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America’s Perfect Body Syndrome
By T Pope

"I just want to look like a model. I wish my thighs would shrink," said my 20-something gym partner as we sweated on the Stairmaster. The words echo in my ears. She is a cute, fun-loving girl (who doesn’t have big hips) and who aspires to look like the next Kate Moss.

Why do young women put themselves through the body beat-up agony? I hear young girls "ooh" and "ahh" over the Millenium’s top teen pop stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Their blonde manes flipping around the stage, flat stomachs pierced and tattooed, and belting out seductive, sexy songs about love lost. These female pop singers are the role models that are shaping the body images and the minds of young women today. They scrutinize butts, hips, thighs, stomachs, and cellulite and in the process, they forget who they are beyond the flesh.

My curiosity about young women’s body images began when I read Reviving Ophelia in college. It opened my eyes to the hellish nightmare that adolescent women have endured over the years regarding their body image. The book described the gamut of disorders ranging from anorexia/bulimia to young women cutting their own flesh. Why are these disorders happening?

I've read online teen message boards and I was shocked to find questions from young girls asking each other about weight issues. The consensus of young girls (ranging in ages from twelve to fourteen) agreed that a five-foot teen female weighing 119 pounds was considered "fat". I admit asking my mom if my plaid Catholic school uniform skirt made my butt look big, but this is ridiculous. What compels young women to feel and think this way and whom do we blame?

Young women are overstimulated. They are technologically raped and bombarded with the "perfect" body image syndrome. Let’s take a look at television: Reality television shows such as Joe Millionaire and The Bachelorette and MTV’s The Real World show young, nubile, anorexic-looking women prancing around luxurious homes in unrealistic, fairy-tale Princess scenarios surrounded by studly, well-muscled Fabio-wannabes. Hmm, maybe if my body looks like her I can be on Joe Millionaire and maybe Ethan will pick me and make me his wife. Get real! Then we have the Internet where information about female teen idols, beauty, and fashion can be instantaneously found with just a click of the button. Young women drive down the street and see advertisements on billboards for The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, featuring waif-like models with boyish, coat-rack-thin bodies. Products are marketed to young girls—buy this lipstick and it will make your lips sexy like this year’s top fashion model. Buy this crop top and the boys will love how it shows off your flat, sexy midriff.

Messages targeted to young women via the electronic or print media scream "YOU MUST HAVE A PERFECT BODY!" I was appalled when I was flipping through a recent health and fitness magazine aimed at women: There was an article about how a woman struggled to overcome her body and weight problems. On the opposite page, there was an ad for a clothes designer with perfectly poised size 0 models staring vacantly. I was disappointed with the magazine. How do we, as women, break this fascination with the perfect body image? I don’t know if we can.

Over the years, American culture has disseminated dichotomous messages regarding the female body image. We had the flapper in the 20s with her taped down bosom to the curvaceous, sex pot Marilyn Monroe in the 50s to the anorexic Twiggy 70s look and back again to the anorexic look. The 80s and 90s brought an onslaught of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Even Jayne Fonda, fitness guru, admitted to the world that she was an anorexic and bulimic. To look beautiful means to be skinny and in the process starve yourself to death. These young women are influenced by what they see and learn by example—they watch the Real World, they buy fashion and music magazines, and they peruse the Internet. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of Body Beautiful America where 119 pounds is considered fat.

Therese Pope is a non-profiteer fundraiser by day and a freelance writer and poet by night. Her works have been published in various e-zines and literary anthologies. She is a yoga fiend with a penchant for writing with latte in hand. She resides in Sacramento, Calif. calwritergal@yahoo.com

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