I had a dream one night during the week that I was teaching about body image and self-esteem in my psychology of women class. I was in the garden of a small house, and it had a large tree with a tire swing and tall grass growing in it. A young girl, about age four, with blonde hair and blue eyes, was my daughter. As more people gathered in the garden, I noticed that the little girl became more self-conscious, and her slender body became more artificial looking and like a doll. At one point I was on the tire swing with her, and she hugged her knees to her chest, causing her to break into pieces. Her eyes became like glass orbs instead of flesh. I woke up feeling disturbed. Firstly, someone with dark features like mine is unlikely to give birth to a Nordic-looking child. Secondly, I felt pain at the thought of this little girl breaking and essentially dying. I sat with this dream for half the day, and as I reviewed my lecture material, decided to include a documentary about eating disorders to my class.

As part of the lesson I have my students make a full, life-sized body map. I do this as a body image workshop as well. It is to take inventory of what we think and feel about ourselves. Each body part must be labeled with either a positive or negative message that we give ourselves. I instruct them to include scars, stretch marks, blemishes, freckles, and body art (tattoos and piercings). I also have them include emotional scars, and where they carry their tension, stress, and pain. They write and draw on the map, using numerous colors, symbols, words and expressions. I have had both men and women taking a deeper look at themselves, some with curiosity, new awareness, reflection, and even pain. I have had a few people who will cry in the middle of the activity, as they realize that their beliefs about themselves are mostly negative.

We walk around all day with certain thoughts about what we believe about ourselves. We give messages, often subconsciously, about who we think we are, and what our self-worth is. For some, their body image is relatively in sync with what they actually look like, making them people with a good amount of self-acceptance and even self-love. For those that have a self-critical monologue going in their minds, it has very little to do with their actual appearance but more to do with the negative image in their own minds.
After looking at a magazine for three minutes, about 70% of women have a negative self-evaluation. What is also interesting is that the images that we see are airbrushed and altered by computers. In other words, the images we see of perfect bodies are not real. Over half of all American women have normative discontent, meaning that on a day to day basis, they are unhappy with themselves. For men, this is about thirty percent, and climbing.

Advertisers play on insecurities to sell consumers products that they do not need. Both women and men are sold on body types and proportions that are not found often in the general population, as about two percent of the American population looks like models. The average female model is about 5’11, a size 0 or 2, and weighs around a hundred pounds. The average American woman stands at 5’4, is a size 14, and weighs 140 to 160 pounds. Men are told to look extremely muscular and wear a large size, and stand over 6 feet tall. The average American man stands at 5’9 and is a medium to large size, and is not necessarily rippling with muscles with only 8 percent body fat.

Having an unrealistic standard to strive towards can lead to constant insecurity, fear of aging and changing with time, and continued discontent and unhappiness with one’s self. It burns a lot of cognitive energy, and can put a damper on anyone’s day. They are less likely to go out in the world with confidence. Negative body image and low self-esteem can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, unhappy relationships and sexual dysfunction. It can also lead to discontentment with life in general. Going through everyday disliking ourselves, berating ourselves, and not valuing ourselves can lead to a less than mediocre existence. The potential we have to be all we can be is diminished every time we look at ourselves in the mirror. Instead of seeing ourselves with love we see ourselves with loathing. This is beyond counterproductive.

No matter what we look like in terms of height, weight, shape, size or color, it is important for us to face ourselves. This is why I have my students do the body mapping exercise- even if we do not like what we see, before we can change anything, we must accept what is. In looking at and learning to accept it, we can develop a higher self-evaluation. Instead of having a berating belief, such as “My thighs are too big.” we could look at it as “My thighs are strong and part of the legs that I stand on,” “my thighs are part of me,” and “my thighs (and legs in general) help me to get where I need to go.” We can learn to look at something we have in a whole new way.

When we realize how diverse body types and people are, and we can more easily find each person’s uniqueness and beauty. Our bodies tells a story of who we are and how we survived. They are deserving of respect, care and kindness. Our bodies will change with age, and that is also something to be patient with ourselves about, so we should enjoy the abilities we have while we have them. Like the little girl in my dream (who fit the standards of being the beautiful blonde but was more fearful of others judgments and had it ultimately destroy her) we can choose instead to give ourselves the right to live, just as we are. Instead of trying to fit ourselves into unrealistic outlines of appearance, we can draw our own lines and define beauty for ourselves, one person at a time.

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