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Culture and Its Role in the Construction of Women's Body Image: Methodical Vs. Individualistic

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Culture and its Role in the Construction of Women's Body Image: Methodical vs. Individualistic

The definition of body image refers to an individual's subjective evaluation of her size, weight, or any other aspect of physical appearance; a highly personalized experience (Linda Ridge Wolszon 546). The modern West places great emphasis on individualism, which claims human existence as separate from society, stressing both self-interest and human rights. Current research concerning body image is combined with individualist ideology that leads to confusion and dilemmas. After conducting research on this topic of body image, I argue that a hermeneutic, or methodological principle of interpretation, should be taken which can help us distinguish the relationship of the individual to culture, which in turn will help clarify the cultural and ethical aspects of women's struggles with body image.

Within the past ten years, the rise of eating disorders has gotten more public attention. This spark increased scientific research geared toward explaining and responding to this disaster. It is now widely recognized that body image dissatisfaction, broadly defined as strong negative feelings about the body, are persistent among women, especially concerning weight and dieting. Merely being a women in our society means feeling too fat (Wolszon 542). Survey data indicate that three fourths of normal weight women in the United States feel fat, more than half of adult women in the United States are on a diet, and on study showed that nearly 80% of fourth grade girls are watching their weight (Shelly Levitt 64).

At first glance, it appears that body image researchers have not just focused on the individual. Nearly every researcher in this field acknowledges the essential role that cultural norms for appearance play in the development of one's body image. They have even gone as far as recognizing the gender differences in appearance norms in our culture. Men are held to a standard of a moderate, muscular built that generally matches the size and shape of the average man, but women are compared to a cultural ideal that has thinned beyond belief (Wolszon 545). The Miss America contestants have become so thin that most are fifteen percent below their recommended weight for their height, a symptom of anorexia (Levitt 64). The fact is, most women cannot measure up to this ideal, which is thought to be the central reason why a majority of women feel dissatisfaction with their current body size and shape-a dissatisfaction that has been linked to lower self-esteem, depression, and increased risk of eating disorders (John Kilbourne 402).

In spite of this attention to culture, this research still has an individualistic bias. For example, on one hand researchers see the influence of culture on body image dissatisfaction, but on the other, they tell women to reject and separate themselves from the current cultural norms! How can we be so surrounded by culture and yet be able to detach ourselves from it? An example is given by Fallon, a leading researcher in this area:

"Against the backdrop of cultural ideals, each individual must make assessments

about his/her own attributes. The extent to which perceptions of self and cultural

ideals are discordant strongly influences the body image and self-concept.

Furthermore, one's motivation to reject and alter one's feature is a function of the

societal pressure one feels to place one's body in line with cultural ideals" (Wolszon 547).

Her conclusion doesn't emphasize the cultural context as much as it maintains a strong focus on individual self-portrayal. Another question then arises: If we are able to reject social norms, how did we allow ourselves to be victimized by them in the first place? The explanations only make sense if one has already assumed individualism's outlook and its lack of relationships with social norms.

Some psychologists and critics think that many of our worst problems as individuals and as a society are linked to excesses of individualism. Wolszon cautioned that the freedom and autonomy cherished by Americans are not without threat: "Freedom and autonomy leave people vulnerable to feelings of alienation and narcissistic self-absorption and tempt them to pursue narrow self-interests." Others believe that individualism helps create the self's sense of emptiness, alienation, and meaninglessness; the modern "empty self" suffers from low self-esteem, values confusion, eating disorders, drug abuse, and consumerism (Paul Cushman 601). Taking these criticisms into account, how can we help women overcome a sense of inadequacy to measure up to today's standards of beauty and thinness without telling them to be cut off from culture? Well, it is obvious that this question cannot be answered from an individualistic standpoint. I believe that hermeneutic principles will help us understand this sense of historical and social character of human identity.

One claim of hermeneutic thinkers is that humans are self-interpreting beings. This means that they understand themselves through an ongoing process of interpretation, experience, and reinterpretation (Wolszon 551). Another important part of this theory is that hermeneutics emphasizes the central role of culture, history, and tradition in the process of defining human identity. In contrast to individualism's detached self, hermeneutic philosophy maintains that we are thrown into cultural and social contexts that provide the necessary conditions for realizing an identity (Wolszon 551). Thus, identity is somewhat a discursive achievement. "It is largely through discourse that we achieve the sense of individuated selves with particular attributes and self-referential capacities" (Kenneth Gergen 9). We know and understand ourselves only through conversations with our past, present, and future objects (Cushman 609). With the discursive construction of identity discussed, there are significant ways in which identity is established through narrative.

Gergen explains that through narration, we not only achieve identity, but also "the narrative forms themselves are a chief means of self-portrayal." In other words, how we tell stories portrays a lot about the individual telling the story. Wolszon also agrees with this concept: "...finding oneself means, among other things, finding the story or narrative in terms of which one's life makes sense." One's

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