Monday, July 28, 2008

The Big Deal: Manufacturing a State of Normative Discontent

The 'what's the big deal?' chorus started up again last week after Feminist Gamers, Feministe, and Shakesville posted articles critiquing a new game for PSN called Fat Princess. As usual, women commenting on our society's constant shaming and objectification of women's bodies cued the refrains of 'it's just a joke' and 'don't you have better things to worry about,' and 'shut up, you ugly beepity-beep-beep.' The authors of the Fat Princess critiques might have been annoyed, but none were surprised - every time it is suggested that a movie, commercial, or magazine is objectifying or belittling women, there tends to be a vicious backlash. People's comments often equate to 'its our right to objectify and belittle women,' or concern-troll style 'these images help women to avoid being icky.' Yet, by far the most common sentiment boils down to 'why does this matter?'

The answer, in short, is that body-shaming and media representations of unrealistic beauty ideals create a toxic environment for girls- and constant exposure to such images have long-lasting impacts on women's psychological and physical well-being.

I'm not alone in this assertion. According to research conducted by Hayley K. Dohnt and Marika Tiggemann:
It was found that by 6 years of age, a large number of girls desired a thinner ideal figure... Watching music television shows and reading appearance-focused magazines predicted dieting awareness. In particular, girls who looked at magazines aimed at adult women had greater dissatisfaction with their appearance. Thus, the present study highlights that girls aged 5–8 years of age are already living in an appearance culture in which both peers and the media influence body image and dieting awareness.
So, through exposure to media, our children are inundated with appearance-focused presentations of women, and the more exposure kids have to this appearance culture, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their own appearance. As Dohnt and Tiggemann point out:
...comprehensive literature reviews have implicated this preadolescent body dissatisfaction as a risk factor for subsequent lower self-esteem, decreased psychological well-being, increased eating disorder symptomatology, dieting behaviours, obesity and depression.
Concern trolls take note: fashion magazines, TV programs, and video games that objectify women don't 'help girls by encouraging them to diet' - they put kids at risk of eating disorders and depression. And since "...studies of women and adolescent girls have reported positive relationships between television viewing and magazine exposure with weight concerns and eating disorder symptomatology," media matters.

While this particular research focused on how young girls are impacted by media depictions of women, it isn't just our children who are at risk. Dohnt and Tiggemann are quick to point out that "...the desire for thinness is so prevalent among women that it has been identified as a ‘normative discontent.’" Normative discontent - we have created a culture in which so many women suffer from self-hate, that discontent with our appearance is considered normal.

So, what can we do? We can try to protect our kids from toxic media by thinking critically about the TV they watch, the magazines they read, and the games they play. We can try to protect ourselves by avoiding those things we know to be toxic. Since peer influences have also been shown to highly impact girls' body-awareness, we can also help by not belying any self-hate we might feel while in the presence of young women. We can refrain from being too critical of our own figures or other women's. And we can continue to call-out irresponsible media, even if it means braving some insults. Hopefully, raising awareness, acknowledging that sexism is dangerous, and holding companies accountable will encourage a change - the type of change that will make our society a happier place for women.

Thanks, Holly, Mighty Ponygirl, and Liss for not being cowed into silence.


daedalus2u said...

I think the "point" of a normative state of discontent is to make women desperate, such that they will do desperate things (such as become attached to a guy who is a jerk). I think that is why it tends to be the jerks who foster unrealistic ideas of what women should look like. Making the "standard" of what is attractive something that is outside the reach of most people, makes most people feel like they are unattractive and so have to settle for something less.

I think that by inducing a normative state of discontent, a woman's "standards" are skewed. There is some specific psychological stuff related to Stockholm Syndrome that induces attraction specifically to those who induce this state of discontent.

I think that the same dynamic is at play in the other practices for inducing desperation through limiting women's work options, pay, child-care, etc.

The same dynamic holds in the rich vs. poor dynamic.

Good call by MM on the other thread.

Larry Geater said...

This is not the only area where women suffer from Normative discontent. Almost every woman I know does on so many areas of apearance. Women with straight hair get it curled. Women with curly hair get it straightened. women with small breast get them enlarged. Women with large breasts get them reduced. They change their hair color unceasingly claiming that it makes them feel better about the way they look but are never ever satisfied. I try to make my daughter believe that she should be less concerned by her looks and that she is atractive in any case but how does one fight the world?

Habladora said...

How do you fight the world - that's the question, isn't it? As a teacher, I see girls in the process of developing this sort of skewed vision of themselves on a regular basis, and it is heart-rending. The odd thing is, having gone through it myself doesn't seem to make me particularly qualified to help them. I try to talk to my students about the media they're consuming, and I point out that I stay away from the fashion mags that they're reading. I try to help them develop the skills to think critically about the images that are being forced upon them... but - those images are just so prevalent.

Agincourt said...

Along these lines also, (women and body image): In the slightly hopeful category, I DID just see a clip on digital enhancement on yahoo detailing that Keira Knightley has refused to let the studio enhance her endowments for the publicity shots for The Duchess. Good for her! Apparently this had happened to her previously for the movie King Arthur.

The clip also covers the guy who played Beowulf, as well as a mention of Andy Roddick on some Men's Health cover.


Habladora said...

Yeah, good for Keira - she's doing us all a favor by refusing to be 'digitally enhanced,' and braving a lot of flack, too. I think I just found a new favorite actress, maybe I'll rent Pirates 3 after all.

And Deadalus, you are right on both counts - keeping women in a constant state of discontent is a way of exerting control, and MM is both wise and good.

Elena said...

I just linked to this in a post about women in entertainment over at the CA NOW blog:

Habladora said...

Ooooo - thanks for the linkage, and for the introduction to your fascinating and intelligent site!

Agincourt said...

Okay, I realize this is a bit of a tangent here, but it is interesting and illustrative to note that the massive 44 lb abandoned cat found 'lumbering' around New Jersey, was dubbed "Princess Chunk".

And oh, by the way (mention most of the articles), "...The 44-lb. cat is really a male name Powder..."
(emph. mine).

What is it with all the 'cute' animal stories of late? Maybe it will make me forget about the economy when I see abandoned baby tigers nursing on a Golden Retriever? Okay. I admit. It did. For a bit anyway.