by Kimberly Belmonte

Lately we’ve been hearing from our readers and fellow SPARK-ers that you want to hear some good news.  You’ve aptly pointed out that while we often focus on what can be harmful to girls (how the media sexualizes women, why gendered beliefs are limiting for all involved, etc.), we sometimes neglect what can help or support girls.  So, in this blog I am going to talk about some research that gets at this very thing: How “feminist beliefs” (and whether you call them that or not, I know you’ve got ’em!) can benefit women.  What does this have to do with SPARK and challenging the sexualization of girls?  Let’s start by thinking for a minute about what we are doing here at SPARK.

Three very similar shapes and sizesFor one thing, involvement in SPARK is creating consciousness, recognizing injustice, looking at how our bodies are being represented in the media, and saying “enough is enough.”  We are taking action and working toward making society a better place for women and girls.   In the words of Anne Frank (by the way, a fantastic feminist!), “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Recently, when looking through the website of our sister organization, Powered by Girl, I found myself reading the PBG Ad Galleries, a place where girls can “speak back” to ads that objectify, degrade or insult women and girls.  There was one ad in particular that struck me as absurd: A photo(shopped)  advertisement for Levis (click here) depicting four nearly identical thin white women wearing jeans with the caption, “Hotness comes in all shapes and sizes.”  I laughed at the ad, because the message-photo pair was so absurd:  It was almost impossible to see any difference in the shapes or sizes of these models or jeans. Here was another instance of companies selling us an unrealistic and un-representational ideal of beauty—and then saying that they are depicting (and making) jeans in “all shapes and sizes.” These women clearly do not represent different kinds of bodies (or ethnicities or types of beauty).  But I was not alone.  PBG had some amazing graffiti-art responses to this ad blasting its ridiculousness. For example, user pelletiarae1 responded “advertisements are always the same shapes and sizes…time for change, dare to be different” and user Shannon wrote “marketing only one type of beauty is a whole lot like selling a box of crayons with only one color.” It’s awesome to see girls tackling these messages about media in a way that is outraged, clever and just gets it. A narrow ideal of beauty denies the existence of many types of bodies and types of beauty.

So when engaging in activism, we are trying to shape these larger contexts, but what are we doing for ourselves? Wait for it…for starters we are exposing ourselves and others to ideas and beliefs that are… feminist! So now let’s look at what research in psychology says about how feminism affects how young women feel about their bodies.  In other blogs, we’ve focused on how exposure to the “thin-ideal” of beauty can lead to being dissatisfied with one’s own body. But as Taryn Myers and Janis Crowther point out in their recent article, even with “sociocultural pressures, thin-ideal internalization, self-objectification, and body dissatisfaction,” obviously not everyone develops disordered eating or is dissatisfied with their bodies.[1]  Researchers have wanted to find out whether feminist beliefs might act as a protective factor against feeling dissatisfied with our bodies.  And some researchers have found that having feminist beliefs might enable women and girls to have a more positive body image and to resist objectifying their bodies (internalizing the idea that your worth is based on your physical appearance).

In one study, researchers talked to college students who identified as feminists and found that feminist beliefs helped them to interpret cultural messages about their bodies in different ways.[2]  However, these women also explained that they sometimes still worried about their appearance even though they “knew” that they shouldn’t.  This finding is a little confusing.  It suggests that while feminist beliefs might help women resist objectifying their bodies, it’s not a “cure-all,” and there are still things we need to know about how women develop positive or negative views of their bodies.

Taryn Myers and Janis Crowther decided to investigate this question in more depth.  They wanted to see if feminist beliefs would help women cope with media pressures to conform to the thin ideal.  To test this, they gave a set of surveys to 250 women who were enrolled in undergraduate psychology courses.  These surveys measured women’s beliefs in the thin-ideal, feelings of body (dis)satisfaction, family, peer and media exposure to the thin-ideal.   The researchers didn’t do an experiment or try to manipulate their participants; instead they measured their pre-existing beliefs and experiences.

Myers and Crowther hypothesized that there is an order of events to feeling badly about one’s body (body dissatisfaction).  First, one has to be exposed to the idea that thin is beautiful/ better.  Second, one has to actually believe or “internalize” the idea about the thin-ideal.  Last, if women internalize the thin-ideal, they will have to self-objectify their bodies and then feel body dissatisfaction.   Well, Myers and Crowther’s hunch was right.  They did find that self-objectification was the “bridge” between internalizing the thin-ideal and body dissatisfaction.  But right about now you’re probably thinking, didn’t she promise a blog about positive findings? And also, where does feminism fit in this?

One of Myers and Crowther’s other findings is that the more media women reported being exposed to (for example, those Levi’s ads I talked about before), the more they internalized the thin-ideal (but you could have predicted that by now, right?). When women were exposed to a lot of media and had strong feminist beliefs, they were less likely to internalize the thin-ideal than women who were exposed to a lot of media and had weak feminist beliefs. So what does this mean? The researchers’ take is that women with high feminist beliefs might put things into perspective.  Because feminist beliefs emphasize that the whole person is of worth, rather than simply focusing on appearance, women who have feminist beliefs might have a more “balanced” view of themselves.  Myers and Crowthers pose the idea that feminism teaches women to question the thin ideal by offering a broader conception of beauty.

So can feminism save women from body dissatisfaction? It seems like it can be an important protective force along the way. Feminist beliefs can help women and girls fight against developing beliefs that can be damaging. Although it’s important to remember that feminist beliefs aren’t a magic pill, this research suggests that the conversations we’ve been having, and the activism we’ve been doing, isn’t just good for society, it’s good for each of us as well.

What do you think? How does being involved in SPARK change the way you think about the thin-ideal?

[1] Myers, T. A., & Crowther, J. H. (2007). Sociocultural pressures, thin-ideal internalization, self-objectification, and body dissatisfaction: Could feminist beliefs be a moderating factor?. Body Image, 4(3), 296-308.

[2] Rubin, L.S., Nemeroff, C., J., & Russo, N. F. (2004). Exploring feminist women’s body consciousness.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 27-37.