Society Obligates Poor Body Image

I am living proof that being small does not save a person from criticizing their body or having ‘fat days.’ Almost every day, I follow the process I wrote about in Naked Salvation. Some days, it’s a struggle to find beauty in that mirror.

The reasoning is complex and far from logical. I notice if I am feeling down for any reason, I’ll treat my body poorly through my eating and fitness habits. Subconsciously, I’ll choose the exact worst times to look in that mirror or weight myself. It’s like I want to feel bad about myself. Then, a realization dawned on me this weekend. Yes, body image is largely connected to self-confidence and self-worth, but there’s more. Part of the reason I do this to myself, part of the reason many people (but especially women) do this to themselves, is because I feel obligated to hate my physical appearance.

It’s 2014, so I assume we’ve all seen Mean Girls by this point. Remember the scene where Regina, Gretchen, Karen are complaining about their reflections in the mirror while Cady looks on in wonder? Eventually, they all turn to her expectantly, wanting to know what she things is wrong with her.

While not so obvious, scenes like that one are happening every day. Perhaps we just want to assure a friend or acquaintance that we are not anymore perfect than they are or many we don’t want to sound proud or boastful by saying “I look damn sexy.” Either way, many of us, myself included, give in to the idea we have something to complain about. What happens after years of complaining about one’s legs, stomach or butt? Eventually, you honestly start to think that way. Those bad habits, whether they are picked up in high school or somewhere else, hold us to the idea that our bodies are flawed. Despite the fact that we are all different and beautiful in that uniqueness, we live in a world obsessed with perfection.

The problem is, no matter how close to perfection one becomes, they will never achieve that goal. In fact, I’d argue that perfection is a form of imperfection in and of itself.

Pretend for a moment that everything is perfect: your body, your job, your love life, your friendships, your house, your belongings. Life is literally perfect and you have every single thing you could possible want. What is left? What do you do every day? What are your future goals and aspirations? Can you have any once you’ve achieved perfection? I’m willing to bet life for one who have achieved complete perfection is rather boring and lonely. Is that really what we all want?

The body is a journey, too. We eat and play. We gaze at other humans with lust or disgust. All the while, whether we think about it or not, we are shaping our bodies into whatever we want. Nature will work against us from day one, changing our bodies so there is always something to work on. A person can always eat healthier or work out harder. The body is not a thing we finish, but a part of life’s journey.

Hate is not required to change our body. In fact, I bet love is what’s really required. In order to be the best we can be and take our body on a journey with more health than sickness, we must love our bodies. We must look at all our curves and uniqueness in the mirror and find love.

Unfortunately, society rarely promotes such thinking. How else would they sell their beauty products? I’m not saying people who wear makeup and worry about their ‘problem areas’ all hate their bodies, but some do. I hear friends complain about the color of their eye lashes, so they wear maschera. They go to the gym to get rid of their ‘fat ass.’ Rarely do I hear someone say, “I’m wearing eyeliner today to bring out my natural beauty” or “I’m going to the gym today because it always makes me feel fantastic.”

Commercials that sell these products don’t sell them based on the idea that a person is fine just the way they are. They are sold on the idea that, in order to achieve beauty, you must use their product, eat their food, or join their gym.

This photo, “Mearn Girls Poster” is copyright (c) 2014 Odenosuke and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

I try hard to eat healthy, exercise and treat my body well for reasons like “to feel good” and “to love my body.” My body deserves to be treated well, and that means keeping it as healthy as possible. That means looking in the mirror and loving who I am. Oddly enough, if I voice these reasons, people often seem confused.

“Look at you. Why would you need to go to the gym.”

“You’re so skinny. Eat another cookie.”

While it doesn’t happen as often anymore, I used to feel like people would actually seem angry at the idea I would go to the gym or swap out my side of fries for steamed vegetables. My friends in college became concerned I had an eating disorder because of my concern for health, made all the more ironic because they didn’t take notice when I actually had an unhealthy relationship with food. My increased interest in nutrition was part of my recovery from excessive calorie counting and reduction.

Is it just that our view of health is just this twisted? What makes us think a skinny person shouldn’t be eating healthy or working out? What makes us feel obligated to criticize our bodies like that Mean Girls scene? Would it really seem boastful and rude to love your body?

