Posted by: Habladora | July 28, 2008

The Big Deal: Manufacturing a State of Normative Discontent

The ‘what’s the big deal?’ chorus started up again last week after Feminist Gamers, Feministe, and Shakesville posted articles critiquing a new game for PSN called Fat Princess. As usual, women commenting on our society’s constant shaming and objectification of women’s bodies cued the refrains of ‘it’s just a joke’ and ‘don’t you have better things to worry about,’ and ‘shut up, you ugly beepity-beep-beep.’ The authors of the Fat Princess critiques might have been annoyed, but none were surprised - every time it is suggested that a movie, commercial, or magazine is objectifying or belittling women, there tends to be a vicious backlash. People’s comments often equate to ‘its our right to objectify and belittle women,’ or concern-troll style ‘these images help women to avoid being icky.’ Yet, by far the most common sentiment boils down to ‘why does this matter?’

The answer, in short, is that body-shaming and media representations of unrealistic beauty ideals create a toxic environment for girls- and constant exposure to such images have long-lasting impacts on women’s psychological and physical well-being.

I’m not alone in this assertion.

According to research conducted by Hayley K. Dohnt and Marika Tiggemann:

It was found that by 6 years of age, a large number of girls desired a thinner ideal figure… Watching music television shows and reading appearance-focused magazines predicted dieting awareness. In particular, girls who looked at magazines aimed at adult women had greater dissatisfaction with their appearance. Thus, the present study highlights that girls aged 5–8 years of age are already living in an appearance culture in which both peers and the media influence body image and dieting awareness.

So, through exposure to media, our children are inundated with appearance-focused presentations of women, and the more exposure kids have to this appearance culture, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their own appearance. As Dohnt and Tiggemann point out:

…comprehensive literature reviews have implicated this preadolescent body dissatisfaction as a risk factor for subsequent lower self-esteem, decreased psychological well-being, increased eating disorder symptomatology, dieting behaviours, obesity and depression.

Concern trolls take note: fashion magazines, TV programs, and video games that objectify women don’t ‘help girls by encouraging them to diet’ – they put kids at risk of eating disorders and depression. And since “…studies of women and adolescent girls have reported positive relationships between television viewing and magazine exposure with weight concerns and eating disorder symptomatology,” media matters.

While this particular research focused on how young girls are impacted by media depictions of women, it isn’t just our children who are at risk. Dohnt and Tiggemann are quick to point out that “…the desire for thinness is so prevalent among women that it has been identified as a ‘normative discontent.’” Normative discontent – we have created a culture in which so many women suffer from self-hate, that discontent with our appearance is considered normal.

So, what can we do? We can try to protect our kids from toxic media by thinking critically about the TV they watch, the magazines they read, and the games they play. We can try to protect ourselves by avoiding those things we know to be toxic. Since peer influences have also been shown to highly impact girls’ body-awareness, we can also help by not belying any self-hate we might feel while in the presence of young women. We can refrain from being too critical of our own figures or other women’s. And we can continue to call-out irresponsible media, even if it means braving some insults. Hopefully, raising awareness, acknowledging that sexism is dangerous, and holding companies accountable will encourage a change – the type of change that will make our society a happier place for women.

Thanks, Holly, Mighty Ponygirl, and Liss for not being cowed into silence.

cross posted from The Feminist Underground

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Responses

  1. One of the first trolls to ever appear on this blog came out as a result of a post about grand theft auto. Whenever it comes to critiquing media, people get up in arms. How dare you read more into this than the most superficial understanding? You’re ruining the fun!

    The video game industry has long ignored the fact that women do play games, and yes we do pay attention to the messages being dealt out within games.

    Speaking out about sexism and even racism (Resident evil 5) especially within the gaming industry is always going to draw trolls who don’t believe the industry could ever do any wrong and that anyone who complains about games is just a Jack Thompson wannabe who’s completely out of touch. They want video games to be immune from critique. They don’t want the games they enjoy to mean anything. But if they didn’t mean anything–why the staunch defense?

    It’s so annoying. I really enjoy games and I’m so sick of being marginalized within them. The number of games wherein there are non whites portrayed positively isn’t exactly on par with those that threat them negatively. Likewise with the treatment of women in comparison to men. The industry is making strides–they are opening their eyes to a relatively untapped market but they’re still struggling with the same tired ass messages in mainstream media about who can be the hero and who has to be the villain/sex object.

  2. I think one of the reasons I’ve responded so well to Wii is that I actually like games, but I stay away from many of the ones that I see my friends playing for the same reason I avoid fashion magazines. I’m just a happier person if I don’t stare for 4 hours a day at women whose breast-to-waist proportions are so skewed that it’s gravity-defying. And the way it seems to be OK to kill anyone who isn’t completely white in some of the games that I’ve seen… well, it’s largely kept me away from whole genera of of games. Living in a society so steeped in racism and sexism, I think that we must think critically about the images we produce and consume, even in things we enjoy. It is just so easy to internalize unhealthy messages if you brush-off large parts of your daily experiences as not worthy of analysis.

    Of course, I teach lit – so what do you expect me to think?


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