How we see and feel about our body, and how we feel others see us are all part of our body image.
How do you feel when you see yourself in the mirror? Do you think all would be fine if you lost five or ten pounds? Or are you happy with what you see? What about your nose or legs or butt? And are you satisfied with your breasts, if you are a woman?
I am a woman, and while I am writing from the perspective of a woman, much of what I am saying is applicable to boys and men as well. While men as well as women may suffer from negative body image, men seem to be able to compensate psychologically for not having the ideal body by having a female companion who does, or a well-paying job or big truck or whatever. Have you ever met a man who is down on himself for not having the sleek, panther-like body of his favorite NFL wide receiver? After watching his game or NASCAR event or James Bond flick, does he suddenly go on a starvation diet so that he can look like the men he sees in these events? In most cases, most men have no problem cheering on their sports or entertainment stars without stopping to compare their own often not-so-perfect body with those of their heroes.
So just what is up with us women? Why do we care so much, and what are the consequences?
For one, we women seem to cling tenaciously to the idea that we should look and dress exactly like the role models the media and the advertising world so kindly provide us with. This has to be one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of all time, but also one of the unhealthiest.
Besides the billions of dollars that we fork over each year to the beauty and diet industries, we also hand over a lot of our health and self-esteem as we chase the latest look or fad. The dark side of this artificial computer-generated ideal body image that we are bombarded with daily, is that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are now affecting at least 1 out of 5 young women in America by some counts.
Why do we spend so much and suffer so much to look like the women that the media and marketing gurus present to us as the ideal woman with the ideal body? Why do we care?
We want to be desired.
It is perfectly natural that we want to be desirable and desired. That is not the problem. The problem is that we are buying into the media and marketing image of what desirable looks like. We have been told, and we continue to believe, that unless we look like the runway models, or the Baywatch or Sex in the City stars, that we have essentially no chance for partners, and we are going to spend our lives as lonely spinsters knitting caps and mittens for grandchildren we will never have while setting poison out for stray cats.
But is that the truth?
Does our desirability depend on whether or not we conform to the expectations of others? And is it even possible to conform?
Consider that the average woman model is 5’11 and 117 pounds, and that the average American woman is around 5’4” and 163 pounds.
What is the likelihood that we are all going to grow 7 inches and lose some 45 pounds?
OK. So it is not likely that we can look like the runway models, but what about the other ideal that we are up against every day? You know, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue girls, the Victoria Secret angels, the Penthouse Pet and Playboy Bunny look. How many women look like that? Do the models themselves even look like that, or is it all touch-up and Photoshop even with them?
More importantly that whether or not it is possible to conform, is the question of whether or not it is desirable or healthy to try to look like Hefner’s playthings.
I believe it is neither desirable nor healthy to try to force your body to be something it is not.
We, as women, need to do our part in refusing to buy into this insane assault on our senses which screams louder and louder in our ears at every turn that we need to lose weight, get a tit job, dye our hair blond, or whatever the latest fad is. We do NOT have to try to look like porn stars. Just as in the advertisements against drug use, we can “just say no”.
The alternative to getting a tit job does not have to be sitting on a couch all day stuffing ourselves with cases of Doritos until we have serious health problems. There is a middle way, a healthy one, which I will get into shortly.
But we need to be clear to ourselves and to the world that we, the women of the world, will not sacrifice our physical, emotional and psychological health and self-esteem trying to look like the latest Hollywood or Madison Avenue creation. This has got to stop in our heads first, before we can manifest the change...
Advertising in now using computer-generated moving models, on top of the endless retouching of real live models’ photos, and photos of bodies that are fragments and features of several models. Advertising is“creating women that do not exist,” as Jean Kilbourne points out in her documentary: Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women. Ms. Kilbourne explains that “failure to achieve the ideal female beauty is inevitable, because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness. She never has any lines or wrinkles. She certainly has no scars or blemishes; indeed she has no pores.”
We are investing real life energy, money, and body into pursuing an ideal body type that is not real. Kilbourne shows the bill from the computer-retouching company who “fixed” Michelle Pfeiffer’s look for the Esquire cover. The list from the touch-up people, included: soften eye lines, trim chin, clean up complexion, and remove neckline. That’s it?
