When I was about eight or nine years old, I have distinct memories asking my dad for the first time if I was fat. He'd be holding me in his lap, gently affirming that I was not fat but merely strong. Being strong and moreover in my grandfather's language "looking beautiful" has become a joke in our family for when one of us has put on a couple pounds and ask if we look fat, the answer is always "No... you're just strong" or "You're more beautiful than ever." It's funny because even though that means, "Yes, you've gained weight," it still infuses me with praise instead of shame for the natural process of weight fluctuation experienced as a girl, adolescent and woman. The two-fold meaning makes me smile every time.
In Jillian Croll's Guidelines for Adolescent Nutrition Services, it states that "in order to help youth experience healthy body image, they need to understand that bodies come in many different sizes and shapes... To cultivate a healthy body image, they need to develop skills to help them navigate through all the messages they hear and see related to body image, appearance, and eating. A variety of people in the lives of adolescents can contribute to this skill development."
The language used in our environment, the media we see, the toys we play with, our lifestyle, etc., all play into our perception of our body image - starting early on in life. "Strong social and cultural forces influence body image in young people," says Croll. "From childhood to adulthood, television, billboards, movies, music videos, video games, computer games, toys, the Internet, and magazines convey images of ideal attractiveness, beauty, shape, size, strength and weight." The other school of thought is that parenting, whether good of bad, outweighs the possible effects that media and other factors play into our perceptions, which basically states that if parents would normalize this topic at home, external factors such as media wouldn't have as much of an effect on children and adolescents as others claim it has.
It's no surprise then that the choice of words my family members used when navigating tricky subjects such as weight affected my own perception of my body image. Luckily, the foundation set for me in terms of my relationship with my body was quite a positive one. Beside asking my dad if I was fat, I don't necessarily remember feeling ashamed of being taller, thicker and "bigger-boned" than my peers. Whether they knew it or not, being protected in these ways set me up for a positive relationship with my body, and it's honestly one of the gifts given to me as a woman that I'm most grateful for.
Unfortunately, my experience is the exception and not the rule. Many friends, clients and peers confess to me a past (and many times a present) riddled with eating disorders, body dysmorphia and overall body shame. And that's a shame. My initial reaction is not to ask "Why is this happening?" but simply "How can I help?" Is it possible for us as adults to reverse any negative foundation inadvertently set in us during childhood and, moreover, how do we protect ourselves from the current media onslaught of distorted body image ideals?
Pause for a moment and digest that with me for a moment.
// How do we protect ourselves from the current media onslaught of distorted body image ideals? //
In Carl Jung's words, "I am not what I happened to me. I am what I choose to become." Jung's words resonate with me because of the power it gives each and every one of us to craft our lives, regardless of our pasts. The many years I've gone through thinking about what I want to become and what legacy I want to leave have acted as a weaving motion that eventually become a thick tapestry of purpose and clarity. The topic of body image is something I feel tied to because of the differences in interpretation and experience it has from woman to woman, from age to age.
These are a couple ways in which I've regained control of this topic and infused my life with body-love instead of body-shame.
- Language used toward myself and women around me. Words have immense power! What we say, we then feel, so we must be extremely cautious of the emotions we clothe ourselves with simply by the words we use. For instance, I don't use the words fat or ugly because they just don't taste good coming out of my mouth. If I happen to feel either of those things, I use phrases such as "I'm feeling off," or "I feel a bit icky." Those work for me because they don't add power to the message, but they may not work for you. Explore with what you need.
Assignment: On any single day, pay close attention (or enroll a friend to help) to what words or sentences you're currently using. If they immediately throw you into a spiral of body shame or self-doubt, it's time to find a replacement word. Play with how you can rewrite these in your brain in order to feel a bit less bound to them.
- Uplifting content on social media: Oh the topic of social media... this is a tricky one, especially if you're fairly active on social media and are constantly receiving messages from others, whether direct or subliminally. I'll give you an example for context. I was following a well-known fitness "influencer" and would get lost in her photos, videos, abilities, lifestyle, daily routine, food choices, dating stories, etc. For whatever reason, it all became too much for me and instead of feeling inspired by her, I began feeling depleted whenever I'd see her page pop up. I'd compare my progress to hers or even my life to hers! It even sounds ridiculous as I write this, but I know I'm not the only one who's been a victim of social media distortion. I expressed this to a close friend and she simply said, "Why don't you just unfollow her?" This was a holy shit moment for me. Just like that, I unfollowed her and immediately felt better. You see, just like the language we decide to tolerate, the pictures and messages we choose to allow also help paint the picture of how our world looks. It similarly crafts our own perception of ourselves, so we must again be wary of the information around us.
Assignment: If you feel odd or negative energy (jealousy, self-doubt, fogginess, etc.) from ANYONE'S content, whether it's a good friend or a complete stranger, do yourself a favor and either unfollow or unsubscribe if you don't want to ruffle anyone's feathers. Don't question your intuition, actually lean into it, and enjoy the feeling of knowing you're in control of your own life.
So now you have two action steps you can start today. This post in itself is part of my vision to not only bring awareness to the topic of body image but also to encourage women to choose self-love instead of the contrary. Regardless of our past, however positive or negative, we are still susceptible to day-to-day influences in the form of media, subliminal messages, direct words, built-in energy in people or products, etc. It's up to us to open our eyes to what's around us and be intentional about not only what type of body image we want for ourselves but also what message we want to carry into future generations.
My hope is that we all choose to love, support and uplift each other. Starting today.
// S O U R C E S //
Guidelines for Adolescent Nutrition Services, Jillian Croll