey the societal standard of what is regarded as attractive. This standard is difficult to live up to, thus leading to the normative discontent among women regarding their bodies. This also perpetuates the unequal status of women by reducing them to objects for the use of others and deprives women of power and control over their own bodies. The internalization of objectification termed self-objectification, causes women to view themselves as objects, valued for use by others (Gapinski et al., 2003). This causes women to contribute to their own oppression. Given that there is a large proportion of women experiencing body dissatisfaction, and the research suggests they may also be experiencing other negative effects in the physical, social and psychological domains, research on body dissatisfaction is essential.

The female gender role will be assessed and analyzed using the radical feminist sociological perspective. It will be demonstrated that body dissatisfaction is yet another function of the oppression and subordination of women within patriarchal society. Pressure to strive towards an idealized image is viewed as a mechanism of social control through this perspective. A negative body image acts like a cage that limits women from enjoying the full quality of their lives.

Generally, body image refers to ones' thoughts, feelings and attitudes towards their body shape and weight (Hoyt & Kogan, 2001; Davison & McCabe, 2005). There has been extensive research on body image. Much of it has looked at the issue of body dissatisfaction among women. This research confirms that a significant proportion of women compared to men are dissatisfied with their bodies (O'Dea, 1999; Hoyt & Kogan, 2001; Wardle & Foley, 1989; McCabe & Davison, 2005; Altabe & Thompson, 1993). Wardle and Foley (1989) found young women were consistently dissatisfied with their appearance, felt fat and judged themselves to be larger than they actually were. Moreover, the fatter and more dissatisfied with their appearance the women felt, the more likely they were to engage in restrained eating habits.

According to "The Real Truth about Beauty", a study commissioned by Unilever (the makers of Dove soap); the majority of women in North America are dissatisfied with their body size. Most notably, they are less satisfied with their physical appearance relative to all other factors considered except financial success. It has become increasingly important for all women to aspire to be "beautiful", yet the definition of beauty has become increasingly narrow and limited to a certain physical type. This excludes the majority of the female population. This study demonstrates that in North America only approximately twenty eight percent of women are comfortable describing themselves as attractive, good-looking, pretty, beautiful, stunning or gorgeous. (Etcoff et al., 2004)

Body dissatisfaction can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which can affect the woman's ability to function successfully within society. There are numerous negative consequences associated with body dissatisfaction. One prominent consequence is preoccupation with weight control. It has been estimated that over half of the population performs some sort of weight control behavior (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2000). Body dissatisfaction remains one of the most distinguishing characteristics related to eating disorders (Cohen, 2005 & McGee et al., 2005). Individuals suffering from eating disorders are faced with a number of medical complications including; electrolyte imbalance, abdominal pain, anemia, infertility, rupture of the esophagus or stomach, and in some cases, death (Oltmanns, Emery & Taylor, 2001).

It appears there are greater social implications related to body image for women than for men. Women compare their appearance to others, have higher levels of social physique anxiety, and are more concerned about how others may be judging their appearance than men (Davison & McCabe, 2005). A negative body image can lead to Women who participated in unhealthy weight control behaviors such as induced vomiting or laxatives, were two times more likely to engage in high risk sexual behaviors like having multiple partners or not using birth control (Eisenber, Neumark-Sztainer & Lust, 2005). Satisfaction with dating and sexual relationships has been linked to ones' satisfaction with their appearance. Hoyt and Kogan (2002) found women who were most dissatisfied with their dating and sex lives also experienced the most body dissatisfaction.

Research by Cohen (2005) in a study of college age women provides evidence that body image results in psychological effects. This research sample consisted of participants with eating disorders as well as individuals symptomatic of disordered eating and a control group of asymptomatic individuals. Symptomatic participants were those showing symptoms associated with disordered eating but who did not satisfy the criteria for such a diagnosis. Eating disordered and symptomatic participants in this study reported higher levels of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, sadness, and stress. They also reported lower levels of happiness, confidence and self-esteem than asymptomatic individuals. In addition, eating disordered and symptomatic individuals held more dysfunctional beliefs about eating, body weight and the world in general. They also showed greater concern with others' approval and a greater focus on body shape and appearance than did asymptomatic individuals.

Body image has continually been linked with self-esteem and body esteem is predictive of self-esteem. (Phares et al. 2004; Davison & McCabe, 2005; Cohen, 2005). One study found ones' actual weight, their perceived degree of overweight and the degree to which they were satisfied with their weight, predicted self-esteem (Tiggemann, 2005). Over a two-year period, body dissatisfaction, being overweight and/or perceiving oneself as overweight predicted a decrease in self-esteem. In this study self-esteem did not predict body dissatisfaction. In addition, research by Bowker, Gadbois & Cornock in 2003 found satisfaction with weight and appearance was more strongly linked to general self-worth for girls as compared to boys.

