“I know why I have the scars that I do, and the bottom line is that I need them to exist”: Cancer treatment and women’s body image

The month of October is a time when charities, individuals, brands and businesses in the UK raise awareness of diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in the UK, and in any one month around 5000 women will be diagnosed with the disease (Breast Cancer Care, 2018). Surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy are used to treat women affected, and cancer survival has doubled in the last 40 years (Cancer Research UK, 2018).  
Procedures and therapies impact on women’s bodies physically and emotionally as they experience the changes caused by the disease and treatments.Women might find it difficult to come to terms with a body that differs from idealised media images, and previous work on women’s body image and well-being after cancer treatment has focussed mostly on the negative impacts (e.g. Baucom, Porter&Kirby, 2006). To understand more fully women’s experiences of cancer treatment and body image from their own per…

Traditional media disclaimer labels are ineffective at improving women’s body image; But what about social media disclaimers?

Whether you are reading a magazine, scrolling through social media, or just walking past shop fronts or advertisements, it is likely that you will come across glamorous images of thin women living a seemingly perfect lifestyle. These images generally promote a very narrow beauty ideal that is unattainable for most women. These images are also often edited, using appearance-enhancing lighting and photo editing filters, apps, and programs. Thus, the beauty ideal being promoted in these images is not real or achievable.

Decades of research suggests that looking at these idealised images can make women feel bad about their body and increase negative mood (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008), particularly for women who are already highly concerned about their body. This may be because women compare their own appearance to the women in the images and judge themselves to be less attractive and/or because these images encourage women to internalise the societal beauty ideal.
Government bodies and p…

Who is at high risk of body dissatisfaction?

Do you feel dissatisfied with one or more parts of your body or appearance? If so, you are not alone. In fact, body dissatisfaction is so widespread that it has been given the label of normative discontent. Although girls and women are most affected by body image issues, boys and men are increasingly dissatisfied with their body. Negative feelings about our bodies are therefore common, which is a problem in itself and raises important questions about why this is so prevalent across society. However, for some people, normative discontent turns into abnormal preoccupation. By abnormal, I mean negative beliefs, thoughts, and behaviour that affect the ability to function on a daily basis, significantly reduce quality of life, and increase the risk of early mortality.
As with most things in life, body dissatisfaction exists on a continuum, so who is most likely to be on the high end of the scale? Unsurprisingly, people who receive negative comments about their appearance are more likely to …

The Demandingness of Youth for Women: Why Women Are Most ‘Desirable’ at 18 and Men at 50

In a recent study, researchers Bruch and Newman (2018: 1-6) investigated the ‘desirability’ of both male and female online dating users. Bruch and Newman determined, through analysing over 200,000 messages between online dating users, that women’s sexual desirability is at its highest at age 18 whilst men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50. After these two ages, desirability declines for both groups. Why is this the case? One explanation offered by Bruch and Newman is that desirability varies with educational level (Bruch and Newman 2018: 2). For instance, highly educated men are perceived by women to be highly desirable. However, the same is not true of women. According to the study, women are most attractive to men when they are educated to undergraduate level, but their desirability decreases as they reach postgraduate levels of study (Bruch and Newman 2018: 2).
This research has sparked a considerable amount of debate, all seeking to answer why average desirability varies with …

#no excuses - Investigating acts of beauty

This post discusses beauty as an ethical ideal as defined by Heather Widdows in her book Perfect Me: Beauty As An Ethical Ideal, particularly focusing on the actions required to meet that ideal, and what happens when you are prevented from doing them. Before going into my argument, I want to clarify that this post does not wish to criticise people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who engage in beautifying behaviours; none of us are really free from beauty as an ethical ideal, including the author, so it would be wrong to condemn anyone who takes part in it. Part of the complexity of beauty is that these practices can genuinely be tools for bonding, self-expression and empowerment; to totally denounce them would be nonsensical. The aim instead is to consider how some of these behaviours support the concept of beauty as an ethical ideal. 

Beauty as an ethical ideal involves actions – meaningful pursuits towards a goal. These can include: ‘maintenance’ or routine behaviours to ensur…

'Strong, thick and shiny’: a story of hair and beauty ideals

‘Will you please put a comb through your hair? You look like a madwoman’. This admonition from my mother, which echoed through my teen age years with troubling regularity, was delivered in a tone filled with exasperation and incredulity. That an otherwise seemingly reasonable young girl would want to pass as insane, was beyond her understanding.
But I get ahead of myself.
When my respectable, middle-class Bengali parents left India for Europe in the early 70’s, they packed a few essentials otherwise not found across the seven seas. These included some mundane items, such as a terrifying screaming pressure cooker and carefully folded silk saris guarded by moth-balls. But more importantly, they brought with them the norms, standards and traditions from the motherland, deemed particularly scarce and inadequate in the West.
Strange rites
As a child, it struck me that in our house, the norms around hair (among many others) were different and quirky. I grew up in a small town with very few n…

Have a better relationship with your body

[This piece was originally published in Healthy magazine]

We’re encouraged to think of ‘looking good’ as a moral imperative - if you don’t have a great body then there’s a sense that you must have let yourself go (Widdows, 2018). While appearance is key to how we present ourselves to the world, most of us are unnecessarily self critical and our relationships with our bodies suffer as a result.
There are a number of issues at play here, primarily our urge to measure ourselves against others (social comparison theory). While some measures such as academic achievements are objective – qualifications prove what you can do – comparing appearance is subjective, and difficult to get into proportion. This works in tandem with self-discrepancy theory, which suggests we have three views of the self: the actual, the ideal – what we aspire to look like - and the ought – what we think we ought to look like. Evidence shows that our view of the ‘actual’ self is distorted by the other two views, which…