Is Betty Ugly?

Because I am a middle-aged woman, complete with grey hair, wrinkles, sagging breasts and stretch marks, on October 18, I will celebrate Love Your Body Day, an event sponsored by the NOW Foundation. The celebration, now in its ninth year, is designed to draw attention to the horrendous damage to self-esteem that is experienced by women as a result of the purposeful efforts of “Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries. to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement.”

Because of the relentless messages we receive telling us that our bodies are less than ideal, women spend billions of dollars every year to ‘improve’ ourselves and salve our damaged self-esteem. For most American women, feeling insecure about our bodies and how we look is a way of life. We are bombarded daily with images of what we should look like, images that for the vast majority of us don’t come naturally.

Unless of course we go on a fad diet. Never mind that most of those fail, we still spend some $3 billion dollars a year on weight reduction programs and diet food. Or we could undergo cosmetic surgery, and millions of us do, despite the risks. We spend billions on cosmetics (many of which contain unregulated, harmful ingredients), fashion magazines and the latest clothes. We dye our hair at the first sign of grey. In short, we have (literally) bought into a national epidemic of feminine insecurity.

The latest manifestation of the normal is ugly mantra is a new show on ABC, “Ugly Betty”. Is Betty ugly? Not according to the promo shots. She just happens to be of normal build, maybe a size 10 (which the show description characterizes as, “slightly pudgy”), wears glasses and clothes that haven’t been advertised in Vogue or Glamour and has braces that make her look like a 14-year-old girl, not a grown woman. The theme of the show? Betty and her sex-crazed boss conquer the “sharks” of the fashion industry who include, “many couture co-workers with botoxed smiles.” Definitely a worthy heroine.

But of course we all know that Betty isn’t really a role model, she is just a laughable character on a sitcom. Not someone to be emulated. For that we watch the likes of the CW’s “America’s Top Model” where the women who are winners are tall, anorexically skinny, have big breasts, perfect hair and behave in sexually suggestive ways. This, in the age of pimp chic, is the epitome of female perfection.

While positive role models for girls and women are still marginalized, pornography can be easily downloaded to an IPod or a cellphone. Video games use prostitutes as characters and offer virtual violence against women as entertainment. While Janet Jackson’s breasts offend us, misogynist hate language has become extremely common on both television and radio where words such as” bitch”, “slut” and “whore” are now used with impunity, particularly on shows marketed to teens and young adults. Most images of women in advertising are scantily clad and depicting violence against women is an acceptable advertising theme as long as it sells the product.

It has become normal to consider normal women ugly. We abide by the denigration of women’s bodies because it is very, very profitable. The result for millions of women is not only damaged self-esteem and unrealistic expectations, but damaged health and bodies as well. And that is a very, very high price to pay.

LUCINDA MARSHALL is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network,