No, this isn’t a post about how to exercise more (better, harder, faster) or eat better (less, more, slower, faster). And this isn’t about how someone else perceives your naked body. (It is actually a chapter from the book I am writing!)
First, a story:
Janet is a beautiful 62 year old woman, who grew up with conservative values and conservative parents. She is still married to her high school sweetheart and is more in love with him now than she ever was, most of the time. He is sometimes stubborn, and doesn’t always listen to her well, but he is a sweet man who loves her deeply and tries in his own way to make her happy. Their children are all out on their own and mostly self-sufficient and both Janet and her husband are getting closer to retiring. Janet has spent her whole life trying to look a certain way. When they were first married, she was a tiny thing, only 120 lbs. soaking wet and very happy about it. After her children were born, she struggled a bit to get back to a good weight and finally settled around 135. Still not too bad in her eyes, though not as lovely as she was before. Her husband enjoyed her new curves and made sure to tell her so. After the kids moved out and menopause set in, her weight crept up a bit more each year in spite of constant exercise and sometimes severe calorie restriction. She is currently about 165 lbs. and doesn’t like to look at herself in the mirror. Besides the wrinkles that are showing up in places she wasn’t expecting, she doesn’t like the lumps and bumps where her body used to be smooth. While their sex life is still pretty good, she will not strip down in front of her husband with the lights on, not because he is unhappy with her body, but because she is.
Is That Even Normal?
Janet’s story is only unusual in that she is still married to her high school sweetheart, (and maybe that she is conservative). So many women today, on any side of the political fence, are not happy with their bodies. (Men too, but the numbers are higher for women.) In fact, the number one wish for most girls ages 11-17 is to be thinner. Eating disorders, particularly those related to body image, are on the rise in every population, affecting over 10 million women and 1 million men in the US alone.
And these are just what has been documented. Since the 1960’s, the body type that we are exposed to in main stream media and advertisement is unnaturally thin. I am not saying this to disparage thinness, but because the images are airbrushed and photoshopped to be smoother, less blemished, thinner, bustier, have more thigh gap, more ribs showing, more bottom, etc., than any natural woman can have.
We are standing against a gigantic wave of industry imagery that is the result of billions upon billions of dollars and a great amount of market research that is specifically geared to tell us how to think and what to believe.
But we are smarter than that, right?
What is Beauty Sickness?
A researcher at Northwestern, Renee Engeln, decided to take on this subject in study, (check out the TED talk here), particularly because she was sure that smart, successful women are not as prone to the body shaming that comes with over exposure to this kind of idealized imagery.
Sadly, she proved herself wrong.
She found that in spite of these intelligent college aged women knowing that the images that they were viewing were not true to life, and even after remarking on it, most of them immediately made social comparisons to their own bodies in derogatory ways. Engeln calls it “beauty sickness” when a person actually knows better, but it isn’t enough to change her/his mindset, and that mindset interferes with her/his ability to openly engage with the world.
In fact, evolutionary scientists compare the exposure to these photoshopped images to sugar in our current society. A little isn’t too bad. It is not really going to change the way you live. But the inundation and oversaturation of the wrong kinds of images can be just as damaging as too much of the wrong kind of sugar! (source)
What Is It Really About, Then?
Here is the thing, it really is all about exposure!
Another study recently, again on body image, showed that our preferences for certain body types can change based on what we see. In this experiment, researchers were trying to determine why certain cultures have different body type preferences. They showed a varied group of women several pictures of both glamourous and plainly clad body types. What they found was that the more a certain kind of body was seen, regardless of the size or shape, the higher the preference for that body type. (source)
In other words:
Our view of beauty in a body changes based on what we see regularly! Tweet that!
Think of what this means for our young men and women looking at the popular magazines, or watching commercials or seeing constant billboards with Victoria Secret models. Whether they know the pictures are real or not is not going to change the perception that this is what beauty looks like, that this is normal. When girls and boys sees these pictures and then see themselves, they do not see beauty, they see flaws.
But How Much Do You Weigh?
Numbers are another issue that come up with body image all the time.
I did a survey, asking people first if they had an “ideal” weight and second, if they were at that weight. (Before reading further, will you answer that question in your head and let me know in the comments?!)
