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Love Your Body Day: A Woman's Body Politic

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I have noticed, over the years, that the men who make jokes about feminism tend to be the men who stare down your shirt. There is pressure to laugh back. Somehow it's supposed to be funny to agree with equality for women, much less treat women with respect. And as much as he thinks it's all about him, he's hardly unique. Magazine editors appear to agree. Men go on covers for their achievements and leadership lessons, women for their looks and diet secrets.

Today is Love Your Body Day, and I can't help but think of the myriad issues surrounding body image -- less than five percent of women naturally possess the body portrayed as ideal in advertisements, 50 percent of three to six year old girls are afraid of being fat, Dr. Pepper just created a 10-calorie diet soft drink for men that is 10 calories too many for women (so serious as to require a sex-segregated Facebook page) -- dismissed as "fluff," "vanity," or "boring."

So much of what continues to hold women back politically are those invisible fences installed in each of us, zapping us whenever we pass yet another billboard with airbrushed and "super sexy" body parts; magazine covers with hair straightened by formaldehyde (several major health problems later, and the FDA has declared certain treatments potentially hazardous); and facial features, breasts and other body parts made possible by toxic injection and major surgery. We are not beautiful as we are, we are told, and for that we should feel shame.

This May, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), shared the following on Twitter:

I'm tired of looking and feeling fat. Maybe talking about it more publicly will keep me on track as I try to be more disciplined. Off to the gym.

I can't say this more clearly: Senator McCaskill is a woman of incredible accomplishment. Out of 100 senators, she is one of only 17 women. McCaskill is part of a trailblazing generation of women participating in public life against all odds. Currently 90 nations have better representation of women in politics than the United States. And, contrary to some immediate reactions in the press, she is anything but shallow for expressing that she feels bad about her body. She's normal.

Eighty percent of fourth grade girls have been on a fad diet. As many as 10 million women and girls in our country alone suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Being overweight or obese costs a woman nearly $7,000 a year in annual salary (compounding wage discrimination that currently pays Latinas 59 cents, African American women 69 cents and all women 78 cents on average compared to the white male dollar).

The issues surrounding unrealistic beauty ideals and their negative effects go far beyond weight. In compiling advertisements for discussion on the National Organization for Women Foundation's Love Your Body website, it's visually obvious that "perfect" or "flawless" skin is considered white by the fair-skinned gentlemen running Madison Avenue. One rarely, if ever, sees the 15 percent of the world's population with a disability, let alone women with disabilities, featured in the media.

Our society exerts significant pressure on women to regularly use cosmetics and personal care products that are laden with more than 1,000 chemicals currently banned in the European Union (only 11 are restricted in the U.S.). As an industry shill recently explained at a summer briefing I attended, to modernize our regulations and sell the same products currently offered by his labels overseas might "destroy jobs" in this tough economy, although one might make a related argument about destroying mom.

In short, the "pretty" picture we are given of women and girls is a crock. It destroys women's health and can steal their lives. Women are pressured to be ornate in appearance and subordinate in substance. While improvement continues, there is no guarantee that women will be valued for the content of our character and our contributions (and potential contributions) to society rather than the way we look.

As a survivor of anorexia, I have experienced firsthand the paradox of trying to live up to unrealistic beauty standards: A woman is treated very well in the course of day-to-day life when walking around like a beautiful corpse; and yet when negative self-image is announced and acknowledged, that same woman is shamed and blamed for being trivial, shallow, pathological. This is one powerful way sexism is expressed and enforced.

The National Organization for Women Foundation's groundbreaking Love Your Body campaign was created precisely to create space for women to acknowledge our true beauty -- when we are heard rather than simply seen. Though apparently this concept remains lost to advertisers and that guy staring down your shirt, continuing to talk about it means that by the time women have full equality they may finally notice.