Body Positivity & Being yourself! Why are women taught to hate their bodies?
April 06, RUTH STEEL
Women’s National Health Week, an annual awareness event dedicated to all issues related to women’s health, is May 08-12 this year.
In honour of this coming up next month, I want to draw attention to the link between how we see ourselves, each other and how we treat our bodies.
It’s said that 91% of young women dislike their bodies. When growing up, we look towards our mother figure for support, to find her loathing her own body image and being influenced in the same way.
So, the question I have is, why are we taught to self-hate?
Most women don’t need even the slightest encouragement to hate their bodies. We live in a society that teaches us to do this. We diet, shave, pluck, pierce, and adorn our bodies to gain social acceptance, and we bond socially over our communal body dissatisfaction. I’ve noticed this most frequently at any female gathering—women chat about their large thighs & tummies; their desire to lose weight or have different sized breasts; their newest diet; or how much weight someone else has lost or gained.
And it always strikes me as sad because unavoidably, there are little girls, teenage girls and young women listening and learning how to perceive themselves in this way.
In her book, Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image, counselor and researcher Hillary McBride discovers the ways that mothers’ thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of their own bodies impact how daughters feel about theirs. She cites evidence which suggests that mothers’ intentional and unintentional comments about their weight and weight loss are related to a decrease in the value daughters place on their own bodies.
The mother-daughter relationship is particularly significant in shaping how girls and women feel about their bodies, but all women (including those who aren’t mothers) are role models. Sensitive eyes and hearts look to us for social cues regarding how females should see themselves and talk about their own bodies. McBride writes, “if what we do affects other people, shaping who they feel they are and what is valuable about them, then for all of us as women, especially for the developing minds we are nurturing, we need to be careful about what we say about our bodies and each other’s bodies.”
I remember the first time I became aware that other women had opinions about my body. Although I was overweight as a child, I had no problem with being naked around my family, using public shower rooms on school trips and being unapologetically myself, clothed or unclothed. This all started to change when I allowed other people’s opinions & reactions to influence me. I would be teased for being fat at school & overhear my Mother telling anyone & everyone that ‘it is just puppy fat, it’ll go.’ But what if it didn’t go!? Am I less of a contributing member of society or less lovable the way I am, categorised only by weight and appearance?
From that moment on, I felt painfully embarrassed about my body and wearing a bathing suit swimming or leotard at dance classes. No more being unapologetically myself. Instead, I began hiding, folding my arms over my tummy, diminishing in confidence and closely observing the bodies of the girls and women around me - learning which ones met an acceptable standard and which one did not.
The way we feel about our bodies influences how freely we’re able to inhabit them and what joyful experiences we allow ourselves to have. I loved dancing & singing as a child but over the years I lost my confidence due to the high demands of a body image focused world. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t allowed the opinions of others to tarnish the things that make me feel most alive.
Exploring these experiences, I realise how deeply the comments of other women I respected impacted my sense of self-worth and confidence.
At other times in my life, I’ve thought I would be worth more if there was, quite literally, less of me. I lost a lot of weight in secondary school, maybe it was the deflating puppy fat, maybe it was me attempting to live up to an unrealistic (and sexist) beauty standard, convinced that if I reached it, I would be acceptable and lovable. I continued to fluctuate in weight and confidence throughout my life and Later, I lost more weight when I was struggling with major anxiety following the death of my Mum. Every time I have lost weight, even when I have felt unwell in myself, I have been complimented for being thin and healthy.
This is one of the most deceptive (and dangerous) ways society reinforces beauty standards. It’s common for women in the beginning stages of an eating disorder to be told how good they look, which confirms the disordered behaviours they’re engaging in. Additionally, women during depression or mental health concerns may lose weight. Often, they’re told how wonderful they look when they’re at their lowest, emotionally.
