I am currently enrolled in a sociology course titled “Women and the Body.”
Basically, I was looking for a course to fulfill requirements and give me a break from the labs and science classes that my semesters are filled with as biology major. The course topics range from eating disorders to sexual assault, covering all forms of discrimination, oppression, medicalization, and physical pain that women in our society face. I was not prepared for what learning about my lived experience in an academic setting would entail.
The social construction of gender in today’s culture writes out the script that every little girl will not only grow up following with a tenacity similar to members of religious cults, but will also enforce in her sisters and female peers. The script creates girls who are too busy with their bodies to pursue the careers of their dreams. It creates girls who keep the food, fitness, and cosmetic industries afloat because of their perpetual self-loathing. Girls who become docile bodies, unconsciously self-policing and comparing themselves to the unattainable standards of beauty forced on them through social media, popular culture, and the influence of their own mothers.
I was blessed to have parents who sheltered me from much of the cultural messages that would tell me I need to be anything but myself in order to be loved. While some see my childhood without Disney princesses, makeup or nail polish as deprived, I have come to be immensely grateful for the environment in which I was raised. But, after leaving my home in Minnesota and beginning my college education halfway across the country at Boston College, I found it extremely difficult to maintain the values that had been instilled in me since birth.
BC is a beautiful campus filled with beautiful people who all seem to have achieved the perfect balance of intelligence, fitness, and social success; especially the girls. I immediately felt the pressure to be as smart, as thin, and as popular as possible. Despite my parents’ every effort to shield me from the obsession with thinness that permeates the culture of my generation, I too fell victim to the cultural script that was written for me and every girl of my generation.
I will now remember my sophomore year by the eating disorder and depression that I struggled with during this time. Being in recovery and taking this course has opened my eyes to the underlying reasons why I and the majority of my peers are diagnosed with similar mental disorders. Even without Disney princesses showing me that I need a pencil thin waistline and perfect hair to find my prince, I was first exposed to the pressure to obtain the minimal weight at my all-girls catholic high school and then more intensely at college.
After reading a book about the “cult of thinness” that exists among my peers, I realize that every woman I have ever known has been a part of it. Being able to identify the symptoms of disordered eating has allowed me to understand that the eating habits of my high school classmates and now colleagues in college are not normal. However, because my high school and college act as total institutions, disordered eating among women has become normalized if not encouraged.
When I think about how much time and energy women spend attempting to modify their bodies to fit the molds that society has created for them, I wonder how much of our potential has not yet been realized. How many scientific discoveries, technological inventions, and artistic masterpieces have not been created because women were too busy trying the newest tactic for minimizing their waistline? How many women were too preoccupied with their appearance to pursue careers as politicians, professors, and scientists? Anything that is socially constructed can, by definition, be destructed through resistance.
We must rewrite the script to prevent the next generation of girls from falling victim to the pressure to be thin. Little things such as refraining from body-shaming comments, or encouraging girls to continue to participate in athletics into high school will increase confidence. If girls are more confident in their bodies, they are less prone to the influences of popular culture and sexual scripts. Larger cultural changes regarding beauty standards and ideals will come when women no longer buy into the current expectations that society holds them to.
Bergin Brown is a junior Biology major at Boston College. She plans to pursue a Master’s in Public Health after undergrad with a focus on women’s health. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org