Having a good body image can seem like an elusive, seductive goal that almost all individuals hope for. Most of the time, we believe we need to make changes to the outside of our bodies to have a better body image. We tell ourselves that we will feel good in summer clothes once we lose 10 lbs. That we can make big changes in our relationships once we can look a certain way. We believe that we can feel confident only after a cosmetic surgery. However, this fallacy that we need to change the way we look to have a better body image actually perpetuates the self-objectification that our culture of comparison encourages us to engage in.
Body image is the way we view our own bodies, and to work to have a better body image, the change needs to be internal rather than external. However, how we are taught to view our own bodies is heavily influenced by our culture, our society, our gender identity and expression, how society views our gender expression, our families, and media. It is important to recognize that there are many things that can play a role in influencing the way we view bodies, but today we are mainly going to focus on the role of media. In our world of online living and having our image posted, edited, examined, and compared in a public forum, it’s no wonder that we are seeing a devasting increase in mental health concerns around body image and related issues.
Media can influence us and our relationship with our body in very obvious ways, but also very sneaky ways. The most common message we get from media is that how our body looks determines our worth and worthiness of happiness, love and acceptance. Which is simply not true; all humans are worthy regardless of the way their body looks. However, a lot of times, there is financial gain for many different industries by pedalling this message.
When we talk about how media influences us and our body image, it is important to mention the various aspects of media that can impact the way we see our bodies. Many people solely blame social media for impacts on body image, and while social media does play a large role, other types of media also influence us in big, more sneaky ways.
How many times have you seen an advertisement that shows a “before and after” for various products such as anti-wrinkle creams, cellulite creams, exercise programs, hair growth products, hair removal products, make-up, teeth whitening products, weight loss supplements or diets, “shape-wear” clothing items, cosmetic surgery, shampoo and conditioner, self-tanner and countless others? Or how many times have you seen someone who is very attractive talking about a product that they “swear by” to make them look a certain way? These types of advertisements infiltrate our daily lives through almost every single media outlet there is. Usually, these types of ads are designed to make you feel bad about a certain part of your body to make you buy something to “fix” that part of you. It objectifies our bodies by splicing them into desirable and undesirable parts and tries to convince you that you will be happier once you buy their product.
A general rule of thumb is that if an advertisement is making you feel bad about your body, they are trying to sell you something.
So many industries make a staggering amount of profit on making people feel bad about their bodies to sell their products. They focus on the importance of beauty and outwards appearance on achieving happiness and worthiness. And because of this, they will always continue to make profit because if we focus on our outwards appearance as a source of our happiness, the less happy we will be with our bodies.
Speaking of advertisements, we need to also remember that social media is filled to the brim with advertisements, and they are sometimes so subtle that we don’t even realise until we suddenly feel bad about our bodies and are overcome with a sudden urge to buy a product. So when we see “influencers”, we need to remember that they make money from social media posts. Why is that? Because advertisers are paying them to post about their products, and ultimately, sell you something.
Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?
Social media also influences us outside of just advertisements. We scroll through these beautifully curated and edited photos on social media that shows perfected moments in someone’s life that are very far from reality. Normal, human life is messy, scary, soft, vulnerable, exciting, and full of love and pain. This is a far cry from what we see on social media.
We need to remember that social media is not a reflection of real life, and no matter what we change about ourselves, having a life similar to what we see on social media will not make us feel happy or fulfilled.
Side by Side
Social media also makes it very easy to compare people’s bodies. Many critics will hide behind their computers and phones and post mean comments about other people’s bodies that they would never say in person. In doing so, they are also participating in the objectifying culture and placing worth on someone’s physical appearance. Why does being called “ugly” on social media (and in general) hurt so much? That’s because we have placed so much importance on physical appearance and subjective “attractiveness” that view outward beauty as the epitome of our worth.
Another thing that I’ve seen on social media recently that has been a little disturbing is using outward appearance to measure physical fitness. So many fitness influencers will talk about loving their body through exercise and proper nutrition (which is not a bad thing), but then they will turn around and post side-by-side comparison photos (again, those “before and afters”) as a measure of their “fitness journey”. This practice emphasizes that our physical appearance is ultimately the most important thing. If they really wanted to show us physical fitness, they could post an increase in their running time, or in their ability to lift more weight, not in how their body looks differently.
Movies & TV
Movies and TV can also be both obvious and subtle in the ways they influence our relationship with our bodies. How many movies or TV shows have you seen that make “fat” jokes? “Ugly” jokes? “Old” jokes? How aware were you of these jokes? How many shows have you watched recently where the lead was deemed “attractive” and they also happened to be thin, white, and young-looking? How many other characters also fit that description? Thankfully, many shows and movies have gotten better about including more diversity, however the message of “thin, hairless (except on your head), cellulite-free, and muscular/not muscular (depending on gender presentation) = attractiveness = worthiness” is still very present.
