What do Collarbones, Bellybuttons and the Kylie Jenner Pout have in common?
The dysfunctional culture of body-shaming ‘challenges’
By Natalie Jovanovski
The latest craze to sweep the internet, joining a long list of ‘challenges’ aimed specifically at young women, is the ‘collarbone challenge’. For those of you who haven’t heard, the collarbone challenge, which was popularised by Chinese celebrities in the last couple of weeks, involves placing coins on your collarbone. The more coins you’re able to hold, the more ‘superior’ your collarbone is said to be. After all, who wouldn’t want a superior collarbone?
Just several weeks earlier, the ‘bellybutton challenge’ was doing the rounds on the Internet, where young women were encouraged to upload photos of themselves in obscure positions. Once again, pictures of female celebrities ‘succeeding’ were broadcasted online.
Just several weeks before that, and geared towards primarily Western audiences, the Internet exploded with the ‘Kylie Jenner challenge’. This is where young women cupped their lips to make them swell into a Botox-inspired pout (in other words, to pull a ‘Kylie Jenner’). This particular ‘challenge’ was so popular, that it made the news, and spawned a series of failed YouTube videos that showed young women ‘failing’ the challenge i.e., bruising the area around their lips due to excess suction.
The first reactions to these ‘challenges’ were rather predictable. People either laughed at or dismissed them as ‘just a bit of fun’, with some even trying to mimic the celebrities online with varying results. However, another more problematic reaction involved criticising the young women who tried - and ‘failed’ - the ‘challenges’, labelling them as ‘stupid’ and ‘impressionable’.
Amidst all the laughter and judgement, what everybody has failed to ask is: why are these body-shaming practices framed as actual ‘challenges’? And why has everybody failed to notice that ‘challenge’ culture is good old body-shaming wrapped in glitzy, celebrity-inspired clothing?
Rather than being ‘just a bit of fun’, body-dissatisfaction affects a significant number of young women both in Western and non-Western contexts, and has been shown to lead to dangerous compensatory practices such as cosmetic surgery and other forms of self-harm, such as disordered eating behaviour. Rather than laughing at women who feel badly about their bodies, we (ought to) respond compassionately to their experiences. But ‘challenge’ culture encourages us to laugh at and join young women in their body-dissatisfaction.
What needs to be culturally emphasised, however, is that body-shaming is not a fun challenge, it’s a cultural problem.
Calling these practices ‘challenges’ merely masks their problematic origins, and turns the anxiety that women feel about their bodies into a culturally validated competition – with the celebrity tick of approval. The girls who ‘fail’ these ‘challenges’ are laughed at for being impressionable, but those who ‘win’ aren’t necessarily let off the hook. As Laura McNally argues in her piece on the downside of adhering to the beauty myth - achieving the pornified, thin, hairless, pouty ideal is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Rather, it is often used to reinforce female sexual objectification:
“We should feel great about our bodies and about sexuality too, but feeling great doesn’t come by conforming to sexual commodification. We know this, empirically we know this. Yet somehow we are still fighting the same fight. Over a century ago women were fighting for the vote, they may never have guessed that today we are fighting for our right to have differently shaped [bodies]”.
Indeed, if we’re going to use the rhetoric of the ‘challenge’, then why don’t we use it responsibly, and in a way that challenges the backward social expectation that we need to ‘perfect’ ourselves according to some unrealistic ideal? The real challenge is not to pout like Kylie Jenner or to turn our collarbones into glorified ashtrays, but instead, to see these body-shaming ‘challenges’ pop up in our newsfeed is to challenge them immediately.
Asking questions is a great start – and the beginning of every cultural movement and source of empowerment.
And that’s what Endangered Bodies Australia encourages you to do. When you see the next ‘challenge’ pop up in your newsfeed, ask yourselves: Why are practices that are designed to make women feel badly about their bodies designed as fun ‘challenges’? And how can we critique this culture without sounding like we’re ruining the party?
As always, we encourage discussion in the comments section of our Facebook page. Have you successfully challenged this harmful culture? We’d love to hear your experiences!