Apparently, if you ask this question on Facebook, you will get some pretty incredulous responses before the beauty of vulnerability comes through.
Mostly women answered, though men were more likely to answer honestly if the question was asked in person.
Some women were immediately vulnerable and shared their numbers openly, others shared via private message or text.
There were a few things that I noticed that were fascinating to me.
First, more women than I expected said that they no longer look at the number on the scale and just go more by what they feel like at a certain weight.
However, most of these women also did have a number that they considered an “ideal” weight and all but 3 of those that responded were not at that weight.
The numbers varied from 120-160lbs, and most, from a chart perspective, were not unreasonable goal weights.
Across the board, though, every single person, even those who were already at their ideal weight, had something about their body that they would like to change, even if it was something as small as “just firming up here and there”.
What is YOUR ideal weight?!
From a young age, we are taught about weight and what the ideal number might be for us. Some women I talked to had a number that was straight from a chart that maybe they had never actually attained, but for the majority of others, the number was related to a time in their life when they weighed that number and felt beautiful or powerful or strong or capable or thin or healthy.
My own number is from when I was getting married, starting a new career and was generally young and strong. (Ah, to be young again…)
We associate how we felt at that time with the number that we saw on the scale. It is actually similar to listening to music and having an emotional memory attached to a song. (source)
The problem is that this memory, this desire to have that body we once had, puts us at odds with the body we are currently living with, the body that has carried us all the way through to now.
The thing is, it is the same body!
Each thing you see as a blemish on your body is a mark of what you have come through in your life. Each of those memories has added to the whole of who you are today.
My stretchy skin on my stomach and left over stretch marks on my thighs is a testimony to the four beautiful children I carried there. I would never trade them for the smooth skin of youth, or even take away their mark on my body.
The scar on my back is a reminder of the years of nearly debilitating chronic pain that built my appreciation for walking and playing and gave me empathy for others who are suffering.
I can even attribute each of my gray hairs to a worry or a prayer for my children or siblings, and each of my eye lines to the great laughter that has been in my life.
Being beautiful is something you get to choose. I choose to be beautiful, no matter what size my body currently happens to be.
When you know who you are, believe you are beautiful and love yourself, (even knowing all of your “flaws”), it gives other people the freedom to see your beauty too. And it gives them the freedom to love you, flaws and all.
But guess what!
It also gives YOU the freedom to love others without the barrier that low self-image or lack of self-love puts in place. You don’t have to spend time thinking about what they think of you because it doesn’t matter!
Loving yourself takes away all the fear of not being accepted or being judged by others. Tweet This!
Everything that we experience is interpreted in the light of the culture we live in. There are beliefs and perceptions that are ingrained as part of our DNA. But here is the good news. We are not limited by our culture, our exposure, or our DNA. In fact, there is pretty clear evidence that we can change the expression of our DNA by changing our environment and our mindset. (Source) And sometimes we need something practical, that we can physically do, to help us to change our mindset.
What Can We DO About It?
What does this mean for you and me? If exposure is the thing that will change our perception, we need to be looking in the mirror MORE, not less.
Stand in front of the mirror after a shower and look at your body.
Instead of noticing the flaws, the stretch marks, the scars, remember that even those airbrushed models have cellulite and marks, and speak beauty out loud.
Say to your mirrored self, “You are beautiful.”
Then say to yourself, “I am beautiful.”
Don’t do this just once or twice. Do it every day until you believe it and then do it regularly so you remember it. The more you are exposed to the true beauty that is there, the more you will see it as beautiful.
Then try this:
Another part of the dialogue that is important to have with yourself is one of gratitude.
As you see each “flaw” or “blemish”, assign it the memory or recognition of life events that it speaks to. Even if your body has, or is struggling with illness, you are still alive today because this body has continued to breathe, has continued to produce energy, has continued to process nutrients and toxins, has healed again and again.
Speak to that body and thank it for what it has brought you through.
While this may feel like hooey initially, having a spoken appreciation for the things of creation is actually a form of divine worship. It is honoring the life-force that has served you and allowed you to function in relationship with those around you.
Speaking it out is also training your mind to hear the truth, instead of the lie that modern cultural exposure has given you.
I did a whole podcast on the topic of relationship with your body. You can listen by clicking the link below: