As someone who has lost 40-something pounds through a lifestyle change of healthy eating and exercise after being in her late 20s, studied the topic of body image issues as it relates to counseling and psychology, experiences acne more so in adulthood than in childhood due to possible PCOS, and still finds herself comparing her image to those she sees on T.V. or in a social setting, I want to take this opportunity to write more about the different ways in which the issue of body image could present itself, cultural factors associated with it, how it could impact women, and what we could do to empower ourselves and others to be healthy and practice self-love. (Body image issues also exist for men, but that would require its own blog post)
Until I was in my mid-20s, a nickname used for me by my family members was “moti”, which in Hindi means “fat”. I had no idea when I was younger that this nickname would become a part of my self-identity. That this negative message I had been receiving by my family was impacting the way I perceived myself in comparison to those they found skinny and therefore, beautiful. Although my family contributed to my negative thinking about my body image, they were only partially to blame. The society in which I grew up idolized women on T.V. who were tall and skinny to where you could see their collarbones, cheekbones, knee caps, pointy elbows, flat stomachs where the bottom parts of their ribcage were prominent, perky breasts that were not too big or too small, and a perfectly round shaped butt. This was the case in many but not all cultures. In some cultures, women are thought to be beautiful if they are heavier so that they can give birth to healthy babies and appear the way women should so that they can be differentiated from men. Although lately, different companies and brands are promoting plus size women, the fact that there is label differentiating them by calling them “plus size” is problematic. I had friends at school and at church who I found to be skinny and beautiful because that’s what those around me thought was beautiful. There would be times where I thought I looked pretty in the way I was dressed but instead of receiving any compliments from people at church, I found my skinny friends standing next to me being told that they looked beautiful even when they were dressed similar to me.
When my friends around me began dating and had boyfriends, I began blaming myself thinking guys did not approach me because of I was fat. Although now I eat because I enjoy eating and am a mindful-eater who has heightened taste buds, back then I was an emotional eater who found comfort in foods that were not necessarily healthy or nutritious. Emotional eating can be the result of things such as unresolved trauma, abuse, low self-esteem, depression, stress, etc. While my body was still developing, I began trying different ways to lose weight that, in hindsight, I do no consider to be healthy ways to lose weight. I began experimenting with diet pills and drinking replacement meal shakes like slim fast but I still found myself to be hungry all the time. I was also not very physically active, which did not help the matter. When I became interested in the field of psychology in high school, I learned about anorexia and bulimia. Even though I have never experienced either one of these disorders, my curiosity got the best of me and I once tried to make myself vomit after I ate to see how it worked. I gagged but there was no vomit. I share these stories to demonstrate how my family, my culture, my society, and the social media impacted my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Body image issues can be detrimental and even lead to eating disorders. Eating disorder is a serious issue, its not only psychologically problematic but can also impact your physical wellbeing. People who have an eating disorder often feel that this is one area of their lives that they can control. Being able to control whether they eat, what they eat, how much they eat, how much they exercise, and whether they throw up after they eat gives them a sense of relief and comfort. It’s their way of coping with everything else going on in their life, the negative messages they may have received about their bodies from their family and social media or with a traumatic event. Sometimes the eating disorder is so drastic that it begins to impact the person’s functionality in other areas of his/her life and leads to mental health or physical health issues caused by malnutrition or lack of nutrition. No matter how much weight loss has occurred, the person continues to struggle with body image issues and sees himself/herself as being fat and is not able to find healthy coping mechanisms.
Body image issues are not just limited to one’s physical body weight but can also be connected different body parts. Every month women go through their menstrual cycle causing them to experience hormonal shifts that can lead to bloating, acne, food cravings, mood changes, etc. When I was in undergrad I was told I have symptoms of PCOS because of the hair on my body, the acne on my face, and my irregular periods. PCOS can cause physical symptoms that can cause one to feel less attractive and there are treatments available for those symptoms. Although, I found some relief in knowing that these symptoms could be explained medically, I still get embarrassed whenever I have a pimple on my face and try to hide it with a concealer. Our culture and society as well as social media have made waxing, shaving, laser hair removals, etc the norm to where we feel embarrassed if there is hair on our face or legs or even arms. We cannot wear shorts in the summer with hair on our legs no matter how hot it is. The only place having hair is ok is your head and eyebrows but even there your hair has to be thick and beautiful. This process can be part of our self-care and hygiene but to what extent are we letting society guide our choices? Is this something you are doing for yourself or for others? After all, we are our worst critics.
