The movie Black Swan opens today with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis playing a dance of good and evil in the competitive world of ballet. Everyone knows ballerinas are under constant pressure to be ultra-thin. Both actresses had to lose up to 20 pounds to fit the mold. They each recounted how awful they looked in real life, unlike many women with eating disorders who no matter how thin they become don’t see themselves in the mirror. Their weight loss reflects the reality of the artistic ideal…that the dance is more beautiful with thinner and longer lines. Of course the fact that the camera add pounds made the weight loss even more challenging. We know this is a movie….but what affect does this association with thin as beautiful have on young women today?
A lot of 40-something women think that young women today have more body confidence today than we did in our 20s but in talking to 20-somethings that doesn’t play out. They know that images in magazines are airbrushed but don’t feel that the rest of the world does. The quest for thin is constantly reinforced in culture from magazine articles on how to lose weight to the national news. Just the other day the NY Times critic for the ballet commented that Jenifer Ringer, the ballerina playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the New York City Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker looked as if she’d “eaten one sugar plum too many”. This quote from a 20-something reflects this influence of external expectations on internal confidence:
“The level of scrutiny that women give themselves in their 20s has risen to this insane level. On the outside it probably looks like we are a lot more confident because we are more adventurous in doing things on our own, but internally the level of scrutiny is so much more intense than our mom’s could even know exists. We joke about being anorexic and stuff like it is funny. It’s more competitive and it’s the expectations” – 20-something, NYC
I’ve never subscribed to the theory that the media doesn’t influence body image…that women know it is fake. I always recall the story that eating disorders didn’t exist in Fiji until TV and mass media were introduced. Enough said for me. So what to tell 20-somethings? Every 40-something looks back on their 20s and laments…”Why did I feel so insecure about my body? Look at how great I looked.” But even more telling, they feel better and stronger and sexier today. Why? Because they are doing things to make themselves feel better — eating right, doing yoga, boxing, hiking, etc. They are doing it because they enjoy it not because it’s the cool thing to do or because they want to look a certain way for others. It always comes back to the self.
“I have always enjoyed exercising but I have recently realized that it is fundamental. It relieves stress, it keep keeps your weight down. You don’t have to be this stupid dieting girl that worked about what you eat. It’s stupid. I think a lot of 20 year olds don’t really exercise in a whole-hearted fashion. Where it really means something. Maybe they do it for other reasons. Because it’s cool, your friends are doing it.” – 40-something, NYC
“Get your buts moving. In my boot camp class the teacher always points out that I am 45 and I run faster than the girls in their 20s.. Every summer the college girls come in all giggling and hung-over. To start we have to run a mile and I think, I’m going to be the slowest, but I am always faster than the college kids. They are so cute and all skinny and young but so unmotivated. They walk and then run. They have their fraternity sweatshirts on and they are there but they are not present. Be more present. I don’t know if I would have been capable then but if I had I probably would have had better self-esteem. I feel healthier now than I have ever been.” – 40-something, Cleveland, OH
It’s really about having some sort of outlet to feel your power and be amazed by your own body. Even Natalie Portman, related in the end that the role helped her realize how it’s about pleasing yourself…not others.
“It’s about breaking out of a system where you’re easily replaceable by the next girl who looks like you. And I feel like my 20s were about that, and probably into my future, I’m sure it’ll continue being that way,” Portman said. “But the older you get, the less you care about what other people think and the more you just want to be your true self and express your true self.” – Natalie Portman