Lies My Society Told Me

Several years ago, I read the book, "Lies My Teacher Told Me" which provides insight into events and famous figures that our history books got wrong.  This book really resonated with me, but the more I have learned over the years, the more I have realized that it's not just history class where we've been deceived. 

Throughout our society, we have been taught many stereotypes, myths, and outright lies about women and our appearance.

We tend to think of the body as natural, but it is also social and political.  Culture and the institutions of our society (politics, the media, schools, the family, etc.) dictate what body types are perceived as ideal at any given time or whether there is much focus on the body at all.  They create gender distinctions that add social definition and meaning to those biological differences in our bodies. 

Even after having spent almost 20 years studying and teaching on the subject, the ideas that we are taught about women's bodies and appearance are so ingrained that it can be difficult to remember that they are social myths.  It can still be difficult to feel confidence when we as women are surrounded by a culture and institutions that so often operate to undermine us.

While knowledge of the problem is only the first step, it is an important one.  Understanding the myths that we've been taught about women and appearance makes it easier to be critical when we are exposed to yet another false idea or image.  It makes it easier, though still difficult, to begin rejecting these ideas and to see ourselves and other women in a less judgmental light.

What are some of these myths? 

I'm unpacking a few of them today:

You Have To Be Model-Thin To Look Good In Clothes

For decades, we've heard fashion designers stress a preference for ultra-thin models to showcase their clothing.  We've been told that a body type that only 5% of all women have the genetic predisposition to attain is the only body that looks good in clothes. 

This is problematic.

Source:  Glamour.com
While a model's job is to show a designer's clothing, these women are often referred to as walking "hangers" - as objects.  Aren't clothes designed for women to wear?  If there is anything that reading fashion blogs over the last few years has taught me, it's that clothing can look AH-MAZING on women of all body types.  I say if you can't design clothes to look great on anything besides a "hanger," you're not a very good designer!

Furthermore, comparing ourselves to models is a recipe for self-loathing.  We are taught in this society that our bodies can be controlled solely through hard work and effort (another mis-truth), but, hello...!  The overwhelming majority of us can NEVER look like models, no matter what choices we make!

The idea that a long-limbed, tall, very thin (and usually white) woman has become the standard for beauty in the U.S., and increasingly worldwide, is a social creation.  There's nothing naturally more beautiful or attractive about said women, but this emphasis on one body type that is out of reach for 95% of all women has had disastrous consequences.  For example, over 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance and 50-70% of normal weight girls think they are overweight.

You Will Be Happy And Successful If You're Skinny
Coupled with this idea that only women with model figures look good in clothing, we are taught through fashion magazines, alcohol commercials, movies, and pretty much everywhere else, that life is infinitely happy if you're a skinny woman.  If you're skinny, men want you (and that's always assumed to be a good in a heterosexist society).  You'll have a ton of friends, be the life of party, have great clothes, and have an amazing and high-paying career.  Life will be perfect. 
Source:  FrankWBaker.com
While most of us have probably realized that this myth isn't 100% accurate, how many of us have bought into it on some level over the years? 

"I'll find love if only I could lose a few pounds." 

"She only got that promotion because of her body!"

Weight discrimination in the workplace is real and shouldn't be discounted.  Studies show that both overweight women and men face job discrimination in hiring, pay, and promotions, with women experiencing significantly higher levels of this than men

That said, being skinny is NOT the key to success and happiness.  I know from first-hand experience that the promises we are fed about being thin are empty. I've been everywhere from a size 0 to a size 16, and my weight has had NO bearing on my happiness, personal feeling of success, or self-esteem. If thinness equaled happiness, we would expect all models and other thin women to be elated, but this is absurd.  Everybody has their ups and downs, their trials and tribulations.  It's up to each of us to find happiness and success in our own ways and regardless of our size.

Happiness and success are found in choosing to love yourself.  They are found in the laughter of a child, the gentle purring of a cat, the passionate embrace of a lover, the hug from a friend when you need it most.  Happiness and success are found in living life.  They are found in enjoying the simple pleasures and in not taking yourself for granted.  They are found in having the courage to follow your dreams and chase your goals.  Happiness and success are so much MORE than what you look like or what the scale reads!!

Boys Don't Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses
Here's another one that assumes the norm of heterosexuality.  It's also a myth that teaches girls (women) that their value is to be found in both their appearance and in the approval of boys (men) vis-a-vis that appearance. 
Source:  Cedward Brice on Flickr
Linked to this myth are the ideas that only "nerds" wear glasses and that "nerds" are smart.  Girls have been taught that math, science, and computers are nerdy and best left to boys, leading to a gender gap in test scores, educational attainment, and employment in these areas.  I can't tell you how many children's television shows I have watched in which the "pretty" girl is shown purposefully downplaying any signs of intelligence in order to be more popular, especially with boys. 

I've worn glasses since I was two years old, and I heard this myth about girls in glasses many times growing up, including from members of my own family.  How many of us grew up watching movies where the nerdy, mousy girl suddenly becomes "hot" when she takes off her glasses?

I didn't have a boyfriend or even go on a date until I was 18 and in college.  I always thought that part of the reason for that was that I wore glasses.  While I may have been a late-bloomer, I can assuredly say that some males most definitely are into bespectacled women.  And you know what?  Some women are into bespectacled women too!!  

Women Over The Age Of 40 Are Unappealing And Don't (Or Shouldn't) Date
The idea that "old" people shouldn't date, be sexual, or have romantic/intimate relationships outside of what must surely be a celibate marriage has long been promoted in our culture.  We don't stop having sexual urges at 40, 50, 60, or 70, so why is it that women over the age of 40 are so often looked at as asexual and unappealing?

