By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2006.
I look at my 3-year-old daughter and worry, have I unknowingly skewed her view of the world and her place in it? Despite my best efforts, have I already “tainted” her with my own lapses in self-esteem?
Maybe she hasn’t seen me throw a disapproving, albeit silent, look at my own backside in the mirror or overheard me talking about the post-baby (also known as the fell-in-love-with-Oreos-while-nursing) fat that still clings to me like a cheap sweater. Maybe my little dark-eyed beauty won’t become dissatisfied with her own looks in favor of Barbie’s by the time she’s 5. And maybe she’ll be completely satisfied with the body her family tree created for her. But I need some assurances.
If I don’t want my daughter growing up learning to dislike her body, the experts say it’s time to pay special attention today. It’s at this age that messages start being interpreted, that behaviors are learned and mimicked, and that the foundations on which we build our lives are set. I have to be conscious of the unconscious messages I send, because every diet I subject myself to, every negative comment I make about my own body, and every weight-related innuendo I drop about myself, could be poison to my daughter’s ears. And my own saboteur as well.
Negative body image — from self-hatred to loss of self — is an issue more serious than we may have allowed ourselves to see 20 years ago. Consider this: The majority of U.S. women — some estimate more than 80 percent — are unhappy with their appearance. At least 10 million young women have an eating disorder; 50,000 will die from it. Girls as young as 6 and 7 are expressing disapproval of their looks, and most fourth-grade girls are already diet veterans. The tradition continues into high school where one out of five girls takes diet pills and many more use laxatives, diuretics, fasting, and vomiting to attain the “ideal” image. Studies have shown that more women, and girls, fear becoming fat than they do dying. And right now, one out of two women is on a diet ... and failing at it.
It’s no coincidence that it’s women, young and old, showing up in these statistics — negative body image is primarily a female issue. Yes, men are affected by the same sorts of damaging, even deadly, body esteem issues as women. But, in truth, society can be much more forgiving for men when it comes to weight and physical appearance.
Since birth, women have been taught in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that their appearance will dictate their lives and their value is determined by how good they look in relation to “the standard.” And why shouldn’t women believe it — it’s built into the very fabric of our culture, even economically. For example, in the book, Exacting Beauty, author J. Kevin Thompson et al., cites that overweight women make less money than non-overweight women in the same job, while overweight men encounter virtually no earning disparity.
Body image has become such a monumental issue that women are starting to identify it as the key factor in determining how they feel about themselves — more important than family, school, or career, says Nicole Hawkins, a licensed psychologist with the eating disorder treatment facility Center for Change in Ogden, Utah.
Because we’re letting the unrealistic images define us, it’s no wonder that when we can’t achieve these images, a spectrum of unhealthy problems occurs. The most notable and deadly are anorexia and bulimia, debilitating eating disorders affecting up to 10 million people in the United States alone; 90 percent of its victims are young women and girls.
Millions more fall at the other end of the spectrum, no longer appreciating their body and feeling betrayed by their physical self. At this end there is everything from binge eating to using food to fill emotional voids.
What has brought us so far into this world of twisted expectations and ideals? Why can’t we love who we are and how we look, imperfections and all? Is it Barbie’s fault? She’s certainly taken her punches on this issue. Can we blame the media? Fault lies there, too, for perpetuating falsehoods, but the marketers who create the images and the consumers who buy into and support these images must claim responsibility as well. In truth, blame falls on all of us.
Certainly blame must also fall at the door of the fashion industry which has created everything from the boyish Twiggy look of the ’60s to the heroin chic phase of the ’90s. In fact, research has shown a correlation between the rise of anorexia nervosa among 10- to 19-year-old girls over the past half century and the move of fashion and its muse toward this “perfect” body image during that same time period.
To put it in perspective, today’s models are 23 percent leaner than the average woman, and if she isn’t perfect enough, fashion editors airbrush photos to take away another 10 pounds or a droopy bosom, making the model all the more attractive and the image all that more unrealistic.
Can we blame our children for aspiring to these warped visions of self if we give them nothing real to go on ... if we can’t even celebrate our own imperfections?
