Body image problems have started to affect women of all age groups, girls as young as 10 and women as old as 50, says Vijetha Rangabashyam
A couple of women at work were ranting about how they used to be in such good shape during college and now they have lost their figures to cheddar and cupcake frosting. “I know, I am eating by the minute, it is not good at all.” A third, skinnier, petite one intervened, much to the other two’s fury. “What? I wish I had your height. I cannot afford to put on more weight for my build,” the skinny one retorted to the podgy ones who spent a reasonable amount of hours in a day complaining about their figures.
When the cellulite starts to multiply, we look at Kareena Kapoor for some ‘thinspiration’- we practically followed her lifestyle. When she shrunk to size zero, she apparently achieved the impossible – we even picked up Don’t lose your mind, lose your weight, a book personally endorsed by her; bookstores had not seen a bestseller like this in months.
But let us for a minute look at the other side of the grass – it does not matter how many carbs these women ingest, they disappear into nothingness once they enter the system, leaving them to be as skeletal as ever. These women do not know what it feels like to have real curves, well developed bosoms and buttocks which are considered to be universal signs of femininity. Being bony makes them feel less desirable to men, since they have fallen prey to the ‘men like meat’ theory. Hence, they whimper looking at all those voluptuous femme fatales. The meaty ones in turn envy the emaciated women. “God has unfairly gifted them with great metabolisms,” they cry. Today, it is surprising to see a woman, any woman, comfortable in her skin. Over time, popular culture has made a travesty out of standards of beauty, of what is ‘ideal’, leaving women with poor body images and low self-esteem issues.
The Body Image Experiment
You are fat and repulsive. You are a sack of bones; no man is ever going to want you. Big. Fat. Skinny. Ugly. These are not outbursts of an obnoxious boyfriend or a controlling mother; these are actually thoughts that go on in young women’s minds on a daily basis. In an exclusive survey conducted by us on more than 100 women of all sizes, we learnt that a shocking 94% go through the ‘I hate my body’ phase and they have an average of 3-4 negative thoughts about their bodies every day. And a good slice of these women even admitted that concern over how unacceptable their bodies are has become a constant, a vile disease which has tarnished their self-confidence. “It has now become a common practice among women of all ages to loathe their bodies. In fact, it is almost unhealthy for a woman to say ‘I am fine with the way I look’, that is how inescapable the phenomena of negative body talk has become,” says Leela Chinappan, psychologist who specializes in body image issues.
A point worth pondering over is the fact that most of us are not unconscious of how we are being difficult on ourselves, then why has it become a norm to not be okay with our appearance? Beauty has always been a cultural thing, based on whatever the universal consensus has been at any given time, says Chinappan. “Women have unachievable beauty ideals which are evolving with time, most of them tend towards celebrity worship. A study of the brain has proven the fact that your point of constant concentration actually moulds your brain. If you constantly clog your mind with thoughts of hatred towards your body, those thoughts become habitual, in turn normal,” she explains.
In a study of 3-6 year old girls at the University of Central Florida, approximately 50% percent of them were already stressing about being overweight and the rest admitted that given a chance, they would change something about their body. We wake up in the morning and see a newspaper advertisement carrying testimonies of women losing 20 kilos in 6 months or at lunch while we are flipping channels on TV, we are subject to telemarketing commercials of wonder bras that would enhance the size of our breasts – there are any number of hard hitting messages that keep reiterating that our bodies are not right. “I always felt negative thoughts about my body are a way to improve my appearance, a way to work on my problem areas. However, when a guy told me I looked fat, I was so offended that I succumbed to unhealthy measures of losing those extra pounds. But when these thoughts came from my own mind, it never felt as much degrading and then I realized that I had internalized the false messages of beauty so much that having them in mind was normal,” says Vaishali Manohar, 28 year old account executive at a reputed ad agency who shed weight the unhealthy way until she realized it was not really worth it.
The ‘bad body’ talk does not just happen in one woman’s mind; it has now become a point of conversation or a matter over which they bond. “Friends get together and belittle their bodies to bits. Someone puts a Facebook wall post on how she is not able to fit into her jeans and the other being her skinny self, responds saying transfer those extra pounds to me. Whether it is between friends or co-workers, negative body talk has pervaded our everyday conversation,” says Shanthi Kiran, social scientist who is currently pursuing her PhD in perceptions of physical attractiveness, and on the relationship between body perception and disordered eating attitudes. Dissatisfaction about one’s body, according to Kiran, is based on two assumptions – shaping one’s body is under one’s own control, so the gap between any woman and perfection can be filled by effort. The second assumption is an imperfect body is a result of an imperfect person. “Most women have these assumptions and set themselves up for unrealistic goals of perfection. They tend to get into a conflict with their own bodies,” she says.
Since this perverse thought of negative body image is not even considered to be abnormal and external factors are not really helping, what puts an end to the self-loathing?
