Renee Loth

Hey, does this facelift make me look fat?

By Renee Loth
January 8, 2010

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THE PURGE season is in full holler, with relentless come-ons to lose weight, crunch those abs, ban that flab, and generally atone for too much holiday pleasure. Just take this little pill, inject some collagen or botulism toxin, or follow our scientifically proven starvation diet and say hello to a new you. Never mind the strain on your wallet, your heart, or your confidence.

Social researchers say this annual orgy of self-improvement is especially hard on adolescent girls already anxious about their changing bodies, but also, increasingly, middle-age women whose self-esteem has been shaken by a down economy. Entering the job market at 50, after all, can be as scary as the first day of high school.

Indeed, a proposal in the Senate version of the healthcare bill to impose a 5 percent tax on cosmetic surgery was vociferously opposed not just by the nip-tuck industry, but by women’s groups who argued that Botox and liposuction are important tools to help them level the playing field with men.

Even the venerable National Organization for Women put a kind of feminist gloss on the right to self-mutilation. “The so-called Bo-tax targets women, plain and simple,’’ read NOW’s statement last month. Since women make up 91 percent of cosmetic surgery clients and earn less money than men overall, NOW argued that women would disproportionately bear the burden of the Bo-Tax. (The proposal was dropped in negotiations just before Christmas.)

To be fair, NOW stated that it was not endorsing cosmetic surgery and vowed to continue fighting unrealistic images of female beauty in society. But the underlying message that cosmetic surgery lets women control their own bodies is creepily reminiscent of what teenage girls often say to explain anorexia or other eating disorders: that it gives them a sense of control.

Meanwhile, the beauty industry continues to barrage women with images that are seductive yet unattainable. A 2007 study by the University of Missouri found that all women, regardless of weight, had a lower satisfaction with their own bodies after viewing fashion magazines for just three minutes.

A good antidote to this joyless quest is a short video produced in 2006 by the Dove soap company called “Evolution,’’ available on YouTube. In the film a pleasant but perfectly ordinary-looking woman named Stephanie Betts sits before a camera as time-lapse photography shows her being primped, preened, and processed into a billboard “beauty.’’ Even after all the professional makeup and hair styling, her image is further manipulated in the photo lab, where a computer stretches her neck, widens her eyes, lifts her brows, and hollows out her cheeks.

In other words, our culture’s notions of beauty are distorted because they actually are distorted. Even Giselle doesn’t really look like Giselle.

Now legislation has been proposed in France, of all places, to require labeling of fashion magazines, alerting readers that the photos have been electronically retouched. The idea is that fashion, like smoking, can be hazardous to your health, and requires a consumer warning. Predictably, le tout Paris is in an uproar over this idea, with the French fashion industry calling it naive and insulting to women, who willingly engage in a fantasy when they buy a style magazine.

No one is suggesting that warning labels alone will cure anorexia. And, just as with violent or misogynist movies and video games, censorship isn’t usually the answer. But the Dove film and its related campaign to inoculate young women from the perfection infection is edgy and anti-corporate and deserves wider distribution - even if it does help the company sell more soap.

Let’s hope that obsessing over body image doesn’t become a new bonding experience across the generations. It will only lead to more guilt and anxiety - the very emotions that erode self-esteem and send women chasing after ever more impossible goals in the first place. Instead, we could all try to understand that true happiness comes from being in harmony with conditions as they actually are. It’s the healthiest thing we can do in the New Year - if not for ourselves, for our daughters.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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