Saturday, February 1, 2014

Body Dysmorphia, Body Image, and How Society Makes Us Hate The Way We Look

Wikipedia, in its ongoing quest to catalogue everything ever, includes a list of models who have died during their careers.  These were models who were still at an age and appearance where they could have continued modeling. I invite you to read it, and in particular, note how many of the models died from suicide, drug overdoses, or anorexia.

On first appearance, it seems odd that one of the most frequent causes of death among these models was an eating disorder. These are people who have careers as the epitome of beauty, their bodies are the closest thing to our society's ideal bodies. Why would they be the people to suffer from eating disorders?

Yet apparently eating disorders are endemic to the modeling profession. Consider the testimony of former model Carre Otis, who suffered from eating disorders throughout her modeling career:
“Since I wasn’t eating enough I’d lose lots of my hair in my brush and in the shower. In fact, sometimes the hairstylists had to pin extra pieces of fake hair to my head or give me wigs just to compensate for what wasn’t on my head.”
“My ‘flawless’ skin was only flawless in pictures. If you saw my face in real life you’d have seen pimples, dry patches and rashes, all consequences of constant flying, dehydration, lack of nutrition, stress, cigarettes, heavy make-up and sleep deprivation.”
Even the people designated as the vanguards of fashion and what we should look like cannot keep up with the unrealistic images they portray. Indeed, those closest to that ideal body seem to be some of the ones most hurt by it.

I am considered "attractive". People routinely cite my physical appearance when giving compliments. I am 5'11" and weigh 160 pounds. This does not remove anxieties about body image. For me, being so close to society's ideal image creates an anxiety about maintaining it. I have feared my body, and I have feared it changing. I have worried constantly about what I eat and how much I exercise. There was a point, around when I was fourteen and fifteen, where I was obsessed with maintaining my body. I would carefully restrict my meals, I would run every day. On the days I didn't, or when I ate a donut or other "fattening" food, I felt increasingly stressed. I felt like because I missed a single day of exercise, or ate some sweet, I would become "fat". I felt like within a few days my belly would swell, I would get a double chin, all the things society told me were bad. I felt as though I were constantly on a tightrope walking a narrow line of attractiveness, and that a single misstep would lead to me becoming "ugly".

That took its toll. Because I exercised so much but did not eat the amount I should, my weight stagnated. I was supposed to grow to 6'2", but because of my weight, my predicted growth decreased, and I am at nearly the same height as I was at fifteen.

Today, I still have problems of body image, though not to the extent I used to. When I look at myself in the mirror, I pick out flaws. I note the slight jutting of my abdomen over my hips, which is so meanly referred to as "flab". I pull my head back into my neck to see if I have suddenly grown a double-chin in the past day. When I sit down, I examine how my thighs look, and wonder if that's how they're supposed to look when I sit down.


Before continue further, I need to preface substantially.

When I talk of body image, I am not talking about the health effects of different body types, only how society perceives it. Habits of good nutrition and regular exercise are beneficial for mental health, but how different bodies show that good nutrition differs from person to person. Two people of the same height, performing the same amount of exercise and eating the same food at the same amount, can have dramatically different body shapes. Similarly some people have a genetic predisposition to obesity. Additionally, when someone becomes obese, it is often near-impossible to permanently lose the weight. Obesity and body shape is an extremely complex issue which differs from person to person.


Consider this ad:

"Underneath the skin you see is the skin you want." Advertisements for skin care teach us to loathe and fear our natural skin, so that we might buy their products in order to fill a need that they created. They uphold an standard of beauty which is, by design, unattainable. If it were attainable, they would not continue producing fashion advertisements, because we would already have products that takes us to that standard.

This is practiced not only by skin-care products, but by anti-aging creams, weight-loss programs and diet pills, fashion magazines, and so on. They are reinforced by movie and television stars all handpicked to fit a type as perfectly as possible--handsome male lead, lithe female supporting character, and so on--and then given make-up so that every single human "flaw" is never seen on camera.   Even our news reporters, who are meant to supply us with impartial information, are themselves handpicked based on attractiveness and attended to with make-up before the camera rolls. Consider this list of the most popular news anchors, and consider how many of them we would consider attractive.  Rarely do you see someone on screen who is overweight, or who has acne or moles or liverspots. Even more rarely, if ever, do you see them in leading roles. All of this combines to create a media narrative where being thin, fit, and "attractive" are the norm, and those which deviate from that norm (i.e. most of us) are believed to be abnormal, and of being lazy, or unintelligent, or simply "bad".

Bear in mind that there have been numerous ideal body's throughout human culture. In Europe in the Middle Ages, obesity was considered a sign of wealth and statusIn some parts of Mauritania, obese women are still considered desirable, and in some cases are force-fed up to 16,000 calories a day in order to comply with that ideal image. Society's ideal body shifts from time and place, and is likely changing even now. Who's to say that our current ideal body will still be the ideal body a hundred years from now?

Indeed, considering the numerous differences--some subtle, some pronounced--between 1950's sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, and modern day "most beautiful woman in the world" Aishwarya Rai, the ideal body of our future may turn out to be something radically different than it is right now.

In other words, society's ideals of beauty are fluid and change from year to year, and what is attractive here and now is certainly not universally considered attractive. Yet these standards remain firmly planted in our mind, and whether we fit that standard or not, we nonetheless feel that pull to fit that standard, and if we already fit that standard, then to maintain.

But we can't maintain that body image. None of us can. That body image is reinforced by media depictions which are themselves digitally altered. Society's ideal body does not exist except in computers.

And of course the stresses of body image are much harsher on women than they are on men. In large part, this is owing to the objectification and stereotyping of women throughout society, which judges them far more on their appearance than men, and often equates their value to how men find them attractive.


Most of us are aware of the unattainability of the ideal body image on an intellectual level, yet that does not stop many of us from being influenced by it. The staggering numbers in this article are testament to that.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Of women surveyed on a college campus, 91% attempted to control their weight through dieting, 25% have engaged in binging and purging activities.
  • Eating disorders affect one-half of adolescent girls, and one-third of adolescent boys. 
  • Of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality.
What is most revealing about these statistics to me is the sheer number of people I know who likely have such body image issues but do not discuss it. Like with mental illness as a whole, we are encouraged to hide our own anxieties about our bodies, and that very hiding helps to perpetuate the unhealthy standards. If people do not talk about how society's ideals pressure and hurt them, then we are less likely to take a critical eye to those ideals and how they affect us.  Because people do not talk about their own body image issues, many of us who struggle with it do so alone, because we do not know of anyone else who struggles, and do not know if we will be supported. 

Our best way to address this is by talking about it. I recall how, in one of my classes, a young woman stated, openly and without shame, that she had suffered from eating disorders in the past. When I later told her how much I appreciated her speaking out, she argued that only by talking about it, by no longer making it a taboo subject, are we able to accept and address eating disorders. 

And there are many ways we can talk about it, from sharing it among our friends, to talking about it in one of the many support groups, online and offline, to sharing it in blog posts such as this one. The important thing is that it is being talked about, and our experiences and challenges are collectively shared and therefore collectively solved. 

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