I had tried for years to let go of the body image issues that so many of us struggle with. In the end, however, the most important lesson came from my daughter.
It was 6pm, 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 couldn’t believe I said that!
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 this 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?
The body image phenomenon
Psychologists, counsellors, and exercise physiologists agree that body image 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 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 inform readers about digitally altered images where there is 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 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 80s, 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. I began to view 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 percent minimum body fat required to menstruate!
When my mother was a teenager in the 1960s, one of the most famous women in the world was English model and actress Lesley Lawson. She was voted British Woman of the Year in 1966 and the very name that she became known by – Twiggy – reflected society’s worship of thinness.
Survival or distortion?
There are perhaps some evolutionary 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. “This dates back to the beginning of humankind since our mammalian brain has had to constantly scan the world for evidence of possible rejection, since this would be dangerous to our species’ survival.”
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, and this 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.
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 on our health. So what steps can be taken to help develop a more holistic body image?
A shift of perspective
“Focus less on what your body looks like and more on what it can do is a good first step,” says Jennifer Beveridge. “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.
Teaching a healthy relationship with food
When it comes to our children, there are many things we can do to encourage a positive body image, says Charmaine Roth. “Encourage mealtimes to be a time when the family can sit together and talk, rather than it being too focused on food,” she says.
She also suggests taking care with the language we use, maintaining a healthy attitude towards diet and exercise. Also, we should be praising our children’s strengths and abilities, rather than 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.
We are beautiful
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 in her cheeks. “We’re the same.”
And in that moment I suddenly realised something. My daughter, with the innocent eyes of a child, could look at my body and see that our similarities were more important than our 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.
1. Barbie weight study at University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland. “Barbie’s Missing Accessory: Food,” Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter, Vol. 11, No. 11, January 1994, p. 1
2. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration (2012) An Integrated Response to Complexity – National Eating Disorders Framework 2012
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