Self-Esteem: Outer Beauty–Healthy Weight

I started off this series of posts with a general lamentation that clearly we must be doing something wrong in teaching our kids to love themselves.  This time, I’d like to start tackling the outer beauty issue.  At first I thought I’d be able to tackle all of the body image topics (weight, body shape, noses, skin tone/wrinkles, hair) in one post, but it appears that each one deserves its own post, or you guys will get sick of me droning on.  So let’s just look at what the media portrays as a “beautiful and desirable” body shape/weight.  Brace yourselves for a full-fledged rant on this one, because this topic simultaneously infuriates me and tears my heart out.  And be patient with the page load, because there are quite a few pics.

To get us started, here’s a nice article on the subject: The Reality of Celebrity Photoshop

I’m sure many of you have seen some of those before and after airbrushing pictures, but for those who haven’t, take a look.

And just to show that this is not a recent phenomenon, a plague to be blamed on Photoshop, check out the vintage pics in this article:  Models Before and After

Why in the name of all that is decent are we brainwashing our young ladies to believe that they’re not beautiful unless they’re ridiculously thin?  Why are we teaching our young men that their girlfriends/wives should look like they are living on 500 calories a day and/or working out with a personal trainer for 12 hours at a time? Why are we not showing them what the normal, healthy female body is SUPPOSED to look like, instead of the unattainable ideal overwhelmingly represented in fashion mags?

Some companies are defending their distorted ads by saying it’s ok, because everyone “knows” that they’re distorted.  And true, if we think about it, we probably would admit that we realize the photo has been touched up.  However, I don’t think it’s really at the forefront of our minds when we’re looking at a magazine and wishing we could look that good.

  • “I don’t think women and girls know the extent to which photos are retouched. I don’t. And even if they do know, I’m not sure it penetrates.”   Nutritionist, Alexis Best

And sometimes it’s subtle enough that you wouldn’t realize how distorted it is unless you see the original right beside it. Take a look at this Ann Taylor ad before and after manipulation.  They took an already slender model and made her even more so.  WHY??

And you may have seen the ad that Brittney Spears did for Candies in 2010, in which she showed the original and the retouched photos side-by-side.  Read more here.

miranda lambert

But the one that takes the cake is this Ralph Lauren ad in which they transformed the beautiful Filippa Hamilton into this hideously distorted creature that some have called a “stick insect”, and about which one critic commented, “Dude, her head is bigger than her hips!” (This picture was included in the first link at the top of this post.)

You can read more about the “apology”, the backlash, and the firing of Filippa.

Lest we think that a distorted self-image is something that only plagues us regular people, let’s just reflect for a moment on the fact that even Audrey Hepburn, arguably one of the most beautiful, elegant women ever to walk the earth, didn’t think SHE was gorgeous.    She said, ‘I don’t understand why people see me as beautiful.’  If even this stunning woman couldn’t believe she was beautiful, heaven help the rest of us.

Granted, one of the things she didn’t like about her body was that thought she was TOO skinny, but I’m trying to point out that all of us seem to be unreasonably unhappy with our bodies.

So what’s the answer??  How can we teach our young people what a healthy, beautiful woman looks like, and how to love their bodies just as they are, and to accept that very few people have a naturally extra-thin body?  They are constantly inundated with these unrealistic images of women.   How do we combat the attitudes that cause eating disorders in beautiful young women?  Even if our young ones do not resort to such drastic measures as anorexia and bulimia, the internalized self-loathing that seems to afflict EVERY SINGLE YOUNG GIRL I TALK TO about this subject is just as self-destructive, even if it’s not quite as overtly life-threatening.

Of course, we don’t want to encourage our young people to be conceited, nor do we want an epidemic of false modesty, or “humblebragging”.  But I think the tendency to be self-deprecating is far more common.  Maybe if we saw more images like this:

or this:

We might have a more reasonable self-image, and be capable of setting healthy, attainable goals, instead of beautiful curvaceous girls trying to starve themselves and work out fanatically in pursuit of a “perfect” body.  I am all for eating right and being active, because I think that is how we keep our bodies healthy and happy.  I certainly do not condone subsisting on garbage and becoming a couch potato, and I applaud attempts to improve yourself.  But the emotional damage we are doing to our young girls from the moment they are old enough to compare themselves to the images they see is a travesty.

