I feel a little bloated today. Was it the ice cream I had last night? I shouldn’t have done that. It’s quiet in the house right now. Will anyone notice if I open the fridge for a small snack? Maybe I’ll just have some crisps. I need to be careful, I don’t want to see my big belly in the mirror. Popcorn? Only a hundred calories. Did I check the sugar content? I am stood in front of the bathroom mirror and I begin examining my collarbones. They aren’t bony enough. I get angry with myself for not being as skinny as the models. I pick up the glass near the sink and draw my arm back to hurl it forcefully at the silver devil. The shards fly without wings and land noisily on the floor. I will not cry again, I say, even as a tear rests on my eyelid.
I knew a girl in my college when I was in Singapore who smoked cigarettes to suppress her appetite. ‘I want to look like Miranda Kerr’, she used to say. I remember another Russian girl from summer camp in Switzerland who was gaunt, and still purposely skipped meals. I can’t say I myself haven’t resorted to quick, unhealthy fixes. I started smoking when I was nineteen, not out of peer pressure or to fit in with the popular crowd, but to calm my nerves. I needed calming down because of my creeping depression that was aggravated by a broken relationship and my family falling apart. But most of all it was to assuage the unrelenting fear of not being able to step onto a weighing scale without my self worth being crumbled by a number. I have been a size 00 and I have been a size 14. And at neither of those stages was I happy with my body.
The female form and its representation in media share a complex and dialectical relationship. If we see an anorexic model smiling and prancing around in the sun for the camera, we believe that it is her body that makes her beautiful and happy. This in turn, alters or bolsters our own beliefs about beauty and the end result is more and more emaciated women in the media to satisfy our one-dimensional metric of beauty. In this sense, what we see is what we believe, and what we believe is what we see. Brands supply us with manufactured images and we internalise them. Once they are internalised, we ourselves create a demand for those images that is then supplied by the media. One affects the other. This creates a toxic chain of supply and demand. There are pertinent issues of vanity sizing and the distortion of bodily image that are inflamed by popular images, and inadvertently supported by major fashion brands that affect a mountainous portion of the female population. Women around the globe watch advertisements, fashion shows and movies – the majority for which is the beaming face of a tanned, lean body that fails to resonate with the modern woman. This pushes the conception that to be happy you need to be thin and only then will you be considered beautiful. I know that I am not overweight, and neither am I chubby. I am five feet and three inches tall – average at best. This means I do not have endless legs, and isn’t that what makes those women so desirable?
Go backstage with Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and other VS models at the biggest event of the year!’
I saw that show once. I puked my dinner out after.
You scroll through popular media sites that young girls and women are exposed to, like Buzzfeed or Daily Mail or Refinery29, and their cover pages are of perfectly honed bodies tanning in Mexico or sunbathing in Hawaii. In most parts of the world, the western standard of beauty is embossed in every teenage girl’s mind – tall is beautiful, bony is beautiful. Love handles and fat rolls are the faux pas of the media industry. The fashion industry, which influences ‘It’ girls and subsequently the average woman, buoys hyperreality. We are bombarded by images of women whose hair has been styled for three hours, whose body parts are covered in concealer and faces that use fifty products to achieve a ‘I woke up like this’ look. It is no secret that models’ bodies are photoshopped until they themselves do not look like their own. The media partially, if not wholly is responsible for synthesizing images that are unachievable without a little airbrushing. Young women like me forget that models have a full time job of looking the way the do because they are paid to. We do not have a ‘glam team’ on a private jet to make us camera ready even when we’re jet lagged. In a technologically superior postmodern society such as ours, our ability to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality becomes fractured. Jean Baudrillard termed it ‘para-reality’ – an extra layer of skin added to our world that resembles the society we live in but fails to echo the realism of modern lives. Boundaries between the real and the fantasized become increasingly blurred. ‘Fashion is more beautiful than the beautiful, as the model is truer than the true.’ The modern world is governed by excess – capitalism produces desire and women are stuck on an endless treadmill that reinforces false beliefs and in turn, forces them to subconsciously fit the pattern of an ideal woman who does not exist. The superficiality of the presentation of women’s bodies in popular media effaces the surface of reality and covers up any possible depth.
