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Women (and Men) Increasingly Hate Their Bodies -- A New Movement Wants to Change That

Everyone knows poor body image is a problem. A new movement wants to stop talking about it and do something to actually change our culture.

Dangerous diets and detoxes, airbrushing anxiety and celebrities under scrutiny, shady plastic surgeons, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression are all linked in a culture that causes women to feel shame about their bodies. And thanks to global media and an increasing worldwide lens on appearances, this kind of shame and sickness in different but related forms, has spread far beyond the western world to women around the globe, and to men as well.

Most everyone who has stood in front of a mirror and compared the reflection there to an impossible ideal acknowledges this is a problem. But for many, just identifiying the problem and talking about it is no longer enough. Women around the world want to stop hating their bodies, but they’re up against a cultural behemoth, led by a beauty, plastic surgery, diet and fashion industry--not to mention secular and religious patriarchal authorities that are invested in shaming women, and it’s not exactly easy. So how to move from consciousness-raising to movement building?

The leaders at the  Women’s Therapy Center Institute, a prestigious group founded in the late 70s and early 80s in New York and London, had long had this concern. As therapists, scholars and teachers, the women in this group had been focused on psychology and healing of women, but they also sought opportunities to fight fight back against the overarching social pressures that affected the women they treat. 

They were thinking big when they started talking with  Courtney E. Martin, a writer and activist who has been at the forefront of this issue in recent years, and had also been seeking to move her body image work in a more action-oriented direction. As Martin wrote in her book “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” the process of plucking, primping, dieting, exercising, and striving to conform to beauty standards--and hating themselves when they inevitably do not (who can live up to perfection itself?)--sucks up much of women’s time and energy that could be used to affect positive change for themselves and others. “It becomes difficult to take actual action against a culture that is so toxic for women and girls,” she says, explaining why she was eager to find ways for women to channel their “pain into activism.”

With so many leaders thinking the same thing, the idea for an international series of summits at which participants could " take back their bodies" took solid form. Convened by the WTCI and called “Endangered Species Women,” the concept behind the movement was that women who aren’t affected by negative body image stereotyping are becoming rare, even endangered. Throughout March, the summits have been and will be held in New York, London, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne.

“They all have their own flavor,” says Martin of the international conferences. “Our hope is to sort of harvest as many good ideas as we can, put our fingers on the pulse that comes out of the different conferences, and then come together to create an international campaign.” The conference in New York this past weekend had mainstream and feminist representatives like “Fat is a Feminist Issue” author Suzie Orbach and plus-size model Emme. The panels also included men speaking about their role in the movement and representatives from Dove beauty company and Glamour magazine.  In London, the speaker list was equally impressive. Emma Thompson even  filmed a statement of support. Topics on the table included everything from critiquing the media to critiquing the healthy living movement’s claim to morality, to interrogating male roles as allies and as sufferers of eating disorders, to globalization and its effect on women’s bodies, art, fat activism and so much more.

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