For whatever reason, somewhere along the line, humans started getting really, really concerned about how they look. Maybe it’s because we have a far more evolved mating system than other animals; maybe it’s because we have a far more evolved system of neuroses to care about things—I don’t know if the peacock maintains a neurotic concern about their coloring being bright enough to attract peahens. Maybe it’s because media and technology started being able to show us the most good-looking humans from around the world, not just the prettiest people in the village.
Whatever the case, somewhere along the way, we started caring a lot about how we look, when it’s really one of the least important things about ourselves and our bodies. It has no effect on intelligence or kindness (at least, biologically; socially may be another matter). It has no effect on the ability to survive and reproduce (again, biologically). And, for the most part, the way we look has no effect on the ability to walk, talk, digest, breathe, and think (I’ll get into the health vs. appearance thing in a bit).
This doesn’t have to be a gendered issue, although it inevitably is, because it’s a simple truth that women are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of images of women who look a certain way—particularly which women are praised for their looks, who all tend to fall into similar patterns of body type and facial features. Men have a far wider array of other men to look at and look up to, from actors to politicians to athletes, whose looks are rarely commented on in the negative, even if certain types or features are more commonly praised. No matter how you look at it, society is more likely to look past a man’s appearance to value what’s underneath than they are for a woman, even if there are exceptions on both sides.
But regardless of gender, if we don’t fit the model of, well, models, we end up feeling bad. And this bad feeling is the crux of the “body image issue.”
The first wave of addressing the body image issue is to curb the bad feeling enough to at least not harm yourself. Eating disorders, compulsive exercising, and self-harm as a result of psychological issues are immediate and emergent effects of body image issues that need to be addressed first. “Not harming yourself” and “accepting yourself” are pretty far apart on the continuum, but those who struggle with the first need to at least help themselves past that before they can even start reaching towards the second. As a society, we have a lot of narratives meant to address this first wave of issues, and although it won’t be entirely eradicated until we fix the underlying problem, I think we’re hopefully getting better.
The second wave of addressing the body image issue is to learn how to accept a wider array of body types in media and in ourselves. Seeing plus-size models as just models, seeing women (and men) who don’t fit the model mold not constantly have to talk about that fact as though it’s the most interesting thing about them, seeing songs and stories that embrace and even find pride in non-idealized and in fact normal body types. When it’s no longer “strange” to be proud of your body, not because you’ve somehow reached the promised land of beauty, but because you love it just the way it is—when that’s the norm in society, we’ll have reached the second wave. For now, it’s on an individual basis, and it’s a huge struggle for a lot of people. It’s primarily a psychological struggle against society, but there are movements in the right direction, slow and unsteady but being talked about.
I wrote a poem about this issue of acceptance and body image here. It shows the mental gymnastics that people (especially women) have to go through to learn that a person’s worth is not their looks.
But it’s not enough…
The third wave of addressing the body image issue is where I think we’re heading next, and where I find myself stranded. This is the issue of weighing “accepting yourself” against “being healthy,” and what the latter even means. If you can even make it to a psychological status where you love your own body as it is, that’s a huge accomplishment—but when does that become an excuse for being unhealthy? Is our issue of health too tangled up with body image ideals that aren’t actually healthy? We’re far more likely to view a stick thin model with an eating disorder as healthy than a solidly built and muscular weight lifter who is probably much healthier. Can “healthy” even be measured in any way by visible cues of the body? We certainly believe that “unhealthy” can, but to what extent? And we can’t deny that a visibly unhealthy large person will get an unimaginable amount of shame from a society that will praise a visibly unhealthy thin person (though we shouldn’t be in the business of shaming either).
This last wave of the body image issue is particularly difficult for me, and I would imagine for others, because it’s a minefield of emotions and psychological paradoxes. I can fight to love my body, I can fight to not care about my weight, and it is a fight in this society—but how do I balance that with the necessary discipline and commitment it takes to eat right and exercise? For me, I just hate exercising (except for long, relatively slow walks) and I love bad food. And the only thing making me feel guilty about those habits is not health but looks… so if I fight to not care about my looks, I end up not caring about my health (at least, not enough to start exercising and to stop eating bad foods).
It may sound like a simple solution to separate health from looks and care only about the former, but whether as a society or as a personal issue, it’s hard. The conversation about diet and exercise is inextricably tied into the conversation about body image, because we see those healthy habits advertised with diet pills and beautiful actresses and held up as the ultimate measure of a person’s (especially a woman’s) worth. Fighting back against that narrative can mean throwing out the baby with the bath water.
We don’t criticize the unhealthily thin models, other than the occasional after-school special or fashion show afterthought—we criticize the unhealthy and fat. And we use words and jokes that suggest the issue with “fat” is not their healthiness but their attractiveness, the way they look. Twisting that around and adding the shame of being “unhealthy” as though that’s why people are laughing is not only sad and wrong but also makes it impossible to separate health from looks. When you make an unhealthy choice and cringe, it’s not because, “ugh, heart disease”—it’s, “ugh, looking fat.”
So when I try to accept my body, my fat, how can I get my mind to then turn around and hate my health, my fat, enough to change it? How can we separate the conversation about health from the conversation about looks when we have spent so much time tying the two together—especially at the “unhealthy” end of the spectrum, where it only adds to already overwhelming body image issues?
I think that’s where we as a society need to go next. I know that’s where I am, and I don’t have the answers. I’m just hungry.