The fallout of unrealistic body standards in social media and from the many gleaming facets of the beauty industry is now very apparent. Of course, extreme female beauty expectations are not a recent phenomenon – women have been subjected to an unnatural ideal widely across cultures and through time. Yet while it’s easy to recognise waist-crushing corset-wearing and foot-binding as perverse and cruel procedures that should remain consigned to the history books, we are less prepared to turn a critical eye on our own cultural beauty practices – the lip fills, plethora of implants, anti-aging surgeries and other body-altering conventions that airily float in the back of our minds whenever we look in the mirror. Often we aren’t even fully conscious of this sort of self-flagellation we enact on ourselves on a daily basis. There is a need now, particularly in a time of heightened exposure to ‘ideal’ body types, to take back control.
With this in mind, here are some steps to re-calibrate how you think about your body:
It is easy to rail against social media when assessing the damage of beauty standards but context – and for that matter, content – matters. A study on the effect of ‘Fitspiration’ images on social media users revealed that although the tag intended to inspire those who engaged with it, it often ended up reinforcing negative perceptions about their bodies, possibly by bringing increased attention to them.
Yet positive and negative comparisons go hand in hand. Contrary to the fatalistic interpretation of social media we are accustomed to hearing about, there are suggestions that the right content can boost self-compassion. After all, social media has also been the best outlet to combat industry practices, such as the controversial ‘Perfect Body’ advertising campaign by Victoria’s Secret, or to spread awareness on eating disorders and promote a healthy dialogue on body positivity. The communal aspect of social media is both it’s greatest success and Achilles heel – so choose what you follow in the same way you might pick your friends: carefully.
Your body is more than the sum of its parts. But if we are just thinking about the parts, you could say there’s a hell of a lot of them. For a start, you’re made up of approximately 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (octillion) atoms, or 30,000,000,000,000 (trillion) cells. Naturally they are very capable. The body’s restorative powers, for example, are extraordinary, with its constant regulation of our condition via homeostasis acting as a sort of pilot. You might feel like you are falling apart, but your body’s systems are essentially keeping you together. The fact that you can sleep off many short term issues and ailments clearly demonstrates this.
You should also take comfort in your brain’s ability to adapt and change. Modern research into neuroplasticity shows that even an adult brain is able to acclimatize to remarkable lengths, in response to life experience and shifting environmental circumstances. When taking an active role to improve our physical functionality through exercise, we are also making significant strides to bolster our self-image.
Children do not hesitate to latch onto positive, strong role models, but for grown-ups that process can be a little less intuitive. We are perhaps not so great at distinguishing between what sort of person we would like to be for others and what sort of person others have made us want to be. The former is important; the latter can be misleading. To those in our closest circle it is less important that we appear attractive, cool and desirable – those qualities that aloof models, actors and other glamourous celebrities seem to ooze – than that we are kind, supportive and wise. This is the person we should strive to put forward into the world, and these are the qualities with which we should contextualise our body image.
Fortunately there is no shortage of inspiring women who’s stories challenge the ‘ideal’ and allow for a more nuanced understanding of our identities and bodies. On the one hand, we should look up to them for their achievements and celebrate them– but they should also act as means to help us forge our own identities. In short: embrace the person you want to be for others, use the long and ever-expanding lineage of great women to redefine your body and, at last, be your own damn role model. It feels good!
Such is the psychology of the human brain that simply repeating a positive phrase over time can alter our mindsets. This is self-affirmation, a broadly cited psychological theory that shows how simple it is to take control of our own narratives. It should be very apparent how useful this is in allowing us to embrace our bodies. Setting a routine and a stock phrase or series of declarations is all you need. You may, for example, start the day off by announcing ‘I am unique, beautiful and unstoppable’ or go further by asserting that you will ‘not be deterred by negative thoughts, or care what others think of me.’ Saying it is making it happen!
While we would encourage you to take pride in your body, it’s important to recognise how remarkably little weight it holds in comparison with everything else. A recent global survey shows that personality is almost universally considered more desirable in a partner than good looks for men and women. Relationships aside, your social success life will largely depend on the person you emanate, not your minutiae of imperfections (which happen to be inherent to all of us). Saying that, these are hardly a mark against you, and should be considered part and parcel of your identity.
You might also consider the immateriality of your body, the journey it’s been on and the wonderful places it will take you, embracing the inevitability of its changes. Looks aren’t permanent, but your personality will endure.
Your environment both reflects and influences how you feel. So does your friend group, eating habits, and any number of your little approaches to life. If you are feeling unhappy with yourself, then start thinking about all of the small ways you can start taking back control. Tidy and spruce up your living space, creating a sense of order and calm while reflecting the person you want to be. Try to keep a circle of friends who support you, who make you laugh and make you feel good, while consider cutting out those who put you down. Follow empowering accounts on social media and recognise when it’s a good time to quit. Curate a diet that makes you feel good, mentally and physically. And most of all, remember that you don’t need to put up with bullshit.
Do not shy away from parading your self-satisfaction on the catwalk of life. Your body language communicates a great deal about the sort of person you are to others, but it also affects how you see yourself. A study into posture saw participants who sat upright were more resilient to stress and conducive to positive thoughts than those who slouched. Standing up straight, keeping your head level and your shoulders back are all simple ways you can transform your demeanour and start exuding confidence. Establishing eye contact and smiling is a great way to communicate this to other people. It also helps picking clothes that flaunt your figure. Find your style and rock it!
It’s not easy contending with negative perceptions about yourself repeatedly and compulsively. If your body image becomes a point of obsession then consider talking it through with a professional. Though it is the cultural norm to fixate on our appearance, it’s important to recognise when a mindless habit has warped into full-blown body dysmorphia. Fortunately, issues with body image, low self-esteem and mental health are widely recognised and treated on the NHS through various therapies, along with the underlying issues that may cause them. The staggering prevalence of these issues, especially among girls and women, may be worrying, but we should take comfort in the increased awareness and dialogue we are seeing of it. Nonetheless, we sometimes owe it to ourselves to take the plunge and allow ourselves the opportunity to love ourselves, including our bodies, once again.