Our Mental Health Specialist Courtnay Veazey is back to talk about how systemic sexism may play a role in the way that you feel about yourself as a woman and the perceptions you hold about your body and its image.
I think that most women tend to just go about our daily lives with little thought to the way that we or women in general are perceived. There are times when our vaginas work for us, we like a door being opened for us, and what gal ever refused a drink, or dinner bought by a gentleman? When someone offers us their seat on a crowded subway we are flattered. Yes being a woman has its privileges. Conversely when the promotion does come, or we find that we make less money then male counterparts, or some pig says something sexually derogatory and embarrassing to us in the street, or worse when we pass a group of men and they ogle to girl behind us and scarcely notice that we are taking up space on the planet we feel the weight of our sex. There are also the times when we are single and feel like lepers or we are coupled and feel confined, when we don’t have children and feel ostracized by a portion of breeding society and even the government (try to get any medical or housing aid without a kid…) for not procreating, and when we have children we feel obligated to give the whole of ourselves and be the best mother- wife-working women – MILF- Superwoman… all that and we are also saddles with the reality that some how with trying to be independent, strong, soft, and modern, we are also supposed to have a hot bikini body! Yes sexism might have a smidge to with the way we feel about ourselves.
When it comes to experiencing a positive body image or claiming high self-esteem, women lag behind men. What causes women to experience more difficulty in achieving a positive body image and high self-esteem? What is it about the culture of women that leaves detrimental effects on our self-concept? (I write ‘culture of women’ because the identity of being a woman and the struggles inherent to that role transcend diverse cultural, racial, educational, spiritual, sexual orientation, and other backgrounds.)
Hello, sexism. If you are a woman, you are in the minority and thus experience the discriminations associated with a minority status. Before explaining how sexism becomes internalized and what that internalization means for your body image, allow me to define sexism. Sexism is the oppression – removal of power – based on gender. This oppression occurs when media sexualize women in its images, when women earn less pay than their male colleagues, or when others (both men and women) expect women to fulfill certain roles solely based on their gender. Also, sexism can occur in subtle moments. Have you ever had anyone roll his/her eyes at you when you said you would rather pursue a career instead of a family? Has anyone ever made a comment to you about the need to watch your weight because it’ll affect your chances of getting a date? Have you shared good news about a new job and the first question is about what you’ll wear on your first day? Those subtle comments are a form of sexism because men rarely experience those reactions/comments/questions.
Internalized sexism occurs when women begin to believe the negative messages that surround them and allow those messages to define them. (See my previous post about how to combat those internalized negative thoughts: http://mybodymyimage.com/sticks-and-stone-may-break-your-bones-but-words-can-destroy-you) Distress from internalized sexism leads to negative body image and lower self-esteem. However, internalized sexism is not the only dynamic at play because body image/self-esteem is a complicated and intricate aspect of humanity.
Here are some other areas in women’s lives that affect body image/self-esteem:
-Parental attitudes and behavior
-Environmental expectations regarding femininity
-Cultural bias toward masculinity
That’s a lot of different areas – some of which you may have never thought about before. Therefore, it is crucial that you take the time to examine those areas and identify the messages received from those areas about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be beautiful.
Where to Start:
Where is sexism evident in your life? What were your parents’ attitudes about their bodies? What behavior did your parents model for you regarding body image? Do you surround yourself with women who maintain positive or negative body images? How do their mindsets about their bodies influence your mindset? What physical changes are you experiencing right now? What emotional changes are you experiencing? How are those physical/emotional changes affecting your body image/self-esteem? Explore your personal, familial, educational, religious, and work environments. What expectations do those environments place on being a woman? How do those expectations affect your body image? Examine your relationship with your mother. What messages did she give you about beauty, body image, and self-esteem? Did she empower you or deflate you?
How do we combat the effects that sexism and the other listed areas have on our body image and self-esteem? What are some practical steps we can take to create a healthier body image?
1. Define Woman. What does that role look like to you? (Not look like to society – look like to YOU.) If you believe being a woman means being a stay-at-home mom, that’s wonderful. If you believe being a woman means finding your identity in a career, that’s wonderful, too. The different definitions are not what matters. What matters is your belief in that definition because lack of beliefs in your identity/role/definition of woman leads to lower self-esteem and a poorer body image.
2. Connect with your authentic self. You’ve defined what woman means to you. Now, pursue that definition. This step will not happen overnight, so don’t expect a miracle. Also, don’t expect it to be easy. Sexism is a societal problem that is subtly engrained in our interactions with one another. Therefore, you will encounter obstacles to your pursuits, which leads to the next step.
3. Remember the power of choice. You may encounter obstacles, but you have the incredible ability to choose how you respond to those obstacles. You do not have to agree with another person’s remarks/nonverbal responses to your beliefs, decisions, and actions regarding fulfilling your definition of women. Also, remember that someone else’s sexist response to your pursuit of an authentic self is not your issue. It’s his or her issue because the response comes from his or her mindset regarding a woman’s role.
4. Align with other women who share similar views. The personal is political – in other words, you are not alone in your struggles to overcome the effects of sexism. Perhaps you’ve been discriminated against because you want to have seven children. Develop relationships with women who have experienced similar discrimination and learn from their responses to that discrimination. Perhaps you’ve been discriminated against because you choose to never marry or to never have children. Again, develop relationships with women with similar stories. There is power, comfort, and encouragement in communities.
Remember that the previously listed steps will take time. We are human; therefore, we tend to fall back into familiar and comfortable habits. Don’t give up on yourself though because the ability to choose new habits, thoughts, and ways is always available to you.
Unfortunately, body image is not the only mental health issue that affects women differently than men. For information regarding other women-specific mental health issues, please visit http://nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/women-and-mental-health/index.shtml and http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/