Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, which I'm aware is not news to anyone. And yet we continue to see images of women and men alike that are not representative of the true reality and presentation of the vast array of body types found throughout society. We live in a postmodern society, where our perceptions shape reality, and social norms are socially constructed. The good news about this is that social constructs can be changed! Hooray! Yet in the shadows of our hope still lies the looming sense contained within each individual that "I can't change that; no matter how hard I try, society continues to force feed me negative messages about my body, and thus my self-worth."
I have experienced this firsthand, along with countless others. We are faced daily with unrealistic images against which we compare our own images. Somewhere along the way, our identities and worth become affixed to these constructs so that our perceptions of ourselves become skewed.
To be completely honest and vulnerable, there are few women my age I know who either are not struggling or have not struggled with their body image, myself included (that is not to say males do not struggle with body image, but for the purposes of this post, I'm intentionally focusing on women's body image, since I can directly attest to the experience). Back in high school, I used to sympathize with those struggling with body image and eating disorders, but had no conception of what it truly meant until I went through it myself in college. There have been times where just glancing in the mirror on my way past the bathroom have caused deep shame. Why? Because I wasn't [fill in the blank] enough. Weight, muscle mass, thinness, attractiveness - you name it - all haunted me because I was judging the image of my body against images of skinny, svelte models who somehow have magical metabolisms to keep them forever thin...or who are realistically photoshopped in addition to their own eating disorders (lucky for girls like me, just thinking about eating a potato chip can make me gain five pounds, instantaneously). Now I understand and can wholly empathize with others' struggles.
This spring I took a risk and crisis communication course, which opened my eyes to the risk body image poses to our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing and the implications therein. By analyzing the risks of body image messages in the media, I was able to make a connection to a theory called social amplification of risk (please bear with me, as I'm quite the theoretical nerd). To summarize, social amplification happens when a message gets projected time and time again, across many mediums to the point where it becomes part of the public's consciousness and everyday experiences. Therein lies a (note: not the) problem with excessive information about body image. Nowadays it's everywhere, whether on billboards, online ads, or articles, even if not explicitly stated. Its accessibility only exacerbates the problem when it becomes all we think about - oh, if I eat kale and nothing else for a year, I'll look like that Victoria's Secret model; I'll never be wanted unless I have that body - and sends our self-worth down the tubes. The new adage strong is the new skinny doesn't quite help, either, because it's still about image. The more we indulge in these risk messages about the image of our body, the more attuned we become to how we fit - or don't fit - into that idealized body, which can lead to anxiety and unrealistic perceptions of ourselves.
I believe body image has no place in our modern society, seeing as its social amplification has negatively influenced so many people who don't live up to the rigid societal standards of beauty and image. I simply do not believe we were created to critique our outward appearance, but to determine our worth based upon God's divine love for us and our internal health. As I said earlier, bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and we live in a socially constructed world. That means two things: that 1. body image cannot be encapsulated into a single representation - we were all created differently, with different purposes - and that 2. the discourse regarding body image is socially constructed. If we can change how we frame our worth from body image to include a more holistic, individualized focus, could we begin to address the issue? I'm going to take a bold step and say yes. Here's why:
Together, the phrase body image signifies "the subjective picture or mental image which a person has of his or her body, esp. in relation to its shape," and "an intellectual or idealized image of what one's body is or should be like." But now let me separate body image into its two respective parts. The first: body. Body can be defined as "the complete physical form of a person or animal; the assemblage of parts, organs, and tissues that constitutes the whole material organism." Second, image can be defined as "a visual representation or counterpart of an object or scene, formed through the interaction of rays of light with a mirror, lens, etc., usually by reflection or refraction." (Note: of all the definitions in the OED, I chose this one, as it will help me explain my point; however, many of the definitions contain elements within the first clause.)
Okay, okay, so now we have definitions. So what? I believe that the fundamental issue with body image is that it focuses on the image rather than the function of the body. The definitions of both image and body image point out several major facets: first, image is a representation, which by definition means that it is not the real thing (refer to my favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein, for details about representation - see, I told you I was a theoretical nerd!). Second, it is subjective in that there is no one Truth to how an image should be seen; I would go further to say that there is no one Truth to how humans are made (athletic vs. svelte vs. short vs. tall...). What does that mean? Ideal image is socially constructed; it can be changed!