A Better Way Forward
Take the Focus Off Outward Appearance
“Positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good; it is knowing your body IS good, regardless of how it looks.” – Lindsay Kite & Lexie Kite, More Than A Body
We often think we need to change something about our bodies and focus on them more to like our bodies more, however in actuality, it is only when we are able to let go of trying to control our bodies that we actually begin to have a better relationship with our body. To do this, we need to begin to shift the focus and value off of what our body looks like, and place it on what our body can do for us. For example, our bodies allow us to breathe, to read, to think and debate, to write, to hug, to walk, to see beautiful things, and experience joy. I’m not saying that we need to completely disregard how we look entirely, especially if you love fashion or wearing bright colours or want to look professional for a business meeting. It’s more about not placing our sole focus and value on appearance, and shifting our focus to our abilities as unique human beings, and what our bodies can do and how they feel. Beauty can still be nice, however it is not the only important thing.
Ways to Help Shift Focus Away From Appearance:
When checking how you look in the mirror, ask yourself how you feel instead
Cover up your mirror from the neck down for a week and see how you feel
When engaging with posts on social media, ask yourself what the message is that the photo and the description is trying to tell you
Reminding yourself of the amazing things your body can do when you notice you are focusing on outwards appearance.
Consciously Engaging with Media
One way to help us have a better body image is to create more conscious awareness around the media we consume, as well as choosing not to consume other forms of media.
Edit your Intake
We can edit our intake with social media by removing and reporting accounts and posts that support unhealthy body image rhetoric. The less we engage with these messages, the less likely we are going to fall for their marketing scheme, and thus, feel badly about our bodies.
We can also increase our intake of social media accounts, TV shows, movies, and journalism that promote products and conversations that centre on things other than how bodies look. For example, the iWeigh account on Instagram (@i_weigh) promotes the idea that we are made up of so much more than just the number on the scale or how our body looks. Or even social media accounts and movements that have open conversations calling out some of the unhealthy body-focused rhetoric out there.
Create an Internal “Bullsh*t Filter”
We create an internal “bullsh*t filter” around our media engagement we cannot edit by paying attention to the ads we are shown, posts on social media, and the comments and jokes made in movies and TV, and pointing out to ourselves what makes it problematic. This could look like seeing an ad for cellulite cream and reminding yourself that cellulite is normal, natural, and this company is trying to make you feel bad to sell you their cream. Other examples could be:
Watching for people congratulating others on weight loss. Remember that weight loss and being thinner is not a measure of physical fitness. This places and worth on physical appearance rather than health. Only after talking to them, we can congratulate them on their commitment to health and their well-being (if that is what they are trying to achieve).
Watching for ads about “wellness products”. These usually mean “weight loss”.
Noticing when it’s mainly only thinner, “attractive” people in movies and TV that are in relationships as opposed to other people that deviate from traditional beauty standards.
Watching out for people asking “do I look fat in this?”. This implies that fat-ness is a negative thing, and looking fat is synonymous with “bad”.
Even with all of the filters in place, we can still fall victim to comparison culture. It has become so easy for us to compare ourselves to others in an online environment when we constantly have access to pictures of others. When we do notice we are in a comparison trap, it is important to firstly catch ourselves, and secondly, to practice self-compassion.
According to Kristin Neff, one of the leading researchers in self-compassion, self-compassion is the ability to be kind and understanding to oneself when we make mistakes. She talks about practising self-compassion through the concepts of mindfulness, self-kindness and common humanity.
This is how we can practise these concepts when we find ourselves comparing our bodies to others in an online environment:
- Mindfulness – This is the ability to recognize when we are even hurting in the first place
- Recognize when you are engaging in comparison and how that causes you pain
- Recognize when you are being mean to your body for not being “[fill in the blank] enough”
- Self-kindness – Talking to yourself like you would a loved one
- After you are able to recognize your own pain, ask yourself what you would say to a loved one (a best friend, a sibling, etc.) who was experiencing the same thing
- Turn those same words back to yourself and see how that feels
- Common humanity – This is the idea that all humans make mistakes and have flaws
- When we can recognize that no one is perfect, and everyone has flaws, we feel less alone in our experience
- When we do this, we also are more willing to accept and forgive our own flaws and mistakes.
Existing in this world where so much or our value and worth has been placed on our external presentation can be incredibly difficult. Especially now that it has become so easy to engage in comparison. But it is so important that we recognize that our worth does not lie in what our body looks like, but in our unique personalities, our capacities to love, heal and hope, and in our resilience and strength.