How a new perspective on body image can empower you from the inside out!
(This post is mostly for women…and men who truly want to be change makers)!
My body image then and now
My body image and perception of my physical appearance changed after having my children. Stretch marks, weight gain, under-eye circles, a baby bump (or tummy pooch), and ligament pain in my ankle are remnants from two consecutive pregnancies, childbirth and postpartum child-rearing. Before having children, I used to have a small, thin and athletic frame (I did competitive gymnastics and dancing for about 15 years). I felt confident with my figure, my facial features and my appearance in general. (Don’t get me wrong, I was not always accepting of myself–I dealt with acne for a long time–and like most women, I have certainly fixated on different aspects of my physical appearance over the course of my tween, teen, young adult and adult years, but I was generally happy with how I looked.) The irony is that I thought I had a good body image back then, but I realize now that my perception was misguided. Although it’s a work in progress, my body image is better now, than it was before. As I’ve been reflecting on what all of this means and reading some great articles on the Beauty Redefined site, I’ve learned some incredible, paradigm-shifting lessons.
Before I get into what I’ve learned, please reflect on these 4 questions as honestly as possible:
1. What does body image mean to you?
2. What do you first notice, think about and/or comment on when you see another woman, a girlfriend, or a little girl, in person or on social media (i.e., an Instagram or Facebook photo)?
3. What thoughts and perceptions (subtle or obvious) occur to you when you notice other women on billboards, magazines, music videos, movies (real-life and animated), or pictures (i.e, selfies) posted on social media?
4. How often and in what ways do you think about your physical appearance on a daily basis (think about all the subtle ways that such thoughts may pop up and pass through in the background of your thought processes as you go about your day)?
A culture steeped in the external
In reflecting on these questions I admittedly think about physical appearances, whether overly or subtly, regularly throughout my day. My cognitive space is continually processing thoughts (often fleetingly, in the background of my day-to-day operations) on my physical appearance and that of others. We likely have thousands, if not more, thoughts that pass through us throughout a day and we are barely aware of most of them. When I metacognitively introspect, I notice that some passing thoughts about appearances/looks that pass through my head in a typical day may sound something like: “Cute shoes!”, “Hmmm, not sure about this outfit on me…”, “She looks great!”, “My skin looks clear/patchy/tired this morning”, “My hair looks good today”, and the list goes on. Now there is nothing wrong with these thoughts in and of themselves, but I see a problem when I think about their pervasiveness and how they reflect a culture and a way of thinking and living in our society that prioritizes the external, and more importantly, the other more productive thoughts that I could be having instead. I could be spending my time being more present or thinking more about inner growth, equity, social justice and more!
The real definition of body image
I’ve come to understand that a positive body image is not actually about focusing on our physical body (which includes our facial features, hair, etc.). It’s not about the way we perceive the attractiveness of our physical self or even the degree to which we accept our appearance (although accepting one’s appearance is a good thing!), but the way we value our physical body as a vehicle to live a flourishing life. A positive body image is one that prioritizes the body as a mechanism for health and well-being over an object of beauty. However, our global culture and in particular the media, does not prioritize this.
The common adage ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’ is at the core of a positive body image, but the reality is that our society does not promote this. Profit-driven motives have created a culture that centres around the physical appearance of women. Billboards, magazines, music videos, movies, weight loss industries, beauty products and more, showcase airbrushed and physically idealized women as the standard and are seen at every glance, in (likely) every major city around the world. For example, check out this post I wrote on shadism in India. The physical appearance of a woman takes centre stage, and her internal attributes follow like leftovers. These externally-focused messages influence our thinking as they seep into our psyche little by little, every single day of our being. Our global culture is so steeped, obsessed and fixated on women as objects of physical beauty and sexuality to the point where it has become so pervasive and deeply entrenched into our everyday living, thinking and being. Physical appearances have become so ingrained in us that we now normalize it as a ‘natural’ part of our identity, something that is hard not to notice, and something that we may not even notice ourselves, and think is part of us and thus have no control over. However, I think the way we behave around the topic of #looks, is a social construct that can often be fun and expressive, but is more often perpetuating misguided views of women, low self-esteem and taking away from true inner self-worth. As a result, women are by default equated and subsequently judged, then valued as symbols of physical beauty, to the detriment of genuine, authentic valuation of women as dynamic, productive human beings and to the profit of the media and beauty industries.
After having both of my kids, my ankle has been unstable and in pain, which has been a blessing in disguise in some ways, because it has created an intrinsic shift in my focus to valuing my body as a key instrument in doing all the things I hope to do–go on hikes with my family, jump, play with my kids on the playground, dance, leap, twirl, run, and more! As a mother, my body has nurtured, grown and given birth to two human beings, and I feel that this is an incredible gift and feat! My postpartum goals are not centred around looking a certain way but about being as healthy as possible so that I can live, feel, be, and do the things I want to do. That’s not to say that I don’t want to put any thought or emphasis on my appearance (and I do enjoy dressing up and looking presentable), but thanks to my new awareness, I’m working on not letting appearances be the default thoughts that occur first. As the Beauty Redefined site says, our bodies are instruments not ornaments. I love Angela Liddon’s idea of being a ‘size healthy’, and as I discussed in this pervious post on ‘wearing lipstick’, there are certainly some merits to feeling empowered through beauty. Like all of my goals to live better, it’s a fine balance that is not a black and white issue, and is a continual work in progress.
Noticing your thought patterns and changing how you communicate and act
Many people may argue that despite talking and focusing on one’s or other’s physical appearances, they still ultimately value physical health most. I get that and I feel the same way, but I also think that knowing something rationally is very different than actually living by it. I am completely guilty of falling into the trap of immediately noticing and commenting on physical appearances. The moment I see a little girl, I am eager to squeal at how cute she is and say that I like what she is wearing. When I see my girlfriends, I often notice their outfits first and often comment on it. Again, this way of being and thinking may seem harmless (and in and of itself, fashion and glamour can be really fun!), but I’m mindful that it is a small part of a bigger picture of how normal and reflexive it has become to emphasize the external first. Why not clear up my brain space and approach that little girl with a dialogue that gives her the opportunity to share something about her interests and intellect (something that people do much more often with men than women)? What happens to one’s sense of identity when their physical appearance is commented on, compared and portrayed by others and media day in and day out and grossly more often than their intellect, kindness or even health? What we think and communicate and what we don’t communicate or emphasize sends a message, that penetrates deeply into young people during their formative years. I am still constantly training my brain to switch away from the immediate urge to notice, perceive and comment on (whether out loud or internally) external features and instead re-focus my thoughts on more meaningful aspects of a person. Imagine a global culture where ‘women as intelligent human beings’ and ‘the body as an incredible tool’ were the identities that dominated.
I would really appreciate hearing your comments on this topic. What are your answers to the four questions I listed at the beginning of this post? What does body image mean to you? If you are a man reading this, I would be particularly interested in hearing your perspective and what you may have learned from this. Please chime in, in the comments section!