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Gender, Body Image, and (M)TV

Hummingbird's picture

Last Friday (December 9th) I posted an opinion piece on the napkin notes and MTVu discussion that’s been happening in Erdman Dining Hall for the past few weeks. When I wrote it, I knew it would be public – that was part of the assignment for our class. However, I didn’t realize how quickly it would spread to be a topic of discussion. Even as we speak the MTVu situation is growing more and more complicated.

On Wednesday night (December 14th), I spent three hours talking to some friends about gender, class, and different appreciations for body types based on race and culture. I can’t possibly capture everything that was said, but one aspect that I felt was very important to our discussions of objectification and the television was who is criticizing the TV’s presence, and why. 

            One of my friends talked about how many of the videos were part of a hip-hop culture and that removing the TV would marginalize a number of students. She also argued that for some female artists, showing their bodies is a matter of pride. She brought up Jada Pinkett Smith, who posed nude for “Essence” magazine to teach her daughter about positive body image and self acceptance. Smith said, “"When I walked out there and disrobed, I felt like a queen. I felt like the world was mine. Like there was this power just emanating from my person. Like there was nothing I couldn't do."  ( I think my friend is right in saying that nudity can be embraced as a source of pride and power, but I would compare Smith’s photoshoot to the photo gallery now being hosted in Canaday Library, which is filled with nude photos of breast cancer survivors (“The Healing Image Project”). I think there’s a difference between the empowerment of Smith and breast cancer survivors, and the more sexualized images seen in some of the music videos shown on MTVu.

But this gets complicated by the very same woman I used in my last paper to demonstrate my point on objectification: Beyoncé.  In my last post I said, “Even Beyoncé – a strong female singer and pop star– resorted to displaying her body in her music videos. I felt as though that was her collateral […].” But maybe I was wrong. In her popular music video, “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé and her back-up dancers are wearing leotards. While talking to a group of BMC students, one asked, “How is this different from watching ballet?” And it’s true: ballerinas wear the very same outfits, but we don’t often hear criticisms of ballet involving its objectification – especially not from the average ballet viewer. This is not to say there isn’t some level of objectification involved in ballet – the high levels of eating disorders found in ballerinas are just one sign that there are still problems – however, ballerinas are less likely to be criticized for sexualization than Beyoncé might be. My friend explained that leotards are worn to display the athleticism of ballet and to better showcase the movements of the body in dance. Wasn’t Beyoncé just doing the same? Perhaps the intended audience is a reason why ballet is less criticized than MTV’s music videos. Ballet is aimed at an older, richer, whiter audience. Does that make it more acceptable to viewers than the videos shown on MTVu? And if so, how is this fair?

In addition to the different audiences, there are different body types in each of these situations. Though the common factor is leotards, the BMC student who asked about ballet observed that ballerina’s are usually “stick-thin,” while Beyoncé and her backup dancers have “curves.” Perhaps they’re therefore viewed as more sexualized because they lack the pre-pubescent (and more innocent) look that many ballerinas have in their thinness. This also brought our conversation around to Disney princesses. One of the BMC students said that though she may have grown up formulating a world view based on music videos, other young girls may have been watching princess movies – and weren’t those teaching the same thing? The princess (female) always requires a prince (male) to save her and they all follow a very similar body shape ideal.

This brought our conversation around to body image, which has always been an incredibly interesting, but also uncomfortable topic for me. I’ve personally never felt fully comfortable with the way I look. When I was in middle school, boys called me fat, though I’ve never been overweight and have always been considered healthy. My parents have also always pushed exercise and smaller helpings and my mother is very self critical, even though she’s always been thin and beautiful. When I told this to some of the other girls I was with, they were shocked. One girl, who described herself as curvy, said that she never felt pressured by the images in the media to be thin because she came from a Caribbean background and her family always embraced larger women. She said she moved to the States when she was five, so she always felt that she could be beautiful if she was skinny, or if she wasn’t because she had two different beauty standards to pick from.

After considering this, one student suggested that perhaps the objections to the television are coming from people whose cultures are less accepting of different body types. She said that the TV might be more objectionable because seeing these bodies makes some students feel more uncomfortable about their own figure. If this the case, I think we need to start looking a lot more closely at why it is students object to the TV’s presence and what that means for the student body as a whole. Every freshwoman at Bryn Mawr has to go to a session on body image and acceptance through their mandatory “Wellness” classes, but perhaps this session isn’t accomplishing everything we hope for it.

I no longer feel confident that removing the TV is our best option. I’m also torn because I’ve begun to more clearly see how objectification can be such a subjective topic and I don’t have a solution for consensus. I think the school’s best option right now is to host more discussions like the ones I’ve had with my friends – discussions which focus on sharing our experiences and thoughts on all these intersecting topics: gender, race, and class. Bryn Mawr is not a homogenous group and I think pushing on these tense topics can only help the student body and college grow as a whole.



Beyoncé image came directly from her "Single Ladies" music video on youtube.
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