Feminism, Body Image, and Intimacy in Marriage

16 Mar

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?



15 Responses to “Feminism, Body Image, and Intimacy in Marriage”

  1. Michelle March 16, 2011 at 1:07 am #

    These researchers have given a list of things we can do. I like the concept of media literacy and asking questions of what we see, and also challenging our own negative self-talk.

    See a list of a bunch of ideas at Beauty Redefined.

  2. Marjorie Conder March 16, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    I think it s especially sad that Latter-day Saints can feel so negative about their bodies. We have the most positive theology of the body of any group I know. Our bodies are are an eternal gift, they are with us every moment, that take us where we go, they make possible ever so many other blessings in our lives, including intimacy and children, so many experiences we could not have without a body, and even the eventual blessing of the Resurrection. At one time we sang for joy just at the possibility of having a body. Even a seriously handicapped body is an eternal blessing.

    I think it is utterly diabolical how hard our culture works to make us all dissatisfied, with our bodies, their purposes and their eternal destinies. At root, much of the problem is artificially constructed, then when they have our attention they can sell us stuff to correct the problem. It is at root a manifestation of materialism, which is a major “theology” of “the god of this world.”

    Frequently as I look in the mirror just before I get in the shower, I smile and say, “good ‘ol body–thank you.” And you need to know that this is written by a woman who is seriously overweight, has worn glasses since she was a kid, is an utter klutz, but still greatly loved by great husband–and who appreciates her body–and his.

  3. jks March 16, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    The feminist in me is very critical of what is on TV.

  4. ep March 16, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    This article (http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2011/03/16/mattels-waxing-shaving-monster-high-doll-sparks-outrage/?test=faces) appeared in my inbox this morning with a note from my mom: “Aren’t you glad you grew up in the 80s?” 🙂

  5. Matthew Chapman March 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Real human beings more closely resemble water balloons than department store mannequins or plastic dolls.

    Most of the “perfect” bodies so admired by the media are primarily the result of camera tricks and special effects.

    I love my wife because she is a real human being who doesn’t obsess about what half-a-century in a high-gravity environment can do.

  6. ep March 16, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    I just found this: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/sex-and-the-fat-girl-ask-a-fat-girl-4

  7. ladyelocutionist March 16, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    “One of the messages that television has sent to girls and young women is that it is possible to be hot and a feminist.” And in that order of importance, too. Be a feminist, but make sure you’re hot, because if you’re not hot, why would anyone look at you let alone listen to you? It’s a maddening situation. I constantly feel that in order to be seen as smart and respected by the men and women around me, I need to be seen as attractive, too. I have often felt that as a woman you risk getting doubly dismissed, if you’re *just* smart — you need to be attractive to get your foot in the door, to be listened to. As a result, I think I do spend way too much time worrying about my appearance, and assuming that no one will listen to what I say if they don’t find me pleasing to look at. Most smart women feel this way, I think, and it’s maddening when you become aware that your male colleagues are completely unaffected by any of these pressures. And then they criticize you for worrying about it. UGH.

    As for the sex side of things… While I know that many men have had their own struggles with their bodies, I find it hard to believe that there are many men who feel that the appearance of their bodies (or their perception of that appearance) does not entitle them to sexual pleasure and sexual satisfaction. But many many women clearly do. Such is workings of male sexual entitlement in our culture.

  8. Lexie Kite March 17, 2011 at 1:58 am #

    And duh, of course you’re LDS. I couldn’t tell at first on the site if everyone who contributes is LDS, because I’ve been here before and read LDS things. But now I’m thinking everyone is, in fact, LDS. Sorry about my stupidity 🙂

  9. ep March 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    Lexie, Amanda’s not LDS; she’s a scholar of Mormonism.

    • Lexie Kite March 18, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

      Weird, I submitted a comment a few days ago and then also submitted this little follow-up comment clarifying my LDS references, but this part is the only one that showed up! Sorry about any confusion – including my confusion at the religious orientation of the authors/commenters. What I TRIED to contribute the first time I commented is that I’m an LDS PhD student who studies media and beauty ideals, and this piece speaks to my research pretty strongly. I run a website another commenter linked to above, at beautyredfined.net, where my twin sister and I provide research-backed insights into these kinds of issues, but almost exclusively from a secular perspective. It’s really interesting to put this conversation in the context of religion, though, and I think it lends a lot to the discussion and allows us to think in much broader terms about our bodies, their purpose, the meaning of sex, etc. Thanks for your insight! It speaks to the serious problem of objectification in even feminist-ish media, and self-objectification too. Whenever we choose to see ourselves from strictly an outsider’s perspective, we’re self-objectifying and losing our own power. Great work being done here.

      • ep March 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

        Oh, that is strange! Sorry it didn’t show up. Thank you for your comment. I looked over your website. What a fabulous project. I am thrilled to see you and your sister dedicated to reclaiming healthy beauty ideals for women. I look forward to following it in the future.

  10. amanda5245 March 17, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    Sorry these responses didn’t come a little bit earlier. I just finished my prelims yesterday and have been overwhelmed with work.

    @ Melissa – Thanks for the link. They do have some great ideas.

    @ Marjorie – I really appreciate this comment. I think too often I forget that my body really is a blessing. Thinking of it as a gift, as something that should be cherished, is a great response to the pressure to be thin, to be eternally young, and to be well-coifed. I just wish I was better at it. Theoretically, I know that beauty is culturally constructed and that I am a perfectly healthy weight but when I look in the mirror, it’s hard to see it. I guess the trick is just to start thanking your body out loud and then wait for the sentiment to follow the proclamation.

    @ Liz – One of my friends is actually a burlesque dancer who argues that all women — no matter what their body — should be feel comfortable and entitled to sexual pleasure. It’s hard to argue against that in the abstract and yet so many women buy into the opposite argument. I think the links you’ve posted – especially the second – point to that.

    @ Lady Elocutionist – I sympathize with all of these. I think what’s worse is that we rarely talk about it and as a result, we feel that we are alone.

    @ Matthew – I think what’s difficult is that there’s often a disconnect between how husbands feel about their wives’ bodies and how women feel about their own bodies. It’s not that my husband doesn’t love me or my body but that I can’t understand how or why he does.

  11. Kate March 29, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    I recently realized a probable motive behind Satan’s tactics in regards to negative body image. You know – on TV, magazines, the ones cited in this article – etc. Women gain weight when we have babies. If weight gain can equal something terrible, it can possibly affect our desires/motivation to have children. I think that’s a blatantly obvious attack on the family, don’t you?

    But by looking at weight gain/loss as as normal part of the ebb and flow, and not attaching emotions to the act, we can gain peace with the issue. Of course, this is from my perspective, which is a 6 months postpartum woman losing weight pretty rapidly (and I’ve never been skinny, but never overweight – except while prego – either), so this comment says nothing about people who have other weight issues, which may even be the majority. So….yeah take my comment with a grain of salt.

    And how you can detach emotions from the number on the scale is totally beyond me. I guess this post mostly makes me super grateful that my husband has always gone way out to affirm my beauty, even when I feel like a whale.


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