I happen to love “Glee,” partially because I’m a sucker for musicals, and that’s basically what every episode is, but also because they do a nice job at exploring some pretty serious issues in an accessible way. One episode, “Born This Way,” explores the issues we all have with who we are, what we have to accept and what we can change about ourselves.

So those of us in the process of changing our bodies to be more healthy have something to work through mentally as well as physically: What is it we actually expect to change?

For example, people who go through surgical weight loss procedures are generally required to have a psych evaluation first. Why? Because losing weight, although it will fix many physical problems, isn’t a magic pill that will solve all your problems. For years, I would think to myself, “Oh, if I lost weight, X would happen” or “If I could lose weight, I’d be able to Y.” But what happens when problems you blamed on your weight, like relationship issues, are still there when you’re thin.

Or what about this, which is something I fear: What happens when I lose weight and I don’t look like I think I should? I know how my weight was distributed when I was young, but sometimes weight distributes differently when you age. What will I really look like? What’s a reasonable expectation?

Right now, the feeling of chronic illness is still recent enough that just feeling healthy seems like a fine return on the effort. But I have to face it: I want to look a certain way, and that may not be the way my body is destined to look. When I was young, I was definitely a pear. Will I be an apple? Or one of the other designated body designs folks have come up with in the meantime? It’s a big enough issue that there’s an entire professional journal devoted to these issues called “Body Image.” And the U.S. Government thinks it’s a big enough deal to devote an area of the National Women’s Health Information Center to body image:

With a positive or healthy body image, a woman has a real perception of her size and shape. She also feels comfortable with her body. With a negative body image, a woman has a distorted perception of her shape and size, compares her body to others, and feels shame and anxiety about her body. Being unhappy with your body can affect how you think and feel about yourself as a person. A poor body image can lead to emotional distress, low self-esteem, unhealthy dieting habits, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Developing a positive body image and a healthy mental attitude is crucial to a woman’s happiness and wellness.

So why do we get these distorted perceptions? Well, the National Eating Disorders Association has a list of facts that suggest the media has a lot to do with eating disorders generally, which are related to body image:

  • The average U.S. resident is exposed to approximately 5,000 advertising messages a day (Alfreiter, Elzinga & Gordon, 2003).
  • According to a recent survey of adolescent girls, their main source of information about women’s health issues comes from the media (Commonwealth Fund, 1997).
  • Researchers estimate that 60% of Caucasian middle school girls read at least one fashion magazine regularly (Levine, 1997).
  • Another study of mass media magazines discovered that women’s magazines had 10.5 times more advertisements and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines did (as cited in Guillen & Barr, 1994). A study of one teen adolescent magazine over the course of 20 years found that in articles about fitness or exercise plans, 74% cited “to become more attractive” as a reason to start exercising and 51% noted the need to lose weight or burn calories (Guillen & Barr, 1994).
  • The average young adolescent watches 3-4 hours of TV per day (Levine, 1997).
  • A study of 4,294 network television commercials revealed that 1 out of every 3.8 commercials send some sort of “attractiveness message,” telling viewers what is or is not attractive (as cited in Myers et al., 1992).
Given that the “ideal” body differs from culture to culture tends to reinforce this view that the media plays a part. The clincher seemed to be the case of Fiji:
Fiji, a nation that has traditionally cherished the fuller figure, has been struck by an outbreak of eating disorders since the arrival of television in 1995, a study has shown.

So, we know what the problem is. Or at least we have an idea of why we may not embrace our bodies, no matter how fit. So what’s the solution?

Sarah Metzger at LiveStrong proclaims

[M]aking the choice to take care of yourself daily leads to an inner-confidence that’s more powerful than any change you can make to your physical appearance.

Hmm. Well, yes, confidence does help. There are a lot of female celebrities who I really don’t think are that pretty, but there’s something about their ability to project confidence and presence that outweighs their superficial appearance. Madonna, for example, is not someone I think is all that pretty. But she’s certainly got something. Oddly, though, at least one study says that men don’t find proud, confident women all that attractive:

 [S]miling may be seen as “consistent with traditional gender norms of the ‘submissive and vulnerable’ woman, but inconsistent with ‘strong, silent’ man.” So basically, pride is seen as masculine, and smiling as feminine — and by this token, women who appear confident are apparently manly and unsexy.

How stuck in the past are we? Bite me; I don’t want (and wouldn’t be interesting to) a guy who can’t deal with the fact I’m an assertive woman. My husband thinks it’s cool; he wasn’t interested in the boring ol’ shrinking violets.  Interdependence is good; codependence, not so much. Have these guys ever watched Angelina Jolie kick someone’s ass? And do they really want to stick with “I don’t find her attractive”? I’d love to know the median and mean age of the men surveyed.

Cleveland Clinic has a laundry list of things you can do to help overcome body image problems:

The following are steps that you can take to begin fostering a positive image of yourself:
  • Take a self-image inventory
  • Define personal goals and objectives
  • Set realistic and measurable goals
  • Confront thinking distortions
  • Identify childhood labels
  • Stop comparing yourself to others
  • Develop your strengths
  • Learn to love yourself
  • Give positive affirmations
  • Remember that you are unique
  • Learn to laugh and smile
  • Remember how far you have come

For my money, though, I rather like reading the sassy stuff posted at “Adios, Barbie,” a website devoted to body image articles and commentary. Like  “You’re so perfect … except for your boobs,” an article written by Melanie Klein about a friend’s silicon breast implants:

In numerous intimate conversations she confided in me about her implants and Tim, her body image issues, and her distrust of men. These conversations were plagued by a deep sadness and marked by intense insecurity and regret. With her striking eyes and “porn star body,” Jasmine commanded a lot of male attention, attention that she deflected and tried to avoid by dressing in ways that diminished her figure.

So even being a Barbie doll isn’t as great as we might think it is. In fact, it’s been my observation that extraordinarily gorgeous women tend to believe that’s all they have to offer. And, unfortunately, sometimes that’s true because they became so accustomed to getting what they wanted because of their looks, they didn’t develop any other assets. One woman I worked with who was like that was incompetent at her job, but kept on by the male partners because they liked to watch her. But one lunch break with her was enough for me; I realized she had a bad relationship with an ex, and didn’t seem to be able to hang on to a keeper of a guy.

Like my husband always says, you gotta talk to ’em eventually. So, ladies, it’s not necessarily the men that are the problem; it’s what we’ve been conditioned to think. As Tina Fey says in her wonderful book, “Bossypants,” we’ve been conditioned to believe that in order to be beautiful, we must have:

  • Caucasian blue eyes
  • full Spanish lips
  • a classic button nose
  • hairless Asian skin with a California tan
  • a Jamaican dance hall ass
  • long Swedish legs
  • small Japanese feet
  • the abs of a lesbian gym owner
  • the hips of 9-year-old boy
  • the arms of Michelle Obama
  • and doll tits.

Can you say she’s wrong? But the list points out the ridiculousness of what we expect of ourselves. So what if you have big hips or short legs? Guess what, even Michelle Pfeiffer, who was one of the poster children of what pretty was supposed to be when I was a young woman, doesn’t like her lips. She thinks she has duck lips.

So, short of trying to beat Michael Jackson’s record for most plastic surgeries ever (and we all saw how badly that eventually turned out), we each have to learn to live with our imperfections. Most of the time, we’re the only ones to notice them (until we decide to point them out to others, who then can’t miss them. I now think of duck lips every time I see Michelle Pfeiffer).

 

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