First published on Friday the 28th of July, 2017, this piece comes in at number 11 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2017.
We need to talk about young women and mental health.
But you already knew that. So, too, do the people behind “In My Mind,” a four-part documentary series exploring the issue of the mental health of women in Aotearoa.
Directed by four Kiwi women directors, each episode has a difference focus, including social media addiction, the challenges of motherhood, body image and burnout, as well as tips and tricks to navigate an ever-more-stressful world.
For the “Body” episode of the series (debuting on July 30 on TVNZ 1), we spoke with director Emma Calveley and radio and television personality Megan Annear, who appears in the episode, about the effects body pressure has on women, societal messaging around women’s appearances, and more.
Villainesse: What kind of impact do you think restrictive ideas about our bodies – what’s “hot,” what’s not, what’s “unhealthy,” etc. – have upon young women?
Megan Annear: I mean I think the answer is in the question. It restricts them. It makes them feel that they can’t become the person they want to be until they are the size they “have” to be. If you are told to wait until you are pretty enough, thin enough, sexy enough, you will never, ever reach your full potential. It’s the same for very naturally thin young women who are told they have to have breasts a certain size, and a butt that is round and full. Nobody will ever be “enough” according the standards that are thrown at them via social media. It’s all just what’s in vogue at the time anyway – in the “Twiggy” era women had to be as thin as possible, and the new “Kardashian” era we are in you have to have full thick lips, big boobs, but a six-pack, with a big bum, but thin legs. When I was younger, thin eyebrows were in for Pete’s sake! The thinner the eyebrows the better! Now you’re bullied if your eyebrows aren’t lush enough. You can’t win.
Emma Calveley: It can have a big impact. Unfortunately, we have a narrow view of what we should look like… and most of us don’t meet that ideal. What's happening with the current focus on “clean eating” has demonised and glorified different foods... and now the crazy thing that’s happened is the attachment of self-value to the foods you put in your mouth. For example, if you eat chocolate or ice cream then you are bad, and if you eat broccoli you’re good. This is a crazy and harmful way to think about food. It fosters obsession.
Why do you think society puts so much pressure on women to be thin?
Megan: We live in a world of abundance – ridiculous food is everywhere, you can’t scroll down Facebook without finding a video telling you how to create a new exorbitant snack or read an article about the new cafe that’s opening where they cover everything in cheese. I think that people have attached the words “lazy,” “no self-control” and “greedy” to people who are plus-size, and the words “strong-willed,” “powerful” and “controlled” to thin people, when it’s just not true. Women are so expected to be sexual creatures of desire – like we were born just to be pleasing to the eye. It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. Yet every single day that is the message that media and social media sends out. That thin equals beautiful and beautiful equals a woman’s purpose.
Emma: We want to be thin, because we feel we need to be sexually attractive, and marketing has done a great job of telling us you can only be attractive if you are thin. If you are attractive, the myth goes, you will be successful, happy and have a good life. The pressure is on because gym memberships, clothes, diets, supplements and magazines are sold this way.
Even when we are aware of societal messaging around women’s appearances, we are not immune to it. Why do you think these messages are so insidious?
Megan: I once went to a hypnotist. And he told me that if you tell yourself something enough, the brain learns it as truth. Imagine what would happen if your brain was told the subliminal message “you are worthless unless you are beautiful and thin” thousands of times a day, for years and years on end. Of course, it’s going to be hard to think anything other than that. You can tell yourself on a good day, I feel great, I look great, I am great – but it can’t compete with the opposite message being screamed at you left right and centre everywhere you look. Billboards, magazines, the internet, Instagram, Twitter, movies, TV programmes, even overhearing two women in the supermarket line talking about how “fat” they feel and how everything would be better if they “lost 10 kgs.” It's hard work loving yourself, despite what you are being told. It takes patience, and willpower and a hell of a lot of time to override the undertone you have been hearing all your life.
Emma: We are social beings that need love and acceptance to survive. If we don’t look the part we won’t be included.
What do you hope viewers take away from this episode?
Emma: Most women tell themselves they are not good enough every day, so we want these viewers to recognise that they’re not the only one, and to realise they can become more aware of their self-talk and change it.
I hope viewers watching would be less judgmental of each other. We will explore stigma and bullying, because people who are fat are among the most stigmatised and judged groups in society.
Megan: Hopefully after watching it, for the rest of the day women will catch themselves when they start having bad internal dialogue. Hopefully it will stop them in their tracks when they are picking apart their bodies in the mirror. Hopefully it will cause them to look at themselves in a better, brighter light.
What’s the importance to you of being involved in this series?
Emma: This personally affects me. I come from a family of women who all have had eating disorders. I’ve experienced mental distress over my body, and know how intense this can be. I believe if we can have positive feelings about our bodies then we can move on and focus our mental energy on more productive, positive or creative stuff.
