Women’s Bodies, Women’s Selves

UWEC student finds women of all ages are dissatisfied with their appearance. They shouldn’t be.

Katie Paulich

‘It looks like you’re filming a porno in here,” remarked my friend Hailey when I brought her to the lab.

“It’s not a porno, oh my God,” I replied, utterly scandalized. “It’s for research.”

Hailey didn’t press the issue but looked at me with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Despite her lack of verbal retort, I shifted in my chair. I had to admit; to some extent, Hailey had a point.

The research lab I work in is a windowless room down an unobtrusive hallway in Hibbard Hall on UW-Eau Claire’s campus. It’s tiny, about 12 feet by 10, and the lighting is unflattering. The walls are largely bare, and, at present, there is a small changing area concealed by a dressing screen. The camera for photographing participants to our study is set up on a tripod with tape markers on the floor.

Fine. I see how it might look bad.

Before you conclude I’m a creeper, though, let me explain. When I began undergraduate psychology research, I didn’t anticipate it would involve photographing women of various ages in bikinis. But that’s the method for this project: Women’s Bodies Across Their Reproductive Careers. The premise behind it is that raters can view photographs of a woman’s body and guess her age and reproductive history. For participation in the study, women don a standard two-piece swimsuit, have their photographs taken from four perspectives, and have their body measurements taken. There are always two researchers present, and we leave the room while the individual is changing into and out of the swimsuit. This study is revolutionary because it’s the first to examine links between (1) psychological reactions to women’s bodies and (2) the bodies themselves, using real women’s bodies rather than digitally manipulated photographs of women.

It’s evolutionary psychology. It’s cool stuff. And yes, it’s a little weird. However, I promise, it’s all been through rigorous ethical consideration.

Quite a bit goes into a study like this, as it’s more involved than other projects I have been a part of. There’s more physical contact, more awkwardness to participants, and a greater desire for confidentiality. I get that it’s weird for participants to have some bespectacled little blonde researcher take their photos and measurements. Trust me, it was weird for me too, at first.

The study’s redeeming quality, though, stems from its participants. So far, we have had about 80 women of varying ages, races, and appearances participate. I have moderated many of these sessions and therefore have been able to see how different women respond to the same situation.

Some participants approach the lab confidently, with purpose. Others approach more uncertainly, as if unsure as to how they got there. Some start changing before I leave the room. When letting me back into the room, some hide behind the door, opening it just a crack. Others throw the door open, their body on display, and make bold eye contact.

Despite their varied responses, it seems the women can all agree that this isn’t an easy study to participate in. Beyond the awkward nature of the design, there also exists emotional discomfort. This study asks women to expose their bodies. Societal pressure and unrealistic representation of women in media may contribute to internalized feelings of inadequacy. Women might be more (or less) sensitive to these pressures based on their individual personalities. The result: women dissatisfied with – or self-conscious about – their bodies. It astonishes me how uncomfortable we women are in our own bodies – even those of us who have been living in them for 60-plus years. (Yes, we have “older” women in the study, as well.)

This discomfort creates a tangible current of tension underlying each appointment, the women wrong-footed by wearing so little in front of strangers. I see it in the incredulous stares directed at the two-piece swimsuits within the changing area, in the tense set of shoulders during the photographs, and especially in the crossing of arms over a stomach and chest.

It’s common for the women, when we take their weight and measurements, to berate themselves aloud. Without fail, I tell them the measurements are simply numbers and that their bodies are perfect. Without fail, they don’t believe me. It’s obvious they think I’m lying to make them feel better, but I’m not. I mean it. They don’t understand that their body, that every body, is beautiful.

To the college-age participants: Why are you so self-conscious at this age? You certainly don’t need to be. You’re at your physical prime! Be proud of that and embrace your body. Don’t worry about what the latest magazine says guys like. Be yourself! You’re perfect as you are.

To the moms: Be proud of the stretch marks and the extra weight you are likely to have around the middle and hips. You brought a child (or children!) into this world! You carried them in your own body and you gave them life! Be proud of that! Don’t let it make you feel bad because you’ve been told a mom’s body is unattractive. It’s not. It’s astounding.

To the older women: Embrace the lines! After all, isn’t aging better than the alternative? Stop worrying about how your skin looks. You have been through much, and your body should show it. Be proud! Stand tall! Stare at the camera with fire in your eyes rather than fear. You look stunning.

While there are many differences among our participants, I’d like to point out one thing that they all have in common: They are different from one another, and in those differences lies their greatest strengths. I’ve seen diverse skin tones, great ranges in heights, and countless different body shapes. Many of these women have tattoos, many have piercings, and all are amazing. Scars show what they have been through. Weight shows that they have lived. Muscle tone shows their dedication. These women have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

It may be a cliché, but we are truly our own worst critics. We’re all so focused on our own flaws that I think we’re too distracted to judge the flaws others see in themselves. It’s incredible to me that our participants are so concerned with how their bodies look. Please stop worrying, I want to tell them. Relax. You’re beautiful. You have nothing to feel embarrassed about.

Katie Paulich is a biology and psychology major at UW-Eau Claire. Women ages 15-75+ are still sought for this study; if you’re interested in participating and receiving a $25 Amazon gift card in compensation, please email IDEP@uwec.edu.

Katie Paulich is a biology and psychology major at UW-Eau Claire. Women ages 15-75+ are still sought for this study; if you’re interested in participating and receiving a $25 Amazon gift card in compensation, please email IDEP@uwec.edu.

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