When we think about how a body - a living organism - functions, there are so many facets, systems, and subsystems to consider, and they all work together to achieve a goal: to keep us alive and kicking. As our handy definition pointed out, we are "an assemblage of parts, organs and tissues that constitutes the whole material organism." While the body may be aesthetically pleasing to look at, its primary function is, well, to function. We are people of action. In the Bible, doesn't God command Adam and Eve to rule over the land first and foremost? Indeed, throughout history we can define the routes of cultures based upon their actions. He didn't command them to sit around and judge their appearances. In fact, 1 Peter 3:3-4 states: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight." While we can definitely express ourselves through our appearance, it is the internal state of affairs that defines our beauty. By considering the function of a body rather than the image of a body, we can listen more intuitively to ourselves and define our lives not by how thin or muscular we are, but by the gift of life itself. Whereas image is socially constructed, function is not. And where there is action, there is bound to be purpose and meaning.
As a retail associate in the fashion industry, I have to face the fact that my body type is not what fashion today deems as en mode. I don't have a thigh gap. My legs are "too athletic" to look good in pants (aka anything that's not jeans, and yes, I did just quote myself). My ribcage is pretty large for my size. I admit that, like many people, I have the tendency to judge myself, my worth, and my successes based upon my image (darn you, Hepner genes, for my short, stocky build!!!). This is where the mirror comes into play. Quite honestly, I think we're a little obsessed with our reflections. If I had a dollar for every minute I've spent primping in front of the mirror, I wouldn't have any student loans to pay off. How funny is it that, on the days I spend virtually no time looking at or thinking about my reflection (i.e., sitting around in pjs and a ruffled bun), I feel best about myself; I feel and know that I am worthy and beautiful because I was made to be who I am: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, athletic-bodied, 5' 1", passionate, smart, strong Leigh.
I once had a friend challenge me to go a few days without looking at myself in the mirror because my reflection made me not only feel ugly, but also judge my worth. Yes, I thought it was ridiculous. Yes, I snuck a few peeks in, because you can't really put mascara on without looking. Yes, it worked, even if just a little bit. And I think I get the message: we are not measured by the image we see in the mirror, by how we measure up to the models we see in magazines, by the skewed representation of bodies in the media. We are defined by what we do, how we interact in the world, how we function as members of society for the betterment of this world we call home, and the state of our hearts. So there's no need to starve yourself on kale unless you're a rabbit or run a marathon if you hate running. And worrying about your image will only rob your heart and soul of their vitality.
Your body functions to tell you what's going on inside. I hate running. Do I run? Heck no!!!! I find something fun to do that I enjoy, such as boxing, lifting weights (*gasp* - a woman lifting weights?! Yeah, defying gender roles, can't be bothered), or taking my beagles out on walks. If I ate too much chocolate cake (à la Paradise Cove 7-layer chocolate birthday cake), my stomach will let me know, so I lay off the cake (uhh, once it's all gone, of course). If you're athletic, you were created to be that way. If you're tall and slender, bask in your altitude! While diet and exercise are vital to living a healthy life, you don't need to kill yourself trying to attain a body image that you will never achieve. You simply were not created that way, so figure out what's best for you by listening to your body. Trust me, it knows what's up and will tell you if you listen. All this goes to say, the key to living your best life is to know yourself and how you were created, and to cultivate those strengths and traits that are uniquely yours (for inspiration, read about this amazing artist who's trying to spark a discussion on women's worth by noticing their traits rather than their appearances). Though I used to be super embarrassed by my muscles, I think it's pretty cool that I can outdo 99% of my friends in a pull-up contest (unless they do CrossFit).
As hard as I may try to whittle down the so-called "fat" on my legs, I will never fit into those toothpick jeans. But in all of my experience working with clothing, I've learned that it's okay to not fit into social norms. Sure, I'll never have a thigh gap or small arms. And that's okay, because knowing this shows me how I was built, quite possibly why I enjoy exercising, and why my parents call me a rock. I've learned to accept and be grateful for the body I was given and evaluate my "body image" based upon how I feel within my own skin - no mirrors included. In so doing, I must listen internally to what the systems of my body are telling me. On days where I take care of my body, I feel good. And I don't think that's a coincidence.
Too many pancakes? Don't look in a mirror; look into the messages your body is sending you. Be intuitive. Your body was designed for that and has the amazing capability of telling you what's wrong if you just listen. Don't judge. Just listen. And respond with care. Your body is your vehicle for experiencing your life and the world to the fullest. So make intentional time for it just as you would a friend. In the end, your life does not amass to what your body type may be or if you wear a size 00 in jeans. It is how you care for and use the gift of your body to bring blessings to this world.
So here's my challenge: think about what makes you who you are, and work on developing those innate traits so you can focus on your function instead of image; spend time listening to what your body tells you and honor that; and finally, for the brave hearted, go an hour, a day, a week without looking at and critiquing your reflection and notice what happens!