There have been a few body positive programs about the place as of late. And it’s been sometime since the Mamamia 6 week body-positive campaign. But amongst all this positivity, this niggling reoccurring voice still echoes on, claiming that body image is a silly ‘first world problem’. There is this resounding idea that if women have the time to sit around worrying about how they look, then they clearly aren’t women who are truly struggling; like the women who are starving in ‘third world’ countries. Women with body-image issues are clearly just first-world faux-feminist whingers who need to get over it!
Well I’m calling bullshit, again.
I’m calling bullshit for a number of reasons. And rather than going into a lengthy political analysis on women suffering under neoliberalism and globalisation, I will just use my own story, of my life in Vietnam.
It starts a few years ago, when I was living in central Vietnam with a local family in a rural area. It was sublime. Picture rolling green hills, coffee plantations, lush forests, very few cars, not a billboard in sight. But there was certainly a lot of poverty. Folks with no shoes, ragged clothes, living in what would best be described as ‘sheds’, school was a luxury, as was transport. But in a collectivist society, what little was available would be shared with other people.
One day of my life in Vietnam sticks with me. It hit me like a tonne of bricks. We had a regular family lunch together. After lunch someone turned on some Western pop music. The three-year-old girl whom I lived with, suddenly started dancing ‘sexy’! It was more than sexy, it was Britney! The family I stayed with was lovely and this was nothing sinister, they thought it was great that their little girl had learnt Western dancing. But I realised at that moment, Westernised notions of ‘sexy’ had already been embedded into the mind of a three-year-old girl living in rural remote Vietnam. This little girl didn’t own any Bratz or Monster dolls, heck I don’t think she even owned a doll at all! What the ever-loving heck was going on here?? The dance she mimicked was absolutely not seen in Vietnamese culture, this was MTV sexiness.
I woke up that day, and I suddenly realised there was so much more to it. Poor women were not just fighting to survive. Poor women must now fight to eat, and to also be desirable by Western standards. What a kicker, fighting for survival and needing to be sexy while doing it? Yes, poverty now lumped together with body-image pressure too. In decades gone by, traditional Vietnamese culture saw plump women as attractive – as they appeared well-fed and thus wealthy, but the modern Vietnamese body ideal is Western thinness. Thinness, whiteness and sexiness. As one of my Vietnamese friends laughed off my concerns when I asked about dieting: “women will starve themselves for beauty here, of course!” What a horrible paradox for women, the pressure of not being able to afford nutritionally healthy food but also needing to remain thin.
During my life in Vietnam, I returned to visit Australia a few times. On my visits to Australia, women in Vietnam would ask me to purchase beauty products for them. They wanted Australian (or preferably American) cellulite removing creams, wrinkle reduction creams and so on. They knew the famous brands, and specifically they often picked products with ‘sexy’ or ‘beauty’ in the name. These creams were in the price-range of $50 – $100, normal prices for Australian products. The women who wanted these creams earned typical Vietnamese salaries of around $120 per month, thats $30 per week. This is a pretty average salary. These women were not wealthy heiresses; they were average income earners with meagre living standards. To give an indication of living costs, petrol is a similar price in Vietnam and Australia, rent is not as cheap as you’d think, $30 does not go far. But, these women were willing to give up nearly a month of income just to experience the luxury of a Western beauty product. These women are literally forgoing necessities like decent food, just to have a taste of Western ‘beauty’. When women overseas are living in poverty and now have the added pressure of being ‘sexy’ while they survive – this is a serious justice issue. And before you jump to any conclusions, these women were not divas, they were average mums and women.
(Side note, of course I talked them out of buying products or otherwise gave them as gifts)
I do not judge these women for the decisions they made. In fact, all they are doing is looking to survive. While your immediate reaction might be “why the hell are people buying CRAP they don’t need!?” Well, actually there is an entirely logical reason for it. You might think ‘these women simply cannot afford to worry about sexiness’, but truth is these women cannot afford to NOT worry about sexiness. In today’s world, women need to be ‘sexy’ to be visible, to be worthy, wanted. And in Vietnam, reputation is everything, so these women are not being silly at all. Having good social standing or ‘keeping face’ is central to having a successful life. Whether you are rich or poor, you must ‘keep face’ and hold good reputation. This is critical in a collectivist culture, people need to know they can trust you – and they don’t have linkedin ratings – so they use social reputation. And for women, keeping face literally means keeping attractive too. While this may have been easier decades ago, the spread of Western body image ideals has seriously changed the stakes. The stakes are now extremely high, difficult and expensive for women to meet. I do not write any of this as an indictment of Vietnamese people or culture, they are absolutely kind, generous and amazing people who make the very best of their lives, in my experience. These women are living through the slow integration of Western objectification of women into their own culture: ‘thin, white, sexy’ is the best way to survive, these women are merely adapting as best they can.
This story of Vietnam ends with me talking the women out of buying the products, or otherwise giving some as gifts. But what I learnt from Vietnam goes far beyond this story. During my life in Vietnam I saw first-hand that sexual objectification is out of control, and I soon realised it is not a case of women getting over it. Media is absolutely globalised and with it the industries that sell body-shame are globalised too. Women in rural Vietnam are aware of their bodies in ways I never imagined possible. Fat removing creams, whitening creams, spanx of every type, diet pills and more. These things aren’t marketed on magazines and billboards in Vietnam, and women don’t openly talk about them much, but scratch the surface and the issues are there. Profit is being made from women’s bodies and pain regardless of how rich or poor. Some people argue that ‘body image’ is a peripheral issue compared with real women’s rights issues. I would argue on the contrary, that the way society defines women and women’s bodies underpins any conversation about women’s rights. We have made the link between objectification to other issues like poor cognitive performance, mental illness and even sexual assault, and yet still some people deny that this is even a ‘real problem’. What an ultimate kick in the teeth.
For the people who call body-image a ‘first-world problem’, I doubt they have gotten to know the ‘third world’ beyond the rhetoric. Some women in the ‘third world’ do choose between face creams and decent food. So the issue is not rich vs poor, we need change the conversation. While body image issues may appear a superficial complaint, they are actually indicative of a problem far deeper in the way women are treated, all over the world. Objectification is an act of dehumanisation and it is a violation of a woman’s rights. When a person is objectified, there is no option to just get over it. Women need and deserve support to deal with this bullshit, whatever their bank balance. I urge anyone who claims to be progressive to stop playing oppression Olympics when it comes to body image. The Western world has exported a new brand of ‘sexy’ objectification to women all over the world. Let us not undermine women with calls to get over it, instead let us recognise the steps we can take. From living in Vietnam I realised that we must reset a positive standard for ourselves first. We must prove to ourselves and to other women that we are not the sum of our body parts. We must claim the respect we deserve and reject any bullshit that says otherwise. What starts in the global north spreads to other nations. We must help ourselves if we want to help others. And importantly, we must love ourselves before we can love others.