A common belief among many people is that feminists have reached their goals and women have achieved equality. However, a sensible view of things reveals that the society is tangled in preconceived notions about gender. Currently, the previous issues are not solved while the new ones are added. For example, women are allowed to work and participate in social and political activities but they are still expected to look their best and spend much time grooming. Thus, women have a double load, and the number of issues they need to conform to has increased. Both experts and laypeople are concerned with these issues. American feminist Katha Pollitt wrote an essay for the New York Times called Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls where she points out existing incongruences between what is preached and expected from children and what social patterns they observe. In a similar fashion, Susan Bordo contemplates in her article Never Just Pictures: Bodies and Fantasies a schizophrenic divide between a pleasure culture of pampering and rewarding with tasty food and the harsh demands to stay thin. Thus, mass media and culture act as formative agents and affect people’s self-perception to a great extent. Hence, societal norms and mass media predetermine people’s perceptions about themselves and society because cultural influence is strong.
In Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls, Pollitt argues that despite all feminist achievements, society still relies on sex roles greatly. Even though people know that they should not predetermine their children’s preferences by giving them gendered toys such as dolls for girls and trucks for boys, children are clever enough to pick up non-verbal signals. The society still expects that women should take care of their children and household while men should do some ‘manly’ business such as fishing, hunting, and making money. Pollitt says that often people choose a path of least resistance because it is easier. She illustrates it with an example of an exhausted mother coming from work and picking up socks and clothes after her son simply because it is too much for her right now to demand from the boy to do it himself. Therefore, parents themselves hardwire their children to follow prescribed sex roles because the culture has not changed enough. However, Pollitt points out that the situation is slowly changing. Whereas children were confident that “doctors are male and nurses female,” the next generation of children will assign roles differently because now the number of female doctors and male nurses is increasing (Pollitt).
Bordo picks another angle of mass culture and gender issues. In Never Just Pictures: Bodies and Fantasies, Bordo argues that women are forced into complying with a ‘perfect body image’ of slim, forever young bodies. As a result, they develop a range of health problems connected with their body image such as bulimia, anorexia, hysteria, and agoraphobia, among others. They are all connected to a never-ending fear of being fat, which became a culturally accepted phenomenon. Bordo says, “If this is a disorder, it is one that has become a norm of cultural perception” (Bordo). She does not agree to blame only mass media and rail-thin models. The problem is complex and multilayered but it is determined by “not only with new social expectations of women and ambivalence toward their bodies but also with more general anxieties about the body as the source of hungers, needs, and physical vulnerabilities not within our control” (Bordo). The author claims that the reason for such an ambivalent relation to one’s body stems from a desire to control people’s lives. The world’s complexity is growing and overwhelming people. When people cannot control all aspects of one’s life, they want to control at least at something and often this ‘something’ is one’s body as the realest and most earthly thing around.
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Even the most intellectually advanced and forward-minded people are influenced by society to some extent. That is the reason Pollitt says that even those parents who expect their children to live in an equal world “tentatively … embrace [the feminist revolution]” (Pollitt). For example, when it comes to children not only parental influence counts. Even not taking into account grandparents with their sets of values, children are bombarded by advertising messages and can annoy and irritate their parents demanding a new gendered toy because they saw it in a commercial. Similarly, parents cannot reject Barbie altogether because beauty and style matter in the society. Children would not simply believe their parents if they state otherwise. Thus, parents find themselves trapped in societal constraints.
In terms of body image, Bordo also points out inconsistencies, saying “consumer culture … is continually encouraging us to binge on our desires at the same time as it glamorizes self-discipline and scorns fat as a symbol of laziness and lack of willpower”. Should women deviate from the society-induced norm of the waif-skeletal frame, they are bombarded with shaming messages. At this point, fat-shaming culture became internalized and many women believe it is their words that whisper ‘you are fat, no one will love you like that.’ Furthermore, there is another trap prepared for women. Instead of unhealthy strive to always have a thin body, American culture introduces ‘the athletic body’ disguised as the healthiest one. However, it is an opposite direction of the unhealthy body’s continuum because keeping the body always fit and beautifully contoured demands an absence of fat plus extensive training sessions. As a result, there is an enormous pressure to stay fit and thin. Thus, again women are led to believe that there is something wrong with them or with their bodies and they live according to the ideas taken from mass culture and mass media.
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Both articles are similar in showing the detrimental influences of the society and mass culture. However, they are different in how those influences work. Whereas in reference to gender roles societal influence keeps people from living according to their beliefs, making them comply with culture norms that take the time to change, body image is largely shaped by mass media, and societal influences dictate people how they should look like.
However, as a counterargument, individuals are free to do whatever they like and no one can make them do the contrary. It is true that people live in the society with many freedoms and they indeed believe that they are free in their choices. Meanwhile, the influence of an individual’s immediate surrounding should not be underestimated. People are social beings and they cannot zone out and separate themselves completely from other people and their opinions. Especially it concerns parents and children. However, for women and their bodies it is also a valid point because people live with their bodies every day and it is impossible to pretend that they do not exist and do not affect people’s well-being. As Bordo states, “Eating disorders are overdetermined in this culture.” Therefore, it is unwise to pretend that people are free beings making free choices. People’s choices are largely influenced by everything from their background and parental care to their health condition and what they had for breakfast.
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On the one hand, people should not underestimate the impact of culture; on the other hand, there are definite changes in some spheres. Mass media are still a very powerful influence and the changes needed should cover a wide range of issues such as confidence in the future and expectations about gender roles. Whereas the issue of gender looks more promising because fewer people are concerned about gendered occupations and develop a wider outlook, the issue of body image is intended to stay for a long time as no changes are observed and people continue to place too much importance on appearance and physical fitness.