A couple of years ago when moving, I was forced to sort through some old photos and keepsakes. I came across one of me in my prom dress, and quickly became overwhelmed with mixed emotions. First of all, I was impressed with how I looked; thoughts to the effect of “Wow, that’s ME?!?!” raced through my head and I was excited I looked great for my high school graduation. On the other hand, I felt deeply sad for my teenage self in that picture — someone with such poor body image she’d felt herself lacking more often than not.
When I reflected on this double-edged realization about my sense of self-worth, it prompted a change in everything I thought about body image and worthiness. My 20-something-self realized that she had spent many years of her youth worrying about things that turned out to be insignificant a few short years later. What would this feel like in another decade? Or when I’m 70? Did I really want to continue to look back on photos at various stages of my life and feel sorry for the younger version of myself?
Additionally, I made peace with the fact that I have no idea what life will throw at me and my changing appearance, so I made a commitment: I promised myself to overcome the burden of poor body image. Maybe then, when I look back on photos I will remember feelings other than insecurity. Worth a shot!
The underlying truth is that any physical weight fluctuations were not as destructive to my happiness as the emotional weight I carried by being so hard on myself. Over the years my muscle mass, inches, and body fat percentage changed but my lack of contentment with my body remained constant. Admittedly, I felt equally insecure at my healthiest as I did at my unhealthiest. This self-criticism did not serve to improve my body, and instead weighed me down. I learned that tapping into a higher level of self-awareness sparked the only weight loss that actually contributed to my happiness — that is, the “weight” of judgement and poor body image.
Fatphobia loves your energy
I think that this realization process was strongly tied to a culturally specific fatphobic attitude. Fatphobia refers to a dislike or fear of fat, be it fatty foods, one’s body fat, or other people’s body fat. There are several reasons for the development of this attitude, and media and marketing are a good place to begin. Product marketing is, and always will be, designed to make consumers feel they are in need of products that allow the producer to generate profit. By promoting a specific look as desirable, healthy or successful, the advertiser creates a standard in the mind of the consumer.
Consumers find themselves surrounded by images that can only possibly be attained by an extremely small percentage of the population. Yet if product marketing is successful, even the rest of the population will purchase products that claim to help them achieve these ideals. They may or may not work, but they will make someone a lot of money and that is really the bottom line.
These ideal images that we are supposed to strive for are contrasted against what are presented as undesirable body types. These supposedly undesirable body types better represent the majority of the population, but they are portrayed as undesirable because there’s less profit potential if the majority of the population had the crazy idea that we look fine. Some media marketing goes so far as vilifying fat, which reinforces negative ideas about weight on our bodies and our bodies in the world.
Unequal distribution of body shame
For marketing companies to do this right, about 90-something percent of us are supposed to feel unsatisfied with the way we look. You will be particularly targeted to take on the task of self-loathing if you are under 18, a woman, if you have a disability, if your skin colour doesn’t match what’s trending, or any other variant that might add to your vulnerability.
It’s important to keep in mind that a certain amount of privilege is tied to the ability to have poor body image. This doesn’t dismiss the struggle of body image challenges, but can help put things into perspective when making a game plan to overcome them.
The underlying truth is that any physical weight fluctuations were not as destructive to my happiness as the emotional weight I carried by being so hard on myself.
It’s interesting that feeling kindness toward and acceptance of other people is often easier than feeling kindness and acceptance towards ourselves. But then again, there are those who treat others based on how they look. It’s a shame so many people internalize image-based fears so greatly that it can result in unkind behaviour and comments about other people, and it’s sad that this is considered normal. Because, at the end of the day, one person’s body is nobody else’s business. Not everybody owes the rest of the world a reason for accepting their own body, yet there’s an underlying expectation for people with varying degrees of body fat to provide an explanation, excuse, or to engage in self-loathing. It’s an extraordinary disservice to encourage and permit each other to body shame ourselves and other people, yet this is another favorite icebreaker and topic of conversation.
Just as I don’t need a contrasting image of a professional sports model to help me realize my physical differences, I don’t need a formal education in health to know that negative attitudes about our bodies can affect our overall well-being. And don’t get me wrong, I think experiencing contradictory thoughts and emotions is totally healthy and normal and they shouldn’t be suppressed. But certainly, some formula involving added kindness to ourselves, and less judgement of our feelings, should do the trick. That way we can experience reactions to our changing bodies, but not allow our judgement of those feelings feed on energy that could be used elsewhere.
In my case, I still have ups and downs with how I manage my body, and actively practicing acceptance and gratitude means it’s not the big hurdle it once was. My experience is just one example of how a person can change the relationship they have with their body regardless of measurements and numbers.
But I am glad to say that reducing my judgement and increasing my self-kindness has made me so much lighter!
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