Book Review: Bitchin’ Bodies: Young Women Talk about Body Dissatisfaction
Erin Sekerak, Phi Sigma Sigma Fraternity
As higher education professionals, we are invested in the well-being of our students. The Association of Fraternity Advisors (AFA) outlines Core Competencies for Excellence in the Profession, which includes our role as advisor. In this capacity, we have an underlying responsibility to be mindful of the emotional and physical health of the students we serve. One aspect of emotional and physical health, as covered in Terri Russ’ book, Bitchin’ Bodies: Young Women Talk about Body Dissatisfaction, is body image.
Russ (2008) has conducted research on women of all ages, but focused her attention in Bitchin’ Bodies on women between the ages of 18 and 24. This is the age group in which most women first learn how to be responsible for themselves without the security of parents. Russ, a higher education professional who regularly works with young women, uses the stories of her students as dialogue in her book. Among the hundreds of college women she formally and informally interviewed, Russ had not met one who was “happy and satisfied with her body” (p. 4). In addition to anecdotal experiences, she references statistics and various forms of media to support her observations.
Russ’ interest in body image grew from her own dissatisfaction with her body. Although she is an accomplished woman, she still felt insecure and thought that most women shared the same issues. The combination of her education and interest led to a book she hopes is an inspiration to women.
The title has dual meaning for Russ. Bitchin’ is the slang term used to reference a sexy appeal; used as a verb, bitchin’ is the manner in which women complain about their bodies (p. 4). She covers both views in context. Russ (2008) divides body dissatisfaction into three categories - personal, interpersonal, and cultural - each with dedicated chapters. The final chapter offers useful suggestions to change the body dissatisfaction culture. The appendix includes personal reflection questions that help readers reflect on their own body dissatisfaction. In this section, Russ suggests keeping a journal to write about thoughts that arise from reading her book. While this part of the book is beneficial, the reader would be better served if introduced to this section at the introduction instead of an afterthought in an appendix. The second appendix suggests group activities for classes or book groups, and includes helpful teaching methods in group participation. It is an excellent addition as it helps readers become active participants in understanding and discussing body image. The third appendix provides resources on organizations and media for further reading.
The first three chapters on personal discourse discuss the ways women feel about their bodies. She highlights the physical changes as women mature, eating and nutrition choices encountered in college, and the role clothing plays in the way women see themselves as worthy individuals. Of particular interest to fraternity and sorority professionals is a description of body image as a deterrent to women joining sororities. In the first chapter, Russ mentions the book Pledged (Robbins, 2004). According to Russ, Robbins claims fat circling occurs in sororities, but Robbins never witnessed or gave specific examples of the behavior. Russ argues that whether this phenomenon actually occurs or not, it is a deciding factor for women choosing to join, stating “instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to live with a group of like-minded women, the story and the potential of their fat being exposed drives women away” (p. 36).
Often rarely discussed in conversations about body image, Russ describes the role clothing plays in body dissatisfaction. As Russ points out, women often identify themselves by a clothing size. If a certain piece of clothing purchased in a standard size does not fit, there must be something wrong with their bodies, despite the fact that few women are the standard size. The author’s insights encourage women to become more comfortable with their bodies and to embrace non-standard sizing.
The book also discusses the ways in which pressure from friends and relatives, comparison to other women, and the male perspective affect body image. Russ (2008) very poignantly states, “the female body is not private: it is a social body on which anyone can comment” (p.15). This is a theme carried throughout the book. In this context, Russ defines “learned behavior” as behaviors women learn from other women in their lives. For example, mothers can greatly influence the eating and fitness decisions of their daughters. Even offhanded comments by both male and female relatives can send a woman spiraling into unhealthy habits. Russ pays particular attention to the male influence upon heterosexual women. Based upon her interviews, Russ asserts that the desire to be viewed by men as attractive is a strong contributor to body image issues.
The book also tackles media pressure. It may be a no brainer that the media greatly impacts a woman’s body image; however, the author provides some eye-opening and novel insight on the topic. As a culture we are becoming increasingly obsessed with celebrity gossip and the personal lives of our favorite stars. The media is making that information more available as we watch these icons battle with their own body issues. In contrast, we are becoming so immune to media displays of body and weight issues that, as Russ (2008) puts it, “the practice of plastic surgery becomes normalized as just another method for being beautiful and sexy – less like a medical procedure and more like a haircut” (p. 153). In the final chapter, Russ successfully melds her opinion with research. She suggests several ways to change the dysfunctional culture around body image, and encourages women to take control through open dialogue. As an educator, Russ truly believes in the power of education to change a culture.
With its use of narratives and dialogue, this book is very easy to read. Russ utilizes solid facts to support her points, making the book very enlightening. Although she discusses the variables associated with body shape and size dissatisfaction (e.g. “fat” versus “skinny”), she failed to touch on other forms of body dissatisfaction. There are many women who voice frustration with hair, skin, facial features, and even foot size issues – issues that could be addressed in the book. The book can help readers become more aware of their own insecurities and address personal comfort levels around body image.
As advisors to groups of women that may have serious issues with body dissatisfaction, Bitchin’ Bodies can serve as an educational tool to start a dialogue. The reflection activities in the appendices are a fantastic way to implement educational workshops on body image.
Russ, T. (2008). Bitchin’ Bodies: Young women talk about body dissatisfaction. Chicago: StepSister Press.
Robbins, A. (2004). Pledged: The secret life of sororities
. New York, New York: Hyperion.