Body image through three generations

Body image through three generations

At 25 and living in 2010, pressure to conform to body-image standards regarding weight, skin color, size and shape are unavoidable. But when my grandmother was 25, she was getting food on the table and rebuilding after World War II. She wasn’t concerned if she had a tan.

There are two components to defining body image. It is the image a person perceives of her body as well as the image standard to compare herself to and emulate as closely as possible. It’s a term originating in the 1930s. Eating disorders are also included in some definitions, since they can be a direct result of skewed body perception. Having a positive view of oneself is essential for overall physical and mental health, but it is nothing that comes easy these days.

My grandmother, Barbara Bell, was 25 in 1951 and had one child, Deborah. (My Uncle Reed was born a year later and my father, Brad, the last of the three was born in 1956.)

“Everyone was too busy in those days to think about body image. The war had just ended, people were trying to keep things going,” said Grammy Bell.

When she was a senior at Westbrook Junior College (now University of New England – Westbrook Campus) in 1946, men were returning home from service. She wasn’t a skinny gal, but she never compared her shape to her classmates and friends. They were who they were and had bigger priorities, like getting a good dinner for their families on the table.

There were also no waifs in 1950. Stars of the day were pretty, had fuller figures and were more concerned with their careers than what they wore.

Vicky Bell, my mother, was 25 in 1981, and remembers two women who were the gold standard of beauty and body image that year: Meryl Streep and Christie Brinkley.

My mother had a similar experience 30 years after my grandmother with body image. She was fine with how she looked. It wasn’t important, she says – “It wasn’t even in my top 10 priorities.”

That changed when she met my father. “I was in love and wanted to look good,” she says.

She wasn’t particularly thin or heavy. She was more concerned about fitting in through her sense of humor and other personality traits than her looks. Her friends didn’t worry about body image, either. “Everybody’s different,” they all thought.

She only knew about eating disorders from working in the medical field.

“If it was prevalent, it wasn’t discussed. There was family shame associated with anorexia.”

She also noticed there was some shame, too, with heavier kids in school.

“They definitely seemed to have a harder time.”

And then there is me. Growing up with television, supermodels and magazine covers that scream body issue on every cover has its effect. I try to model myself after the positive women in my life, but feel the media’s pressure of striving for unattainable beauty standards and youth are constant and unyielding.

When thinking about body image, I had a much easier time coming up with the list of attributes that I should have (according to media pressure and suggestion) and the attributes I do have were all negative. While I think the pressure I put on myself has lessened as I reach my mid-20s and know myself better and care less about what people think, I will always feel less than perfect when it comes to my body image. My Irish skin will never be tan, my teeth never so white that they glow in the dark. These two body image traits are one of the many ideals pushed in 2010. Maybe it’s progress that I refuse to dye my hair or whittle myself down to a size 2, which would be impossible and unhealthy for my height and frame.

My mother and grandmother can’t help but feel the effects, as well. They are not 25, nor did they grow up with such body image pressure that I did. But they are living in a world where image is everything. Both agree that their body image is positive when they are healthy. Both women’s positive body image peaked after high school, before children.

“I was thinner and I could wear clothes better and feel better. I could wear things that look more like everyone else my age,” said Grammy Bell.

My mother agrees, “More emphasis has been put on body image today. Looking good means you will have a wonderful life. You won’t be happy if you’re fat or ugly.” Grammy Bell says that nowadays people have to be skinny or they are not accepted. Clothing distinguishes people. When she was in her mid-20s, that wasn’t the case. Women had smaller wardrobes and the only distinction was the introduction of women wearing pants in 1946.

My mother has seen the progression of body image, with the “Hollywood image” being pushed – “It’s a huge market that prays on people’s vanity and our consumer culture.”

When it comes to body image, my grandmother and mother’s generation had it right. In 2010 we are not in a world war, but with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, economic turmoil and the disaster in the Gulf coast, perhaps it is time to put our energy and focus on more important issues.

Grammy Bell with her daughter Deborah.Brad and Vicky Bell sharing their first Christmas as a married couple.

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