Women, Body Image and the Media: A New Emphasis

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by Dr. Allison Belger

Note: this post originally appeared on Dr. Belger’s blog PsychologyWOD.com, and is reprinted in its entirety with her permission.

Women, Body Image and the Media: A New Emphasis
Since starting this blog a few months ago, I have solicited article ideas from readers, friends, and fellow athletes a number of times. Without fail, each request has led to a suggestion for an article addressing women’s body image.

Thus far, I have avoided the subject for a number of reasons, in large part because of the widespread attention the topic has already received across various media; what could I offer in a field that has been saturated for years? In addition, I did not want to contribute further to the female obsession with body and food.

In the past few weeks, a number of articles have been published exploring the portrayal of women’s bodies in the media and the extent to which CrossFit has done things differently. Productive discussions have followed, with many of my readers asking for my perspective on this huge and complex issue.

As a 44-year-old woman, a psychologist, a mother of two young daughters, a former collegiate athlete, and an owner of CrossFit gyms, I have quite a bit to say, so here goes …

A woman’s relationship to her body dates back to primitive psychological times.

Our earliest attachment is to our mothers, first and foremost, and to other caregivers secondarily, through an intimate exchange of nourishment and sustenance that involves feeding from a mother’s breast or from a bottle substitute. These early interactions are rich with psychological interplay – involving food and bodies – and become the foundation of the complicated mother-daughter relationship.

Complicated mother-daugher relationships
While this charged dynamic is not the focus of my work here, it certainly deserves mention. Whatever our body image and our own responses to media portrayals of women, they are rooted in our earliest and most profound interactions with our mother, as well as our relationship with her as we grow.

[A] mother’s own psychology and sense of her own body are both consciously and unconsciously infused into her relationship with her daughter.
And of course, a mother’s own psychology and sense of her own body are both consciously and unconsciously infused into her relationship with her daughter. Author Kim Chernin’s excellent book, The Hungry Self, is rich and evocative in dealing with these issues and well worth the read for any woman with a body and psyche.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s when I was coming of age and growing into my own body, the look of the moment was that of the skinny Supermodel. We were inundated with images of perfection that included smooth, tan skin; limbs that went on forever; hair that was thick and straight; and eyes that were catlike and sultry, if not blue as the ocean. These were also the days before we were aware of the secrets of airbrushing and editing.

I can remember looking through magazines during my high school and college years, wondering how I stacked up to the images therein. Even as a student athlete at an Ivy League college, I invested too much energy in trying to discern how or if I might ever embody this media-driven portrait of the perfect woman.

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