When I talk to people about my recent book (Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women), I’m often asked, “How did you find so many women to interview who were struggling with body image?” I have to laugh when I hear that question. The truth is, I didn’t need to seek out women with body image issues. I just had to find women. I have yet to meet a woman whose life hasn’t been altered by how others have focused on her appearance or by how she feels about what she sees in the mirror.
Several decades ago, researchers coined the term “normative discontent” to capture women’s feelings about their bodies. Basically, the term means that it’s become normal for women to struggle with body shame. By age 13, girls already report feeling substantially more body shame than boys. Too often, we accept that feeling despair when you look in the mirror is just part of being a woman.
The body shame so many women wrestle with isn’t about vanity. It’s important that we not brush it off or dismiss it. Body shame is linked with all sorts of nasty psychological outcomes, including eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. And while many seem to think that shaming women’s bodies is a way to encourage weight loss, the truth is that body shame makes it more difficult to take good care of your body.
Body shame can trigger binge eating. It also makes you less likely to exercise and more reluctant to seek medical care when you need it. When you’re ashamed of your body, you’re less motivated to listen carefully to what your body needs and respond accordingly. Body shame can also weaken valuable social connections if it prompts you to avoid engaging with others.
How did we get to a place where so many women are feeling so much body shame?
It starts when our toxic culture teaches girls and young women that their appearance is going to require and attract near-constant attention. When you walk out your door, you never know who’s going to comment on how you look. A stranger on the street? An Internet troll? Your boss?
What’s worse is that the appearance ideal women are held to is absurd. It’s airbrushed, filtered, Photoshopped, and perfected beyond anything resembling reality. It suggests only one specific body type is acceptable. It leads to the idolization of youth. And yet this is the standard many women feel they are held to every time they walk out the door.
Over time, this ideal, along with the awareness that others are evaluating your looks (or could be at any moment) get internalized. In other words, if other people are always monitoring your appearance, eventually, you’ll take over. You’ll start doing it for them. You become the closest observer of how you look. If you spend long enough being treated as an object by others, eventually you start to see yourself that way. Researchers refer to this as self-objectification.
Self-objectification carries significant costs. It guarantees that a portion of your awareness is always monitoring how you look to other people. It creates that voice in your head that’s always ready with questions like: Am I sucking my stomach in? Are my thighs squishing out? Is my face shiny? Does my hair look okay?
Imagine you’re looking in a full length mirror. Self-objectification is what happens when that mirror remains in your mind even after you’re no longer in front of it. No matter what else you’re doing, a part of your consciousness is still imagining how you look in that mirror.
Self-objectification is a key trigger of body shame. Here’s how the psychological cycle works:
Step 1: You think about how your body looks
Step 2: Thinking about how your body looks makes you think about that out-of-reach body ideal for women
Step 3: Once that ideal is in your head, you inevitably compare your own body to it
Step 4: Because this body ideal is out of reach for almost all women, you feel disappointed and dissatisfied. That sense of your appearance not being where it should be is what creates body shame
The more emphasis you put on your physical appearance – the more you self-objectify – the more shame you tend to feel. This can create an unfortunate feedback loop, where body shame makes you focus more on your body, which then creates more shame.
To free ourselves of crippling body shame, we must fight back against the forces that teach us to think of our bodies as objects that exist for others’ approval or disapproval. Your body is not your enemy. It does not need to be tamed into submission or punished for its failures to live up to absurd standards. It needs to be cared for and treated with respect.
Your body is your home. It’s your means of moving around in the world. It’s the vehicle through which you achieve your goals. You are not a decoration. You are not an object. You are an instrument. The more you can free yourself from self-objectification, the more powerful and effective you will be as you reach toward your goals.
Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln is published by Harper Collins