Wanting to live a 'normal-perfect' life is making women unhealthy
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These days, the health of a woman seems to be less about the absence of illness and more about being someone who works on their body and mind in order to meet modern society’s expectations of looks and abilities.This is not just a neat observation, but something we found while researching our new book, Postfeminism and Health. We analysed a range of research and media – including advice in self-help literature, government promotion of healthy weight, and the way surgeons and their patients talk about surgical technologies (such as genital cosmetic surgery). We also looked at how media and women make sense of sex, apps for pregnancy, baby milk advertisements, health promotion in developing countries, and online posts by those in fitness or pro-anorexia virtual communities. Across all of this we found health being linked to a desire to be normal – and the idea that a normal life should be perfect. Actions that women do to be healthy are often linked to a desire to be normal. Being “normal” means having a body that is not too fat or thin – and a mind that’s not too anxious or too carefree. We found, for example, that being normal underpinned many women’s decisions to undergo weight loss surgery. These women hoped that being normal would free them from stigma and criticism, and let them enjoy being a “good” person. This is just one way in which women are encouraged to think of their body as a problem that requires intervention to be normal. Following this logic, women’s bodies will always require work to be normal. This work is intensified by an understanding that living a perfect life is normal, too. Expecting everyday life to be optimal – what we called a “normal perfection” – puts exceptional pressure on women to do more work on their bodies and minds. Such is the pressure that, in today’s world, rarely can women experience being good enough. When we completed a magazine’s psychology questionnaire, deliberately getting the highest score, we were congratulated: “You are confident!” But we were also warned that we could not be too confident of our confidence: “Even those who are fairly confident often experience periods of self doubt. Or perhaps you feel confident in most areas, but still feel more nerves than you would like before a speech.” It seems that, today, women’s work on themselves is never done.
Confidence, empowerment and consumerismThe outcome of such constant self-scrutiny, self-critique and requirements to work on the self and the body is not good health – but anxiety and fear of failure.
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