Whenever anyone talks about body image, something strange happens.
There’s this niggling reoccurring voice, claiming that body image is a silly ‘first world problem’. There is this resounding idea that if women have the time to sit around worrying about how they look, then they clearly aren’t women who are truly struggling; like the women who are starving in ‘third world’ countries. Women with body-image issues are clearly just first-world faux-feminist whingers who need to get over it!
Well I’m calling bullshit, again.
I’m calling bullshit for a number of reasons. And rather than going into a lengthy political analysis on women suffering under neoliberalism and globalisation, I will just use my own story, of my life in Vietnam.
It starts a few years ago, when I was living in central Vietnam with a local family in a rural area. It was sublime. Picture rolling green hills, coffee plantations, lush forests, very few cars, not a billboard in sight. But there was certainly a lot of poverty. Folks with no shoes, ragged clothes, living in what would best be described as ‘sheds’, school was a luxury, as was transport. But in a collectivist society, what little was available would be shared with other people.
One day of my life in Vietnam sticks with me. It hit me like a tonne of bricks. We had a regular family lunch together. After lunch someone turned on some Western pop music. The three-year-old girl whom I lived with, suddenly started dancing ‘sexy’! It was more than sexy, it was Britney! The family I stayed with was lovely and this was nothing sinister, they thought it was great that their little girl had learnt Western dancing.
But I realised at that moment, Westernised notions of ‘sexy’ had already been embedded into the mind of a three-year-old girl living in rural remote Vietnam. This little girl didn’t own any Bratz or Monster dolls, heck I don’t think she even owned a doll at all! What the ever-loving heck was going on here?? The dance she mimicked was absolutely not seen in Vietnamese culture, this was MTV sexiness.
I woke up that day, and I suddenly realised there was so much more to it. Poor women were not just fighting to survive. Poor women must
now fight to eat, and to also be desirable by Western standards. What a kicker, fighting for survival and needing to be sexy while doing it? Yes, poverty now lumped together with body-image pressure too.
In decades gone by, traditional Vietnamese culture saw plump women as attractive – as they appeared well-fed and thus wealthy, but the modern Vietnamese body ideal is Western thinness. Thinness, whiteness and sexiness.
As one of my Vietnamese friends laughed off my concerns when I asked about dieting: “women will starve themselves for beauty here, of course!” What a horrible paradox for women, the pressure of not being able to afford nutritionally healthy food but also needing to remain thin.
During my life in Vietnam, I returned to visit Australia a few times. On my visits to Australia, women in Vietnam would ask me to purchase beauty products for them.
They wanted Australian (or preferably American) cellulite removing creams, wrinkle reduction creams and so on. They knew the famous brands, and specifically they often picked products with ‘sexy’ or ‘beauty’ in the name.
These creams were in the price-range of $50 – $100, normal prices for Australian products.
The women who wanted these creams earned typical Vietnamese salaries of around $120 per month, thats $30 per week. This is a pretty average salary. These women were not wealthy heiresses; they were average income earners with meagre living standards. To give an indication of living costs, petrol is a similar price in Vietnam and Australia, rent is not as cheap as you’d think, $30 does not go far. But, these women were willing to give up nearly a month of income just to experience the luxury of a Western beauty product. These women are literally forgoing necessities like decent food, just to have a taste of Western ‘beauty’.
When women overseas are living in poverty and now have the added pressure of being ‘sexy’ while they survive – this is a serious justice issue. And before you jump to any conclusions, these women were not divas, they were average mums and women. (Side note, of course I talked them out of buying products or otherwise gave them as gifts)
I do not judge these women for the decisions they made. In fact, all they are doing is looking to survive. While your immediate reaction might be “why the hell are people buying CRAP they don’t need!?” Well, actually there is an entirely logical reason for it. You might think ‘these women simply cannot afford to worry about sexiness’, but truth is these women cannot afford to NOT worry about sexiness.
In today’s world, women need to be ‘sexy’ to be visible, to be worthy, wanted. And in Vietnam, reputation is everything, so these women are not being silly at all.
Having good social standing or ‘keeping face’ is central to having a successful life. Whether you are rich or poor, you must ‘keep face’ and hold good reputation. This is critical in a collectivist culture, people need to know they can trust you – and they don’t have linkedin ratings – so they use social reputation. And for women, keeping face literally means keeping attractive too.
While this may have been easier decades ago, the spread of Western body image ideals has seriously changed the stakes. The stakes are now extremely high, difficult and expensive for women to meet.
I do not write any of this as an indictment of Vietnamese people or culture, they are absolutely kind, generous and amazing people who make the very best of their lives, in my experience. These women are living through the slow integration of Western objectification of women into their own culture: ‘thin, white, sexy’ is the best way to survive, these women are merely adapting as best they can.
For the people who call body-image a first-world faux-feminist issue, I question whether they have ever lived in a ‘third world’ country and truly gotten to know women’s struggles there.
Before I moved overseas, I would have probably agreed that ‘body image’ is a futile, ‘first world problem’, but really getting to know women overseas has shown me that this is far more complex than privilege vs poverty. I am not suggesting that all developing nations are identical, but what I saw across many countries in Asia was a recreation of Western struggles with body image. And this has been documented in many countries, including isolated islands like Fiji, and with extreme examples across South America.
During life in Vietnam I saw first-hand that Westernised objectification and body-hatred is out of control. Media is absolutely globalised, and women in rural Vietnam are aware of their bodies in ways I never imagined possible. Fat removing creams, whitening creams, spanx of every type, diet pills and more. These things aren’t marketed on magazines and billboards in Vietnam, and women don’t openly talk about them either (if you’re a tourist), but scratch the surface of the culture and they are very much there.
If Western progressive folk want to downplay the impact that body image pressure has, do they dare get to know the stories of women who will choose between dinner and face cream? Do these folk dare decry body-positivity as ‘first world problems’? Because in the reality I have seen, women will go hungry to purchase face-creams and it’s no joke. Challenging the objectification of women is absolutely not a faux issue. It is very much a social justice issue.
At first glance body image problems may appear a superficial complaint, but they are indicative of a problem far deeper in the way women are treated. I urge anyone who claims to be progressive to stop playing oppression Olympics when it comes to body image. These issues do affect women’s lives both in developed and developing countries. We need to get serious about being body positive and set a new standard. What starts in the global north spreads to other nations. The Western world has exported objectification to women all over the world.
Let us not sit around pretending we can be saviours for every person in poverty and recognise that we must reset a body positive standard. We must help ourselves if we want to help others. And importantly, we must love ourselves before we can love others.
Laura McNally is an Organisational Psychology consultant and a PhD candidate. Her work revolves around psychology, corporate responsibility and women’s rights. She is currently a board member for Endangered Bodies Australia, focusing on women’s wellbeing. More of this on www.muchmorethanimage.wordpress.com or twitter @LauraGeneM
Is body image a cultural construct of the west? When did you first become aware or conscious of the way people looked at your body?