For Whom the Bell Tolls

Due to the rise of the current body image movement, which tosses around terms like “thin privilege” and “HAES – healthy at every size”, I’ve been sitting and waiting to see a thin person come out and apologize for her size and shape.  Without  even looking, I stumbled upon something yesterday in where I saw a healthy looking young professional woman quoted as saying “Just because I exist in this shape doesn’t mean that I’m, like, advocating it.”

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While I’m all for the promotion of psychological health, which includes a healthy self- and body-image, I can’t help but think that this new approach to body image may only provide a band-aid type solution and may possibly cause more harm than good.

The media is taking a lot of flak for being at the root of this problem by inundating us with images of what is currently considered the ideal female form.

The media aims to entertain us and to inform us, and they provide whatever information they feel will be the most effective at accomplishing these goals.  I’m not sure who decided, or when or how it was decided that it was the media’s job to enhance our self-esteem and protect our body image.  But it seems that not only has the media has been assigned blame for the body image problems that many experience today, they have also been made responsible for this problem and are being pressured to exclude certain body types from their presentations.

The media does a very good job at keeping us informed of the many health risks associated with poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive drinking and smoking, sun exposure etc.,  as well as the benefits of eating well, exercising, meditation, vitamin and mineral supplements etc.  This information directly relates to the maintenance of a healthy body and body image.  Even though this information is provided specifically to be influential in positive ways, somehow this doesn’t seem to count.  The fact that normal sized and overweight people regularly appear in the media also seems to be overlooked.  All the current attention is directed towards how the media indirectly and inadvertently has a negative impact on body image by showcasing fashion models and actresses for entertainment purposes.

If a client comes to me to work on self-esteem, confidence, body image, and anything that would fall into the category of “positive feelings towards the self”, I don’t consult the media to see how it can be of help to my client, I work with her beliefs and options to see how she can help herself.  Ideally, positive feelings towards the self will be fostered in youth by a loving and healthy family environment, positive peer relationships, and productive involvement in academics and/or extracurricular activities that relate to each person’s unique intellectual strengths, interests and talents.  I would never say lets turn on the tv and see how you compare to the next ten people we happen to see on the screen.  “Okay, so here we can see that you look better than four of these women but not as good as the other six, so yeah, you’re no good, and there’s nothing we can do about that until the media changes/lowers their standards.”  That’s ludicrous!

The media cannot set any standards for us without our permission to do so.

An adult person needs to set their own reasonable, realistic and self-affirming standards for themselves. The only other person they should look to for an opinion is their doctor.

I’m not denying that young people and adults do compare themselves to the people they see on television and in the media.  What I’m trying to say is that the source of the problem is not the images they see, its the beliefs that they take away from what they see.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a real appreciation of beautiful men and I thoroughly enjoy watching Jamie Dornan act or Cristiano Ronaldo play soccer.  I also really enjoy looking at photos of them.  They are beautiful, healthy, physically perfect men. However, I do not hope for a man who looks like that to spend the rest of my life with.  I am not disappointed in any way that I have never had one nor ever will.  I don’t look at the man that I’m dating and secretly wish “If only he looked more this or that or the other…”  Just because I appreciate something that’s beautiful in the conventional sense, does not mean I’m unable to see the beauty in another person living their own life and being their best self in their own unique way.  It’s every bit as beautiful and every bit as desirable.  Must we do away with one sort of beauty so that others can feel their own beauty that has been there the whole time?

I think the expectation that we all look like superstars is grossly overestimated.  Consider the people you encounter throughout the rest of today or tomorrow.  For each person you encounter, ask yourself if you believe any of them expect you to look like a superstar, or if you think any of them expect you to look any different than you do.  It’s highly likely you will find very few who you believe do.  Ask yourself how many people you encounter who you think should look different.  People are claiming that the media is telling us one thing, but what are we actually telling each other?  What are we telling ourselves?  Do we see an excess of unmarried men because they are waiting to find a woman who looks like Barbie?  As far as I can tell, we don’t.  Elaine Hatfield’s Matching Hypothesis suggests that we tend to pair up with and commit to those who are equally socially desirable in terms of looks and other factors.  Be assured that the sort of person you’re looking to find is looking to find someone just like you.

This body image movement also seems to be overlooking the fact that many men struggle with body image as well.  Although they’re less likely to compare themselves to models, they can and do compare themselves to athletes, actors, and other celebrities who typically have very healthy bodies.  Shall we begin to keep images of these people and their games and films out of the media as well?

And where does it end?  To illustrate from another personal example, because of the amount of education I pursued, I find myself behind my peers financially due to student loan debt.  Although there is truly nothing wrong with where I live, and a lot right, I would really prefer to be living in a new condo downtown, preferably one with a view.  That is how most of my friends live and when I visit their homes, although I am happy for them, I naturally find myself feeling envious, sad, and quite honestly often ashamed that I’m not yet able to make that move in my life.  I get hard on myself for not taking life more seriously when I was in my twenties and you can easily see how this line of thinking can and will snowball if I let it.  But I don’t.  I did the best I could with the circumstances and priorities that were present at each step of my life.  I have to let the regrets go and just do my best to stay focused on making progress towards my goals now and in the future.

Due to the state of today’s economy, I would be surprised to find that there aren’t many others who feel exactly as I do.  My advice to them would be similar to that I give myself – learn from your mistakes, focus on your present and future, maximize your potential, and accept your limitations.  I would never suggest that the world begin to hide condos or stop building them because those of us who can’t afford them now or possibly ever feel bad about ourselves because we are constantly inundated by the site of condos.  For others this could be mansions, cars, designer clothes, boats, travel, talents, and the list goes on and on…  And more seriously, for some it is far more important things like having children.  Again, where does it end?  There are endless opportunities for us to compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking, we can’t hide everything desirable in the world.

Overweight women have begun to use the term “thin privilege” to describe unfortunate circumstances that they endure that directly relate to their size.  I can’t deny that these things occur and that they should not.  As a thin person when I hear the term “thin privilege” I’m reminded of high school where back stabbing friends, cheating boyfriends, enduring vicious rumors, being hated and physically threatened simply for being someone’s ex-girlfriend, and sexual assault were part of thin privilege.  It also makes we wonder how many people could use the terms, and rightly so, first-world privilege, education privilege, freedom privilege, peace privilege, health care privilege, food and shelter privilege, normal parent privilege, etcetera.  I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea.

No one has the market cornered on human suffering.

Instead of focusing on the things that the super successful have achieved that we may or more not be able to achieve ourselves, why not focus on the things about them that we can and should admire, and that can enhance our own lives and happiness?  These would include things like their commitment to being their best selves, to self-care and maintaining a healthy body, and to practice, dedication, and discipline in their chosen fields.  Once the healthy body is removed as the ideal, other signs of success and fortune will naturally follow because the root of the problem is left unhealed.  This is not something that can be achieved via the media.  Self-acceptance needs to come from within.

The fact is that so many things in life that happen spread out across the bell curve.  In almost all cases there are going to be many people who are better than us in some or many ways, and others who are worse, but most of us will fall into the mid-range with many others just like us.  And really what would happen to the world if we removed all evidence of excellence and we stopped encouraging excellence?  The foundations of excellence, the drive, dedication, and determination, are the very foundation of our standard of living today.  Right now the focus is beauty, but it can just as easily become success, talent, and fortune next.  There are countless ways the average population can look at the above-average population and find something to feel bad about themselves about.  If we eliminate excellence and celebrate and glamorize average, over time what’s average now will become above-average.  It seems to me we can only go backwards here….

Keep well and be well…


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