Admittedly, plus size models are promoting body positivity and the media does encourage the surge of self-love. Even so, modern media heedlessly encourages us to conform to a singular identity that is fashioned by the western ideals of beauty. In this sense, our society suffers an Americanization of individualism. Let us consider Victoria’s Secret, for example. The VS Fashion Show has an average of a whopping nine million viewers every year. Women aged 18-49 comprise the demographic. Young girls and women who watch the show know that to be an Angel is to be a goddess. Your golden hair sparkles in the sun, you have impossibly taut abs and you tower over the typical man. What then, are we as a society promoting? We are dictating how women should look and how they should feel about themselves, particularly their bodies. Brands like Victoria Secret seize the autonomy women have over their bodies and instead establish a standard metric for beauty. It is implicit that only one body type is acceptable. To be beautiful, your bones have to pop. So what happens to those of us who aren’t blonde, tanned and tall? The statistics are worrisome. Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result from eating disorders. And eating disorders do not discriminate – they affect all races and ethnicities. Out of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. How do they then, come into being? Most people I knew had been bullied by being been fat-shamed or had been on the receiving end of snide comments by juniors, teachers or relatives – ‘You would look so pretty if you lost weight’, ‘you could model if you lost a few kilos’, ‘you look like a pudgy Jennifer Anniston.’ And these very ideas about beauty and its performance are fashioned. You cannot be beautiful unless you perform it. You have to use the same makeup the celebrities are using; the same clothing styles, and your hair must curl loosely, naturally. This breeds the molding of a singular identity that all women feel compelled to conform to, to be called beautiful by their peers, colleagues and worst, even their own families. My home is in a place where arranged marriages are predominant. The groom’s family will want a bride who is fair and thin. To this date, I have observed that even within my family, my cousins or friends who are a little overweight and not as light-skinned stand a slim chance of snagging a catch.
Leading up to their beauty climax in December, popular media is obsessed with the Angels. ‘Get abs like Gigi Hadid’ or ‘Look fashion show ready like Ale’ or ‘Adrianna’s body after baby’. If you’re an Angel, even your pregnancy becomes fashion. But for average women, unlike Gisele Bundchen, we don’t breastfeed our baby while four people work on our nails, hair and feet. The conception of beauty is interlaced with body weight. Your BMI determines your self worth. The media will tell you to love yourself but the next advert will be of a slender lady holding a detox tea pouch in her hand telling you, ‘you too can lose 5 pounds in 5 days’.
I remember my father saying that being fat means you’re lazy or you eat too much. I remember being sat next to him at dinner one night and his eyes traced the movement of my hand as I picked up each morsel. We were watching Modern Family and Sofia Vergara appeared on the screen. He said ‘have a body like that or not at all.’ I pushed my plate away as my stomach growled. ‘I’m not hungry’ I lied. And even if I know that it is not true that skinny is beautiful, one look at the Angels and I whine to my mother about how my stomach isn’t as flat or my jawline as defined – why I can’t look like the women in the catalogue.
Influential brands such as Victoria’s Secret make it admissible for women to be gazed upon, with grudging admiration on one hand, and on the other with lust and objectification. This results in young women wanting to look and walk and talk like one kind of woman – who ironically, herself isn’t in charge of her own body. Most men forge fantasies around these airbrushed women and the average woman pales, literally, in comparison. The brand, not many months ago, launched a campaign titled ‘The Perfect Body’. This tone-deaf campaign at apparently promoting body acceptance was not only alarming in its lack of racial diversity, but most of all, for featuring reed thin models with small derrieres and bedazzled bosoms at an attempt to make us dwarves relate to its positive message. It is simplistic to say that fashion media only affects the minds of young women. What it does is far worse. It shapes the expectations of men about women. The average woman (American, that is) wears a size 12. The models on billboards wear a size 00-0. The disharmony between the representation of the female body vis a vis the reality of the female form rouses body dissatisfaction in both sexes. Men aren’t immune to body image issues as well, with male models having virtually no body fat. The conclusive effect is the reinforcement of unachievable forms, which lead to false beliefs about one’s own body and in turn propagate body dysmorphia and a spiral into depressive disorders.
Media messaging is dangerous. Women are sexualized, commoditized and packaged in sparkling lingerie and delivered to our television screens. Most young women interiorize a facsimiled sketch of themselves that is fabricated and retouched which allows the consumerist economy to feed off of their body dissatisfaction. Bulimia is not a pretty girl with her head bent over the toilet and her moistened mascara streaming down her face as Green Day softly plays in the background. It is the ugly mixture of bile and blood that tears your throat and makes your stomach spasm until the floor bruises your knees. I should know.
Brinda Gulati is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick pursuing Creative Writing. She is the founder and editor-in-chief the publication Patchwork. Her poetry is fuelled by the persevering tenacity of overcoming depression and eating disorders. You can read more by Brinda here. The NEDA Helpline is available Monday-Thursday from 9AM to 9PM ET, and Friday from 9AM to 5PM ET. Contact the Helpline for support, resources and treatment options for yourself or a loved one.