It's clear that weight and external appearance are not indicators of whether a person is flourishing internally or not. And it is also clear that the words we speak about our bodies and other women’s bodies can have a deep impact on what our girls think is valuable. Through careless language, we can participate in a system of oppression and objectification that teaches women and girls that their value is based on how closely their bodies conform to the manipulated images of this world.
Though I am christened I do not follow any religion. It may sound hilarious to some but was it an option, Yoga would be my faith, as it teaches us to live better, with kindness & compassion for ourselves & all other living beings. I am somewhat shocked by Christian history, in the church preaching a deep distrust of the body, particularly women’s bodies. The spirit is seen as good and holy, whereas the body is base and evil. Women’s bodies are a source of temptation and sinful impulses.
We’ve come a long way, and yet reverberations of these ideas remain.
We may all be broken by the effects of sin, but surely hating our bodies – a work of art expertly designed in our mothers’ wombs, functionally magnificent, temples of the Soul - isn't the right answer. Our bodies weren’t designed to be hated but to be respected - to be regarded as sacred, to be loved beyond measure, to be holy reflections of the beauty and wisdom of those before us.
I pray that we as women will continue do the hard work of learning to love our bodies for all the ways they allow us to exist in this world - to smell flowers, gaze at stars, swim naked in lakes, wrap our arms around loved ones, enjoy sexual relations alone or with others, dance and sing and take up space on this beautiful and astounding planet.
May we begin to see our bodies as reflections of the love of others. May our gatherings be places where we teach our girls the importance of self-love and beauty of all bodies, that they’re already enough, and that they don’t need to become less in order to be seen as more.
We’re already worthy. And if we can accept that, if we can learn to love our own bodies, perhaps our girls will look to us and begin to do the same.
Body Image and the Media
Today, the media is a far more powerful influence than ever before, sometimes taking precedence over friends, family or other real women. Whereas women used to look at role models who were average-sized, women are now comparing themselves with images (most of which are digitally enhanced or manipulated) that are unrealistically thin. In the old days, a young girl grew up wanting to look like her mother or best friend. Now she wants to look like the latest celeb online.
Herein lies the real damage. The more an individual is exposed to the media, the more he or she believes it is reflective of the real world. What most people still don’t realize is that most of the pictures they see in magazines are altered in some way and that looking like their role models is physically impossible. It is a setup for self-hatred.
Once we are aware of this, taking necessary steps to make sure you only follow those who make you feel good about yourself is essential. I don’t care if you must unfollow your ‘best friend’ if they’re not on board with being body positive, they’re out! If they’re a true friend, they’ll take a leaf out of your book and the time may come to reunite as friends who are better for each other’s health & well-being.
In all relationships, whether a boyfriend, spouse, peer, co-worker, sibling or parent, people look for acceptance and validation. When they receive criticism, rejection or judgment instead, they are at increased risk of several mental health issues, including poor body image and eating disorders. Following on from the #metoo movement and rising number of celebrity body positive ambassadors including Jamila Jamil, it’s scary to think how much we have become accustomed to unhealthy behaviour in relationships. Troubling behaviours include & range from a dirty look when taking a second helping of food at the dinner table & persistent weight-related bullying by one’s peers to being pressured to change the way your look for others & verbal/physical sexual violence. All these exchanges, no matter how subtle, can have a lasting impact.
Amidst all the negative media messages, there have been a few glimmers of hope in the past decade:
In an effort to become ambassadors for the message of healthy body image, Vogue announced that it would no longer feature models under age 16 or those who appear to have an eating disorder.
Fashion organizations in Spain and Italy have specified a minimum healthy body mass index for models.
Israel’s government recently passed a law that requires a healthy body mass index for models as well as full disclosure if fashion media and advertising use Photoshop to change a model’s figure.
Dove has been leading “real beauty” empowerment campaigns and taking a stand against Photoshopping for almost a decade.
In 2002, actress Jamie Lee Curtis posed for a magazine both “glammed up” and in “real life” fashion to bring awareness to the way media images are digitally altered.
