Two percent. That’s how many women chose the word “beautiful” to describe themselves in a recent worldwide study led by researchers from Harvard University and the London School of Economics. It’s a disturbingly low number, but perhaps not really surprising since women everywhere have trouble liking their bodies. Playwright and activist Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues (Villard, 1998) and The Good Body (Villard, 2004) puts it like this: “It doesn’t matter where I’ve been in the world, whether it’s Tehran where women are smashing their noses to look less Iranian, or in Beijing where they are breaking their legs and adding bone to be taller, or in Dallas where they are surgically whittling their feet in order to fit into Manolo Blahniks or Jimmy Choos. Everywhere, the women I meet generally hate one particular part of their bodies.” There’s a multitude of reasons that cause such intense body dissatisfaction and there are also a variety of empowering actions you can take toward accepting your body as it is.
It’s impossible to document all the forces that influence self-image, but some are pretty clear. Navigating media imagery that glorifies thinness while many Americans battle obesity is certainly one of them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of American adults over the age of 20 (or roughly 60 million people) are obese and current data show that the trend is worsening. Yet tabloid magazines and TV shows routinely feature content like “Stars Who Weigh Less than 100 Pounds!” and “The Best Celebrity Bikini Bodies.” Such content not only encourages profound scrutiny of their perfection and flaws, but makes it nearly impossible to avoid sizing ourselves up as well.
Adult women today are also daughters of the first generation of hardcore dieters. We’ve grown up in the shadow of women who religiously pursued fad diets based on grapefruits, cabbage soup, and advice from doctors in ritzy Los Angeles neighborhoods. “The expectations for what an aging woman’s body should look like have totally changed,” explains Dina Zeckhausen, Ph.D., co-executive director of Atlanta’s Eating Disorder Information Network. “Older women are trying to look like women half their age,” and they’re doing it through extreme dieting and exercise plans. Younger women inevitably pick up on their mothers’ anxiety over aging, and often end up worrying about the same issues. It’s become a rite of passage a problem that will be passed down between generations of women.
Women regularly interact and bond over their body issues, which usually only magnifies body dissatisfaction. “It’s what women do these days,” says Zeckhausen. “Even though it’s meant to be supportive or show solidarity based on common experiences, it ends up narrowly focusing our social interaction and encouraging us to obsess over our bodies.” All that chatter about promising to start a diet after the holidays, joining a gym at the start of a new year, and even complimenting a friend for looking like she’s dropped ten pounds are really just reflections of the profound anxiety and body dissatisfaction that permeate many of our lives.
The Path to Acceptance and Change
“Your body is an expression of the divine,” declares Jan Philips, a motivational speaker and author of Divining the Body: Reclaim the Holiness of Your Physical Self (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2005). Philips defines “divine” as the universe’s vital, creative force that’s responsible for all the wonders under the sun, not as organized religion and rigid doctrine. “Our bodies are made up of the very same atoms contained in the stars, planets, trees, and waters. And that’s hallowed no matter who or what created it.” Accepting that, says Philips, is the first step to freeing ourselves from a mindset that prevents us from feeling at home in our own skin. To start this process, Philips believes it’s essential to carve out some daily quiet time where no one and nothing even ourselves criticizes our physical beings. “Our culture overlooks the spiritual,” argues Philips. “A little quiet time each day away from all the chatter of family, friends, religious institutions, and the media can help immunize us against negative tendencies. It can help us to remember to honor the body as an instrument of the soul.” Kind of like a daily spiritual booster shot.
Another path to peace can be found in reconceptualizing our physical routines and goals. Alison C. Ross, an eating coach and certified yoga instructor at the Wright Institute in Los Angeles works with eating disorder patients. Ross notes that many of the physical activities we routinely engage in are centered around chasing an ideal or competing against ourselves. “Spinning, power yoga, extreme boot camps, dieting” lists Ross. “We’d be so much better off if we created interactions with our bodies based on caring for ourselves, not pushing ourselves to achieve a goal or punishing ourselves for failing to be something other than we are.” Ross’s solution is to explore movement arts from basic yoga to Qi Gong, a Chinese system of flowing physical movements performed in a meditative state. “Activities that require the mind to focus on the breath give it something to do other than criticize [the]body,” explains Ross. “More importantly, observing our bodies during healing postures and practices teaches us to examine them in a positive way instead of scrutinizing what we perceive as shortcomings.”