A disproportionate amount of women as compared to men, place great importance on physical appearance. Appearance schematicity generally refers to ones' psychological investment in their physical appearance. In a study comparing adolescent girls and boys, Tiggemann and Hargreaves (2004) found that girls are more invested in their appearance than boys. A higher score on appearance schematicity was also linked to greater body dissatisfaction and greater appearance comparison.

The literature speaks to the unequal proportion of women as compared to men, who are highly invested in their physical appearance. It has been noted and evidence supports the notion that such an investment leads to the experience of body dissatisfaction and as previously noted, can and does lead to numerous negative physical, social and psychological consequences. The question is why is there a disproportionate amount of women as compared to men experiencing this phenomenon? It is the premise of this paper that we must look to society to uncover the answer.

The socialization process is the process by which people learn how to behave within a given society. This process is different for girls and boys as they acquire separate gender roles of femininity and masculinity. An individuals' sex is prescribed by their biological anatomy, whereas gender is constructed by cultural, social and psychological components (Doyle & Paludi, 1998). Thus, aside from anatomy, social factors are largely responsible for what makes women, women.

The gender intensification hypothesis states that during adolescence there is an acceleration in a child's socialization to act in stereotypically masculine or feminine ways (Steinberg, 2002). It is also during adolescence that many girls begin to develop body image issues. It is assumed, therefore, that sociocultural factors must be responsible for the disproportionate amount of women as compared to men who are highly invested in as well as dissatisfied with their appearance.

Sandra Susan Friedman, author of When Girls Feel Fat (1997), discusses adolescence as a time when girls are socialized to become women. She references Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, who says that adolescent girls split into two selves. The real self or inner self contains all the real thoughts and feelings society tells them to repress. The false self is the self-exhibited to the world. This self is a reflection of the qualities that are expected by society. They learn that taking care of others emotional needs comes first and thus they should set aside their own thoughts and feelings. As girls continue to use their false self, it overrides their real self and they become disassociated from their selves. Girls then begin to rely on forces outside themselves for self-definition. They receive messages from society about what is expected of them. Topping this list of expectations is attainment of physical beauty that for most is out of reach. The model of perfection or the ideal woman that is presented to girls is unattainable. Because of this girls begin to devalue themselves. Friedman talks about how girls are socialized to pay great attention to their external selves while ignoring their inner selves. She sees this phenomenon as contributing to women's issues with body image. Girls externalize their problems and deflect their feelings onto their bodies. Instead of feeling upset, they feel fat.

The family as a primary socializing agent, teaches individuals how to think and act in society. The family provides a context from which children learn about themselves and their environment. Thus, familial interactions, directly or indirectly, will influence the development of a child's beliefs and attitudes and consequently their behaviors. Research has demonstrated the impact of the familial context on the development of body image in elementary, adolescent and college-aged individuals. Smolak et al. (1997) demonstrated the influence of the family on the body image of elementary school children. The results of this study showed that daughters' body esteem scores were related to both maternal dieting and parental complaints about their own weight. In another study of preadolescent children, girls showed more concern for body image and weight than boys. In addition, it was found that girls received more information regarding weight and dieting from their parents, and tried more actively to stay thin (Phares, et al., 2004). The results of this study indicate the most important influence in predicting body image and body change behaviors for adolescent girls was maternal feedback relating to body image. In general, parents were found to be the most important source conveying sociocultural attitudes towards appearance (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2003). Cash and Rieves' study of women in 1996 demonstrated that college women's current body image related significantly to maternal body image attitudes. Results suggest a positive relationship between daughters' perception of their mothers' body image attitudes and their own current body image.

Peers represent another influential socialization agent. As children mature into and beyond adolescence the peer group becomes increasingly influential. Phares et al., (2004) found perceived teasing by peers as well as peers eating concerns related to girls' body dissatisfaction, bulimia and drive for thinness. Peers also influenced boys' body image, but consistent with previous research, girls reported more concern with weight and body image than boys. In their research on sociocultural influences on body image and body changes in adolescent boys and girls, McCabe and Ricciardelli (2003) found that male, and to a larger extent, female friends influenced body change strategies for girls but this was less likely to be true for boys.

