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Tootsie Talks - Beauty, Body Image and the Feminine Ideal

10/07/2013 12:59 BST | Updated 08/09/2013 10:12 BST

"She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her."

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women

Yesterday Dustin Hoffman's emotional interview about his role in the 1982 film Tootsie went viral on social media sites as many of us considered our own media-shaped perceptions of the 'feminine ideal'. He cried as he admitted;

"There are too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed."

He makes a valid point that we are all in many ways brainwashed to believe that a certain look is the ideal. How many men have discounted women simply because they do not fit the very narrow vision of beauty that we have come to define as being so important and how many women have felt unimportant simply because they do not fit this prescribed 'ideal'?

We are much more than the sum of our parts and yet so many of us are consumed by the way we look, always wanting to appear younger, thinner or more beautiful to fit the mould.

Attitude is everything. A growing acceptance and contentment with our looks may be more about our head than our hips. How can we come to feel this confidence about the way we look and what is it that shapes our views?

Modern beauty campaigns highlight our differences

Last summer Lucy Holmes noticed that despite Jessica Ennis having just won her gold Olympic medal, the largest female image in The Sun was of a young woman showing her breasts. The No More Page 3 Campaign began when she petitioned the editor of The Sun to remove bare breasts from the newspaper. She has talked openly about how Page 3 affected her and so many other young women through adolescence. Men gazing upon the beautiful images on page 3 will never be able to understand how it makes so many teenage girls feel utterly inadequate.

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty has put our differences on centre stage with its simple message aimed at every generation as we grow and change. The campaign has set out to showcase all shapes and sizes in a positive light and thus does exactly the opposite of The Sun's Page 3. Campaigns such as this help us to accept and celebrate our differences. Dove's Self-Esteem Fund aims to "free us and our next generation from beauty stereotypes." In a 2010 global survey, "The Real Truth about Beauty Revisited", Dove revealed some shocking statistics:

• 53% of girls in the UK have avoided certain activities and

• 22% won't go to the beach or pool because they feel insecure about their looks.

Our beauty comes not simply from a slim waist and flawless skin; it is about who we are in our entirety - our actions, attitudes and perceptions. When we strive for physical perfection, if there could ever be such a thing, we set ourselves up for a fall. The confidence that comes from a strong sense of self-worth, and knowing that you are as good as anyone else, makes a person truly attractive.

The changing shape of the 'feminine ideal'

Perceived physical ideals have changed dramatically through time. It is not so long ago that the larger, rounder, more voluptuous woman was considered the ideal. Rosetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted images of women with rounded breasts, hips and tummies and full pouting mouths. They looked beautiful, and as far away from the Barbie Doll image of beauty now considered so desirable. Today's ideal is decidedly slim and small waisted with large breasts. No wonder so many of us feel we don't measure up.

A dieting culture

School girls blindly eat their empty calories at fast food outlets and then worry openly about the need to diet, skipping meals and falling into a cycle of unhealthy eating. Weight loss companies and gyms are now big business as we're all brainwashed into believing we can "get slimmer and therefore more attractive" - but always at a price.

Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth concluded:

"A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one."

Is dieting a 21st century version of the corset or the 'hobble skirt' that so restricted women's movement, and thus played a part in controlling half the population? It could be argued that high heels do the same thing. It sounds paranoid but it's certainly thought provoking.

We compare ourselves to airbrushed celebrities and will always fall short of their over-enhanced look. If we are desperately trying to achieve an image, at any cost, then we are surely doing ourselves a disservice, particularly if that image is ever unattainable. It is good to be fit and healthy, to eat sensibly and to exercise regularly but have we all taken it to the extreme and for the wrong reasons? Does being slim or beautiful bring happiness? If only it was that easy! To be simply ourselves and to know that we are good enough - that is real freedom.

Our parents shape us

In this beautifully written and very moving article Passing on Body Hatred by Kasey Edwards, we can see how the cycle so often begins in childhood. After her mother had shared her feelings of negative body image with her as a child, she said, in an open letter to her mother:

"I cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure and unworthy; because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself."

These words are very telling. We find our initial sense of security from our parents. Their attitudes shape our thinking to a certain extent. She goes on:

"With every grimace at your reflection in the mirror, every new wonder diet that was going to change your life, and every guilty spoon of ''Oh-I-really-shouldn't'', I learned that women must be thin to be valid and worthy. Girls must go without because their greatest contribution to the world is their physical beauty."

Women are the mothers, wives, daughters, doctors, scientists and thinkers of the future. Our greatest contribution to the world is not about how we look but who we are and what we do; our looks are secondary to that unless modelling is our profession. She concludes:

"Let us honour and respect our bodies for what they do instead of despising them for how they appear."

Our bodies are amazing. We give life and we love with our bodies, they should be appreciated, even celebrated, and not berated.

Life is short

As a woman who has been through two surgeries for bowel cancer, I now see my body in a very different way. I no longer focus negatively on the imperfections but embrace the joy I feel to be alive and celebrate my better qualities and not just the physical ones. My scars and my illness do not define me as such but they will always serve to remind me what is really important in this life.

"To be beautiful means to be yourself; you don't need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself." Thich Nhat Hanh.

Once we accept who we are and how we look, only then can we be truly content; and with that contentment comes peace - that in itself is beautiful. After all, you are unique, just like everyone else.