Story by LAUREN LLOYD
In the 17th and 18th centuries, women with round, voluptuous figures were praised for their beauty. This look became so sought after that the fashion industry designed understructures for women’s dresses that provided them more volume. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the standard for women dramatically shifted to thin bodies, which led to the prominence of corsets and eating disorders.
Women don’t wear corsets anymore, but they were replaced by a toxic diet and fitness industry. In the 1990s, unreasonably skinny figures were in fashion. Flat stomachs became an accessory item. Now, to have the ideal body, women’s chests and hips must have the fullness of an 18th-century woman, but their waists and arms should be as slim as a supermodel from the ’90s.
Women’s bodies go in and out of style just like bell bottom jeans and Birkenstocks. The beauty industry picks and chooses what features it favors at that time, and consistently changes them so they are always unattainable. The more biologically impossible the ideal body is, the more profit the beauty industry obtains.
In recent years, women have decided to combat perpetually changing standards with the body positivity movement. This movement challenges the unrealistic beauty standards for women and encourages them to love themselves as they are. Unfortunately, many women still fall prey to societal influences that tell them they need to change their bodies. Nowadays, some girls have social media as young as 10 years old. On these sites, they are subjected to extremely limited representations of what women are supposed to look like.
Robin Jensen, a professor of communication at the University of Utah, discusses the dangers of the portrayal of women on social media. Jensen said social media create an exterior image for women that they place all their value onto. This separates them from themselves and their worth as individuals. Women cannot focus on the important parts of life, such as benefiting humanity or cultivating their identity, because they are so engrossed in their appearance.
“Women on the internet look like they have been drawn,” Jensen said in a phone interview. “There is a very distorted idea of what it means to be a human being — especially for women.”
People use different Photoshop tools and camera angles to create their looks on social media, and it is not representative of a day-to-day lifestyle. Since many components of physical appearance are out of their control, this pressure to always look perfect can be very isolating and anxiety-inducing for women, and even leads to depression and suicide, Jensen said.
Jess Wojciechowski, student body president-elect at the University of Utah, experienced this toxicity firsthand as she came of age. When she was younger, the only women Wojciechowski saw on social media were skinny influencers. They made her feel as if she needed to be thinner so she could wear the clothes that they did.
“It definitely contributed to me being more self-conscious and never wanting to post photos of myself,” she said in a Zoom interview.
However, after high school, Wojciechowski was inspired by the women she found on social media who embraced their individuality. Her love for dyed hair, jewelry and eccentric makeup was no longer something she had to repress. The representation of different kinds of women helped her become comfortable with who she is and helped her stop pursuing a “picture perfect” version of herself.
“Self-worth goes so much further than your appearance,” she said.
It is because of people on social media like artist Tyler Feder that Wojciechowski’s generation has been able to accept their bodies. Feder is a self-taught artist whose illustrations center around feminism, mental health and pop culture. When Feder was growing up, she lived in a diet-focused household. Her parents fed her and her sisters food from Weight Watchers, unaware that it would later lead to eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food. Growing up in an environment where her and her sisters’ bodies were consistently scrutinized had a long-lasting impact on her body image.
“I get so mad about that time. I feel like I was a blank canvas, and I had all this negative stuff projected on me from such a young age,” she said in a Zoom interview. Later, when she was attending Northwestern University, Feder was able to find body positivity and fat acceptance blogs that sparked her journey of self-love. The transition was not seamless. She was still counting calories while reading these blogs, but she now had an online community to support her.
Feder believes the body positivity movement has made impressive strides in the past few years. However, there is still a long way to go. “You still look at plus-sized models and they all have flat stomachs and they’re hourglass shaped,” she said.
Feder’s work is breaking the cycle for young women. Her book, “Bodies are Beautiful,” strives to show young children that all bodies are good bodies before society can tell them that only certain ones are acceptable. In her art, she depicts women with their curves and their stretch marks, and draws people of all shapes, colors, and sizes. She represents all body types and demonstrates to women that they are still beautiful and worthy even if they don’t look like how the media portrays women.
More representation of different body types is essential to making progress with the body positivity movement. Professor Robin Jensen explains that the more diverse images we see and accept as beautiful, the better. When more realistic depictions of women circulate on the internet, it shows women that there are lots of different ways to be beautiful, and they are not the only one who isn’t perfect.
“If you go to a flower garden that has all different kinds of flowers, you think they’re all pretty,” Feder said, comparing women to flowers. “It’s not like this one kind of flower is pretty because it’s small or it’s a specific shape or it’s a specific color. They’re all pretty even though they look really different.”