The media has largely been implicated as influential in the development of body image concerns. Media pressure to decrease weight predicted body image satisfaction and strategies to decrease weight in adolescent girls and interestingly, media influence was also found to be a predictor of body image satisfaction and body change behaviors among adolescent boys (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2003). However, research has consistently demonstrated that women experience body dissatisfaction more than men (Hoyt & Kogan, 2001; Wardle & Foley, 1989; McCabe & Davison, 2005; Altabe & Thompson, 1993). In a study comparing the effects of idealized media images in adolescent girls and boys it was established that viewing commercials presenting the cultural ideal body type increased body dissatisfaction in girls. This was not found to be true for boys. In addition, it was found that individuals' high on appearance schematicity exhibited greater appearance comparison than aschematic individuals and girls were found to be more appearance schematic than boys (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2004).

Body image disturbance is a phenomenon affecting primarily females. Thus, there is inequality within this area of distress. Women experience this distress more then men. Some occurrence within the unique experience of women is to blame. The characteristics of the female gender role and the male gender role are awarded unequal value within patriarchal society. Thus, the feminist perspective is best suited to analyze a phenomenon occurring primarily within the female population.

Radical feminist theory holds that women's oppression is the primary and most universal form of oppression. Radical feminists maintain that female oppression is caused by patriarchal ideology that insists men are superior and women are subordinate. Patriarchy has defined men as subjects with power and ability. Women are viewed as objects. This oppression is fueled by the objectification and domination of women by men (Burstow, 1992).

Women are viewed as a collection of parts, an object, for the pleasure and service of men (Burstow, 1992). This object is to be physically appealing to men and meet the cultural criteria of attractiveness. Women are socialized into their role within patriarchal society and learn from infancy what is expected of them. The female gender role holds that women are to be dependent; nurturing, expressive and emotional. They are to have interest in pleasing others, appearance and beauty. Beginning in infancy girls are described in terms of their appearance. Pretty little girls are liked and rewarded with praise (Mandell, 2001). Thus, beauty becomes the ultimate goal for girls and this interest in appearance only intensifies as girls become women.

Ideal standards of beauty as prescribed by society are restrictive and incredibly hard, if not impossible, to meet. The family, peers and the media communicate societal standards of beauty directly or indirectly. Beauty norms are mechanisms of social control that contribute to the oppression of women. If a woman does not feel she has the ideal body or appearance she may be reluctant to participant in social activities. As noted earlier evaluations of appearance are correlated with ideas of self-worth for some women. Appearance then becomes a measure of personal value. If a woman does not fit a particular size or has not sufficiently groomed herself to meet societal standards, she will not only be negatively evaluated and stigmatized, she is said to have let herself go. Women are controlled and kept subordinate by continually reducing them to objects, objects that never fully measure up (Mandell, 2001). Moreover, women are tricked into oppressing themselves. As previously stated, objectification theory holds that consistent external evaluation causes women to self-objectify as they internalize their objectification (Gapinski et al., 2003).

Issues of power and freedom are fundamental in radical feminism. Position power refers to ones' status. In patriarchal society, men ultimately have more power than women as women are seen as subordinate. Personal power refers to the ability to influence others. Women's personal power is stereotypically derived from their physical characteristics, their beauty (O'neil & Egan, 1993). Put in context, men's personal power trumps women's power in patriarchal society. Women are sent on an endless pursuit of power through the acquisition of culturally mandated appearance ideals, but they will ultimately never measure up to men.

As objects, women are living for others and not for themselves in a constant state of oppression. Women live according to societal rules that govern their behavior. The ultimate underlying rule within patriarchal society is that women are subordinate to men. From infancy women are taught via the female gender role, how they are to conduct themselves within society. Women are taught to be excessively interested in their appearance and to strive towards the narrow ideals of beauty. These ideals are typically unattainable for most women. As such, most women become dissatisfied with their bodies. It has been demonstrated that socialization agents such as the family, peers and the media all contribute to body dissatisfaction among women. It has also been demonstrated that there is a higher prevalence of this phenomenon for women as compared to men. Body dissatisfaction contributes to the oppression of women as it keeps them at war with their bodies. It has also been shown to lead to physical, social and psychological distress. Body dissatisfaction has also been linked to global self-worth for women, this limits women's potential. Women begin to value themselves less because their inner thighs touch, and become preoccupied with developing their abs instead of developing themselves as individuals. Due to the female gender role, a woman's appearance and the self become linked. She describes herself in terms of her appearance and focuses on her appearance as a measure of success and self-worth. This is dangerous as physical appearances change. Arms jiggle, breasts sag, skin wrinkles. Preoccupation with appearance limits her from seeing herself in the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on what she brings to the table, she is focused on how she looks at the table. She sees herself as an object. Her potential is limited. She is oppressed.

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