That’s all Michelle “needs” to be acceptable for Esquire’s cover picture? And if Ms. Pfeiffer “needs” all that, what about the rest of us?
Kilbourne brings up the fact that only 5% of American woman have the ideal body type they should have according to the advertising world. Our failure to look like the advertised models generates a range of negative feelings inside of us, from guilt to self-hatred. Given the link between emotions and body, I’m surprised we aren’t all struggling with eating disorders!
The ideal body image changes from era to era and from culture to culture.
Body image is like beauty image or fashion: it goes through fads. There is no one image that remains the ideal body image across time and space.
In many Northern countries, having tanned, dark skin is considered exotic, so much so that many of us, especially women, lighten our pocketbooks and risk our health grilling ourselves in tanning booths when there isn’t any natural sun available. Yet, down in Latin America, men and women alike do everything possible to get out of the sun, because darker skin in many of those countries is associated with the lower classes and poverty.
In many African countries, and elsewhere, women having large buttocks is considered not only a sign of health, but also very sexy. In countries where famine is a not-so-distant memory, being thin was associated with being weak, frail, and poor. If you were or are big, you are considered rich enough to be able to over-eat, which in itself makes you desirable.
In the 50’s, Marilyn Monroe turned on men and inspired women and was the biggest sex symbol of her generation; these days, she would almost certainly be considered far too big for Sports Illustrated or Victoria’s Secret and maybe wouldn’t be able to model at all.
What’s my point?
Different countries have different beauty criteria. They are changeable. They are not set in stone. They do not necessarily represent your truth.
What is important to retain here is that, just the way you are today, whether or not Madison Ave. or Hollywood or the media approves or not, somewhere on the planet, you are a goddess or a hunk!
My body is my geography:
Obelix is a French cartoon character representing a big, jolly Gaul (which is what the French used to be called when France did not yet exist as a country, but only as a Roman colony), with two long red braids, who resists the Roman invasion of his country in hilarious ways.
Although Obelix is not usually a nickname for a woman, it was my friend’s nickname. She was a tall, big-boned 50 year-old woman, with a prominent tummy, who moved around like a young and light elf. She loved her nickname Obelix, she loved food, she loved life, and unless she was wearing her bikini, you never noticed her stomach or her oversized body.
This woman had a radically new and fresh perspective on her body: she loved her body in all its history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. She could also empower women about their body and beauty in a very real way; she really was not envious of others’ bodies, but was truly happy with her temple. When she would put lotion on her body, she often stopped at different scars where her body had been operated on or had an accident. She’d meditate on certain body parts, and think out-loud: Each part of my body has a story to tell me, which in turn is part of my story.
She spent a month at our place, and, during her visit, I was exposed to and took in some new and healthier images of a woman’s body. For instance, in movies I had always watched young, beautiful women bathing and delicately taking care of their body, while in real life, I had rarely seen older women, and even less frequently older divorced women, bathe just for the pleasure of it in the way that the young, pretty princesses usually do. My friend was obsessed by her body but in a very positive way, and her expansive stomach and other physical shortcomings were integrated both in the positive image she projected, and in the positive way in which we looked at her. She would regularly say to me: “I’m not perfect, but I’m full, rich inside and very alive.”
Her comfort with her body drew people to her, as did the clothes and accessories that she used. She was following her own style, what looked good on her, with her own little touch: embroidered Amazonian flowers on most of her clothes. The larger point that I am trying to make here is that my friend was into herself, and was following what spoke to her, and was not guided by or slave to an outside manufactured image of what she should look like. She would show me her pictures when she became a chef, and she’d look at herself, trying to physically hug the even more giant belly she had had back then, but this time on photo paper. Her self-love was fun to watch as she would stop, and with amazement in her voice, exclaim: “Look at all the pastries I was eating back then!”
