If you are trying to escape the clutches of chronic dieting or in recovery from an eating disorder, you may have noticed that poor body image was the first thing to come and the last thing to go. It’s easy to understand how feeling bad about your body might have led to problematic eating. But once you are well on your way to better self-care, why does it remain so difficult to feel okay about your body? What makes negative body image so hard to get past?
I think this challenge is largely due to Shame at Every Size. (If you’ve never heard the term ‘Shame at Every Size”, that’s because I made it up. But trust me. It exists.) You may be familiar with Health At Every Size, an approach that encourages individuals to take good care of their health regardless of their size. Health at Every Size tells us, “It doesn’t matter what size you are; you, too, can take good care of your body.”
Shame at Every Size is a condition inflicted on us by our culture. It tells us, “It doesn’t matter what size you are; you, too, can feel awful about your body.” There is no doubt that larger people are dealt a harder blow in this society. That’s because the external negative messages are more blatant. The culture says, Your size is a problem; do something about it. Shopping for clothes, visiting the doctor, and traveling on an airplane are experiences that will likely be more difficult. But the internal negative messages about body size definitely do not discriminate. Anyone in any body can feel inferior, and that’s no surprise in a society that’s dead-set on making us feel that way. A thin person might still feel not thin enough. And even if she does feel fine about her size, she can certainly still have miserable body image. She may feel too wrinkled, too ugly, too short...there is no shortage of ways to feel inadequate. How did we get ourselves into this nasty situation? Have things always been this bad?
Not quite. In the early twentieth century, there was a shift in advertising that proved to be toxic to body image. This happened around the time that a guy named Edward Bernays hit the scene. Bernays was an Austrian-American expert in public relations and propaganda - and also happened to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew. According to Bernays, it was more effective to appeal to unconscious human desires, which he felt were the true motivators of human behavior, than to the rational minds of customers. Bernays’ method of harnessing human desires into the motivation to buy things proved to be a very lucrative strategy.
American advertisers began to realize that they could, quite literally, capitalize on human instincts to get people to buy their products. They started creating ads that appealed to what they thought people truly wanted - not specifically from their product, but out of life. Advertising shifted from showing people, “Look at all the functions of this oven” to “When you own this oven, you will be a true success and the envy of the neighborhood”. Because who doesn’t want to bake perfect pies and look like you have it all together? If you didn’t feel very good about yourself to begin with and were secretly afraid you’d never amount to much, then there’s a good chance you would have been sold on that image of the perfect housewife baking the perfect pies for the delighted perfect husband and children. It became less about the product and more about the image. And that was a very dangerous thing. What had started as a clever marketing strategy turned into a situation that was toxic to body image. The new message was, “When you achieve this look (by purchasing our product or service), then everyone will love and admire you and you will be finally happy.”
Who doesn’t feel insecure at some point? Who doesn’t want love and admiration? I’ve got to hand it to Mr. Bernays. It’s actually brilliant.
As technology advanced, the “look” portrayed by the media became even harder to achieve. If getting the look were easy, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of money to be made. If it were only people in a particular body type who were good customers, that wouldn’t be a very effective way to do business. But if the look is an impossible standard to obtain - impossibly beautiful or impossibly thin - then no one is ever good enough. If the “ideal body” is impossibly unrealistic (at this point, almost computer-generated), then everyone feels bad. As supermodel Cindy Crawford famously said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” So all of us are vulnerable, no matter how we look. They’ve succeeded in making everyone a customer. In an effort to finally achieve happiness, we all keep trying, trying, trying. And spending, spending, spending.
Today, there are entire industries devoted to making you feel bad about your body. They tell you that if you don’t feel good about yourself, it must be because of how you look. Therefore, in order to feel good enough about yourself, you must change your appearance, generally by buying their products, utilizing their services, or following their programs. Things have become even sneakier in the past few years because now it’s also about “wellness”: if you don’t feel good, you probably need a diet overhaul with a serving of weight loss on the side – but make no mistake, it’s all the same stuff. The worse they can make you feel about yourself, the more stuff you buy. If we all felt okay about our bodies, the multi-billion dollar diet industry would fall apart. The beauty industry wouldn’t fare too well, either. These are massive operations that are heavily invested in making us feel inadequate. Is it any surprise that it’s so hard for people to feel okay in their own skin?
So, now that you're clued in to what’s really going on, you should be good to go, right?
Models are photoshopped, it’s all about consumerism, now I should feel better about myself.
Uh, nope. I do think that knowledge is powerful and being a critical viewer of the media is really important, but unfortunately, that doesn’t fix everything. The result of living in this culture is that we’ve been taught to project our insecurities onto our bodies. If you aren’t feeling good about anything in life, you may almost automatically assume it’s because there’s something wrong with how you look. “If I just looked better, I would feel better.” I have met many people in many bodies and some of the people with the most “culturally-approved” bodies are some of the most miserable. I have clients who recall their thinnest years as their unhappiest years. It’s a wretched train ride to nowhere. The reality is that until you feel good enough on the inside, you will never feel good enough on the outside.
Who hasn’t felt inadequate, lonely, or unworthy at times? Who wouldn’t want a quick fix? A guarantee of happiness? What’s being marketed is so very attractive. But we’ve got to be smarter. Can anyone really you sell happiness? A sense of worthiness? Of finally being “enough”?
These are things you can ONLY get from the inside. If someone becomes more beautiful, whatever that means on any given day, she may feel happier about being more beautiful - but that will not guarantee her overall happiness. If someone shrinks her body to a more “acceptable” size, she may feel happier about being thinner, but in no way is that an assurance of a better life. These things may be a preference, but when you make your happiness or self-worth dependent on them, that is pretty much a recipe for misery, not to mention playing right in to cash-hungry hands.
The real work, then, is establishing your own self-worth, and that is no easy feat , especially when your value and your appearance are so intertwined. It involves a lot of effort and a lot of time. No wonder negative body image is the last thing to go!
Is it possible to ever truly untangle the two and develop a healthy sense of self, one that is not dependent on your appearance? Yes and yes. Especially now that you’re wiser! Shame at Every Size exists, but you don’t have to let it own you. I’ll let Dr. Suess finish up for me:
"You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose."
Go for it. I'll be cheering you on.