Ageism is definitely a factor.  In a capitalist society, people who don't work are often seen as drains on society.  Elderly people are seen as having worn out their usefulness and as such, they are socially discarded in this disposable culture.

Women, who historically have been given less value because of their lower contributions to the paid work force, are also de-valued due to patriarchy.  As women have moved more into the workforce, our beauty culture has put great pressure on women to stay young looking, in addition to being thin. 

Sharon Stone at Cannes, May 2014; Source:  BecauseIAmFabulous.com
Popular culture gives preference to the young, with older women so often depicted in film and television as sexless, as unattractive, as harpies, or as useless... if they are even depicted at all

Movies depict grandmothers as blue-haired women jollily baking cookies and living only for the joy and comfort of their grandchildren.  In the last two decades, a massive youth movement seemed to spawn where the main casts of popular tv shows and movies were usually teenagers going through problems and living lives that most of us don't see until well into our twenties.  Casting directors select 38 year old women to play mothers to 29 year old actors and actresses.  

It's a rare exception to have a show like "Golden Girls" that shows women well over 40 engaging in active social lives and enjoying sex.  20-something years lately, such depictions of older women are really rare. 

Real Women Have Curves
While the "real women" movement is a shift away from the idea that women must be ultra-thin, it is still fraught with problems. 
The notion that real women have curves implies that women without curves are less than "real" women.  Women come in all shapes and sizes, and we are all the more beautiful for these differences!  
Source:  About-Face.org

The internet memes that pit thin women against thicker women are not a solution to the preference for "skinny" in our culture.  Shifting the cultural mandate from ultra-thin to curvy or overweight is problematic because it does not address the real issues that force women into such narrow options in the first place.

But why do we do this?

In a patriarchal society, women are encouraged to compete not against men for resources, but against other women.  The beauty culture and its emphasis on thinness has become part of this competition. 

Women are taught to be "mean girls."  We are taught to compete with each other for men, for jobs, for popularity as though my failure equals your success. 

Men (as a group) benefit from this competition because it never challenges the status quo.  Men largely remain in positions of power in the political, economic, and culture-building structures of society. 

Women can often be the worst critics of other women, not because we are naturally mean or catty (another MYTH promoted about women), but because many of us have been socialized to be this way.

Recognizing that women share many of the same struggles regardless of weight or appearance is a step towards treating each other as allies rather than enemies.

What do you think?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!  Is there a topic you'd like me to explore more on the blog?  Let me know!


Author unknown.  Body Image.  Retrieved June 18, 2014 from http://www.snac.ucla.edu/documents/BodyImage2010.pdf.

Gray, Louise.  Older women portrayed as 'sexless grandmothers.' The Telegraph.  March 28, 2011. Retrieved June 20, 2014 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/8409629/Older-women-portrayed-as-sexless-grandmothers.html.

Hellmich, Nancy.  Do Thin Models Warp Girls' Body Image? USATODAY.com.  Updated September 26, 2006.  Retrieved June 18, 2014 from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-09-25-thin-models_x.htm?csp=15.

Quast, Lisa. Thin Is In For Executive Women:  How Weight Discrimination Contributes To The Glass Ceiling.  Forbes.  Retrieved June 28, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2012/08/06/thin-is-in-for-executive-women-as-weight-discrimination-contributes-to-glass-ceiling/.

Ross, MD, Carolyn Coker. Why do Women Hate Their Bodies? World of Psychology.  Retrieved June 18, 2014 from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/06/02/why-do-women-hate-their-bodies/.

Wylie, Catherine. Older women are disappearing from TV due to combination of ageism and sexism, warns Harriet Harman. The Independent. Retrieved June 20, 2014 from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/older-women-are-disappearing-from-tv-due-to-combination-of-ageism-and-sexism-warns-harriet-harman-8618313.html.


  1. This is wonderful. And a wake up. I've often looked to the magazine models and celebs to determine how I should look. Maybe a trip to the Mall or a park would be a better place to look. I would maybe see women more like me there.

  2. I love this! It also reminded me of the recent campaign to "End the Mommy Wars" http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/30/living/mommy-wars-photos-parents/

  3. Excellent! And, God forbid, if you're fat, over 60, short and not what society calls pretty, you are supposed to go crawl into a corner somewhere and die so you don't pollute the landscape. Not THIS old broad!!! One thing, though, the self-loathing we're taught when we don't fit the idea usually doesn't go away regardless of size or weight. If you are not good enough for yourself the way you are right now, you'll never be good enough for yourself at a size 4 or 6 or whatever your unrealistic expectation is. Once you learn to turn off society's critics and love yourself, the possibilities are endless!

  4. Well said!!! Thank you for the thoughtful blog....I've thought about a lot of what you said, but didn't really realize that I was tough to "compete" against other women....but thinking about it, you are correct. As far as not being sexy past 40...ah, no. Hunny, I'm 46, wear glasses and curvy and I get hit on more than when I was young, didn't wear glasses and thin!! LOL! My hubby doesn't like it but it's a bit of a boost to the ole ego....what can I say, I'm human! :)

  5. I agree that you would see more women like you at the mall or a park, but all the better if you can eliminate the need to compare yourself to anyone. Seeing the women around us can help us see that none of us have "perfect" bodies, but feeling good about yourself comes from within. :-)

  6. Yes, I think the comparison and competition between mothers comes from a lot of the same place as the competition over appearance/jobs/men.

  7. Ha, ha! Age is just a number, as is our weight. I think age often brings confidence, which is attractive to others!

  8. Amen sister!

  9. Thanks Lizzy! 25, you're still a baby! ;-D


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