She still loved the fact that she had given in to her love of pastry, just as she did back then; she had no regrets. Her fat was not offensive to her, thus neither was it to me; better yet, her fat had an interesting story to tell, unlike mine. My friend was magnetic; her self-confidence shined and her body language was open with a strong posture. Although she did not have the type of body we are told is desirable, because she was so comfortable with herself and with her body, she was very attractive, even magnetic.
Women often overlook the importance of a healthy body when it comes to enhancing their body image. The nutritionist and alternative-medicine specialist Gary Null strongly suggests that we do not focus on a particular shape or size that we want to have, but rather concentrate our efforts on living a healthy life-style. He encourages both men and women to reduce stress in their lives, eat healthy foods, and get the proper amount of exercise. Then, and only then, will the form of the body fall into place naturally, without forcing it. We will be the size and shape we are meant to be. Our body can project a healthy body image once it is given health; it will build on the health it receives from us.
Our body is alive, and it will reflect what we have inside.
Forget trying to squeeze into Size 5 jeans, and stop trying to drop down to 115 pounds in a couple of weeks. Do not binge diet. Neither starve yourself nor stuff yourself. Eat when you are hungry, but only when you are hungry. Feed your body good, healthy, whole food, reduce the stress in your life, exercise appropriately for your age and condition, and the rest will fall into place.
Capturing and Preserving Body Image
The lens of a picture camera cannot capture the body’s image in real-time. In photography, we lose depth or perception of depth because of the two–dimensional nature of photography. Photos are two-dimensional, and we are three-dimensional physical beings. We also have emotional and spiritual dimensions that often do not show in even the best of photographs. Photos are part of the story, part of our picture, but they present an incomplete portrait of who we really are.
Let’s say you have noticed that your left profile stands out nicely in pictures. Observe and appreciate this positive outcome, but don’t approach every future picture trying to show just your left side. Be in the moment of the photo, think about something or someone you like in their funniest moment, and let the picture take you. Try to not stay stuck in any one image of yourself. However beautiful these couple of images of yourself, they represent only one face of yourself. You are not limited to one face, one aspect of yourself. Learn to discover and appreciate the many faces you have. It is both freeing and beautifying as you are putting down the self-imposed limits you had on one or two images of you, and are opening yourself to more.
Don’t try to freeze a moment, a picture, or a vision, however fine looking, in time or space. The picture show called Life keeps going on, keeps moving, keeps evolving, and, although your mind may want to hang on that stunning picture of you, if you try to recreate it, the results will most likely be different. That is the nature of Life, in that it is not a computer program in which things can get duplicated with ease; rather it is like a non-stop series of moments, faces, feelings and reactions of ours.
Don’t miss a future great moment but staying stuck in the past.
There is nothing like the present to live in.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the prettiest of them all?
A friend who worked in Niger, a country in northern Africa, told me that in Niger, as well as in other countries and communities in sub-Saharan Africa, the people often do not use or have mirrors in their houses. Apparently, it is not seen as a necessity to have a mirrored image of oneself readily available. I have noticed the same lack of mirrors in the indigenous houses of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, and they don’t seem any worse off for it! In fact, they seem completely beyond any self-consciousness about their looks. They just don’t seem to have body image issues in any way, nor do they understand the idea of starving one self to reach some unreal ideal version of what a woman should look like. They cannot comprehend why one would put the body through such unnecessary hardships; for them, life already poses enough survival challenges!
In her book "Marilyn Monroe Confidential: An Intimate Personal Account", Lena Pepitone, Monroe’s assistant, recounts “Floor-to-ceilings mirrors were everywhere; even the dining alcove at the rear of the living-room had a table with a mirrored top. All these mirrors didn’t cheer things up.”
Countless mirror images are created in the receiver’s mind and subconscious; at best, they confuse one about personal identity, at worse, they strip one of personal identity. Simone Signoret, the French actress, reported that every time Ms. Monroe went out, she had to put on Marilyn. It is very hard to grow, improve, and teach the real self, when we are always putting ourselves in performance mode, performance of another projection of our real self.
Inner and Outer Change: Ever Smaller Bikinis
A new and more nourishing environment can help us acknowledge, learn about, accept and grow into our real self and our real body.
