Let’s talk about our obsession with weight loss. I don’t mean MY obsession with weight loss, which is, on most days, a thing of the past. I mean ours, as a culture. I mean, let’s talk about the messages we send, especially to women and girls, about body image, weight, and the constant need to count calories, exercise, reduce, reduce, reduce!
Based on the ads seen in magazines, television and the internet, heard on the radio, and emblazoned on the sides of public transit vehicles, billboards and bus stops, the spam emails I receive on a daily basis, and the “suggestions” that pop up on my Pinterest and other online accounts, we, as a culture are all, presumably, obsessed with the idea of losing weight and achieving the elusive “ideal body.” If we believe the ads, we can assume it’s all we ever think about: “How can I get through this Holiday without gaining weight? How can I cut the calories in my favourite dishes, so I can still eat them, but not gain weight? How can I lose those extra pounds I put on over the Holiday? What exercises can I do to sculpt my abs, lift my bum, tone my thighs? What should I wear to look my best? How can I use makeup to achieve a flawless, chiseled look?” If we aren’t careful, the ads go to work on our fragile psyches and, in a twisted example of self-fulfilling prophesy, we become those body-image obsessed creatures to whom the advertisements speak.
And it all leaves me thinking, “When will this stop? How can we learn to just be healthy, and to see the beauty each of us already, naturally, exudes?”
I am inundated on a daily basis with messages striving to convince me that I am not thin enough, not toned enough, not pretty enough, not sexy enough, just…not enough. It’s not a hard sell for me, because my ego is still pretty fragile in the body image department. When I see these topics popping up as “suggestions,” based on my internet habits, I have to wonder, “Why?” Is it because I search health and fitness topics? Recipes? Special diets (not weight-loss diets, but vegetarian, dairy-free, anti-inflammation…)? Is it assumed the only way anyone would want to improve their overall health would be by losing weight? Do we only strive to improve our health in an effort to look “good enough” in the eyes of others?
Some people reading this might be thinking to themselves, “Why would all that stuff bother you? It doesn’t even apply to you ~ you’re thin!” It’s true, I am. I am also an eating disorder survivor, which, again, is a bit like being a recovering addict. I think I will always be in recovery. There will always be a switch in my brain, just waiting to be flipped to trigger those disordered thoughts and behaviours. And I can’t be the only one. Do we all have that switch, and is it merely a matter of waiting to see whether or not it is flipped? Let’s pause for a moment to consider how being inundated with those messages affects children growing up in our society.
I’m not saying the advertisement industry is responsible for my eating disorder. There is so much more to it than that. But think, for a moment, about being a young girl, and being inundated with images of seemingly “perfect” female bodies. Imagine (if it has not been your experience ~ which, if you live in the U.S. and are exposed to the media, I am willing to bet it has been) being fed subliminal messages your entire life about what it means to be beautiful, and that you will never measure up. Because that’s the message we are sent, constantly: “You aren’t thin enough. You aren’t pretty enough. You aren’t toned enough. You just aren’t good enough” We are constantly spoonfed this idea that we must need to “improve” our appearance, which, just by its very nature, has a tendency to convince us that we must. That we aren’t there yet. And, see, we will never be “there,” because, if we are ~ if we attain that “ideal” ~ they have nothing left to sell us. We are their market. “Buy our product, so you, too, can be perfect!”
Does this happen to little boys? I think it must, to some degree, and I certainly see it happening to men, too, but there does seem to be a tremendous focus on body image in marketing to girls and women. I don’t want to discount the male experience of the same images and messages. I know it’s there. I can only speak from my own experience, however, and it occurs to me, as I write this, that all of us have a narrow view of the world that is specific to our own experience. So let’s not say this is just a problem for girls and women. Let’s say, “people.” Because, even ads that seem to be targeted at girls and women are having a negative affect on the ideas men and boys have about fitness, attractiveness, and what is and is not a realistic goal. Then there are all the ads targeted at men in which the models are svelte, chiseled (probably, also, with a photoshop assist). It’s all sending the same, negative message.
But then, companies making ads exist to sell a product or service. They want us to buy into their ideal body image myth, so we will buy their goods and services. I get that. But, why can’t the ads reflect something closer to reality? I see some companies moving in that direction, and that’s a good thing. But how do we turn off those negative responses inside ourselves. How do we strike that delicate balance between being healthy and responsible in the choices we make about food and fitness, and being obsessed? How do we learn to look in the mirror and see the beauty that’s there, no matter who we are?
I’m not saying no one ever needs to think about fitness or weight loss, because those can be healthy goals. I just want to know how to keep that negative body image and self-destructive behaviour switch in my own brain firmly in the “off” position while outside forces constantly threaten to switch it “on” again. More importantly: How do we keep it from ever turning on in our youth? I’ve got a pretty firm handle on how to beat an eating disorder, I guess, even if it remains, for me, a daily battle; but how can we change the messages we send, particularly (but not only) to children, so that switch never flips on in the first place? Maybe by placing the focus more on our intrinsic self-worth, our intellect, strength, ingenuity, talent, humour, kindness ~ all of that great value with which each and every one of us is born. Our uniqueness. Our ability to overcome adversity. Our silliness. Everything it is that makes us who we are. Wouldn’t that be lovely? If we all learned to base our self-worth on who we are, inside, rather than how we look, would our whole world view change? I know there are people out there who do this already, and I so admire them. How do we, as a culture, make that standard our norm?
I don’t think there is any escape from the idealized, artificial, manufactured “perfect” that is being sold to us, but I think there is hope in the way we deal with it, the things we say to our children and youth, to each other, even to ourselves. I think it is important to start a positive monologue inside ourselves, reiterating that we are, in fact, good enough. We’re strong. We’re beautiful. We are better than “good enough,” and we always have been. I think if we can change the way we talk about (and to) ourselves, maybe, just maybe, we will change the way we see ourselves ~ and maybe, with that small change, will come a change in the way others see us, and, ultimately, in the way they see themselves.
So, yes, strive to be healthy. Do make responsible choices about food and fitness. But start out knowing that you are already perfect, and beautiful, just as you are.