Faced with the unattainable beauty standards promoted by the entertainment and advertising industries, many women have become unhappy with the way they look. They are constantly dieting and trying to alter one part of their body or another. But there is a growing movement to encourage women to accept their bodies as they are and to look beyond the commercial definitions of beauty.
In her new one-woman play, The Good Body, Eve Ensler portrays female characters of different shapes, colors and cultural backgrounds. Each is based on a real woman the feminist playwright met and talked to as she traveled the world. She says wherever she goes, she finds there is an image of beauty that women feel compelled to conform to.
"For example, you can go to tribes in Africa where they have fattening rituals for brides," she says. "And you come to Los Angeles and you have to be a certain kind of skinny. Then you go to Iran where women are having nose jobs so their noses don't look Iranian. I spent a lot of time in Istanbul, where women are obsessed with getting rid of their [body] hair. They do tons of sugar waxing. They spend their lives just ripping off their hair."
Ensler says the global reach of Western media -- movies, television and magazines -- is changing the concept of 'what's beautiful.' "For example, in India, younger women now are obsessed of being skinny," she says. "It's beginning to happen everywhere in the world. Eating disorders are on the rise in China. They did this poll in Bali where after [the American TV show] '90210' had been on TV for a few months, eating disorders tripled."
In the United States, girls as young as 12 or 13 are trying to remake themselves, according to Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest. "By the seventh grade, half the girls are already saying that they don't like the way they look," she says. "The majority, now, are dieting, using food substitutes in order to lose weight. We see young girls going to extreme measures, using laxatives, or vomiting, or using dieting pills."
Gold medal gymnast Dominique Dawes says most of those girls do not need to lose weight at all. "I found through research that between 50 and 70 percent of young girls who describe themselves as overweight are actually of normal weight," she says.
However, many girls feel pressured to look a certain way. "That's a problem, when a young girl is looking in the mirror she's seeing a distorted image," Dawes says. "That's because of this narrow definition of beauty that's portrayed daily, constantly, on television. She is not seeing the beauty and the strength that we may see."
The former Olympian is now spokesperson for Uniquely Me, a program co-sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America to boost girls' self-esteem and help them feel good about themselves. "I've spoken to many young girls and it's very obvious when a girl has a self-esteem problem," she says. "She doesn't want to challenge herself. She's okay with being the spectator because she's afraid of what people may say or think about her if she does not live up to winning or certain standards of achievement."
Self-esteem expert Nancy Etcoff says parents, especially mothers, can help their daughters find their real beauty. "One is to be a role model," she says. "Mothers have to show their girls that they have confidence in themselves, that they see the beauty in their daughter, that they are not following the stereotypes of beauty themselves. So women have to really do some self-examination here. How have these media influences impacted them? What support would they have liked as a young girl from their mother?"
Playwright Eve Ensler agrees. She says every woman has the right to develop her own concept of beauty, and it all starts in the family. "If you live with a mother who hates her body, you will absolutely hate your body," she says. "If you live with a mother who says to you every minute, 'If you're skinny, every thing will work out with you,' you'll be skinny and obsessed with being skinny. It only takes two sentences. You only need to say it twice or maybe even once and girls get it. So part of it is how mothers and fathers pass on a different idea of beauty, a different idea of what women are worth, and how women are evaluated, not based on their skinniness or fullness, but based on their intelligence, their heart, their spirit, their ability to take risks and be bold."
If women don't respect their bodies and accept themselves the way they are, Ensler says, they're wasting their resources and missing out on more important goals in life. Instead of fixing their bodies, she suggests, women should start to work on fixing their communities and the whole world.