Just north of Copenhagen I cycle past a plastic surgery, in the windows are ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of noses, breasts and thighs. There is even a full length mirror in the window, presumably so that you can look in it and think of all the changes that you should be making to your appearance. I look at all the people, children, teenagers who are walking past this clinic… what is the message they are taking from this? And while I am wondering about this, a bus goes past with an enormous picture of a pair of breasts and the words: ‘Nye bryster?’ (new breasts?). Even in a place as forward thinking as Denmark, the cultural lunacy of having major operations to turn your body into someone’s ideal holds strong.
The other evening I was watching UK television and the adverts came on. The first was for 12 chicken nuggets from Somerfield for one pound. Then we saw six, slender teenage girls, partly clothed in tiny pieces of blue material, smoothing Nivea on their limbs in a soft focus room. Then a succulent burger glistening with fat in a springy white bun. Then Scary Spice advertising a diet company. I sat there staring into the screen, marvelling at the conflict of temptation and impossible ideals we are bombarded with.
Western society is truly messed up when it comes to food, health and body image and is it any wonder. In the red corner we have the fast and convenience food industry spending billions to tempt us with cheap, salty or sweet, fatty, ready made, mass produced food. In the blue corner we have the images of unattainable physical ‘perfection’ dangled every where we look by the beauty, cosmetic, fashion and cosmetic surgery industries. We are being urged to eat food that will physically damage us while simultaneously being told to be deeply ashamed of ourselves for any blemish, wrinkle, lump, bump, visible vein, sag, droop or discolouration. How hard it is in the face of the beauty industry and media obsession with weight and ageing to love and value one’s body, whatever it looks like. How hard it is in the face of all these temptations to treat it well, to provide it with the fuel that will allow it to function at its best.
Somewhere between the slave masters of fast food and unobtainable physical ‘perfection‘ is a tiny, almost invisible path to a genuine appreciation of our own physical state, whatever it is, and to a lifestyle that will honour the living miracle of our body. Once we can find this path, we can start the life affirming virtuous cycle of:
‘I appreciate my body, it is my vehicle for life
I honour it and treat it well.
The better I treat it, the more energy I have, the clearer my mind.
The more I can do and the clearer my mind, the more I appreciate my body
The more I appreciate my body, the better I treat it.’
The alternative of course is the negative cycle that the majority of us find ourselves in:
‘I compare myself to the images around me
I see that I’m ugly / too fat / too skinny / too old/ too spotty….
I will never be beautiful like them. I hate my body.
There is no point in treating it well.
I’m embarrassed to move around or do exercise.
I comfort myself with food.
My body becomes less fit, less agile and less able.
The images around me seem even less attainable.
I hate my body even more.
I treat it even more badly’.
It is so easy to see how we can enter the downward spiral of hating our physical appearance. There is so much evidence of the role of media images in the prevalence of eating disorders that support groups now issue advice on how to view these images critically rather than take them on board as goals to achieve.
To step out from the beauty trance we need to broaden our perspective. View the ads and the images as creations, works of art even, but not real life. Think about your own standards of beauty and attractiveness, how those standards might have developed and how they limit your life. Acknowledge that genuine happiness, fulfilment, love, gratitude and health create a glow that no amount of cosmetic surgery can mimic. You are truly beautiful, exactly as you are, and the more you realise it and celebrate it, the more beautiful you become.
Nine steps to reclaim your body
1. Go inside
Practice activities that allow you to be inside your body, experiencing it, rather than outside it and judging it. Yoga, meditation and tai chi are all excellent for this
2. Deepen your awareness.
What is your inner voice telling you about your appearance. What do you think when you look at a picture of a naked model? Don’t judge your thoughts or try to push them to one side. Just simply be aware of them. Accept that they are your thoughts and think about where they might have come from. Are they helpful to you? Are they joyful and celebratory. If so great. If not…
3. Broaden your perspective on beauty
The paralympic games turned the idea of physical ‘perfection’ on its head. Our idea of beauty is in our heads – no matter how much it seems that it is a ‘truth’, it is still our interpretation of what we see. The more we realise that the images we see are creations that have zero relation to reality, the less hold they will have over us
4. Become aware of what ‘rules’ you are creating.
We all have a subconscious tendency to generalise as a way of helping us deal with all the information we come across each day. Just because you see an image in a magazine or on tv does not mean that if you do not look like that you are not beautiful
5. Use your voice
Protest when you see firms or individuals that create ridiculous ideals or pressure to look a certain way. Congratulate firms that show real beauty eg. Nike greatness ad.
6. Aspire to be happy, fulfilled, creative and healthy
The problem with aspiring to look like the models in magazines and ads is not just that the goal is utterly unattainable but that it is set outside ourselves. When we are constantly chasing an idealised ideal of beauty we will never feel beautiful. Really, what we should be aspiring to is to understand that we are beautiful. That is all that is needed.
7. Catch yourself judging and know that you are judging yourself
Next time you catch yourself judging someone’s appearance, take a moment to reflect that in doing so you are also judging yourself and notice the impact of this on your self esteem and confidence. Instead of judging, look into people’s eyes and see the real beauty.
8. Change your media habits
Our reality is nothing more than what is grabbing our attention moment by moment. We can make a big difference to what we are aware of simply by changing what media we consume
9. Love your body and your appearance. Be grateful for everything you have. Just love it.
Because the alternative isn’t worth it.