Body Image

When I was fourteen, I was part of a community group putting together a workshop on body image for local students. Our little group had sat for hours discussing which topic would be most useful to educate kids not so dissimilar to ourselves about. At the time, perhaps a bit of a late bloomer in this respect, I had never really considered body image. I had a body. It did stuff. That mostly seemed good. My feet walked me places. My heart pumped blood round and round, my lungs breathed in and out. My gut digested. My brain thought. What more was there to this equation?

Sitting next to me was a girl I had long admired. She was sixteen which was a whole two years older than me. She had always been a kind, enthusiastic, charismatic soul. In the last few months all she had gotten was compliments on just how skinny she was. People would run up to her in the school yard and tell her she looked so svelte now. She looked amazing. She glowed with her skinniness. She looked like a model. She cried when telling us this. She was skinny because she had leukaemia. She was skinny because she spent a good deal of her time in hospital undergoing chemotherapy. She was skinny because her body was gravely ill. And she didn't like it one bit. She didn't like that she wore wigs, beautiful though they were, to cover her balding head. She didn't like that she was constantly tired from her treatments. She didn't like that she missed weeks and weeks of school because of her illness. And yet the other students in the school yard thought it was fantastic that she had all of these extra holidays and came back each time looking more and more thin. Wouldn't it be great if we all looked like her, they had murmured, despite the knowledge of her illness.

I remember being dumbfounded by these statements. She had been a beautiful soul before her treatment. There was nothing wrong with her body. And as she had lost weight with her chemotherapy, though she remained outwardly cheerful and considerate, it was easy to tell how much this illness weighed on her young heart. At sixteen, she was far more aware of her own mortality than most.  People at school had failed to see that she needed emotional support and friendship far more than compliments. And what I found most surprising about this whole situation is that, if she had suddenly stacked on the kilograms due to her treatment, people would likely say nothing at all. They'd be unlikely to run across the school yard to shout, hey you've gotten so fat lately!

Body image is one's own perception of their body. Body dysmorphia is when one obsesses over often small flaws in their appearance that might not even be noticeable to others. Most of us sit on a spectrum of self-perception somewhere between seeing our bodies as how it is to seeing our bodies as completely different to how the rest of the world may perceive it. I've met plenty of healthy-looking folk who seem to believe they have some terrible flaw for which people will certainly not be their friends. And I've also met folk who don't meet the societal definitions of beauty who are very accepting of their bodies. None of us is perfect.

Our bodies change with time. A baby's skin surface area to height ratio is wildly different to a child's, which is again different to your average adult. As we grow older, our muscle-to-fat ratio will change due to differing hormonal responses, changes in exercise level and alterations in our food intake. Even the fittest of 70-year olds will not be able to be as muscly or as well-defined as Arnie at the peak of his career (not withstanding the added "help" even he admits to using).

Society's views on perfection also change with time. Check out this graphic representation of desirable female bodies over time. The prevailing concept of beauty at any one time often speaks to that which is highly unattainable. In today's hectic, overworked world, the concept of beauty encompasses that which takes time to nourish and craft. We look at women who are toned, but not too much so, and svelte without being too thin and think, wouldn't that be nice. In a world where fast-food (nutritious or not) is available at every corner, we honour healthy cookbooks and fast fixes to our desk-bound woes. Countless industries thrive on the disparity between how we want to look and how we are able to look - skinny teas, fat-free food marketing, beauty therapies, anti-cellulite treatments and short-term boot camp experiences sell to us what we most want to hear. And yet, in the 40s and 50s, Marilyn Monroe was an icon of beauty. Fashion magazines touted weight-gain formulas to help women find the man of their dreams. In the late 19th Century, when food was harder to come by than it is at present and life was full of hard-work for most, a voluptuous, plump body was most desirable.

Men are not immune to society's influence over their bodies. Increasingly, men are seen in the media as lean, muscular creatures with veins popping from every limb. As with women, the media demands that men spend hours honing the perfect body at a time when we work longer hours and have increasing demands on our time. This is not true of every country, as this curious graphic shows. While the male ideal has not swung the pendulum quite as quickly as the women's ideal, there are still subtle shifts over time. At times of plenty, people are asked to be thin. At times of economic decline, the ideal is to be plumper. The idea of perfection is always the least attainable.

There is always a counter-movement to these social ideals. Projects like This Is Beauty aim to show people of all shapes and sizes as the glorious humans that they are. These projects highlight that it is not achievable nor desirable for all of us to be a size zero or to have a six-pack. There's a reason clothes come in array of sizes. The colour of your skin, your height, your weight, your gender identity - these things matter in forming a self-identity, but they aren't all of you. We humans come in all different heights and weights and girths. Our bone structures differ. Some of us have the sorts of metabolisms that mean, try as we might, putting on weight is nigh on impossible. Others barely have to look at something calorific to feel the added weight stack on. Neither of these things are, in themselves, bad. The first type may find themselves envied by friends despite their own frustration at having to eat so much just to stay the same size. The second may feel as if they try so hard just to stay the same size yet weight gain seems to target them. And, because neither end of this spectrum fits in with our ideal, the constant media pressure may make these folks feel down just because of how they outwardly appear.

Being healthy matters. Taking care of our bodies matters. But these things are not synonymous with being a standard size or weight. Plenty of rugby players would fall into the obese category on the BMI because of their shear muscle mass. A number of catwalk models sit at the significantly underweight end of the spectrum, which has prompted recent moves for a minimum BMI. Being thin is not the only thing for which we should strive.

These issues become more complex for those of us who face other forms of discrimination - who already struggle with perceptions surrounding race, gender or physical ability. For all the images one can find of beautiful white women, there are fewer to be found of other racial identities. A quick google image search for "beautiful women" returned only one of a woman in a hijab in a minute of scrolling. The majority of these images were scantily-clad anglo-saxon-appearing women. The same search for men revealed many chiselled jaws and abs, and only after significant scrolling, one man with a turban. When the media doesn't even give you an ideal, how does this alter your perception of belonging in society?

I worry about the pressure we place on each other to conform to some created ideal of our bodies. I worry that this pressure focuses more on our superficial form and forgets about the beauty found in being alive and being capable. It still upsets me to remember that friend of mine, so many years ago, being congratulated on her weight loss, entirely secondary to the fact that she had cancer. She would have gladly wound back the clock on the cancer and stayed the size she was before. There was nothing wrong with that. But losing weight with medical treatment that actively killed cells in her body was somehow something other sixteen-year-olds thought was great. Other friends have felt the same praise for losing weight because of their terrible struggles with eating disorders. Still others have decided to put their health first, noting excessive weight gain, and lost plenty in a slow and considered manner, only to have strangers tell them they are fat.

The pressures we place on each other to look or be a certain way are enormous. And yet it is our health, physically and mentally, that matters most. Society's view will change with time. What matters most is making sure you care for the body you're in. You've only got one. You're good enough the way you are.

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