Can a Negative Body Image Keep You from Living a Full Life?
How do you feel about your body? That seems like a simple question, but for many women, even attractive women who choose to be honest, the answer is neither simple nor positive. Throw weight or size into the equation and rarely will you hear declarations of unconditional body-love. Did you ever think that maybe it's not your physical body holding you back but your feelings and perceptions about your body?
Research conducted by a clinical psychologist at the Pennington Biomedical Center in Baton Rouge, La., indicates negative feelings about our bodies -- obsessing about weight, internalizing the criticisms of others about our looks -- hinders us from reaching legitimate health goals.
In an interview with New Orleans station, WWL TV, Dr. Tiffany Stewart discusses how we are influenced to judge ourselves by manufactured ideals that send some of us not only to diets that don't work but also to plastic surgeons. She says we are losing our uniqueness. Most women crave having the same thin body type presented as desirable in the media. Men succumb to these images as well, feeling inferior when their bodies don't resemble ripped, muscular perfection.
According to Stewart, these obsessions runs so deeply that some of us don't even see ourselves as we really are and when asked to select a body that looks most like ours, we tend to choose one larger than our own. Furthermore, some women project onto men this desire for a thin woman that men may not share:
Research she's done has ... revealed that white women think a thinner body is more appealing to white men. But the men picked a bigger one as appealing. Stewart said black men and women tended to be more realistic with body size attractiveness, choosing one larger than white men and women pick.
She's moved her research from talk to action and offers an internet tool to help people tackle body image. It's called The Body Image Project. Its Web site says, "The connection between mind and body is in many ways our most enduring and intimate relationship, directly impacting behavior, health and well being.
Imagine a world where we aren’t so preoccupied with how our bodies look, but focused instead on how they function. Imagine being one healthy whole ... in both mind and body.
We must commit to thriving. We can’t simply survive while falling prey to expectations, that if strived for, compromise our physical and mental health. ...
The Web site features weekly stories from "real people" who discuss struggles with body image and victories. You are invited to share your story as well.
The WWL video also includes an interview with a New Orleans business owner who's lost 50 pounds by letting go "of all the noise in her head about her body" and embracing her health. Tiffani Sheriff says that she had external expectations that weighed her down and held her back.
Listening to her and Stewart, I thought of Oprah Winfrey's excitement about the book Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth. While the author's premise that food can be an addiction seems to have resonated strongly with Oprah, and Roth definitely is saying often we use food as a substitute for other needs, such as love, the excerpt of her book at Oprah's Web site begins with negative body image.
When I was in high school, I used to dream about having Melissa Morris's legs, Toni Oliver's eyes, and Amy Breyer's hair. I liked my skin, my breasts, and my lips, but everything else had to go. Then, in my 20s, I dreamed about slicing off pieces of my thighs and arms the way you carve a turkey, certain that if I could cut away what was wrong, only the good parts -— the pretty parts, the thin parts -— would be left. I believed there was an end goal, a place at which I would arrive and forevermore be at peace. ...
Like Stewart, Roth thinks dieting doesn't work and that we must examine the deeper psychological roots of our yo-yo syndromes, weight battles, and self-rejection. If we don't, we can't really live our lives fully.
I remember when BlogHer.com launched Letter to My Body and encouraged members and contributing editors to write publicly about body image. I did not participate.
Accepting illness and my unending struggle with obesity, I thought if my letter were authentic, it would be 500 words of the same sentiment remixed: Dear Body: I hate you. You've turned against me. Why don't you work like better people's bodies? What's with the kidney failure? How could you fall to Grave's Disease? And oh, my God, look at these stretch marks! I hate you.. I really do.
I didn't want to write that because an enlightened woman shouldn't curse herself out loud, right? We're not supposed to unveil our weaknesses, and if we do, we should be in the frame of mind to deal with all the lectures from people who profess to have it all together. You know the people I mean, the ones who drop by and tell you that you should not feel the way you feel.
At my age, I know I should accept, love, and not hate my body. I know that self-acceptance is the first step toward productive change. And so, not wanting to hear from the people who talk the way Oprah talked when she was skinny and thought she'd conquered weight forever, when she was readily telling others what they ought to do and how they ought to feel, I skipped BlogHer's letter to my body initiative.
I know I'm supposed to project and feel like a self-assured, mature woman. However, what we're told we should feel and what we do feel don't always match.
Writing last month at WSATA about possibly buying Roth's book, I said:
For the last two weeks I've not eaten anything that has sugar added or added any sugars to what I eat, including honey and raw sugar. Have I lost weight? I don't know. I feel like I have, but I refuse to get on the scale because then I'll become obsessed with weight rather than health. I'll get on the scale when I go to the doctor this summer.
See! I wrote those words before I'd heard about Stewart's research. I know I'm susceptible to obsessing about weight and that obsessing doesn't help. I know that both internal and external badgering backfires.
Growing up as a fat child and adolescent, I remember being teased by children and insulted by adults and that the teasing and insults never motivated me to exercise nor did they bolster my resolve to lose weight. What they did was stress me out and drive me to my fix, the need to consume as soon as possible breads, cake, ice cream, candies, French fries or macaroni and cheese. As indicated by research that equates fattening foods with cocaine in the human brain, they're called "comfort foods' for a reason.
Another focus of weight loss in my youth backfired as well. Rarely as a child was I encouraged to lose weight because I could end up with diabetes or high blood pressure, illnesses that run in my family. Neither did anyone mention that carrying too much weight would damage my joints. The focus instead was beauty and boys. "No boy will ever like you if you're fat."
What a life theme! It shows up in my fiction and sometimes my poetry.
When the pressure to lose weight is external -- to meet a certain beauty standard and gain acceptance from others -- people tend to win battles but lose wars. That's not news, and yet, it appears the current obesity crisis may have increased the number of people who don't struggle with weight to ostracize those who do. Stewart says she's seeing more online adult bullying, blog and vlog posts presented to belittle fat people. She believes that bloggers who bully the obese only reveal that they are not happy in their own skins.
"My opinion is a person who is thriving in their own body, their mind, has no need to do things like that," says Stewart.
So, what about us and how we beat ourselves up about weight? Loving yourself, focusing on being healthy, moving your eyes away from the number on the scale, beauty magazine covers, and unrealistic expectations are the key to self-acceptance that ironically results in a smaller waistline, according to Stewart's research. It's a principle I've discussed previously at BlogHer in an interview with Caitlin Boyle of Operation Beautiful.
We get farther with positive reinforcement than self-bullying. Maybe it's time to look away from the scale and Madison Avenue images into our souls, to heal and get healthy from the inside out.
- Blogger Maria Lesetz agrees with ideas in Oprah's Roth innterview that our thoughts impact our health.
- At Moms on a Wire: Body Image Issues at 4 Years Old?
- At Eat the Damn Cake, "Training for War and Other Body Image Goals"
- Body Dysmorphic Disorder: The Lady Thing I Won't Talk About. Even with Feminists.