Don’t waste your precious time fretting about how your body looks. That’s one nugget of wisdom I hope to pass on to my daughter and sons.
I started thinking about it after seeing an inspiring video of real women working out (see below), and after watching the Superbowl #likeagirl ad, and since the news broke that Sports Illustrated finally included two plus-size models in its swimsuit issue — though one, at six-feet-tall and size 12, looks downright slender and the other, at size 16, appears in an ad and not the main pages.
How we think of ourselves and our bodies comes in part from when we become self-aware, body-aware. What was the context?
Twiggy, Special K and Farrah
I was a child during the Twiggy era, when the 5’6” tall, 91-pound model and her androgynous look dominated magazines. I was a teen in the '70s, when Special K cereal spread the message that you shouldn’t be able to pinch an inch. During my high school years, the ideal beauty was Farrah Fawcett. I clearly remember the poster of her in a red bathing suit with her famously feathered hair and perky breasts.
It seemed normal to want to be tall, thin and blonde — even though I was short, stocky and brunette. Back then, the only countermessaging to such images and ads were our mothers, saying: “Just be yourself.”
(MORE: Learning to Appreciate the Body You Have)
Fighting Pounds and Selfconsciousness
For me, the cultural images proved stronger than mom. By the time I hit my senior year, I was sure I was fat and went on the grapefruit diet (unsuccessfully), followed by a high-protein plan that also included Melba toast (yuck). Over the years, I fought a low-grade but constant battle against extra pounds and selfconsciousness.
I was hardly alone; almost none of my friends seemed satisfied with their bodies, even the ones who fit the ideal look of the day.
But things have shifted (ha!) since I crossed into my 50s.
I’ve increasingly wondered why I wasted time and energy on what for me wasn’t a health issue. My body insecurity was based on a “should” that I seemed to have plucked from the era — that is, “I should be skinnier.“
Things have changed in the culture, too, though the change seems sometimes a two steps forward, three steps back affair. Even so, today my daughter can find a fairly steady stream of positive body image messaging on the Internet. True, she can also find plenty of demeaning and negative messages. But at least there’s a push to show what’s real vs. ideal, and the push is coming now from media and Madison Avenue, as well as grassroots efforts.
I love this example by This Girl Can, celebrating “women who are doing their thing”:
A Growing Body of Positive Messages
The short piece powerfully shows that real people come in all shapes and sizes; that you don’t have to be model-thin to be healthy and that you should move because it’s fun and good for you. It supports self-acceptance and strength for girls and women.
We know such messages remain crucial and bear repeating, as studies show girls are more likely than boys to want to be thin and to connect body dissatisfaction with low self-esteem. Risks from low self-esteem include anorexia, early sexual activity, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. We know girls are likely to lose their confidence in the teenage years; we know they need to be both protected and bolstered.
(MORE: Why Eating Disorders Are a Concern for Adults, Too)
Boys, too, can be susceptible to societal “should” messages. When my son was in eighth grade, he came home dismayed that girls in his class were crazy for the actor Taylor Lautner, who had developed six-pack abs for the popular Twilight movies. “Do they think I’m supposed to look like that?” he asked. “No,” I remember saying. “It’s not real life; he worked out for hours every day for a movie.”
For boys and girls, a poor self-view can turn into depression.
Progress, But Still a Long Way To Go
Only about 5 percent of Americans actually have the body type most often portrayed in the media, so we can know intellectually what an utter waste it is to feel bad because we don’t match it. The ideal shifts, too, as this clip demonstrates. But it’s good for moms and dads not to be the only voices telling their kids they’re normal and to just be themselves. Videos like the one above and ongoing efforts, like Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, offer backup. So do great roundups like this that expose photoshopping in catalogs and magazines — another way unrealistic expectations are set.
(MORE: Taking Stock of Women's Images)
Do we have a long way to go, still, as Suzanne Braun Levine argued recently on Next Avenue? Sure.
The #likeagirl campaign has its share of critics who say what it’s really doing is squelching speech, though I like the idea of taking back the phrase and making it positive. And as noted, Sports Illustrated cleaves to the waif/anorexic look on its cover, but running the Swimsuits for All ad, featuring Ashley Graham, might expose its readers to how beautiful size 10 and up bodies can be.
After all, even Special K has come around, now touting the benefits of eating a healthful breakfast. And in 2009, Twiggy herself told the London Guardian that the look she became famous for is utterly unrealistic: “The way I looked when I started modeling — I was a skinny schoolgirl, stuffing tissues into my little 32A bra. I wasn’t trying to be that thin, I was perfectly healthy, but still — that look is a total impossibility for women over the age of 20. Fashion has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it?”
Yes, Twiggy, it does.
For my part, these days I aim for healthy, not skinny. And I remind my kids that the number on the scale can swing up or down, but it doesn’t have much to do with enduring happiness. Better to spend your time focused on what interests you and on who you love, including yourself, than on those numbers.
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