I’m Judging You – Why do We Want to Live up to the Ideal?

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf questions why women ‘react to the “ideal,” whatever form she takes at the moment, as if she were a non-negotiable commandment?’[1] The response is that conforming to the ideal yields social success. As psychologist Dr Merryl Bear writes, ‘a slender body is seen to bring all sorts of rewards: you can “shape your success” by shaping your body’.[2] There is a powerful cultural message that in order to be valued and loved, one must embody an almost physically impossible ideal. Women strive to attain such unreasonable standards owing to the moral imperative that is attributed to this aesthetic. They base their self-worth upon meeting this ideal, wanting to have and be everything that it symbolises.

This message is particularly true within fitness competitions where trophies are presented to the women who most adhere to the category requirements. The Bikini competitor who has successfully moulded her body in the federation’s image receives a multitude of awards. These can include modelling opportunities; free merchandise; sponsorship with supplement and clothing companies; and photoshoots to immortalise her perfect physique.

Competitors are not only rewarded in a physical and financial sense, but also benefit socially and psychologically. Women often step onstage in order to ‘combat low self-esteem or to gain validation’, one competitor remarking that since her show she has had ‘lots of positive compliments about [her] figure from friends, family and members of the opposite sex.’ Bikini champions also gain instant fame within the fitness world, which is reflected by a huge following on social media. This overnight popularity with its attendant Facebook requests and Instagram ‘likes’ subsequently leads to increased confidence and self-esteem.

The ideal image is thereby replicated since embodying the coveted bikini body provides the ultimate confidence boost. Yet this feeling is short lived since confidence derives from an unsustainable aesthetic. As muscle definition begins to disappear, confidence vanishes along with it.

[1] The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.59

[2] http://nedic.ca/exercise-physical-appearance-and-self-esteem-adolescenceExercise, Physical Appearance and Self-Esteem in Adolescence, Merryl Bear, M.Ed. (Psych) [accessed 13/01/15]

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