Social media websites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest are increasingly banning pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia messages. At the same time, there are a growing number of websites dedicated to healthy portrayals of real women, including the I Am That Girl blog.
Despite these amazing changes, a lot of progress has yet to be made. The majority of magazines and other media have not replaced unrealistic images with normal, average-sized people. Although awareness is growing, we can all be doing more to influence the younger generations in how they perceive their own and others bodies, all being beautiful.
Unkind thoughts every day
Women’s hatred of their bodies is such an everyday phenomenon that we pay no heed to just how deeply it cuts into our sense of self. It’s a stupid tick, some silly idea that we picked up in our youth and still haven’t managed to shake off. It’s the teenage girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful (“but that’s what makes you beautiful,” annoyingly enough). It’s the woman in her twenties who doesn’t understand that “men like a woman with curves”. It’s the middle-aged woman, frowning in front of the mirror, too vain to realise that IT DOESN’T MATTER ANY MORE. It’s the elderly woman, reaching the end of her life, still engaged in the attempt to make less of herself before she gets there. All these women, wasting so much time, all, quite literally, for nothing. Why hasn’t it been possible to patronise them out of it? How many Dove adverts would it take?
When I meet a woman for the first time, I like to think that she’s not like this. That she’s too sensible, too healthy, too feminist or simply too old for this shit. “Good for her,” I think. “Perhaps when I’m 40 – no, 50 – no, thin – I’ll be like that, too.” I observe the way she eats, how she holds herself, and do my best to copy. When we talk about other things, books or politics, I tell myself that these are what she thinks of all the time, serious matters, not how long it is until the next permissible batch of calories, or how much she would like to take the roll of fat that spills over the top of her waistband and slice it off with a carving knife. How wonderful to have a mind that thinks freely, unaware of that shameful mass of much too muchness, the body.
Then one day we talk about food. That’s when I find out that she’s not free of the background noise, either, that constant hum that sucks the joy out of eating, moving and touching your own skin. It doesn’t matter whether she is big or small. I genuinely find that most female people are unhappy to be living in their female bodies. You can run marathons, make babies, think yourself a million miles away from the plodding weight of material things and still you will feel that most of what constitutes you is surplus to requirements.
“They are the marks of life”
There’s a scene in the 1989 film Shirley Valentine where Shirley expresses shock at her lover, Costas, daring to kiss her stretch marks:
Shirley: You kissed my stretch marks!
Costas: Don't, don't be too stupid to try to hide these lines. They, they are lovely, because they are part of you, and you are lovely, so don't, don't hide, be proud. Sure. These marks show that, that you are alive, that you survive. Don't try to hide these lines. They are the marks of life.
Lest the audience is left wondering whether to find this sweet, cheesy or a mixture of the two, Shirley then turns to the camera and says, “Aren’t men full of shit?” As a moment of bathos, it’s perfect, not least because the audience knows that if only Costas (and the rest of us) could mean it, he’d have been right.
Similarly, when women in African tribes first saw a white woman with washboard abs, they exclaimed to feel sorry for the woman's lack of 'tiger stripes' which to them was a sign of fertility & strength. Telling this tale to my sister before writing this, we both smiled and shared new appreciation for all the marks on our bodies that tell beautiful stories of this short physical life.
The right to be you
The right to self-love. What do you think of when you hear that?
This term #selflove used to trigger me with memories of women & girls I admire saying demeaning things like ‘she loves herself’ or ‘show off’. But what is wrong with loving yourself and even showing off?
Is it any wonder that if a Man and a Woman were applying for the same job – the Man would apply confidently being only 30% qualified for the job whereas the woman would only apply at all, if she were 80% qualified for the position.
You can be damn sure that the Man in this scenario would be somewhat ‘showing off’ yet that would be in his favour. Should a woman do the same thing, she is scorned by other women…. we cannot win if we constantly shoot ourselves in the foot.
