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For women self-hate is the problem, not short skirts

Wednesday, November 04, 1998

By Samantha Bennett

It seems as though every few weeks, you read a story about a scientific study whose findings are so astonishing, so arresting, they make you go: DUH!

Recently, I read such a story about a study at Colorado College aimed at throwing light from new, unflattering angles at American womankind's best-documented nightmare.

The researchers asked 350 college students what mattered most about their bodies - strength, health, attractiveness, etc.

Then they had the students put on either a sweater or a swimsuit. Some got more questions about "body shame" and others got math problems to solve. And, just to rub it in, they were all offered a couple of cookies.

Already, we all know where this is going. I'm not sure what's more appalling: that someone still needs to prove women are unreasonably ashamed of their bodies, or that someone needs to humiliate scores of girls to do it.

Many of the women in swimsuits said they felt "disgusted," "ashamed" or "disgraced." They also did poorly on an advanced math test.

And all this time I thought it was men who lost all higher brain function when a woman put on a swimsuit.

The women who felt most ashamed of their bodies refused the cookies, whether or not they were actually overweight. Thin women were just as likely to say they felt ugly as heavy ones.

So what we have here, in summary, is healthy women putting on swimsuits and being so paralyzed with self-loathing they are unable to eat or do long division because they believe their thighs are the size of the Graf Zeppelin. Who's surprised?

The only startling thing about this needless and diabolical exercise is that it was dreamed up by a woman, Professor Tomi-Ann Roberts.

Meanwhile, and I know you're wondering, the math performance of the guys in the study was the same no matter what they were wearing. They admitted to feeling only "silly" or "foolish" in their swimsuits, no doubt rightly. There are thousands of kinds of women's swimsuits, but only two styles for men - goofy or inadequate.

Even with her impressive grasp of the obvious, though, Professor Roberts is capable of wandering off into the utility closet. When it was pointed out to her that many women enjoy, for example, wearing short skirts because they look good in them, she said, "When you sit in a boardroom and look like Ally McBeal, with your skirt up to your crotch . . . how good of a lawyer can you be if you're worrying whether too much leg is showing?"

OK, let's unpack this quote a little. First of all, a woman who enjoys wearing short skirts because she thinks or knows she looks good in them isn't tying up mental energy hating herself. Her mind is free to focus on other things, for the same reason a woman who likes hats and thinks she looks good in them isn't obsessing about whether her head looks big. And in any case, if she tried the skirt on in one of those ghastly dressing rooms with the fun-house mirror and the unspeakable lighting, and purchased it, and put it on to come to work this morning, she is not worrying whether too much leg is showing. Being forced into a swimsuit by shrinks with clipboards is not at all the same as choosing your own apparel.

Second, it seems plausible that if a woman is comfortable in what she is wearing, whatever its length or brevity, she will do an effective job. The women who forgot their multiplication tables in the study did so because they felt controlled, exposed and miserable, not because there was a draft on their knees.

And third, the reference to TV's "Ally McBeal" is especially interesting because of the current hoo-hah about actress Calista Flockhart's weight. She is, for those who missed her near-appearance on the Emmys, extremely thin. While I wish Miss Flockhart a speedy recovery if she is ill, part of me is kind of glad the subject finally came up.

Yes, girls - and this is a far more useful revelation than anything coming out of the Colorado study - it is possible to be too thin. Boniness is not next to sexiness. Women get a lot of bad messages from the media, messages that make them starve themselves to be more attractive. We know this. And we know that both men and women encourage and perpetuate unrealistic ideals. Check the personal ads.

"Body shame" is something we have to fight ourselves, each in her own way. It's not easy. I have enjoyed excellent health all my life, though my weight has fluctuated, and at the beach I am the first one to tie a sarong around my shame and disgust. But if people can look at a frankly emaciated actress and suggest that she's too thin, that's a start. We've known for a long time what the problem is, and why. Researchers should be working on what to do about it.

Samantha Bennett's e-mail address is sbennett@post-gazette.com