There’s a new meme on the rise, one i’ve seen pop up on my own Facebook feed, asking when the 21st century ideal of thin, toned, bodies overtook the slightly rounder female physique popular in the mid 20th century. I imagine the meme has achieved popularity as it appears to be championing body acceptance while rebelling against societal pressures. The meme, such as the one pictured above, does nothing of the sort, however, it only seeks to degrade a certain body type in favor of another. Certain women are assigned value over others, and that value is derived from their appeal to men. And really, none of the above images do much to challenge the white, able-bodied, standard of beauty that has reigned for at least the past century. The dominant image may change by a slight few inches, but the power structure remains the same to the detriment of women who are asked to alter themselves to fit the ideal.
This meme is not presenting the finger to society it pretends to. As Shameless points out in its post “The Marilyn Meme”, it maintains the hierarchy wherein one type of female body is valued over another as to further cement the idea that women’s value in society rests on their looks. It shames women’s bodies and pins women against each other, rather than against the culture which fosters low self-esteem.
This is a common tactic, in which women are pitted against each other, so that we lose sight of the real problem: namely, society. If women are fighting amongst ourselves about who is more “beautiful,” if we compare ourselves to other women endlessly, we don’t have time to notice that we’re trapped in a hamster-wheel of low self-esteem. Society hopes that you’ll buy things, to try and make yourself feel better.
Women’s bodies are assigned a certain value, and that value is defined by the body’s “hotness”, or attractiveness in relation to the heterosexual male gaze. This structure is beneficial to, for example, a cosmetics company who can profit by providing the tools women need to achieve this standard, but ultimately harmful to woman who are told they are only valuable if they can be a pleasing image for someone else to look at.
This type of environment presents women as sexual objects, not sexual subjects. It is perhaps the very attitude towards women that drove Marilyn Monroe, the poster girl of this meme, to self-destruction. As per Shameless again:
She was a sex symbol, and thus, stopped existing as human being, a regular girl. Almost everything that fucked up Marilyn’s later life had to do with being “adored” by men. Men used her, or deified her (and that’s a hard come-down for those dudes when they found a human being in their bed the morning after).
It’s this type of environment that makes sexual violence towards women so easy, because they are perceived as a plaything for other people. Jean Kilbourne goes into great detail on the issue of the representation of the female body in the media in her Killing Us Softly film series. The first half of the most recent version is embedded below, and I highly recommend watching it. It is not so simple as to say that an image of a woman through a sexual gaze leads to violence, but it is the first step towards creating an environment where women are less than human, where it is permissible to perceive them as a sexual object first and foremost. Not a sexual subject in their own right, but an object to be used by someone else, whose value rests on a standard of beauty determined by a heterosexual male gaze. Even if the trend alters slightly from decade to decade, the problem remains the same.
The Marilyn Meme [Shameless]
Real Women Have … Bodies [Feministing]