When the singer and actress Beyonce was named the "World's Most Beautiful Woman" by People Magazine in 2012, she responded that it was in fact "inner beauty" she valued the most. Whatever she meant by that, it's safe to say that she and celebrities like her can easily afford such displays of humility. To the rest of us mere mortals, being beautiful only on the inside doesn't sound especially appealing.
According to a survey by Glamour magazine, 97 percent of women who were asked about their body image declared they were less than satisfied with the way they looked. "Too fat," "too thin," "ugly," "gross," and other descriptions to that effect revealed a widespread sense of low self-esteem among women when it comes to their bodies.
"I'm not totally surprised [about the survey results]," says Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist specializing in issues of body image and self-esteem, who was involved in the design of the survey. "It's become such an accepted norm to put yourself down that if someone says she likes her body, she's the odd woman out," she says. "It's actually more acceptable to insult your body than to praise it."
It's not just outside pressure by the media and the beauty ideals women are constantly bombarded with, we do it also to ourselves, she explains. Whatever we focus on, it eventually shapes our perception. If we keep having all these negative thoughts about the way we look, those thoughts become habitual. We actually can train ourselves to be this way.
A negative self-image often develops very early in life. It's not just women who go through pregnancies, gain weight, or see their skin wrinkle as they get older. Even children and adolescents can be uncomfortable with their looks, especially if they get teased or bullied by their peers, or if they don't feel they measure up to the fashion and show biz icons of the day.
The diet and health industry is also not beyond reproach when it comes to creating unrealistic expectations, thereby setting their clients up for disappointment. Weight loss companies defend themselves by saying they don't have much of a choice if they want to stay in business.
"I regularly find myself tip-toeing around the issue of body image because I've been told that women want to hear one thing, and one thing only on a sales call: I can make you thin," says Isabel Foxen Duke, a health coach and emotional eating expert and author of "How Not to Eat Chocolate Cake."
Health experts know full well that acceptance of one's body as it is in all its frailty and with all its imperfections is an important part of the healing process. Whether someone is obsessed with false beauty ideals or with self-loathing doesn't matter. Both attitudes are equally self-destructive. By contrast, understanding and appreciating the body's value, no matter how it looks, is a first step in the right direction.
Don't get lost in all the details of what and what not you must do to get or stay in shape, what you can eat and what you must avoid, how often and how much you must exercise, etc. etc. "I want you to listen to and trust your body's needs. I want you to get a big old life outside of food. That's what I'm really trying to do," says Foxen Duke.
Being your own whole person in body and mind, that would be truly beautiful - from the inside out.