By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty accurate to say that most people in our culture are dissatisfied with their body. Many people even despise their body (or certain parts). And this epidemic has no age limit. In my psychotherapy practice I have worked with clients as young as 6 years old, who are already obsessed with calories, carbs and getting fat. I have treated people in their 70s who have no memories of eating bread or dessert without guilt. And I have seen people of nearly every age in between who battle their body on some level. It’s like being a member of a club to trash and bash your body in our image-obsessed culture. Many people bond over what I call “fat chat,” and many people spend enormous amounts of time trying to change their bodies.
Thanks to the media and the diet industry, we have all been set up to dislike our bodies. We are surrounded by unnatural images and unkind messages about how we should look, eat, exercise, think and feel. We are basically taught that if we alter our bodies and achieve the image we have been sold, we will be happy, loved and special.
But how did we get here? How did we get to where being thin is often valued more than being healthy? How did we get to a place where young children are counting calories and feeling fat? Why do we have senior citizens who have spent decades and sometimes their entire lives avoiding and fearing fats and carbs? Why are people of all ages devoting more of their precious lives to the pursuit of thinness than to all the other meaningful things they could be doing? Well, I’m glad you asked!
When we compare our culture to cultures that do not have an epidemic of body obsession, there are some significant differences. One difference is about inherent worthiness. There are Eastern and tribal cultures that teach children that they are born with worth. They don’t need to earn it, they already have it. They teach children about having a spirit and being connected to themselves, to others and to nature. They have daily rituals that involve prayer and meditation, dance and the seasons. In our culture, where body obsession is rampant, we are largely taught that our worth comes from how we look and how much money and “stuff” we have. Many children believe that they have to be wealthy, smart, attractive, or athletic in order to feel or be special. For many people in our culture, daily rituals consist of weight loss schemes, exercise regimes and checking email or Facebook. To a large extent, we are more interested in being connected electronically than spiritually.
We have been programmed here to think that fat is bad and thin is good. But it is a program, not reality! Believe it or not, there are actual societies where being fat is a status symbol. In some African tribes, the rich members pay to put on extra weight in special “fattening rooms.” In the Hima tribe in Uganda, a woman who is about to marry gets sent off to what they call a fattening hut so she can gain enough weight to be deemed attractive to her husband! Here, when a woman is preparing to marry, she is usually starving herself to get as thin as possible.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, feminine, soft curves were valued and seen as the standard of beauty, and as the industrial revolution took place and clothing manufacturing drastically increased, things began to change. Fad diets became popular and eventually a voluptuous body became a symbol of a lack of willpower and weakness rather than abundance of wealth and attractiveness. There are many theories on why this occurred but one theory is that clothing advertisers felt that the models’ voluptuous, curvy bodies distracted the buyers’ attention from the clothes they were viewing. The advertisers and sellers wanted the bodies to look more like hangers so they would be less distracting. So they began reducing the size of their mannequins and demanding smaller models. This mistakenly became the new standard of how women were supposed to look.
We also have the television, film and advertising industries to thank for the constant barrage of unnaturally thin people who appear to have unrealistically perfect lives. Years ago, a study was done in Fiji showing the effects that the media has on young girls. Prior to the study, it was considered a traditional compliment on the Pacific Island to tell someone they looked like they had gained weight. “Going thin” was actually a term that expressed concern. Up until the time of the study, Fijians did not have television and they also did not have reports of disordered eating or bad body image. Then, in the late 90s, they got one TV station and it began to broadcast some of our popular shows. Within two years, a survey revealed that 75 percent of young girls were feeling fat or too big and 15 percent had begun self-induced vomiting. (I am assuming it is even higher by now.)
Studies have been done comparing the journal entries of young girls in the early 18th and 19th centuries to young girls today. The comparisons showed that young girls back in the day wrote about being kind and the importance of being a good friend, family member and community member. Their focus was on “good deeds and a pure heart.” Today, girls write about being fat or skinny, about throwing up or dieting and about being popular and cool. As author Joan Jacobs of The Body Project writes, “We have shifted from inner beauty to outer beauty.”
Okay, I know that’s a lot of bad news. Here’s some good news. Fortunately, there is a movement that is teaching a different approach. There are more and more books and articles about the dangers and ineffectiveness of dieting as well as the importance of self-love and body acceptance. (Unfortunately, these are often followed on the next page by the latest diet but we are inching our way in the right direction!) There is also a movement to expose photoshopping and airbrushing on magazine models. (A law has already been passed in Israel known as The Photoshop Law. This requires all models to maintain a certain weight, as well as all designers to disclose when they’ve photoshopped their models.) We still have a long way to go but there are a lot of people and organizations that are passionate about teaching the message of body-acceptance and moderate, non-diet eating.
Making peace with your body does not mean giving up self-care and good health. It means giving up perfectionism and self-hatred. It means treating your body with kindness and respect and learning to like and accept who you are. It means recognizing that you can’t fix self-hatred with more self-hatred (or through dieting.) It means understanding that overeating does not truly comfort us in the long run. It means deleting the program of self-hatred altogether.
It is not easy to overcome a bad body image in a culture that is obsessed with body size and appearance. We have all had a massive hypnotic spell cast upon us that tells us how we should look. But we can break the spell. We can say no to the unrealistic images and remind ourselves that they are just that… unreal. We can disagree with the cultural messages about perfection in the same way we would disagree with a racial slur or cruelty against animals. We can come to believe that a good life, including love and success, is possible for all body types. We can put our focus on who we are rather than only on how we look. And we can encourage our friends and families to do the same. We can ask ourselves, what is more important: Attaining peace of mind or attaining a certain number on the scale?
Having seen many unhappy thin people in my office, I can say with certainty that a low number on the scale does not guarantee peace of mind. It is our thinking far more than our body that causes us pain. And it is changing our thinking that will bring us more peace. Fortunately, we can retrain our brain and upgrade our unkind mind to a newer, kinder version. Think of all the outdated documents you delete on your computer all the time. Or the pop-up windows you close without a second thought. The next time a bad body image thought pops up like a window on the screen of your mind, try simply closing it! In spite of how real they can feel, bad body image thoughts are not reality. They are made-up thoughts that can be deleted just like pop-up windows!