Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Does Size Matter?

Does Size Matter?
s u s a n b o r d o
The young girl stands in front of the mirror. Never fat to begin with, she�s
been on a no-fat diet for a couple of weeks and has reached her goal
weight, 115 lb., at 54�exactly what she should weigh, according to her
doctor�s chart. But goddammit, she still looks dumpy. In her mind is this
Special K commercial that she�s seen a few times on television: a really
pretty woman admiring herself in a slinky, short, black dress, long athletic
legs, every curve perfect, lean-sexy, nothing to spare. Self-hatred and shame
start to burn in the girl, and other things too. When the commercial comes
on, the woman�s sleek body is like a magnet for her eyes; she almost feels
in love with her. But envy tears at her stomach, and is enough to make her
sick. She�ll never look like that, no matter how much weight she loses, no
matter how many hours she spends on the Stairmaster. Look at that stomach
of hers, see how it sticks out? Those thighs�they actually jiggle. Her
butt is monstrous. She�s fat, gross, a dough girl.
It�s a depressingly well-documented fact that when girls and women are
asked to draw their bodies or indicate their body size with their hands, they
almost always overestimate how much space they take up, and tend to see
themselves as too fat no matter how thin they are. This once was thought
to be a ��body image distortion�� unique to those with anorexia nervosa. We
now know that seeing ourselves as ��too fat�� is a norm of female perception.
Average weight statistics and medical charts are irrelevant. What matters is
the gap between the self and the cultural images. We measure ourselves
not against an ideal of health, not even usually (although sometimes)
against each other, but against created icons, fantasies-made-flesh. Flesh
designed to arouse admiration, envy, desire.
I�ve been writing and lecturing on these female body issues for years.
At almost every talk I�ve given, someone in the audience (mistakenly concluding
that because I had talked about women, I believed they had the
This is a slightly altered and expanded version of a chapter by the same name in
The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1999).
20 / Susan Bordo
exclusive franchise on body-insecurity) has challenged me: What about
men? What about baldness? Height? Muscles? All these examples are well
taken. But no one has ever brought up the best analogy: men�s insecurities
about penis size. I myself did not realize exactly how perfect the analogy
was until I read a 1996 study in which pediatrician Peter Lee found that
college men, no matter what their actual dimensions, tend to underestimate
their penis size. In a mirror image of women�s perception of themselves
as too big (even when they are at or below average weight), men tend
to see themselves as too small�even with ��average��-size penises (currently
defined by doctors as four inches non-erect and six inches erect).
Where do men get their ideas about how big their penises ��ought�� to
be? Some, like comedian Tim Allen, first get them from a child�s-eye view
of their fathers� penises:
My father would take me and my brothers to pee, and you�re just dick tall,
and your dad�s is out. This whale of a penis would fly out, and you have a
mushroom cap that two hands could barely pull out from your body. And
your dad�s penis would�thrummm! And you�d scream at this huge, hairy
beast of an ugly���Goddamn! Aw, God!�� And we�d leave the bathroom and
all go, ��Shit! Did you see that?�� (quoted by Nancy Friday in The Power of

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