A Healthy Body Image: Accepting Your Own Body

Like most women, I have body image issues. I’ve been fat, I’ve been thin, and now resting comfortably in a happy medium, I still find myself locked in battle between my psyche and what I see in the pages of magazines. Realistically, I know I’ll never be the supposedly coveted size zero — and I’m not even sure I want to be. Yet, every time I finish flipping through an issue of Harper’s Bazaar — or even US Weekly — I find myself questioning the reflection I see in the mirror. And to confuse things further, when I encounter the rare media personality or magazine model whose body more closely resembles my own, I’m even more critical in my judgment.

Of course, I know I’m not alone in these issues. According to the Dove Campaign For Beauty, only 2 percent of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful, and 81 percent of women in the U.S. believe the media sets an unrealistic standard of beauty most women couldn’t ever achieve. But what about when the media — and the beauty and fashion industries that swirl around it — make strides to bridge that gap?

News of the ban on rail-thin models in Milan made headlines around the world, and many women applauded it. Reality television stepped the controversy up a notch, with Tyra Banks’ popular show America’s Next Top Model welcoming plus-sized contestants into the fold. Unabashedly curvy Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson graced the cover of Vogue, while Glamour magazine routinely depicts a variety of women’s bodies. And yet, I can’t help but wonder: is this really what America wants — or is ready — to see? In a day and age when Jennifer Lopez’s behind is considered fat, and a size-8 “plus-sized,” when the same tabloid that speaks out in praise of normal sized women in the media crows over a slim starlet’s 15-pound weight gain, how can we be expected to achieve a unified ultimate goal?

“We have a very conflicted relationship with our own bodies, so it’s no wonder we have a conflicted relationship with media images,” says self-esteem expert Jessica Weiner. “We’re brainwashed by the amalgam of images we’ve seen since we were impressionable, so when we see average-sized bodies, we’re not conditioned to respond to that image as being a beautiful, cultural norm. It’s not as common for us to feel inclusive — we’re still exclusive.”

Weiner — who battled her own self-esteem issues, as chronicled in her eating disorder memoir, A Very Hungry Girl — has spent the last 15 years discussing these topics with women and mothers worldwide. As global ambassador for the Dove Self Esteem Fund and resident self-esteem expert for The Tyra Banks Show, Weiner launched a survey on her website designed to help format an open letter to the beauty and fashion industries, in an effort to change the landscape. But even Weiner has doubts about turning everything around, saying, “Everyone in the survey says they want to see ‘real’ models in magazines, and my first thought is, ‘Really? And if you did, would you read it?’”

Glamour magazine is betting they would. Over the past six years their editorial team has gradually introduced more average-sized models into its pages, all to favorable results.

“Including women of more average-size and plus-sizes happened very organically,” reports associate health editor Sunny Sea Gold. “Everyone supported seeing women like us in our pages, and we were very happy to see other women’s magazines follow suit. One thing I really appreciate about Glamour is that we don’t only include more normal-size women in stories that are specifically about body size or body image. We’ll shoot a size-12 model, for instance, for a regular-old relationship story. And that’s something that we haven’t seen everywhere.”

Gold feels that not only are we ready for this shift, we’re begging for it — now more than ever. Annie Kay, dietician and author of Every Bite Is Divine, agrees. According to Kay, web 2.0 and the legions of honest and enthusiastic bloggers have created an instant sounding board against media ideals while offering that long-suppressed alternate view. “The blogosphere is where the individual voice is more prominent than the corporate voice, providing a backlash that media hears more loudly,” says Kay.

The Blame Game

It’s hard to trace the root cause of the modern-day body image conundrum in which I, and many other women, find ourselves. Fashion blames media and the consumer, media blames fashion and the consumer, the consumer blames fashion and media… It’s a debate Donna Reamy, associate professor in the department of fashion, design and merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University, has had many times. Despite her discomfort with saying so, Reamy feels there are just some battles that won’t be won.

“I agree that it’s gone to the extreme of thinness, but clothing does look better on a more slender model going down the runway because it’s about a show — there’s a more theatrical look to the clothing on someone tall and slender versus someone who is shorter and heavier,” she says. “People need to realize what is real, what is TV and entertainment, and what the media is. The fashion industry has its faults to some degree, using the extremely skinny person on the runway and in the media, but I don’t think it’s all their fault.”

While it’s tempting for each outlet to blame the other, experts agree the only way to stop the cycle is to start educating all involved. Weiner votes to encourage more editorial directors to follow Glamour’s lead, while Kay recommends consumers spend more time disconnecting from media outlets and reconnecting to themselves through mindful practices like yoga. But most importantly, Washington DC-area MD Hema Sundaram, author of Face Value: The Truth of Beauty – and the Guilt Free Guide to Finding It, suggests we look deeper within to discover what inside us is causing us to judge images so harshly, noting that railing against thin models isn’t any better for the cause.

“Some readers may be outraged at thinner models and demand magazines do other covers with different shapes, but then they’re denying that other women exist and that doesn’t solve the problem,” says Sundaram, who feels that responding to skinny models with an emotion as intense as outrage indicates larger self-acceptance issues. It’s not like we write angry letters to Home & Garden when they feature impossibly perfect backyards in their pages, she adds.

A Better Approach?

“If we took the images of women in the spirit of exploration of various types of beauty and take it as fantasy, it can’t hurt us.”

In fact, maybe it can help us — not just to accept ourselves, but also those we dismiss as being too skinny, not skinny enough, bigger or smaller than ourselves. Because it’s not just the “overweight” that are feeling the pressure, but the naturally slender as well — witness actress Keira Knightley’s recent exasperation in Elle UK about online “thinspiration” communities who have claimed her as a mascot to inspire anorexics, despite the fact that she’s actually quite healthy. Meanwhile, even Knightly wishes her body were more like full-figured actress Monica Bellucci “just so womanly, female and curvy.” What does it say about our conflicted culture when those who possess the very bodies we’re pressuring everyone to have wish they had the bodies that people are trying to diet down from?

The only way to halt this vicious cycle is to stop being so concerned with everyone else’s back yard, and start focusing on our own. No, people aren’t starving themselves to make their back yard look more like what graces the pages of Home & Garden, but the more focused we are on others, forcing them to live up to societal ideals, the less time we’re spending inside our own bodies, understanding, appreciating and accepting ourselves where we are. Trying to force anorexics to eat or overweight people to diet before they’re ready to address the behavior behind the compulsion is futile. All you can do is work on changing your own perception and judgment and helping yourself feel better about where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Rather than fat or skinny acceptance, maybe this approach can just fall under the all-encompassing “acceptance.” Wouldn’t that be novel?

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