When I was in high school, I weighed roughly 130 lbs, which was just over the upper limit for my “ideal” body weight at my height of 5’4″.  And yet I constantly thought I was fat.   Truthfully, my body looked very much like the above picture.  Now, at far above my ideal weight (although I am approaching it again) and having at one point been firmly planted in the “clinically obese” range, I wish I still looked like that, and cannot understand why I could not see at the time that I was attractive.

I firmly believe that it was the result of comparing myself to others from the moment I was capable of doing so.  I see my own daughter and her friends doing exactly the same thing.  How do we encourage young girls to love the aspects of their bodies that are attractive, and accept the parts they aren’t as happy with, especially if they’re aspects that can’t be changed, such as height?  Maybe we need to be stressing a reality check that includes a reasonable goal-setting of “ideal weight”.  But that doesn’t cover it all.  Even girls who are at the lower end of a healthy weight range are still unhappy with tummies that are not perfectly flat.

They have bodies that look like the one on the left:

and are completely dissatisfied with themselves because they don’t look like this:

I can’t stress this enough: A woman’s belly is SUPPOSED to have rounded areas.  Women require more body fat than men, in order to have healthy internal organs, normal menstrual cycles, balanced hormones, and for those that desire it, the ability to bear children.  Our bellies are not designed to be perfectly flat, and only a very small percent can achieve the look above without an unhealthy restriction of calories and/or an unhealthy addiction to exercise.  And yet that seems to be the ideal, even though it is unattainable for most of us.  This is a much more reasonable shape, even though it’s still on the slender side of normal.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t bother to try?  Of course not.  But I for one wish I could go back and convince my 16-year-old self that comparing my body to that “standard” was unreasonable.  Now how can I convince my own 16-year-old daughter of the same thing, when the media is intent on convincing her otherwise?

One way is to help her set realistic goals, by finding out what her ideal weight actually is.  I like this calculator, because it shows several different formulas for calculating ideal weight.  But that’s not all of it.  It is far more important that she come to love her body in spite of its imperfections.   Certainly, there are some things that we can work to improve.  But there are others that are just not possible for us to change and improve upon.  How can we get to the point where we can love ourselves just as we are, including the parts we don’t like so much?

I confess I have not discovered the solution to this.  I am not happy with the way I look, for I am still comparing myself to others.  This probably explains my failure to convince my daughter that she is beautiful.  So I’m open for suggestions.  What do you say to your daughters to help them love their bodies?  How do your bring your sons up with an appreciation of a normal, healthy-looking female body instead of the starvation diet ideal?  Do you struggle with a poor self-image yourself?  How much do you think your own self-image, good or bad, affects your children?  The input of men on this subject is welcome as well; I think they are probably nearly as dissatisfied with their bodies as we women are, they just don’t talk about it as much.


2 thoughts on “Self-Esteem: Outer Beauty–Healthy Weight

  1. It is hard (and will be hard for me) to teach our daughters to love their bodies when we, ourselves, say we are fat in front of them. I do this a lot and know I need to be more conscious of it as they get older.

    I look back at my high school pictures and wish I could that size again. Back then I thought I was fat. :(. If only we could get our daughters to realize this.

    And your daughter is beautiful the way she is. I wish she knew that. 🙂

    • Yes, I have been the worst about telling her she’s beautiful and refusing to believe that *I* am. I am, in fact, fat. I am no longer clinically obese, but I am still clinically overweight. But that doesn’t mean I’m not beautiful. I just have a really hard time remembering that. It is unfortunate that we pass those attitudes on to our children, without even meaning to.

      I am trying to be deliberate about being happier with myself JUST AS I AM, even while I am trying to improve my body. It’s far easier to think that I will love the way I look when I lose another 20 lbs, or if I could get plastic surgery to fix a botched C-section scar. But I need to love my body right now. Rob is great about the scar, much like that mother who called her stretch marks the lines of a story. He knows the scar represents the procedure that saved the lives of both his wife and his son. But it’s still hard for me not to hate it. That essay really helps.

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