Many of us struggle with our appearance, but is there a way to break free from society’s ongoing obsession with what we look like?
By Suvi Mahonen
It was six in the evening—bath time—and my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was standing in front of me wearing nothing but her socks. She was, as one would expect of a toddler, not in the least bit ashamed of her body as she proudly patted her belly.
“Look at my tummy!” she said, sticking it out as far as it would go. “Look how big it is!” She grinned at me expectantly.
“It’s not big!” I exclaimed, as if that would be a bad thing. “It’s thin and beautiful!”
And there it was. The moment I realised I’d failed as a mother.
I, who had vowed to embrace all body shapes and sizes, who had ditched the scales as soon as I became pregnant, who had sworn never to say the four-letter word “diet” in front of my daughter, was sending her the message that her body should be judged on size.
My goal was to be a positive role model for my daughter. I wanted her to realise she was beautiful for being exactly as she was. But the truth was, it was hard, when I was embarrassed about my own body. I felt like I fell short of some idealised notion of what was attractive in other people’s eyes. And so I went on diets and attended gym classes, all under the guise of so-called “self-improvement”.
But why, as a mature adult, should I be embarrassed about my body? Why did I believe that my body was somehow fundamentally flawed? Psychologists, counsellors and exercise physiologists agree that body image—the way we view our body and the assumptions we make about how others view it—is a complex issue that begins in childhood.
“The most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves,” says relationships counsellor and psychotherapist Charmaine Roth. “From a very early age, we hear messages about ourselves from our parents and other adults about how we should look and behave. As we grow older, these messages are reinforced by the images we see in the media. These images, together with the early messages, can reinforce unrealistic expectations about our appearance.”
Most of us understand that media images are manipulated. The Australian Press Council stipulates that publishers should provide readers with information about digitally altered images where there is the potential for readers to be deceived. “Creating unrealistic expectations about what is a ‘healthy’ or an ‘ideal’ body shape could lead to the risk of adverse effects on the physical or mental health of readers,” says chair of the Press Council, Professor David Weisbrot.
Eating Disorders Victoria CEO Jennifer Beveridge agrees that exposure to unrealistic images in the media can contribute to a negative body image. “Heavily Photoshopped advertising campaigns using models who lack diversity sends a message that only one type of body can be considered beautiful,” she says.
But the problem is a lot deeper than Photoshopping, and no generation is exempt. I grew up in the eighties, at a time when Barbie was asserting her independence. As a young girl I admired her ability to be a surgeon, an astronaut and a racing car driver. But I also admired her long skinny legs and tiny waist and viewed them as a prerequisite for being a successful woman. This is despite an analysis by the University Central Hospital in Finland, which estimated she lacked the 17 per cent minimum body fat required to menstruate.
And as for my mother, who was a teenager in the 1960s, one of the most famous women in the world was English model and actress Lesley Lawson, who was voted British Woman of the Year in 1966 and whose very name that she became known by—Twiggy—reflected society’s worship of thinness.
There are perhaps some generative reasons as to why humans focus so much on looks. “It’s a natural survival mechanism to judge and compare ourselves against others, and for us to need to be accepted by others,” says Sydney-based psychologist Sharon Draper.
Thankfully, these days, our dress size or how we wear our hair does not dictate our actual survival. But the fact remains that humans have always admired beauty and perfection, something that is only exacerbated by the highly visual society we live in, notes clinical psychologist Sam Van Meurs. “We are more aware of our physical selves than ever before due to the ever present social comparisons that we make on social media and when we see advertising,” he says.
This is certainly true, says physiotherapist Nikhil Taneja, who has seen many young women compare themselves to celebrities and try to be the same. “They come to me because they want to know if yoga or Pilates will give them the same kind of physique as the celebrities they follow. When I try to explain to them that these celebrities also go on extreme diets, many of them don’t come back.”
We are the same . . . and we are beautiful.
Research indicates that eating disorders are on the increase and it is clear that perceiving our body in a negative light can potentially have serious repercussions for our health. So what steps can be taken to help develop a more holistic body image?
“Focusing less on what your body looks like and more on what it can do is a good first step,” says Jennifer. “Emphasise your inner strengths and value things unrelated to your physical appearance. Cut out negative self-talk and engage in plenty of self-care.”
Health and community psychologist Dr Marny Lishman agrees that we need to stop putting ourselves down. “When we are self-accepting, we embrace all the parts of ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, the good and the bad,” she says.
When it comes to our children, there are many things we can do to encourage a positive body image, says Charmaine. “Encourage mealtimes to be a time when the family can sit together and talk, rather than it being too focused on food,” she says.
Other strategies she advises we employ include taking care with the language we use, maintaining a healthy attitude towards diet and exercise, and praising our child’s strengths and abilities rather than their appearance.
As for me, I did my best to reduce my negative self-beliefs. I began to focus on my strengths and I worked on accepting my feelings.
In the end, though, the most powerful lesson came from home.
It was my daughter’s bath time again and I’d gotten into the tub with her to tackle the challenging task. After the shampooing, detangling, washing, rinsing and the obligatory bath toy games, we were back on the bathmat, drying ourselves off with towels.
“Mummy,” my daughter said, looking up at my naked body with a bright glow on her cheeks. “We’re the same.”
And in that moment I suddenly realised something. My daughter, with the innocent eyes of a young child, could look at my body and see that our similarities were more important than our obvious differences.
I knelt down in front of her and put my hands on her shoulders. I could feel the outline of her bones and the soft slope of her arms.
“We are the same,” I said, “and we are beautiful.”
And even though I’d been telling myself to love my body, for the first time in my life I truly meant it.
How to improve your body image
Start with self-compassion
Treating yourself with kindness is an important step towards building body acceptance. It can be helpful to think about how you would treat someone you care deeply for. What sort of language would you use? We tend to be very good at showing kindness and compassion to others, yet when it comes to ourselves, we struggle and often feel undeserving.
Focus on the whole
When we look in the mirror, we tend to "zoom in" on the specific area of our body that we dislike. Instead, when you are looking in the mirror, try to broaden your "lens" so that you are focusing on your body as a whole.
Shift your language
We tend to have quite critical internal dialogues which may lead to engaging in behaviours that are unhelpful to our wellbeing. It is important to start bringing awareness to what our mind tells us. There is a difference between saying "I'm fat" and "I'm having the thought that I'm fat". This shift in language creates a subtle yet powerful distance between who we are and our thoughts.
Written by clinical psychologists Danielle McCarthy and Dinusha Cragg, who regularly see clients with body image concerns at their Queensland practice, MindPotential Psychology.