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How The Pressures Put On Women's Bodies Impact Us All

Written By Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

It isn't news to anyone that there are a lot of difficult pressures on women's bodies. I don't think that there is enough conversation regarding how this impacts everyone. I believe that anyone with a body has been taught to hate it, regardless of gender. Often the criticism and objectification of bodies begins with women and then spreads to everyone else. This pain is compounded when people experience more than one marginalized identity (being a person of color, differently abled, LGBTQIA+, etc).

From a very young age we are taught to constantly scan our bodies for imperfections. Compare ourselves to models and celebrities. If you're a millennial like me, then you may have grown up watching shows and movies like America's Next Top Model and Bridget Jones' Diary, where the slightest change in weight was seen as unhealthy and unsightly.

Or maybe you were growing up reading magazines that were talking about "bouncing back" after the medical trauma of delivering a child. A perspective that is absolutely asinine and in no way based on medical science. Many people will say gaining weight is unhealthy, but base this on the weight itself and not factor in any other measure of health like blood work or mental stability.

So what is my point in all of this? We spend so much time worrying about every ounce gained, every inch of cellulite (which the vast majority of females have - infants included). When we spend all of our time and energy worrying about matters of weight and "perfect" bodies, it separates us from our intuition. We aren't listening to our hunger cues, the ways our body is struggling, our emotions, our fatigue and so forth. We're easier to turn into a consumer that way. If everything about your body is wrong, then there are numerous products that can be sold to you. If we're judging people based on their bodies, we're less likely to feel connected to them, which is a barrier to community. If we don't have community, then we need even more services and products because we can't rely on our community for those things. And if we're seeing one another as the enemy then we're not questioning those at the top.

Some people hear this message and misunderstand it to mean that we are arguing in favor of no longer eating nutrient rich food or that you shouldn't engage in regular movement. That is not the case at all. We absolutely need to eat foods that provide the appropriate vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. We also need regular moment for our minds and bodies to function as they should. I am only suggesting that we be more accepting and kind to one another, we become more critical of where our facts our coming from and tune into our bodies more. I am also asking that we look at the systemic impact of forcing women's bodies into boxes that we are not naturally meant for. Women's bodies are meant to expand, stretch, to loose elasticity, to age, to sag and to, in some instances, bear children. This is natural. We know this because it often happens (except childbirth) without us doing very much. What would it look like if we could learn to accept these things in women? What could that mean for everyone?

We're forcing women into standards that many times are standards that cis male bodies can meet naturally, but women's bodies can only meet under extreme and unnatural situations in most instances. What I think this means is that we're not actually loving and appreciating women and their bodies for what they are, but for how well they validate the cis male experience and satisfy the straight male gaze. All this pressure for something women are not naturally meant for. It is understandable that women would be utterly exhausted by this. I do believe there is a way to appreciate women's bodies that does not objectify them without consent.

We can have appreciation for what their bodies are capable of without judging them based on the aesthetic. We can provide women's bodies with the care, rest, self-care, nurturance and pleasure that they need. On a micro level this can look like watching a woman's kids to allow her a break, investing time money and energy on sexual education and personal sexual growth, listening to women's stories and experiences without labeling them as dramatic or sensitive, encouraging supporting women's self-care and self-exploration, believing (and protecting) women when they say they feel unsafe. On a Macro level this might look like more PTO, better maternity leave, better medical care (especially for Black women who have the highest maternal mortality rate), proper FMLA policies, media that does not objectify women's bodies and instead sees them as humans with original thoughts, careers, relationships and are worthy of basic human rights and much, much more. This barely scratches the surface of what can be done to better appreciate women. If you really want to know how to best support the women in your life, I encourage you to ask them.

Not only are women struggling with these difficult standards, men also have very unfair expectations put on their bodies. If women are expected to be feminine small and delicate, cis men are seen as the counterpart and are expected to be strong, tall, fit, a strong jawline and a have a full head of hair throughout their life. While men are not sexually objectified or put in compromising positions as often as women, they can still face unfair standards and struggle with their own self-image. If we're able to start unlearning the difficult standards for women then we also need to start unlearning the difficult standards for men. What if we keep going and let all people, regardless of their demographics, have their own unique experience without our judgment? Without us trying to put them in a box? Could we then have community in a new way? This can start with how we talk about bodies and can expand into allowing space for all people regardless of race, sex, gender, belief, etc to have rights.

A lot of this work can be done in our relationships. We can start having conversations and making different decisions in our interactions with those closest to us. We can stop making sexist jokes, we can stop judging the height and hair loss of men, we stop seeing others around us as strange enemies and view them as communities members that are just stuck in a different part of society's strange web. Regardless of gender, race, ability or experience.

As a therapist, I have the distinct honor of witnessing people grow. I can confidently tell you that on a weekly basis I see many people working hard to undo old ways of regarding women or men in stereotypical ways. I say this to let you know that even if you aren't witnessing this in your daily life with people closest to you, I can assure there are parts of this world that are doing the necessary work. If you are unlearning stereotypes and body shaming alone in your corner of the world, be encouraged that there are many others in the world that are with you in spirit.

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy, EMDR and couples intensives and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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