Of course, the most radical approach to making peace with your body is just flat out refusing to criticize or berate yourself. It sounds simplistic, but some experts believe it’s the most effective, important technique around. Candace Pert, a molecular biologist and author of Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Do (Simon & Schuster, 1999), believes the mind and body are not two separate entities, but rather one interconnected information system. Pert argues that the brain is constantly “in conversation” with the body so that cerebral negative thoughts almost instantly affect the body on a cellular level. So even something as seemingly benign as promising to start that new diet or envying another woman’s figure communicates shame and disapproval to your body, affecting it profoundly. “When someone says ‘I hate my thighs’ they might as well take a knife and cut into them,” says Phillips, who’s been greatly influenced by Pert’s research. “That’s the extent of the psychic damage negative ideas judgments can have.” So let yourself off the hook for not resembling media darlings who spend their lives and fortunes on getting the look they have. You’ll feel better from the inside out.
The path to making peace ultimately lies in realizing that it’s not our bodies that need changing, but our mindsets. We’re not doomed to body dissatisfaction even though our cultural environment is awash with conflicting messages. The power lies in perspective. As Ensler says, “Stop trying to be anything [or]anyone other than who you are . . . Love your body. Stop fixing it. It was never broke.” So let go of the thinking that results in judgments and criticisms, and embrace a new perspective that empowers you to feel good about your body. Clearly more than two percent of the women on this planet are beautiful, we just need to retrain ourselves to see it and believe it.
Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide To Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty (Walker & Company, 2006), a media literacy and self-image guide for teen girls.
Better Body Image Starts Here
Spas and retreat centers are increasingly offering programs to develop a healthier body image. Consider these:
Green Mountain at Fox Run – Vermont’s Green Mountain, which focuses on healthy weight loss, offers classes taught by a behavioral therapist that focus on body image, stress management, and emotional eating including “Getting Your Past Off Your Plate” and “Changing Thinking.” Contact (800) 448-8106
Aziza Healing Adventures and Women’s Retreats – Created by a certified Reiki practitioner and Gestalt therapist, these one-day workshops, weekend retreats, and wellness trips combine psychotherapy, creativity, body awareness, and a focus on nature. Fall 2005 and Spring 2006 retreats include Authentic Living in Ontario (where Aziza is based), and open-themed adventure excursions to Mexico and Bali, during which guests can choose to concentrate on body image. Contact (416) 696-0086
Lake Austin Spa Resort – This Texan luxury property offers regular lectures and classes on healing body image and body wisdom, some of which are led by Deborah Kern, a Lake Austin staffer and co-author of Create the Body Your Soul Desires: The Friendship Solution to Weight, Energy, and Sexuality (Southern Century Press, 2003). Practitioners and activity staff are also purposely varied in size and age so that guests see varied examples of fitness and health. Contact (800) 847-5637
Miraval Resort – Located in Arizona’s desert near Tucson, Miraval offers a complete approach to physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Regular classes like “Food Stress & Body Acceptance” as well as “Thinking, Feeling, Eating” help guests cultivate wiser relationships with food and a more compassionate relationship with the body through discussion, writing, and body scan meditations. Contact (800) 232-3969
Or pick up The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect (John Wiley, 2005) by Margo Maine, Ph.D. and Joe Kelly, a groundbreaking book that explores how family, culture, and changing expectations influence how women feel about their bodies.
Ten tips for making peace with your body:
1. Make a list of “nots” you’ve encountered in your life, i.e. not thin enough, not enough like what you see in the media, not pretty enough. Realize how many there are. Realize that it’s a list of demands from other people and institutions, and that you don’t have to meet any requirements other than those you place on yourself.
2. Understand that internal voices come from external forces like culture, religion, and family. If you find yourself criticizing with thoughts like “I’m all wrong and bad,” try to remind yourself that those thoughts were most likely put in your head from outside sources.
3. Forget about diets and obsessing over what you eat and pay more attention to what you think: “If you pay more attention to what comes out of your mouth,” reasons Philips, “You could pay a lot more attention to what goes into your mouth because you’d be living with a higher level of consciousness.”
4. Engage yourself in exercise specifically designed to help you appreciate your different body parts. Commit to a month of participation in a movement dance class or swimming to connect with the power of your legs or take a massage class to learn about the healing energy of your hands. It will refamiliarize you with your divine physical qualities.
5. If you find yourself being critical of your body, ask yourself “what do I gain from being preoccupied and dissatisfied with my ‘flaws?'” The answer is most likely not a whole lot, so move past them.
6. Remind yourself that you deserve to do things like swimming or sunbathing regardless of the shape of your body.
7. Actively strive to be good to your body through moderate exercise and pampering. Nobody enjoys grueling physical workouts endured simply to burn calories.
8. Find conversation topics to discuss with friends that don’t have to do with dieting, weight- loss, feeling bloated, or time logged at the gym.
9. Think of yourself in a global context. It’s easier to become dissatisfied when focusing on images or ideas that are specific to say, Hollywood movies, or high fashion magazines.
10. And remember these images represent just a tiny fraction of the possibilities for beauty and success. Compliment yourself every time you criticize yourself.