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Many elements of society promote the idea that having a ‘perfect body’ is a guaranteed way to command others’ admiration and approval. Society portrays this perfect body as the key–the secret to attracting a romantic partner, to landing a dream job, to having good health, popularity, success, and self-confidence. In short, we receive messages that the perfect body is your passport to a good life.
But what does this perfect body look like? For women, this ideal is a very thin supermodel look, an athletic build, or an impossibly voluptuous figure. Men, on the other hand, may have to contend with ideals that demand muscularity or extreme thinness or both. You may be nodding your head at this point because you are aware of these ideals. If you are like most people, you have been criticized by others—or you may have criticized yourself—for being too fat or too thin or for simply not fitting the standard. Additionally, individuals whose gender identities do not fall into traditional definitions may feel pressure to conform to these standards.
Research suggests that images of women are much more confining than what is allowed for men. Not surprisingly, women far outnumber men in terms of preoccupation with body shape, size, and weight. We are presented with many contradictory messages about what our bodies are supposed to look like. For instance, these messages tell women to be thin, curvaceous, muscular and delicate—all at once! But did you ever stop and think about who sets these unquestioned standards?
Society’s Messages about Body Image
Society’s messages about body image are generally shaped by the media, the beauty industry and outdated notions of health and fitness. These messages define body shape and size as targets for regulation and control. Ironically, a majority of media photos that portray individuals with perfect bodies (who may actually be seriously underweight) are enhanced by modern technology to achieve the effect. At best, such figures may be natural for only a small percentage of the population.
It is both unfair and unrealistic to expect everyone to look ‘perfect’, but the power of these images remains hard to resist. It may be difficult to give up the pursuit of this mythical perfect body size, even though that pursuit may end up being damaging to your emotional and physical health. Perhaps it would be easier if ideals weren’t so tied to our sense of well-being or if media images didn’t carry so much aspirational appeal, which encourages you to buy products in the hopes they will make you look like the people held up as “beautiful.” Instead, we have multi-million dollar diet, drug, and cosmetic industries advertising their products, implicitly saying, “Try me, give me your money, and I will promise you eternal happiness.”
Shaming Ourselves and Others
It’s likely that you’ve felt ashamed about your body, were made to feel ashamed about your size by someone you care about, or inadvertently made someone else feel ashamed. Society’s messages about body standards are deeply ingrained in our culture, and in the case of friends in family, are often not intended to hurt the person who the comments are directed toward. But these comments often echo impossible standards and and tell us, “You are not OK as you are; your body is not OK the way it is.” When we accept that message, we say to ourselves, “I’ll feel good about myself only when I look like this.” We put certain conditions on ourselves that we’ve got to meet a particular standard before we can fully accept ourselves.
The attitude that people of a certain size are not OK is called size oppression. Size oppression occurs when a person is harassed or discriminated against simply for being, or not being, a certain size. For the most part, the desired size is one into which less than five percent of the people in this country fit. As we make progress against other forms of prejudice and discrimination, we remain steeped in size oppression, and judge ourselves and others because of our body sizes.
While there is much pressure to be thin, size oppression does not spare those who are naturally thin, either. Thin people often are oppressed by the voluptuous and muscular ideals and can be just as dissatisfied with their bodies and themselves as anyone else. And if not that, they are often the target of others’ envy, jealousy and ill will—for no reason other than their body sizes!
Crash Diets and Related Fads
In contrast to what you may read on social media or see on TV, crash diets don’t work and very rarely lead to permanent weight loss. It’s not effective to eliminate foods entirely or to eat just salads or diet milkshakes to make your body fit some pair of jeans. (How about getting a pair of jeans that fit your body?) In fact, crash diets often lead to weight gain and create other serious health problems.
So what should you do? Flexibility is the key. Pay attention to your body’s cues. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you feel full. Don’t outlaw any food. It’s ok to have the occasional treat as long as you balance it with foods that will nourish your body and give you energy. If you respond to your body’s needs, your body will find its appropriate weight, size and shape. Health—not some arbitrary clothing size—is the overall goal.
Avoid the crash mentality with regard to exercise, too. Setting an exercise goal of getting to look a certain way can be discouraging and frustrating. Instead, exercise for the goals of health, fitness, relaxation, and good feelings. Everyday examples of reasonable exercise include moving about a half-hour a day, three days a week, and taking the stairs, if you can, instead of the elevator. Have fun being physical; if exercise feels like a form of punishment, it won’t be something you’re likely to continue.
Remember . . .
The next time you feel guilty over having eaten a donut or you find yourself comparing your body shape with that of someone you pass on the street, remember that body size diversity is normal. It is not the determining measure of your or anyone else’s health or worth as a person. Think critically and try not to buy into media stereotypes of the perfect body. And above all, accept yourself and others for who they are, not for what their measurements might be.
What Can I do?
In today’s society, size oppression is so prevalent that it is sometimes difficult to imagine that things could be otherwise. However, you can take a proactive position in challenging prevailing standards. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Question standards before accepting them.
- Don’t buy fashion magazines-at least don’t buy into them!
- Imagine what fashion photographs look like before they are technologically enhanced.
- Ignore height-weight charts.
- Always be flexible with exercise and nutrition—your approach to these should not be rigid and both should be something you enjoy!
- Take time to become aware–without judgment–of the body size diversity around you.
- Get rid of your bathroom scales.
- Wear clothes that fit.
Want to Know More?
Bacon, L. (2010). Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.
Bratman, S. & Knight, D. (2004). Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa – Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating. New York: Harmony Books.
Taylor, S. R. (2018). The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-love. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
TED. (2014, May 8). Jean Kilbourne: The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women [Video file]. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=Uy8yLaoWybk
Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.