Let’s talk skin color. People are trying really hard now a days to accept their skin color or of those around them. Even make-up products and dolls are being manufactured in a variety of shades. The implicit and sometimes explicit messages still exist that lighter is or rather closer to white is better. Within my own Indian culture, lighter is considered more beautiful and there are commercials for Indian products that are supposed to help you obtain “fair” looking skin. I remember a time, one summer, when my friend and I went on a trip to a beach in Florida. We came back really tanned and somewhat burned. Both of our mothers had something negative to say about our skin color because we looked darker. Even among Indians there are many skin colors but like in the U.S. there also seems to be a supremacy for those that are lighter. There is also identity confusion among those who are biracial or multiracial because they do not always have a clear idea of where they fit, belong, or would be accepted as a result of being a part of multiple racial groups. (I am speaking of skin color in terms of body image here and not race, which is another topic in itself).
So, is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? In this case, you are the beholder. What you think and feel about yourself and your behaviors related to your body image is up to you. Society has socialized many of us into thinking and believing what is and what is not beautiful. I am also someone who was impacted by this. I have accepted that my PCOS symptoms are for life and if there is a pimple on my face, I understand that I am just a human. As long as I continue to practice hygiene and taking care of myself in a way that makes me happy, what others think about my face does not change my talent and intelligence. My skin color makes me who I am and it was created as a result of my parents coming together and because of the part of the India where I was born. After I decided to live a holistic lifestyle and chose to exercise and eat healthy in order to lose weight, I realized I did this for my health and wellbeing. I do not see myself as skinny or fat. When I look at myself now I see someone who is physically and mentally healthy. Being overweight did not make me less or more beautiful, it increased my chances of getting diagnosed with medical conditions in the future. Recently I was asked by a lady at my church if I lost weight because I was getting married. I was appalled by this question and educated her that this was something I did for me and that I am not getting married. She apologized for asking me that and realized she was being ignorant. If someone will only marry me if I was “skinny” according to society’s standards then that that means the person may not want me if/when I gain weight. If the relationship is solely based on physical looks as opposed to other parts of the person’s being, then you have to remember looks do not stay the same forever. Weddings can be a motivation for women to lose weight so that they can have a certain look for their wedding pictures, which is fine. However, the plan after the wedding to maintain their health is what matters more.
As humans we all pass or have passed judgement on other women’s looks. There are parts of our bodies that we like and parts that we do not like. We look at other women and quickly scan them top to bottom and then decide what we like about their look or what we dislike. We tend to compare our body shape to theirs and imagine whether we are more or less beautiful than them. The change begins with self. Once we make the decision to overcome our body image issues and stop allowing our socialization from causing us to be judgmental towards ourselves and other women, we would be able to redefine beauty as healthy. Instead of comparing ourself to those around us, we have to focus on things we can do that will make us feel happy about our image. We have to focus on loving ourselves either the way we are or change our lifestyle so that we can love who we become. Comparing our body image to those on social media or T.V. is unrealistic as we do not know what others are doing to look the way they do. Just because someone gets more likes on Facebook or Instagram does not make them more beautiful than you.
As women, we have to learn to empower each other as opposed to negatively judge one another. After I went through my transformation, I have had many women come up to me and tell me I look beautiful implying I may not have looked beautiful when I was bigger. There was only one person who said I looked beautiful before and look even more beautiful now. I share this to demonstrate that as women we have to stick together and encourage one another. It’s one thing to be concerned about someone’s health and another to talk about their beauty. Even “plus size” women are beautiful just like those that are “skinny”. Remove the blindfolds placed on your eyes by society about what or who is beautiful and give genuine compliments to those around you because you may just be the one to prevent someone from having low self-esteem or body image issues. Oh, and do not forget to compliment yourself and accept who you are!
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