Let's Talk About Body Image

Body image. I see those words and I think back to high school health class, sitting in a crammed classroom as a PE teacher clicked through slides on the overhead about eating disorders. We got the same spiel every year: this is what a person with an unhealthy body image does, and this is why it is bad. It was like reading a health pamphlet in the nurse’s office, but the pamphlet didn’t actually tell you anything about the disease; it just told you about the side effects. We were told that 20 million women and 10 million men will experience eating disorders in their lifetimes, but we were never told why this might be the case.

Don’t get me wrong—I think it’s important to know the statistics. It’s important that we know the warning signs and the dangers, and it’s important that classrooms across the country are given advice on what to do when someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder. But despite the large number of young people who struggle with eating disorders, students aren’t often encouraged to talk about body image, positive or negative. It’s considered non-academic and doesn’t quite fit in the lesson plan, even though it’s often the root cause of eating disorders and self-esteem issues.

We may not have learned the textbook definition of an unhealthy body image, but most people know what it’s like to have one. It’s when you try on clothes at the mall and feel like a bloated balloon underneath the fabric. It’s when you avert your eyes from the mirror, making the conscious effort to not look at the body that you never felt you fit into. It’s when you hear someone tell you you’re beautiful and you force a smile in response, because you never actually believe the compliment. We’re told that eating disorders are toxic habits, but we never talk about the incredibly painful modes of thinking that lead a person to have one. Eating disorders are harmful, dangerous, and painful. They’re also just one part of a large problem.

Many of us are still at the age where we’re most susceptible to negative body image, and the effects can follow a person throughout his or her entire life. Not only are there pretty big physical prices to pay, but the mental and emotional consequences are pretty gigantic, too. Lower self-confidence can affect school performance and presentation during job interviews. It can affect whether or not you decide to take important risks or play it safe. Our bodies dictate so much about how we think about ourselves, because when we don’t feel comfortable in our skin, we don’t always feel comfortable in everyday situations.

Growing up, so many women are told that their worth is somehow contingent upon their beauty. If you’re not beautiful, you’re not loveable; if you aren’t a certain size, you’re probably not good enough for this or that, whether or not your appearance has anything to do with your performance. We’re conditioned by the media to believe there is only one kind of beautiful, and if we don’t fit the mold of the pretty heroine we see in so many movies and books, we’re never going to get the life we want. It’s an incredibly toxic idea that shapes the way we look at ourselves, and the more we believe it, the more we start to criticize our bodies for not looking “right.” And that’s where it all starts—all with this notion that the girls in the magazines are normal and if we are not like them, then we are not normal. That if we do not fit the standard of beauty, then we are not beautiful at all.

 

That is so unhealthy, especially when it can be so hard to truly feel beautiful. It's hard to make yourself feel good about yourself when deep down you don't believe it. We can't always do it on our own; sometimes, we need a little help. We need to teach girls and women what it means to have good body image. We need to teach them healthy concepts of self, and we have to teach them that it's more than just okay to love and respect your body—you absolutely, positively should. We need to get women to talk about their insecurities, because there are so many that we all share without realizing it. What woman hasn’t looked in the mirror and criticized herself at least once? This is a universal experience, and if we can learn to become more comfortable talking about it, maybe we’ll learn that everyone, even the people we look up to, have something about themselves that they don’t like. It doesn’t make them any less great. It just makes them human.

I think that's the secret to healthy body image. It's not about targeting your least favorite parts of yourself and trying to change them, but about loving yourself despite all of your flaws. That doesn't mean it's wrong to go on a diet or to work out, so long as it's healthy and in moderation. There are few people who truly love every part of themselves or wouldn't change anything about themselves if they were given the chance to. It's normal to sometimes wish for something else. But a healthy body image is knowing that you may not be perfect, or that you may not look exactly how you wish you could, but being okay with it anyway. My appearance is flawed, but I still love myself, and I love my body. It took me awhile to get there; it took me awhile to realize that my body is not a hindrance, but just a part of myself. My body is one of the things that will always be mine and mine alone, and I do not want to waste time criticizing it, so I find ways to praise it instead. Find what you love about yourself and remember that those things matter just as much as any other part of you.

But they don't teach you this in school. In fact, very few figures of authority will ever sit you down to talk about body image, but it is so, so important. Luckily, we live on a campus that isn’t afraid to talk about these issues. We have a network of wonderful women who aren’t afraid to tear apart toxic notions of beauty and who know that self-worth comes in all shapes and sizes. We have strong women who have battled with eating disorders and won and aren’t afraid to share their experiences with others, and we have women who have supported their loved ones through the same battles. We have organizations dedicated to talking about it. Don’t be afraid to join the conversation, because every voice matters. Join Her Campus KU and SUA at Tea @ 3 in the Kansan Union on Thursday, Feb. 26 at 3 p.m. to talk to your peers about body image as part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.