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48 thoughts on “Society Obligates Poor Body Image”

  1. Body image and how we see ourselves is such a difficult topic. I imagine most people have something they don’t like, no matter their shape or size. In the end, the most important thing is to feel good for yourself, not for other people (which is harder some days than others when everyone wants to judge!).

    1. I agree. No one is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight or something. It becomes a problem when we equate our value to that, thinking we are worth less somehow because of the extra weight.

  2. I thought this was a very interesting post. The obsessive concern with body image is a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course, young women have always been concerned with their appearance, but it’s only in the last couple decades that this has morphed into a whole industry in America. As you point out, the fashion/fitness industry seems to exploit women’s self-criticism, turning what could be a healthy interest in exercise and physical activity into its opposite. I totally agree with your approach to this issue.

    1. I don’t think there is a problem with either gender being concerned with their appearance. It wasn’t too long ago that men when also very much into fashion as well. I just think it’s odd that society seems to pressure us to be dissatisfied. We always knew there was no such thing as perfection, but it seems like a new phenomenon that we are made to feel so bad about ourselves based on our lack of perfection. We should be able to be proud of ourselves and we should be allowed to think we are beautiful all we want, without anyone trying to shove cookies down our throats ^_^.

  3. I think this is a great article and bang on. I saw a quote lately that said “think about what would happen today if all women loved their body and how many companies would instantly go out of business”. So true! Since starting dating online I’ve discovered that being confident comes across as egotistical – which is crazy. Would I like to be stronger and healthier (which would mean probably a smaller ass)? Yes! But am I confident in what my body can do? Yes! But you are right… it’s not expected. Saying “I love my body for the pleasure it gives to me and others”? People think I’m crazy.

    1. I know! I have an old coworker who looks perfect, but she’s said she’d pay for a ton of plastic surgery if she had the money. Now, I’m not 100% satisfied with my appearance by any means, but I would never go to such lengths. Nothing seems that bad that it would be worth going under the knife for. I feel much more like Cady these days than the other ‘mean girls.’ I don’t want to put myself down but, in some situations, I feel like I’m supposed to.

  4. I completely agree. I think men experience this also but definitely there is more pressure on women to focus on their appearance which, in turn, leads to more interrogation of our self-image and related self-worth. It’s something women have experienced for centuries so is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche across cultures. I think it is just that we now have the vocabulary to articulate the issue now and our access to media both promotes the problem but also leads to greater discussion of it. I am overweight but I look back at photos of myself when I was my slimmest and recall that even then, when I was probably just in the lower end of my idea BMI, I felt fat and ugly. I am a postgraduate who had a stellar career, who has some talent and aptitude across several areas of life, has sustained a happy marriage for over two decades and is successfully raising four sons and yet not once in my life have I ever looked in the mirror and thought I looked beautiful. That’s a pretty terrible indictment of how women are taught to measure their self-worth. Thankfully not all of my self-esteem is drawn from how I perceive my physical appearance so I live life pretty happily and don’t obsess over it but I certainly think society would be a lot more pleasant if we could all quit comparing ourselves to whatever the current “ideal” is and focus on arguably more important attributes than our shape, size, proportions and features.

    1. Body image is so much more about how we feel than how we are shaped. I wish more people could see that. I have been about 15 pounds heavier than I am right now and 15 pounds lighter than I am right now. Across that whole time period, I never looked in the mirror and saw anything different. I thought I was fat, regardless. It wasn’t until I started working on accepting that image in the mirror regardless of weight that I really started to feel like I was beautiful. As it turns out, coming to that realization stabilized my weight so I am neither over nor under. It makes me feel all the guiltier when I do have days that I feel fat. I think when a person says they are having a ‘fat day’ what they are really saying is that they feel down about themselves that day. It’s frustrating sometimes, because I feel like I’m not allowed to have those days anyone while, at the same time, I’m not allowed to think I’m perfect just the way I am. It’s a weird world we live in.

      1. I absolutely agree. When I was last at my ideal BMI I actually looked gaunt and was not happy with how I looked. So my ideal weight is about ten pounds heavier than I ought to be yet that little hyper-critical voice in my head still wants me to aim for a weight loss further than that ideal. It’s weird. And I too have this internal dialogue that builds to an argument because I know I am more than my body, know that as a woman and a feminist I should not be driven to conform to false standards of beauty and know that ultimately a dress size won’t make me feel any different anyway. I want to lose weight just to be healthier so that’s a good goal but I’m hoping I can maintain that (once I’m there) by focusing on health and not for any other self-critical reason. Since becoming a parent, I’ve become very “anti-diet” so as to try and prevent passing on these messages to my kids. Instead we focus on making healthy, nutritious choices and being active. That’s made me more aware of how insidious the persuasive messages from the diet industry are. Anyway thanks for writing on this topic. It’s always a good subject to be prompted to reflect on.

