All that we seem to hear about is the negative impact of the media upon women and girls' body image. Yes, that vague conceptual monster, "the media" is making us insecure, is making us feel fat, and is putting forwards unrealistic ideals towards which women are supposed to aspire. These sentiments are undoubtedly true, but they also seem to neglect the far-reaching echoes of body perfectionism which are glossed onto the words of men and boys everywhere, clinging like a sticky syrup which, once stuck, cannot too easily be scraped off.
At a macro level, the media is painstakingly pushing an obsession with women's bodies. Whilst the mainstream media may continue to value thin, perfected female bodies, strong backlash to these ideals has become an equally forceful and unavoidable part of the rhetoric in society today. On Instagram, body positivity accounts and eating disorder "recovery" accounts post photographs of female bodies in all their guises; every extreme of fatness or skinniness, positivity or negativity, every angle of thought which a woman can have about her body is published and whirled into conversation. We are living in a huge, intricate, diverse web of body obsession, which, as it becomes more complex and multi-faceted, only increases the weight of expectation under which our bodies are writhing.
Yet at a micro level, the conversation around body image churned out by the media finds its way into the mouths of men and boys, women and girls; anyone who has a body, especially as a female, cannot escape its being interpolated and called up for judgement. Our bodies are no longer here simply for the purpose of eating, walking, breathing, carrying out day-to-day tasks. They are aesthetic objects, commodities, and subjects of a conversation which almost always ends up being about how we look.
Men and boys. That unintentional dig or remark you made which was just slightly off, which struck a chord of self-doubt or insecurity, is now a reverberating, chiming, incessant panic bell in the mind of a woman or girl. Maybe you told her that her bum was big, her boobs small, her hips skinny or her shoulders wide. Perhaps the comment was even meant as a compliment, a joke, or simply hadn't been assumed to carry any offence. Yet words can and do have a greater weight than you think.
When should boys talk to girls about their bodies, if ever? What does the simple act of a male spouse or partner passing judgement on a woman's body do? How might that simple act find its way into the hard-wiring of female self-image?
Recently, a friend told me about an unkind comment made to her by a sexual partner. He had turned to her, after sex, and said "haven't you ever wanted to have bigger boobs?" Shocked and distressed, she had reached out to me the next day, uncertain of how to tell him that this comment had upset her. Laughingly, we realised how ludicrous the comment would have been if it was the other way around. When has it ever been OK for a girl to say, "Hey, haven't you ever wanted a bigger dick?"
Why has this happened? How has it become acceptable for men to make comments such as these, and worse, without realising the harm they can do? For starters, we are exposed to more images of women's bodies than in the past, thanks to the explosion of social media and photo-based apps such as Instagram and snapchat. Secondly, we are told in more ways than ever how we should change our bodies. Tone up and slim down for summer. Surgically increase or reduce the size of your breasts, butt, lips, or stomach. Lose weight and post pictures of your "transformation" online. Anyone can do this, these images seem to jibe, look how successful I have become thanks to changing my body.
The media, and its constant preoccupation with passing judgement on the aesthetics of female bodies, has found its way into the subconscious impulses of men and boys everywhere.
Sometimes, even those comments that are well-meant can backfire. Yes, gentlemen - we really are that hard to please. As an example, being a naturally thinner woman myself I have frequently been given the comment "you're so skinny," by boys. One time I called a guy up on it, and told him that the comment made me feel insecure. Shocked, he turned back in disbelief and did not understand until I had explained, at length, how "skinny" didn't actually figure as a good thing in my mind - it sounded like those who'd told me I was "too skinny" growing up, who'd jibed about my lanky legs or my flat chest. And even they had not thought they were being offensive. It was assumed that, since skinniness was the cultural ideal, their joking about it could not possibly be offensive - I couldn't be hurt by these comments, they didn't mean anything by it.
Who is it, exactly, that impacts a girl's body image? Is it really that distant concept of "the media" that fuels our insecurities? Rather, it seems to be our close friends, our families, the girls at school or college or university, and most of all the guys we share a bed with. Bearing in mind that those who speak are sexually engaged with the women they address, these muttered words under the covers might just be the most impactful weapons - or tools - they have for destroying or creating a woman's self-image.