Your Body isn’t the Problem
Based on the survey we took, an interesting trend surfaced – of all the respondents we posed the questions to, those who were not content with their careers or relationships oscillated towards negative body image than women who were satisfied with the same. Stress, loneliness and feelings of boredom make these women harangue themselves about their appearances. “A fight with a partner or just another bad day at work leads women into directing their negative energy towards their body,” says Chinappan. Predominantly, women are unhappy when they are not comfortable in their skin and having a body image that is dangerously negative leaves them unhappy; it really is a double ended sword. Based on all our respondents, both thin and average-weight women had a tendency to rubbish their appearances as much as overweight ones. “In a meeting at work, I would suddenly think of how fat my thighs are. But I have had those thighs all my life. Then why was I suddenly feeling ashamed of them now? Maybe it was not my thighs, maybe my professional ideas were not taken seriously or perhaps I was going through a bad day at work. Instead of focusing on the real problem, I would think of my thighs and then it would become a mountain out of a molehill situation. No amount of lunges in the world would make me feel better considering my thighs were not the problem to begin with,” says Ayisha Gupta, 26, Marketing Executive and a part time model.
Killing the Mean Girl Within
So how does one schnozzle the inner voice that echoes negative body thoughts and move on with her life? “Hating my body has become a part and parcel of my life. I don’t know how to undo it,” confesses Kavitha Baskar, 25, Software Professional who claimed having plenty of negative body thoughts in a day. “Women need to understand that there is no perfect body type and beauty is subjective. Even those who are reeking of confidence have doubts at some point, the difference is in the way they have learnt to tackle those thoughts rather than allowing them to dominate,” says Kiran. It is not just about mental health anymore, obsessing over body converts into something physical, says a study – a woman whose BMI (body mass index) exceeds 25 stands an increased risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea and different types of cancer. “Negative body image comes with a growing weight problem. The narrow standards of aesthetics which is induced by popular culture lead women into a vicious cycle of overeating. Women who think they need to kick off those extra pounds deprive themselves of good food and the sudden dietary change leads to overeating in turn and skinny women overeat anyway, in the hope of developing curves. Overeating is bad, however your body may be,” explains Kiran.
Another shocking trend in body image, Chinappan says, is the increasing popularity of plastic surgery. “You often hear of actors getting their lips done or taking a getaway outside the country to get their fat sucked out.” So what is the solution? “Basic self-esteem should be viewed independent of body self-esteem. It is not easy but it has to be imbibed over time,” she says. Our culture, she suggests, should give into appreciating and accepting bodies that come in different shapes and sizes, which is the reality. “We accept different hair colours and facial features, why not with body types?” asks Neetha Mayank, 22, final year student of psychology.
What Men Want
In a survey done on 100 men, an unexpected result was disclosed - 70% of them gave importance to a woman’s face than her body. Almost 45% of the respondents say, “Women spend too much time worrying about their appearance and should spend less time fretting about what men think.” Ironic, considering women go on a spiral of guilt trips and yield to body stereotypes while most men pay attention to self-confidence; stop paying attention to what we think, they say. “I understand looks are important but they are not everything. How does a girl expect me to be comfortable about the way she looks when she is not herself?” asks Prathap Chandrasekhar, 32, Business Analyst. When asked if they have an inclination towards fantasizing about women with “perfect” standards of beauty, a good 80% of them said yes. “True, I find Charlize Theron and Shilpa Shetty incredibly hot but by the same token I know the difference between fact and fiction. They are actors, their job is to look good while I would want my partner to be healthy and comfortable with the way she is,” says Mohan Kumar, 28, Marketing Manager.
We are Beautiful because we are
The definition of beauty needs to be broadened so it encompasses all body types – thin, tall, average, slender or fat. The idea of beauty being exclusionary is after all unreal, a reflection of popular belief. We do not disease the world with our cellulite, nor do we beat it down with our bony arms. A sound mind which is a reflection of a healthy body image is beauty by itself. Learn to embrace the body you have, you are beautiful because you exist.
The Game Plan
Undo the Negative: Try flipping the script a little. If you think constantly worrying over your body leads your brain to concentrate only on the bad things, pull the negative plug. All you need is a notepad and pen – start jotting down all those things that make you feel good about your body.
Self-Introspection: As is the case with most women, the problem does not start with the body. Ask yourself the pressing question, is it the body really? Address the actual concern and not the consequence.
Workout: It does not matter if you are the ideal weight for your height as per the textbook, hit the gym anyway! Nothing can give you a better mind boost than endorphins. Your body does not have to go through physical changes but the mere feeling of having jogged a few kilometres is enough to spunk your confidence meter.
Indulge: It could be a brownie or a can of beer, allow yourself to indulge once in a while on the things you love. Remember, curbing always leads to over-indulgence. Thoroughly enjoying food, feels and works better!
Men say Mind over Body
- Pretty face 70%
- Great body – 18%
- Fat-free body – 12%
- Just appearance – 0
- Just personality – 16%
- Both appearance and personality – 84%