Bettie Page changed the way we look at ourselves

Bettie Page died last week at 85, leaving a legacy as one of America's most sought-after and controversial pinup girls. Never an actor, she was all about her looks, all about image. We asked University of South Florida's resident expert in issues surrounding body image to assess her place in the culture.

Bettie Page had a tremendous role in creating a physical ideal distinctive to the 1950s and early '60s — the curvaceous figure, with large breasts and hips and a thin waist. Her co-icons were Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Hugh Hefner, who featured Bettie as his Playboy centerfold in January 1955. Bettie is even credited by some writers with being the main thrust behind the sexual revolution.

Bettie's era, where hips and breasts ruled, ended when a 97-pound, 17-year-old by the name of Leslie Hornby Armstrong arrived from England in 1966. "Twiggy," as she was nicknamed, with measurements of 31-22-32, swayed onto the scene and stirred a new zeitgeist. Her lean, angular look gave rise to an ideal of unrealistic thinness that remained unchallenged in fashion and media circles until recently. The dramatic increase in eating disorders during the latter part of the 20th century is often linked to the "thinspiration" provided by models and the media of this time period. Only in the last few years have we seen a societal shift, albeit slight, to acceptance and promotion of more realistic and diverse body shapes and sizes.

A little known fact is that Bettie was rediscovered in the '90s and embraced by a new generation of fans, perhaps longing to make an old ideal new again. I wouldn't characterize it as a movement, but it does prompt a consideration of the shifting nature of what we find attractive, and how a society comes to regard some features as beautiful and others as ugly.

The day after Bettie's death, I was driving my 10-year-old daughter, Carly, home from soccer practice. "Dad," she said, "you do work in body image, right? There's a song I think you might like. It's called Freckles and one of the lines is 'a face without freckles is like a sky without stars.' The song is about accepting how you look."

My daughter has always had a maturity and empathy that I seldom find in adults. She went on to tell me that the song was by Natasha Bedingfield and I could listen to it on Youtube.com if I searched "freckles."

The next night I was at a holiday party, regaling a new acquaintance with the freckle anecdote. After I finished, the woman slid the sleeve of her dress to the elbow to reveal a half dozen moles. She told me of the many negative comments she had received about them as a girl. Only when she moved to another country, when someone referred to her moles as ''beautiful,'' did she begin to challenge her own negative view of them.

A recent survey asked more than 5,000 women and girls in 11 countries how they felt about their appearance. More than 90 percent said they would like to change some aspect of their appearance. Weight and shape led the list, but hair, skin, nose, height and others were also listed frequently.

Recognition of this issue has led to a few positive outcomes. A few years ago, Dove (Unilever) began its "real beauty' campaign (see campaignforrealbeauty.com), a series of ads with a wide diversity of images of women of different backgrounds and sizes. And, periodically, we see in the media a celebrity come out against the tyranny of thinness or we see a model championed as providing us with a "real" body. And, yes the "heroin chic" era ended and some fashion organizations now require runway models to be medically screened and to maintain a weight slightly above the anorexic level.

Yet, I fear that although fashion may change, the pressures remain the same. Bettie may be back in vogue, but let's not forget that in the '50s women used girdles and cinches to obtain the tiny waist, to accent the breasts and hips. Today, Bettie would opt for plastic surgery. Today, the messages outside and inside our heads say: Wear these clothes, lose some weight, straighten your hair, Botox those lips, tuck that tummy, work out, lift weights, take steroids, buy those shoes, match that outfit, throw up, starve . . . and cover up those freckles.

Looking in the mirror might help. It's easy to blame the media, but research shows that parents' and peers' comments and pressures are just as influential in determining someone's body image. We need to challenge unrealistic media ideals, but we also need to challenge ourselves to stop judging others, and ourselves, solely by appearance. We need to teach our kids that when they tease someone about their appearance, they are being a bully.

We should all listen to Natasha Bedingfield.

'Cuz a face without freckles is a sky without stars

Why waste a second not loving who you are

Those little imperfections make you

Beautiful, lovable, valuable

They show your personality inside your heart

Reflecting who you are

Joel Kevin Thompson is a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. He has written seven books on issues of body image, most recently ''Body Image, Eating Disorders and Obesity in Youth'' (American Psychological Association, 2009).

Bettie Page changed the way we look at ourselves 12/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:47am]

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