I also have a three-year-old girl, and I want to ensure her mental wellness.
Megan: I am lucky enough to work in my dream job of media. I’m a radio announcer and TV presenter on one of the biggest stations in NZ for women aged 25-44. You have to use the platform you are given for good, and to me that’s a given. It’s such a privilege to have this job, and I know when I was in my teens I needed someone to step up and speak out for me. I so desperately wanted somebody to show that I didn’t have to lose weight to be on television, or be blindingly beautiful to be a personality. There were a few standout women, but we always need more. So I knew that I needed to try and spread positivity as much as I could. I jumped at the chance to be involved when I found out what the documentary was hoping to show and teach.
We’ve heard a lot about the dangers of “thinspo,” and now we’re hearing that “fitspo” can be equally damaging, particularly with the rise of fitness bloggers on social media sites like Instagram. But “fitspo” is often sold to us as empowering. When does wanting to be fit become a problem?
Megan: I think anything becomes a problem when it turns from a hobby to an obsession. If your mind is constantly on the subject, if it causes you to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for eating a few calories over your goal, if it makes you feel sick with anxiety knowing that you might miss a session, if you find yourself consistently turning down friends and family to exercise over socialising, I think [then] it can become concerning. Fitspo can be very addictive, and shaming if you don’t get the unobtainable results you desire.
Emma: Being fit is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. If you are an obsessive person though with body image concerns, it’s important to keep the focus on health and fitness rather than achieving a certain body. Personally, I try and set goals around improving my posture, strength, flexibility and heart and lung power ... the stuff that’s going to help me have a long and healthy life. I like to remind myself not to compare my body to others. We’re all so different.
Do you think things are getting better for women in terms of the pressure to be thin?
Emma: It’s getting worse. We’re given too many things to think about and obsess over. For instance, coconut oil was touted a “superfood” last year, but this month it’s deemed bad because of the saturated fat content... but saturated fat isn’t bad... and so it’s all too confusing.
Megan: Yes and no. There has been a serious rise in body positive accounts and blogs online which are hugely helpful. But we are still outnumbered by the thousands when it comes to accounts that glorify being thin. I think there is a slow and steady pushback against the pressure to be perfect.
On the flip side, women who are very thin can also experience shaming. When it comes to women’s bodies, are they “damned if they do, damned if they don’t?”
Megan: Absolutely. I despise it if someone says something along the lines of “real women have curves” as a means to compliment me. Are you serious? My best girlfriends are all quite considerably naturally thinner than me, and they are incredible, smart, powerful WOMEN. A compliment to me is not a compliment if you are bringing down another woman because of it. Same with “men love girls with a bit of meat on their bones anyway.” I couldn’t care less what men want from my figure or not. I’m not here for that, I’m not alive for that purpose. There just needs to be an end to the constant pressure of people telling us what we can do with our bodies and how they should look, period.
Emma: Yes, some women are naturally thin. Why is it anyone’s business to point out and judge? We need to stop discriminating by people’s body size.
What are some things all of us can do to fight against patriarchal notions of beauty and views about women’s bodies?
Megan: I think it’s important to watch what we say to each other and about ourselves in front of young girls. There is such a focus on saying that a young girl looks “very pretty” with “pretty hair” and a “lovely outfit.” It’s taught into us at so young an age that if we don’t have our looks, we don’t have anything. I think if we make sure we are speaking kindly about each other in front of them, and actively thinking of other ways to compliment girls – “you’re very smart to know that word” or “you’re such a great singer” or “you are very kind to your peers” – maybe we can help the next generation to have more self-confidence in who they are, more so than what they look like.
Emma: We can embrace our own bodies, health and beauty at every size. We can encourage people to compliment our kids not on how they look, but the efforts they put into what they’re doing.
What does the word “feminism” mean to you?
Emma: It means gender equality. It means women being treated with respect.
Megan: Equality. That’s it in a nutshell really isn’t it? Just to be equal to my fellow man. To walk into a meeting and be given the same respect as my male college, to walk alone at night and not feel my heart race in my chest, to do the same job for the same hours and be paid the same, to not be treated as a sexual object first and a human being second.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Megan: Of course. I honestly think there is a lot of misunderstanding around the word unfortunately. It has this awful connotation that it means “to be better than men,” and that’s not the case. I’d be very surprised and sad that if people knew the true meaning of the word, that women just want the same rights that men already have, and then they still didn’t call themselves a proud feminist. To me it’s common sense.
Emma: Yes, because I believe there should be gender equality.
The “Body” episode of the “In My Mind” documentary series airs at 8.30am on Sunday, July 30 on TVNZ 1. You can watch a trailer here.Support Villainesse