When I first went to South America, I sensed my relationship with my body and with my body image would change for the better. During my time in Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and now Brazil, I found myself feeling better and better about my body, and my real body image, which are one and the same. The countries such as Ecuador where there is large indigenous population have been even more nurturing energetically to my body. A Shuar translator asked me one day in a very perplexed tone “Why don’t Arab men let their women take in the sunlight?” I had never thought about the question of veiling and covering from that perspective, but I greatly appreciated being exposed to this new, thought-provoking, nature-oriented point of view.
Nature grounds us; the presence of the jungle, mountains, volcanoes, rivers, and ocean had a rooting effect on me. My self-consciousness, my neurosis, and my acceptable perceived body image that I wanted to project out there all started to relax, and even disappear or be forgotten sometimes. Imagine the possibilities of being you, totally enlightened by self-acceptance, and simply living lightly in the now.
I can trace the evolution of my body image almost day-by-day by reflecting on how my swim attire has changed since I started coming down to South America. When I first arrived, I was sporting a large, cumbersome, one-piece suit that looked suspiciously like something of East German manufacture circa 1960. Think stern, shapeless, and ugly. I eventually felt comfortable enough with my body to set that aside, but not to throw out. I graduated to a bikini which was more revealing, but only slightly more so. It was essentially the one piece with a hole cut out for my belly button and back. It was quite a mental and psychological production for me to be able to put that on, because I didn’t have the flat stomach I wanted, and I was desperately afraid that EVERYONE on the beach or in the pool would be looking at NOTHING but my stomach should I ever drop my towel and make it to the water. And talk about a crazy tan line!
After a season or two of scurrying for the water, and waddling around neck-to-toe in a towel whenever out of the water, I finally realized and accepted that everyone was not staring at me and making fun at me, and that the looks I was getting were appreciative and not derisive. I also picked up on the acceptance that most Latin women have for their bodies, and started feeling some of that for mine as well.
It was in Brazil though, that I made a series of rapid and evolutionary transformations. Brazil is the perfect country for that. While there is a tendency among some men and women to go for plastic surgery to achieve that perfect nose or flawless breasts, there is also a widespread attitude of accepting your body the way it is, without shame or disgust. I love it!
I quickly made my way through a stack of bikinis, with the tops and bottoms getting ever smaller, to the point where my regular bottom is a minimal coverage string (it is called “dental floss” in Brazil!) and my top barely covers my breasts! And all this without having reached my perfect body image of the lean, muscular me! I never even dreamed it would be possible to go out there, and really enjoy myself without being self-conscious and self-critical.
But it wasn’t just about getting a smaller swimsuit, although the additional sun did do my body lots of good just in terms of the increased levels of Vitamin D alone!
To feel positive about my body, I also had to learn to become aware of how I was taking in the negative reinforcements of body image, and not the positive ones, especially the compliments from the man I love and live with.
How many times had I heard my companion tell me about his desire for my body? How many times has he explained to me that a woman who is comfortable with her body fat, and who carries it well, is also very attractive to him? How many times have I heard guy friends tell me about their attraction for curvy women? I could not integrate what they were saying; I would not really listen then. I just kept obsessing over my stomach and trying to hide it, trying to keep fat in the dark of my life, literally where the sun never shone.
The tank top shifts
Everything shifts… When I first arrived in Ecuador, I and other foreigners would marvel at the Ecuadorian women who wore a tight tank top and showed their belly bottom roll. By the time I reached Brazil, on the coast, I saw women, young and old, pull up their tank tops right up to their breasts to air out their bellies when they were sweating. I never thought I would see women allow themselves the same freedom as men have with their bellies when it’s hot!
Today, in 2010, having lived the last few years in South America, and persisting with my healing, I can finally see more and more a voluptuous woman in me who is beautiful. I can finally understand and see with new eyes how an acquaintance of mine, who would be considered fat in the USA, was talking about her body’s curves and fat as if it were sexy and so desirable…. I can see what she saw now… I am starting to see beauty in my body in such a real way, that my body is looking nicer, and feeling nicer. It has a snowball effect: if you give water, sunlight, and positive attention to your flowers, they will become your pride and joy. Your body is no different.