A few days ago, my Facebook lit up with references to a new poll that said that over 50% of all women feel too fat to have sex. My Facebook friends, of course, were horrified. Although I would like to say that my response was one of sheer horror, it wasn’t. I empathized with the women who identified as part of that 40% who turn off the lights or avoid having sex altogether to avoid people seeing their jiggly bits.
Like a lot of women, I hate my body. I hate my thighs. I hate my hair. I hate my stomach. I hate my nose, and I hate my freckles. I hate the beach because I don’t want people to see me in a swimsuit and realize how I flat chested I am. I also worry about what my husband thinks about when he sees me without clothes on. Is he wishing he had married a woman with larger breasts? Is he noticing that my belly isn’t completely flat? Does he hate my massive thighs as much as I do?
Such thoughts are ridiculous, I know, and yet they seem to be quite common among women – young and old. I have never been comfortable with my body. When I was a kid, I was worried that I was too thin. Fast forward a few years and I was suddenly worried that I was too fat. I can’t remember the last time that I wasn’t trying to lose ten pounds or when I could look in the mirror without wanting to turn the thing over so I couldn’t see my reflection.
It was with thoughts like these that I started reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism. Her argument is that images of women on television as empowered, in control, and glib provide women with a false sense of the world. In spite of the fact that we have had female presidents and senators on television, women as a whole have failed to close the gap between the wages of men and women. White women still earn only 75% of what white men make, and that the statistics for Latina and African American women who endure “more poverty, brutality, crappy health care, and disease than their white counterparts” are frankly horrifying (20). Douglas sees images on television as providing women with a sense of accomplishment without acknowledging the real work that needs to be done. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, and Xena allowed women to enter into a fantasy world in which women kicked butt everyday and offered no apologies. They sent the message that feminism had completed much of its work and that women had entered into a world of liberation.
There was also a dark side of this entertainment, however. Buffy, Cher, and Xena were all hot – amazingly so. They were thin and their bodies were perfect. One of the messages that television has sent to girls and young women is that it is possible to be hot and a feminist. As a young woman who identifies as a feminist, I would support this latter sentiment if it were accompanied by a critique of our current understandings of beauty. In the world of Xena, Buffy, and Cher, it’s still important to be beautiful, to be hot, to be sexy, for it’s ultimately the sexy women in these shows who end up being the ones who are in power and who are able to conquer men. There’s a subtler argument implicit in some of these shows as well. By showing women as empowered without showing the real dangers that women face, these shows can offer an argument that feminism’s work is done and end up disempowering feminist politics. Why be a feminist, why undermine patriarchy, if women are already in power?
The recent studies that have suggested that a large percent of women avoid having sex because they hate their bodies suggest that there’s still a lot to be done. They also point to the double-edge sword that Douglas has pointed out. I was raised in a culture in which Murphy Brown could be a single mother, in which Xena could kick butt on television, and in which Drew Barrymore could be a member of Charlie’s Angels, and yet I still can’t look in the mirror and see myself naked without thinking gross. The question is: What do we do about it?