This morning when I opened my Google reader, a headline from The Checkup of the Washington Post caught my eye:

Aack! Has comic-strip ‘Cathy’ shaped your body image?

I don’t know if any of you guys ever read Cathy in your newspaper’s weekly Funny Pages growing up, but I sure did, and I think that the self-deprecating sense of humor the main character had about herself and her body were not things I should have been reading at that age. As a child and young teen, I thought I was “supposed” to always have some kind of hangup or be displeased with my appearance because that, somehow, was what made you a woman. Weird, right?

The author of the post, Jennifer LaRue Huget, who came of age in the 1970’s, has an interesting take on the comic strip (which is coming to the end of its run this Sunday):

I can’t help but think that the teenage me was shaped by those influences… If these older, more experienced (albeit fictional) women couldn’t get a handle on their weight, how could I? And if they could learn to laugh about it, well, maybe I could, too. (Of course, there were plenty of other media influences in our faces in the 1970s; we were still dealing with Twiggy and her ultra-thin ilk.) It took many years of horrific experiences in bathing-suit shopping a la “Cathy” before I shook myself out of my unhealthful patterns. While I would never think of blaming “Rhoda” or “Cathy” for my lifelong weight and body-image issues, I wonder whether their misery-loves-company approach ultimately served me well.

She goes on to discuss our culture’s recent emphasis on positive body image yet also opens the floor to discussion by questioning whether that push is hurting or helping, given current obesity rates. Is a little self-deprecating humor a good weapon to have in your arsenal to help you get through tough times?

I think positive body image is a good trait to foster in a child, but I am of the “your body is a temple”/”be healthy and enjoy life” variety. I think we should be putting an emphasis on treating yourself well to keep yourself strong and well-equipped to deal with life’s challenges.  I think children today, but especially girls, need better guidance on how to take care of themselves emotionally and physically.

For example, I feel like our culture tries to make food into a coping mechanism or indulgence rather than a necessity. That’s just scratching the surface. I’m also afraid to even get started on appearance—the question that always comes to my mind is, “Who are we telling girls to be beautiful for?” I’m thinking of a Mad Men episode about a Playtex bra campaign, where the guys insist that “bras are for men” and that “women want to be seen as men see them.” I couldn’t help but think this mentality still exists in some ways. Yes, the line often used now is “women dress for other women,”  but when it comes to how we see ourselves, how are we forming those ideas?

Sorry for the rant, but I get very angry when I think about just how much young girls are up against and how it is and is not worse than what I was up against. I really never had any positive role models when it came to body image, and while I think the ones that are out there are more accessible now,  you still kind of have to know where to look.

Obviously, I’m only one person, and my feeling that I couldn’t “rely” on my looks led me to pursue various interests such as music, writing, and sports. While I’m very comfortable in my own skin, I’ve noticed that I focus much less on appearance—mine and other people’s—than many of my friends do. I’m more likely to remember a new acquaintance’s astrological sign than, say, their hair or how well their clothes fit. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to take a compliment.

Sometimes I wonder what I would be like or what kind of career I’d have if I hadn’t grown up around influences telling me to be ashamed of my body—I wouldn’t trade because I love what I’m doing and have a bunch of big plans for the future as well as a certain degree of respect for the cosmic balancing act of a life path. I learned a lot of valuable things and pursued the passions and hobbies that have shaped me far more than my measurements. Still, it’s just interesting to think about how we internalize the messages we receive and what we do from there.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on body image and role models. Who or what has shaped your image of yourself? What do you think about “Cathy” and that kind of self-deprecating sense of humor?

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