  5. Thanks for this. I myself struggle to remind myself that I don’t work out or eat right to get to a certain shape or size or weight and then “be done”. Being healthy and confident in one own’s skin is a marathon, not a sprint. We can all help each other out more along the way.

  6. “They wore
    a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the
    shoes and stockings.”
    Bet and Nancy in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, ‘good time girls’criticized and judged, however gently, on their appearance. The comments tell us they were not ‘ladies’. Makeup has been used for thousands of years and, over the last four hundred years, has included the use of lead-based, often arsenic-containing face powders and, I think, tooth-whitening products. At one point ‘ladies’ bleached their faces to the desired pallor by applying leeches to them to suck out the blood.

    Women’s fashion has been used either to obscure the the deadly, seductive female machine or to enhance those things considered attributes, resulting at times in necklines plunged to the point of recklessness, various devices to exaggerate the bottom and, in the 18th and 20th centuries, in effectual transparency.

    Little new in this. Somewhere back in Eden some sibling of Adam told some siblings of Eve that they would look more attractive with a few more fig leaves stitched into their aprons, that they would find it easier to catch a mate and that their self-esteem would improve because they’d look better than those with fewer leaves.

    What we call ‘beauty’ is superficial sexual attractiveness based on a fairly common acceptance of what features produce that attractiveness during the years of female fecundity. It ignores the fact that genetic inheritance, age and lifestyle can lift someone out of that superficial sexual attractiveness and that pretty much everybody is attractive to somebody.

    Beauty, in human terms, applies only to the mind and personality.

    Bit of a rant, I guess. Your forgiveness requested.

    1. You may not have my forgiveness because there is nothing to forgive. You make very good points and perhaps this is why there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to physical appearance. Not only is society constantly changing it’s mind on what the ideal look is, but each person is not attracted to the same type. No matter what you do, you’ll never be attractive to everyone.

  7. One of the biggest problems is that our society doesn’t push being healthy. It shoves ‘skinny’ down our throats. You can be thick and still be active and healthy and you can be thin and very unhealthy. I have had weight issues my entire life and when I was in high school I would cry because no matter what I did, I never looked like I thought I was supposed to look. And yet I starved myself for days at a time (or ate so little it was basically nothing) and worked out excessively. It wasn’t until I hit my 30’s that I realized/accepted that my body is not meant to be that small. I am not built to be a size 0. And that’s fine.

    1. I went through a period myself where I ate very little in the name of beauty. These days, my problem is that I am small, so people don’t understand why I want to join a gym or eat healthy. I know that I can just as easily succumb to diabetes or any other illness and still be skinny. It’s not about size, it’s about health.

  8. I tend to be in love with my own image, but it has not always been that way; and I’m not afraid to say I look darn good, or that I’m killing the look today. I work on my body and eat lots of healthy, whole foods — for surfing, not to make myself feel good about myself; and if it wasn’t for surfing it would be for parkour or some other pursuit.

    And yeah, I think most people are way more beautiful than they give themselves credit for.

    1. I try. I think I look good most days, but it’s still habit for me to disagree whenever anyone else tries to tell me I look good. I always feel obligated to deny that sentiment.

  9. I have struggled with a horrible body image for most of my life. It started with my mom and my aunts putting me down and continued on with friends and later men. I hate that our society does this, but I struggle fighting it in my own life. I’ve never looked in the mirror and thought I was beautiful. I only see flaws.

    1. You need to stop that. I was completely serious in that naked salvation post. You need to look at yourself naked in the mirror and give yourself nothing but compliments. Don’t lie, just don’t focus on flaws. It’s the only way I stopped hating myself. At first, the things I chose to like about myself were simple, like the color of my eyes and skin. Eventually (and by that I mean, after many weeks), I started picking out other things that I liked. After years, I finally was able to consider myself beautiful just as I am. It seems like a crazy method, but it works.

