Hollywood, sexism and positive body imaging

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Jennifer Lawrence, one of Hollywood’s big name young actors, while being acknowledged as a talented actor has also gained a reputation for being  funny, foul mouthed, irreverent and straight talking, in particular about women, girls and body imaging. Like fellow actor, Kate Winslet, Lawrence has been outspoken in her promotion of healthy bodies and positive body image among women and girls.

In the wake of the success of the movie rendition of Suzanne Collin’s dystopic teen novel, The Hunger Games, Lawrence who plays the lead role of Katniss Everdeen spoke about the pressure put on her to lose weight in Hollywood.  Responding to a review in the New York Times in May 2012 about the movie which said she was too “womanly” to play the role of Katniss, Lawerence responded by saying:  “This is hilarious. First, people say how so many actresses in Hollywood look anorexic, and now they are criticizing me for looking normal'”.

Several months later in August 2012 during an interview with Elle Magazine, Lawrence talked further about body image saying: “In Hollywood, I’m obese”. She went on to say, “I eat like a caveman, I’ll be the only actress who doesn’t have anorexia rumours …I’m never going to starve myself for a part … I don’t want little girls to be like, ‘Oh, I want to look like Katniss, so I’m going to skip dinner”.

In a November 2013 interview  with BBC Newsnight, Lawrence spoke about the portrayal of Katniss in the movie saying:

It’s called ‘The HUNGER Games’. She is from district 12, she is obviously underfed. She would be incredibly thin. But I kept saying .. we have the ability to control this image that young girls are going to be seeing [in The Hunger Games]… girls see enough of this body that we can’t imitate, that we will never be able to obtain. This unrealistic expectation. This is going to be their hero, we have control over that. It’s an amazing opportunity to rid ourselves of that in this industry”.

 

Research on body image has shown that negative body image can seriously impact on the health and well-being of young people, affecting their self-esteem and health, including resulting in depression, social isolation and extreme dieting. A person’s body image of themselves may in fact have no bearing on their actual appearance, with studies showing that nearly half of “normal” weight women over estimating their body shape and size.  A range of studies have shown that body image can be the single largest influence on the self-esteem of young women.  American studies have also found that approximately 91 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape.  However, only 5 percent of women naturally possess the body type often portrayed in the media.

Studies in the USA have shown that 95% of people with eating disorders are overwhelmingly young, aged between 12 and 25 years.  They have also shown that students, especially women, who consume more mainstream media, place a greater importance on “sexiness” and overall body appearance than those who do not consume as much.

A 2009 study found 50 per cent of girls aged between 3 and 6 think that they are too fat.  Researchers found that 86% of the children in the study expressed an aversion to chubby figures in photographs, with most of the girls choosing the photo of the “fat figure” as the “girl they would not like to look like at all”

In 2007, a report by the American Psychological Association found that the culture of wide-spread sexualisation of girls and women contributed to increasing anxiety amongst girls and women about their body image.  A 2010 study in the Journal of Strategic Marketing by Brett and Robina found that consumers felt more pressure from society to be thin after view advertisements with thin models but that this pressure decreased after viewing adverts with larger sized models.  The study also found that people had a distorted view of their own body size after viewing advertisements with thin models.

The role of the media was highlighted recently by Lawrence during her promotional tour for Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games movie.  In early November, responding to an audience member asking for advice about body image and how to deal with people disparaging others about their body size, Lawrence responded:

“Well, screw those people. “It’s something that everybody experiences. I experienced it in school. The world has a certain idea — we see this airbrushed perfect model image. … You just have to look past it. You look how you look. And be comfortable. What are you gonna do, be hungry every single day to make other people happy? That’s just dumb.”

“And there’s shows like the ‘Fashion Police’ and things like that are just showing these generations of young people to judge people based on things… that they put values in all the things that are wrong and that it’s OK to point at people and call them ugly and call them fat and they call it ‘fun’ and ‘welcome to the real world.’ And it’s like, that shouldn’t be the real world. That’s going to keep being the real world if you keep it that way. It’s not until we stop treating each other like that and just stop calling each other fat … with these unrealistic expectations for women. It’s disappointing that the media keeps it alive and fuels that fire.”

 

Lawrence’s outspoken views on body image should be welcomed.  Far too often the role models for young women and young girls, promoted in pop culture, in films, the media and advertising are ones which promote negative imaging and sexist stereotypes which are detrimental to young girls and women.   The main message which is presented is that women’s bodies are merely decorative ornaments and that women and girls bodies are simply there to titillate and to sell products.   This is because sexism is embedded in the capitalist system, with gender stereotypes portraying women as nothing more than decorations and sexual objects and/or squeezing them into particular roles (such as mother and wife) being enforced from a young age.

Under capitalism, sexism is not just an individual personal experience, instead it is as result of deeply embedded structural inequalities embedded in the capitalist system which marginalise and oppress women.   The sexism we see on our television and movie screens, on advertising billboards are just but one manifestation of sexism that exist within our society under capitalism.

Sexism and the oppression of women under capitalism is also evident, for example, in the disparity amongst the wages that are paid to men and women.  In Australia, for example, on average women make approximately 83% of the male wage.   Female dominated industries, particularly those in “caring jobs” such as nursing and teaching are the most undervalued economically, socially and politically. Sexism can also be found in the home and family.  Studies have shown that women still do three times as much childcare and housework as men, with women being disproportionately responsible for childcare, cooking, cleaning and looking after the elderly.  The unpaid labour of women in the home, across Australia, amounts to approximately 50% of the GDP.

The marginalisation and oppression of women in the home and in employment works to benefit those profiting from capitalism. Under capitalism, not only is the second class status of women reinforced and maintained through the structural inequality within the system but also by capitalist industries such as the beauty and diet industries which make billions of dollars off women by appealing to and cultivating their insecurities.  These insecurities are reinforced ideologically through the mediums of film, television, advertising and other media.

Lawrence’s refusal, like Kate Winselt, to bow to unreasonable expectations of weight loss and her outspokenness in relation to positive body image is a breath of fresh air and should be applauded.

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