I would say most women are taught to be self-loathing and competitive with other women. An incredibly lonely existence this is. So then it’s no wonder that when a man compliments a woman, she will not believe him because this is already a default thought pattern and he too will suffer from her unhappiness.
We must all do our bit to encourage collaboration over competition. There is enough room in this world for us all and like they say, love breeds love & hate brings about more hate.
Time for Change
Women spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying products, gym memberships, special clothing and undergoing surgery. The results? — still feeling less than the ideal. What else could that money fuel? Women in politics? A change in our maternal care system? Free education? Returning the arts to our schools? Daily joy?
Women waste millions of hours fretting, feeling badly, complaining, tearing themselves/others down, researching and recovering from surgery. What could we do with all those hours if we were focused on what we really desire: connection, community and possibility?
How to Be Happy with and Love Yourself
Women who seek loving peace and acceptance of their bodies discover an internal well of confidence and courage. They experience powerful self-love that radiates out into their relationships, work and community. After all, how can we love others when we don’t love ourselves?
1. Reprogram your brain. Your brain doesn’t perceive reality in its entirety, there would simply be too much information to take in. Instead, it’s more like a filter, a computer in which we enter a program and the program executes. For example, you learn a new word. You swear you’ve never seen it, and no one uses it. Then, all of the sudden, it’s everywhere. Your brain wasn’t programmed to see it before, so it didn’t. So, reprogram your brain for beauty — your own and the beauty others. Ask yourself “What will I learn to love about my beauty today?”
2. Smile. Want to be seen, connected with meaningfully and feel beautiful? Start by smiling. People experience us as beautiful when we smile, we feel more beautiful and we also calm our nervous systems and release those happy hormones that give us a boost. Plus, we exercise our muscles — mental and physical!
3. Practice Mindfulness - Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Catch yourself out when you speak or think negatively about yourself.
Awareness is the first step!
“My thighs are fat and ugly” is repeated as, “My thighs are strong and support me beautifully in my life. I am grateful for my thighs.”
“I have to lose weight?” becomes “I get to lose weight if I wish, but I am beautiful and worthy, exactly as I am in this moment?”
And “I look old” becomes “This is what wisdom and experience look like,” or “I see wisdom and experience in my face.”
Pleeeease, Do it for you!
Commit to one of the above practices for the next two weeks. Create reminders, post-its, phone alarms, whatever works to jog you out of the habitual thought process. Be compassionate and persistent — habits of thought and action aren’t changed overnight. But they can be changed with positive intention and desire.Stay connected to your vision of inhabiting your body, your life and your relationships with full acceptance and joy. The world actually needs you to.
It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned – to love myself - Three years in to this journey, there are still bumps in the road but I’m so glad I started, and I will never stop learning to love me & love others with more meaningful connection.
I’m aware that because of social media and the way us women can scrutinise other women, when I choose to rebel, say fuck it I am enough, I do love myself, I am here to once more proudly take up space and be unapologetically me - Sadly I may still be criticised by those who are yet to do their own self work practicing non-judgement, non-attachment & kindness. I long for them too to begin to love themselves, to begin to heal, find joy in all that simply is and grow beyond the realms of comparison, oppression and unhappiness, we can so easily find ourselves stuck in.
Life is too short for this shit!
But I know how your feel. I've hated my body. I've numbed myself through pain, disassociated with feeling and being exactly as I am. I have told myself every self-loathing thought in my head but i chose not to do that anymore. And you can too!
I want you to know, you don’t need to change a thing about yourself. Everything you’ve ever wanted, already exists within you, you just need to reconnect and find it once more with whatever techniques work for you. Yoga has been an incredibly helpful tool as part of my journey, for you, maybe there are other self-love techniques... See my Blog - 60 self-care Essentials
Love breeds LOVE!
I appreciate you for being here, more than you know.
All my Love,