Why is it that so many of us actively dislike the way we look? Why do we look in the mirror and see what needs to be improved, fixed, hidden or disguised?
And why is it that our appearance is often deeply bound to our feelings of self-worth?
In the late 1990’s, social psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts concluded that rather than valuing our bodies for what they can do, we’ve learnt to value them for how they look: perceiving our bodies according to how we think they appear to others. And often, we believe that what others see is not good enough.
We’ve each absorbed ideals about what that ‘good enough’ is. The ideals you’ve absorbed might be the same or different from mine - and that’s the point. Ideals are arbitrary and transient, dependent on factors like our gender, our family background, our culture, where we live, what we do, and, of course, the time we live in.
What’s consistent is this: many of us grow up believing that the ideal body, face, skin, hair… (insert whatever is meaningful for you) is not the one we’ve got.
As Caitlin Moran writes in More Than A Woman,
‘It’s little wonder women have so many problems with their bodies, when there are so many body parts that are seen as problematic. Indeed, the amount of body parts that are problematic grow, year on year…’
And it’s increasingly evident that it’s not just women.
Granted, it’s significantly easier to have body confidence the nearer you are to the ‘body ideal’ - whatever that is for you. But body confidence without a genuine feeling of self-worth means very little. Self-worth despite not fitting the so-called body ideal is even more precious - and a prize worth fighting for.
So how do you attain that prize? Here are five suggestions:
- Maintain a healthy scepticism.
Get savvy about advertisers and media influencers promoting objectifying ideals about how you should look; ideals that are engineered to feed your discomfort with how you do look and normalise wanting to ‘fix yourself’.
Be a critical consumer, aware of the amount of misrepresentation and digital manipulation - sneaky, insidious, intentional distortions of reality - that regularly accompany the media messages that surround you. And the profit motive that drives those messages.
- Choose self-care based on loving your body, not fixing it.
Caring for ourselves is important and presenting ourselves well can be fun, a way for us to show our creative self-expression and personal preferences. This is self-care based on loving our body.
But be alert to self-care based on self-preservation. This is different. It's not fun, it's miserable and disempowering. It's not creative self-expression, it's trying to hide or disguise what you see as 'flaws' - to correct what you perceive to be unacceptable. It's not showing your personal preferences, it's feeling driven to conform.
- Challenge negative narratives.
So much of the narrative we hear, both in our heads and in reality, actively undermines any positive feelings we have about our bodies and fosters the exact opposite.
Challenge the narratives that cause you to be self-conscious or ashamed of your body, to want to hide or fix your ‘flaws’. Critique the ideals being promoted, rather than your body and your worth. How do body ideals take into account what is a healthy shape and weight for you, for instance?
Stop trying to fit an ideal that doesn’t suit or serve your physical or mental health, and strive for your own ideal - one that does.
- Focus on what’s positive about YOU.
Rather than compare yourself with others, focus on how you can look your best.
You struggle to find anything positive? Consider hiring an image consultant or portrait photographer to help you, ones that are dedicated to bringing out the very best in you. See yourself through their eyes.
- Know that you are more than your body - much, much more.
Seek out a broader definition of worthiness, rather than the narrow focus of how you look.
Find role models that represent that ideal, and ways to express it which are achievable and sustainable in your own life. What would it be, for you? Being kind, talented, sporty, healthy? Contributing to the world? Developing your full potential as a human being?
Prioritise how you feel and what you do, rather than how you look. Enjoy what you do so much that you don't even think about how you look when you're doing it. It no longer matters.
Here’s an example.
The term ‘anti ageing’ is accepted as mainstream language and the number of anti ageing products and surgical correction services grows each year. The implication is clear: ageing is bad. The goal is to look and act like you’ve not aged at all.
- Why not define a beautiful face as one that turns heads with its energy and warmth, its curiosity and openness, to people and to life?
- Care for and nurture your skin, yes, but rather than trying to hide your age, why not love how your face animates when you laugh, showcasing a life being well lived?
- Why not feel empowered by the lines and marks on your body, as evidence of challenges conquered, learning and wisdom gained - proof of a full and engaged life?
- Rather than looking for fixes to keep looking young, why not work to keep your body healthy, flexible and strong? Enjoy getting and being fit for how it feels, rather than how it looks?
- Why not value your body for what it can do - making your goal to be able to do all the things you want to do, now and in the future?
And what is it you want to do in that future? Do you view your future as one of decline, or could it be one of action, agency and opportunity? A time to continue to stretch, to learn, to love, to contribute, and have even deeper purpose? A time too busy with living to worry about how you look while you're doing it? A time to fully grow into who you can be?
Back to Caitlin Moran:
‘Never, never, never allow yourself to start seeing your body as a collection of separate, problematic items, for that is the tactic of a far-right polemicist: dividing a glorious whole into a series of sad, isolated ghettos… it’s all you, and it must, urgently, become your life-long friend.’
How is your body confidence? And how is it bound to your feelings of self-worth? When you look in the mirror, do you dislike what you see? Do you see what needs to be improved, fixed, hidden or disguised? Or do you see a life-long friend?
If you can't yet see that friend, why not get in touch? I’m here and ready to help.