Working on More Than Symptoms
When we’re unhappy with our bodies, it’s logical to think that a nip here, a change there, might fix us right up, says Toronto-based psychotherapist Kali Munro. “Given society’s obsession with appearances, particularly women’s, it’s no surprise many women believe that by changing their bodies, they can change their lives.”
We’ve all been there: “If only ... my legs were longer ... my breasts larger ... my body thinner.” We’ve all claimed our own negative mantra for particular body parts over the years and found twisted comfort in the abusive discourse.
Now we welcome in the latest, greatest diet — we eat grapefruit for weeks and protein for dessert. We spend $50 billion each year to reach our physical goals of beauty through health club memberships, home exercise equipment, diet pills, Botox injections, and surgery. We put collagen in our lips to make them bigger, we put vacuums in our thighs to make them smaller. We get breast implants, nose implants, chin implants, and cheek implants — for both our face and derriere. But in the end, no matter how we try to change our bodies, most experts say, the original problem is still left behind, and it’s one that exercise, diet, and plastic surgery can not fix.
Being truly happy about yourself is about changing your head, not your body, says Marcia Germain Hutchinson, author of Transforming Body Image and 200 Ways to Love the Body You Have. “Any attempts you make to alter your body should be made with self-love, not self-loathing.”
Dieting is the perfect example. Experts now tell us that diets don’t work. Despite our best efforts, 98 percent of all dieters gain back their lost weight in five years. It’s quite simply that the weight is a symptom of something else. That “something else” must find resolution first before the body can find healthful balance.
In her book, Molecules of Emotions, Georgetown University Medical School professor Candace Pert discusses the mind-body connection and explains that the body is the “actual outward manifestation, in physical space, of the mind.” She says that if we generate negative energy in response to our appearance it can actually wind up on our hips and thighs if we’re not careful. It’s the epitome of mind over matter.
If we find acceptance for who we are and how we look, we are giving ourselves permission to live comfortably in the skin we have. When we learn how to love ourselves, a natural progression will be to take on love-inspired attitudes including living a healthier life. You won’t think about eating better, because you will do it instinctually.
This is why finding a way to be comfortable with your body is critical for real health, to honor the home to your soul and accept it for what it is, imperfections and all. Once you can find peace doing that, the rest begins falling into place.
So what does learning to “live in” my body mean exactly? It’s about being present, being grounded, being open, being aware, being unafraid to find what’s at the core and work through it, being ready for where life takes you next, being mindful, and listening to what your body has to say. It’s a big step on the way to a healthier lifestyle, and it’s not necessarily an easy one to take. It takes courage and hard work to learn self-acceptance.
There are laundry lists of ideas to get you started (see Resources sidebar) including yoga, guided imagery, and all aspects of self-care. And, while meditation, journaling, and other mindful exercises are certainly important and helpful tools when reintroducing you to yourself, massage and bodywork offer unique opportunities for focusing inward. Finding the stillness in a massage session is not just about introspection — it’s about simply “being” and learning to live within. In that same moment, it’s also about allowing your body the space to be nurtured by someone else.
Bodywork brings us back into awareness of our body and shows us how to listen to it, says bodyworker, writer, and Stanford graduate Merrill DeVito. “In eating disorders, we learn to ignore our body’s cravings and hunger signals. We overeat, under eat, and ... food choices come out of the brain instead of the body.”
DeVito says when she receives bodywork as part of her own eating disorder treatment, she equates it to barriers coming down. “It’s as if literal walls break down and my body begins to flow as one integrated entity. I get off the table saying, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to be in my body.’ ”
When the tissues begin to let go and relax under a massage therapist’s hands, DeVito says, “profound shifts occur emotionally and physically. A softening or melting happens, and the brain and body begin to integrate again. The divorce of mind and body that created disordered eating habits and a negative body image begins to heal. And, if the recipient is willing, she can learn to love herself, understanding that she is her body.”
Now that’s an ideal I hope my daughter embraces.
Karrie Osborn is contributing editor to