Beholding your Beauty: Breaking Free Beyond the Body Image Battles

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She pauses in front of the mirror. A full length reflection to patiently peruse. She studies the frown lines, and examines the dark circles under the eyes, from the baby who woke in the night.  Gazing scathily at her back view, she wonders whether this outfit flatters all her fault lines. The fault lines forged through the growing girth of gestation, several times over. Fumbling around in her closet, she finds a blue top.  Is it more forgiving than the green top? Is it more flawless she wonders as she critically considers her side view? Does it match with the darker jeans? Maybe the grey skirt is a better option. And shoes. The comfortable colourful flats or the elegant yet less comfortable heels? Oh what to wear. Or what not to wear….

Does this sound faintly familiar? Body image. It’s such a stereotypically feminine topic to write about. But I’ve bravely decided to pursue this one, as it seems to be a topic that needs to be prioritized. Because I’ve observed that no matter what one’s shape or size, height, what features one has been blessed with, or how photogenic one is, I’ve met very few women who actually liked, let alone loved their own bodies. And isn’t this sad. Why is there so much heartache over beauty? Research confirms that probably about 95% of us are unhappy at one time or other with how we look. The issue of how we look seems to comes up in conversations with girlfriends all the time. And it’s not a subject that I often raise. But we all have aspects of ourselves that we are not comfortable with. Perhaps we are even ashamed of. For me it is having my photo taken. For others their insecurity may be centred around their weight, their height, their stomach, their legs, their hair. Poor body image seems to be such a universally female struggle. It’s a common stronghold in so many women, a bondage for some perhaps. I’ve used emotive language, but that is how it significant the struggle with body image is for so many women. And for many women, the battle with body image may intensify as they get older or after they have children. We live in an image-conscious society that is obsessed with youth.

Our society presents us with an interesting dichotomy when it comes to body image. On the one hand our society seems to be becoming more unhealthy by the decade. On the other hand, it is now socially acceptable to be very focussed on health. But when does the preoccupation with health become unhealthy one might ask? In my early twenties I trained as a health psychologist, when health psychology was a new emerging field of psychology at that time. And one of the areas in which we studied was ‘modern health worries’. There seem to be many health worries that we have in this day and age. Chemicals present in food is one such issue. It is perhaps true that much of our food sources do seem to be defiled with chemicals today. Weight loss is another. We live in an obesegenic environment where densely calorific food is very accessible compared with in previous generations. You only have to go to the Warehouse just before Easter or Christmas. The amount of confectionery on display is almost obscene. And obesity is serious. Type 2 Diabetes is on the rise and will possibly bankrupt the health system because of the cost of kidney dialysis, as one example. But most of us aren’t obese. Obviously we ought to want to eat healthy, to eradicate sugar, and to endeavour to live an active lifestyle with exercise. It is admirable to want to have a healthy body mass index, but when it becomes such a significant focus of our lives, a striving perhaps, is where it may border on unhelpful. And I find large groups of women all talking about weight to be an unhealthy phenomena at times. I find that one has to be deliberately counter-cultural and as one of my friend’s has so insightfully suggested, to reject much of what is in common conversations. Yes it’s about health, about having optimal energy levels, clear arteries and a healthy pancreas, and not what one looks like.

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But how does one feel good about one’s self when the media perpetuates the lie that one is not okay? Because we all know that advertising and marketing campaigners want to make women feel discontent with their appearance so that they will purchase their products. But our daughters, and our sons, may not be quite so aware of the pitfalls of advertising, not to mention television programmes. We know that models in magazines don’t actually look that way in real life thanks to photoshop and other programs. But our children may not. And there is a battle waging for the health of their body image too. Body image seems to be intrinsically linked to self-esteem. There is a correlation between healthy body image and healthy self esteem, especially for girls. And the reverse may also be true sadly.

How does one navigate the minefield of the media and the toxic culture in which we live, when one has daughters? I really liked the Dove beauty campaign that was running some time ago. Real pictures of real girls, celebrated for just the way they are. I have three children, two of them daughters. As parents, my husband and I have discussed how we can raise them with healthy body image, and we have decided not to talk about weight or to make appearance a focus in our home. We have to be really careful what we model to our children. I know that I have failed in this area on more than one occasion.

I feel for those who feel they have been rejected because of their size or shape, or because they didn’t look a certain way. Women that feel they have failed to measure up to an unattainable and unrealistic standard of beauty perpetuated by myths in the media. Women who have been judged for their size, when a significant proportion of a person’s size and shape is determined by genetics. We have to be very careful how we talk about our bodies or other’s bodies, as it is a topic that can cause much hurt in others if we are not careful. So much hurt. Many carry deep wounds buried within their soul that we know nothing about. We need to be careful even with seemingly casual comments. Personally I’ve made it a practise never to comment on someone else’s body, unless I know the person well and it is clear that this is a safe topic of conversation.

A discussion of body image may not be complete without meditating on Proverbs 31. While the Proverbs 31 woman is often described as the ‘ideal woman’, it is perhaps freeing to note that there is actually no mention made of her appearance.  What we might discover from this chapter is that the most important garments of all are those of one’s character. The attributes of strength, dignity, and wisdom. ‘Beauty is fleeting’ it says in verse 30. We know that it is a person’s heart that makes them beautiful. While the world may see what we look like, God looks at the heart. And it is this inner beauty that invites, it comforts, nourishes and gives life. And every woman has a visible and invisible beauty that she can behold, as she is created in the image of God. She doesn’t need to find this from a salon, through striving or from having plastic surgery. What would happen if we could behold our own beauty, being comfortable and at rest with the way we look? We could become vessels of encouragement and healing to one another. We could walk free in the area of body image, building one another up and clothed in compassion.

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