  10. I’ve recently had a more positive outlook on my body image and how important it actually is compared to other things in my life. I feel like I’m wasting my precious time complaining and hating myself, when I could be doing so much more. I totally agree with you about society making it feel you aren’t really okay to love yourself. My friends always tell me to go eat more food, when I’m only trying to be healthy. It seems like if you are skinny and don’t have a bag of chips always at your disposal, it’s wrong. I feel like the people who say this are always jealous and trying to make themselves feel better. Wouldn’t we all feel better if we stopped comparing ourselves to others?

    1. exactly. Why shouldn’t a skinny person be just as concerned about their health as anyone else. More importantly, why can’t we truly be concerned with health instead of this obsession with body shape. Maybe society will change that for the better in a few hundred years. Ideal standards of beauty are always changing after all.

    1. I have no idea. I don’t know if it’s society, media or something else. I don’t know that I know of any woman who completely accepts the way she looks. We’re always being told we could be better, younger, skinnier or prettier.

  11. Amazing post! I work in a place where there’s ALWAYS food everywhere you go, and I’m often criticized for my eating choices and for my love of running and working out. Yes, I’m thin, but what’s important to me is that I’m healthy. The one thing that has helped me overcome low self-image (physically) is age. The older I get , the more content I am with how I look.

    1. I’m the same way. I’ve been focusing on eating healthier for a while now. I feel better and better the farther I go on my journey to health. That feeling helps me overcome all the nay-sayers. I’m pretty content these days overall, but sometimes I’m still hard on myself.

  12. My goodness if someone said “Look at you. Why would you need to go to the gym.” or“You’re so skinny. Eat another cookie.” I’d be in heaven!!! That’d be the biggest compliment ever! lol (Coming from a some what chubby girl) I actually had that thought not too long ago but I doubt I’d ever get down that small.

    1. I can see that being a compliment if the tables were turned. However, I have had people say those things and then tell me I have an eating disorder because of my healthy habits. That’s what gets to me.

  13. It’s 2014, so I assume we’ve all seen Mean Girls by this point.

    No, sorry. I’m aware the film exists, maybe more pointedly lately as Aussa uses a lot of .gifs based on clips from it.

    More on point– I’m just struggling to regain my health and there’s not much room in there to obsess on appearance. When I was just getting over being ravaged by improper treatments with psychiatric drugs, then I started having chronic pain, sciatica, and lower back problems. Yes, I’m on the edge of morbidly obese– I won’t mince too many words on that. As I’ve mentioned several times at Kenneth’s blog, I have problems with Big Pharma first hand.

      1. Mmm, we’ll see. I have been known to watch chick flicks, but I’m pretty picky about what I choose to see.

        I’m aware that girls can be brutal to each other socially, sometimes way more than boys do. Boys generally have a vague sense of honor, while I have seen girls fight absolutely dirty. I have three younger sisters, and the oldest of them absolutely was a dirty fighter back in the day– pulled a knife on me, she did.

  14. It’s difficult to navigate a society that tells women our highest value is in our youth and sex appeal but only as defined by other, be it media or other male attention. Girls and women create a disconnect with who they are and what their body looks like to create a perfection that doesn’t exist.

    The go to comment for a little girl is, “aren’t you pretty!” and the go to for boys is usually, “aren’t you smart/strong/talented.” The beginnings of this start very, very young.

    The irony is we push women to portray a sexual aesthetic but punish them for acting on it and actually enjoying sex.

    Sigh.

    1. All very true and frustrating. I think a lot of women have learned to move away from dressing and acting for others, choose instead to love the way they look in the mirror. But then, when they do this, they are sometimes harassed for ‘asking for attention’ based on what they wear. I’m sorry, but I like looking in the mirror and feeling like I look damn sexy. I like that feeling for ME because it makes ME feel good.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I think some women are moving beyond that, but that society as a whole has not. So, even when women do dress for themselves and not some other, the assumption is still that they dress for attention.

  15. I want to thank you for bringing this topic up. My favorite line: “We must look at all our curves and uniqueness in the mirror and find love.”

    Anorexia often begins as an irrational desire for perfection. After some time, it becomes a way to temporarily stave off intense loneliness, helplessness, and self-hatred. In a sense, food is transformed into a more potent drug by starving oneself.

    I bring this up to draw attention to the idea that societal pressures can influence our very biology in potent ways. Hence, the urgency of this issue.

    1. This is all very true. I was surprised to find the suggestion to look at myself in a mirror like that in a magazine of all places. It’s certainly not the first place I would go to find bodily acceptance.

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