Loving our bodies is not enough: What is fundamentally missing in our body image conversations?
Do I develop a positive body image by actualizing the adage "love your body more," or should I resort to plastic surgery?
Jennifer Aniston's thoughtfully penned essay on the objectification of women can be added to the growing list of important body conversations occurring; from London's mayor banning "body shaming ads," to Norwegian cities banning Photoshopped model ads, to Caitlyn Jenner and Demi Lovato describing how they overcame body image insecurities, to being #BodyPositive, body image is on our collective mind as a society.
And while the focus on loosening the ironclad corset and giving breathing room for diverse bodies to be loved and appreciated is a big step in the right direction, something is still fundamentally missing in our well-intentioned conquest to develop a positive body image.
We are still missing the mark because why was more than $13.5 billion dollars (the highest grossing year to date) spent on cosmetic surgery for men and women in 2015?
As Jennifer Aniston laments celebrity "news" is used to maintain a dehumanizing view of women primarily focused on physical appearance. And that is the tip of the iceberg that has not been addressed properly; our societal focus on appearance is shortchanging the wealth of potential that we, as a people, have to cultivate.
What is a positive body image?
Dr. Tracy Tylka's study released in Body Image Journal highlights that a positive body image goes well beyond solely appreciating one's appearance: it includes mental, physical and emotional well-being. It is also not on a continuum where positive body image is placed on one end and negative body image on the other:
Just because I can tolerate myself and don't espouse a negative body image, does not mean that I like myself and have a positive body image.
People with a positive body image are also not impervious to feeling low or having "bad body days" but realize and emphasize that their internal characteristics shine through to their outer beauty. A person with a positive body image often believes they are inherently valuable and uniquely created.
So where have we gone wrong?
As Jennifer Aniston implores the consumers of tabloid magazines, our awareness needs to change. We have become a society so caught up in appreciating diverse bodies, expunging weight shaming, judging thin or thick body types, that we have forgotten to emphasize the most important quality of all: our humanness and unique talents, ambitions, and personalities that we all are developing.
A positive body image does not reduce to thoughts and opinions about the body, but is rather a holistic appreciation of one's humanity.
Take Robyn Lawley, model and advocate for women's rights:
"Curves don't epitomise a woman. Saying, 'Skinny is ugly' should be no more acceptable than saying fat is. I find all this stuff a very controlling and effective way of making women obsess over their weight, instead of exploiting their more important attributes, such as intellect, strength and power. We could be getting angry about unequal pay and unequal opportunities, but we're too busy being told we're not thin enough or curvy enough. We're holding ourselves back"
How do we get there?
According to a study released in Time magazine, our societal emphasis on loving ourselves more to improve self-esteem is only making us a more narcissistic society. A positive body image is quite the contrary: it is neither narcissistic nor vanity.
Also, celebrating diversity to the detriment of acknowledging health and the increase in obesity is not making our society any happier or healthier. Not only do people with a positive body image engage in health related behaviours (this is not saying a one-size fits all, but rather acknowledging that extremes on either size of the pendulum are unhealthy) but they focus on internal qualities.
The answer is actually quite simple and rooted in religious wisdom from thousands of years ago.
1. Practice self-compassion: Become aware of your own suffering or situation in a caring and empathic way - treat yourself as you would treat a good friend.
2. Nurture gratitude by writing thankful lists: Writing thankful lists cannot only broaden our horizons to the multitude of good qualities in our life but can increase our overall happiness.
3. Appreciate the body for the functions it performs: appreciate your capability to write, paint, run, walk, dance, digest, breath, and heal itself. Our bodies are incredibly complex and intricately designed.
4. Surround yourself with people who appreciate and accept you for who you really are. This is pretty straightforward.
5. Develop and invest in your talents and gifts: Beauty evolves from age to age and culture to culture. Only striving to be beautiful is like chasing a different caterpillar that constantly evolves into different butterflies. However discovering, investing and developing ones' talents is not only sustainable but can result in a deep sense of accomplishment, increased life satisfaction, and well-being.
While I believe people are hardwired to want to feel good about how they present themselves, an entire societal focus on only celebrating diverse outward beauty is shortchanging us.
The irony is that a stronger focus on cultivating our inner selves would naturally result in a more positive body image; the intended but still elusive end goal to 'loving our bodies' more.
If we are serious about change, then it is time to broaden our focus.
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