How Body Negativity Is Crippling Our Mental Health And Ruining Lives

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Woman examining her waist

Imagine a world where Botox injected kindness and liposuction removed hate. But alas, what is perceived widely as physical beauty has no correlation with valor or virtue.

Beauty trends enmesh everyone together. It’s like there’s an image template that women are encouraged to emulate for society to recognize them as valid and see them as worthy.

Is this why today’s trout pout extraordinaires all look so similar?

The human body has many shapes, sizes, tones, and textures. There isn’t one "right" way to be. We must remind ourselves of this each time we go on a personal stampede of self-loathing.

The media’s perpetual messaging of what is beautiful damages our already unstable body perception. Fickle trends come and go; we only need to recall the rise and fall of heroin chic, Kardashian-style butts, invisible to engorged eyebrows to recognize the fast fashion style of body image.

But changing our bodies isn’t akin to reinventing ourselves through our wardrobe. Contorting ourselves physically for social acceptance has sinister undertones.

Here I am, a woman in my 40s; it’s only now that I feel comfortable in my own skin. The truth is I’ve had my battles with body image just like anyone. And while I may not like my figure, I have learned to love my body and everything it allows me to do.

I no longer grimace when I look in the mirror.

A model I am not; my external beauty isn’t jaw-dropping or show-stopping, but I know if anyone dares to look inside, I am full of diamonds, rainbows, and puppy dogs.

I want to help you improve your relationship with your body and celebrate all you are while accepting all you are not.

I want to unshackle you from societal beauty limitations and set you free.

RELATED: 3 Ways To Heal Your Body Image Issues & Ditch Disordered Eating And Fitness Habits

Who decides what is beautiful?

I don’t believe women who contort their appearance do it to be attractive to potential mates, nor do I subscribe to the notion that their efforts are for other women. I believe they do it for themselves as an appeal to society for approval and acceptance.

We adhere to beauty standards to belong.

That said, Hollywood certainly caters to the male gaze. And then, of course, certain men believe they are the gatekeepers of beauty.

Jordan Peterson threw a hand grenade into the website formerly known as Twitter with his judgemental and small-minded response to seeing the front cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition 2022.

"Sorry. Not beautiful. And no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that."

His antagonizing comment was exacerbated by the fact that he spoke as if his personal opinion was a universal truth. He may not find larger women beautiful, and that’s OK. But many people do, and Jordan Peterson is not the arbiter on what is or isn’t beautiful. No one is.

Ironically, with repulsive comments like that, Jordan Peterson revealed the face of ugliness, and it certainly wasn’t the model he was passing criticism on.

What is body image?

Our relationship with our bodies is complex; everyone, not just women, can suffer from poor body image.

A staggering 8 million Americans suffer from disordered eating, although many of these are not officially diagnosed.

Our body is the physical mass in which we move around. It represents us in the public eye but isn’t all we are.

We create our body image through the entanglement of how we feel about the image reflected back to us in the mirror and how we believe other people see us.

Someone with a positive body image is comfortable with how they look. This does not mean they believe they are perfect; rather, they are relaxed and accepting of who they are. They do not hang their self-worth on their appearance.

Whereas people with a negative body image harbor deep unhappiness at the core of their being. The source of their discontent may be anything from their weight to their hair and all the freckles, scars, and wonderful uniqueness that makes them who they are.

The cosmetic surgery pandemic

In 2020, over five million people around America endured plastic surgery. This statistic makes America the country with the most cosmetic procedures worldwide.

One and done doesn’t apply, as the quest for perfection seems to be a never-ending journey, meaning once someone has endured one cosmetic procedure, they are more likely to sign up for another.

The changes we make to our appearance seem endless. And for what?

Because the truth is, these changes rarely bring greater happiness. Instead, they exacerbate our discontent with another aspect of our appearance, and so we shift our attention to perfecting this new perceived flaw.

Where does it end?

Until we do the inner work to improve our relationship with our bodies, we will forever be stuck in the wash-and-spin cycle of the beauty industry.

RELATED: 16 Ways To Feel Confident About Your Body (Even When You Kind Of Don't)

Learn to accept your face and body

We can not influence how others react to our appearance, yet many of us take steps to make our appearance more appealing to onlookers.

"A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” — Roald Dahl, The Twits

With significant body changes and hormonal confusion, puberty can wreak havoc on our confidence. Around this stage, many of us plummet into self-conscious pits and become hyper-vigilant about our appearance.

As a child, my mum was overweight. She endured nasty comments about her weight from friends and family, leading her to lose weight and develop into a svelte young lady. She is now a lean lady in her 70s but still considers herself overweight. The comments she received as a child were damaging enough to permeate her internal dialogue for 60 years!

I want to remind everyone that we have a choice. We can obsess over our appearance and allow it to be a source of unhappiness, or we can embrace who we are, perceived flaws and all.

Only through self-love and acceptance do we learn who and what is truly important in our lives, and this is when we really start to live.

It’s time to remove all judgment of the physical appearance of others from our dialogue.

How to be more body-positive

Pop singers recite songs about having "curves in all the right places" or liking "big butts." But why do we have to comment on someone’s weight at all?

In the past, some people thought it was appropriate to call me "skinny," but it was never said in a complimentary way. While calling someone "fat" was an obvious taboo, how was it OK to berate me for being skinny?

I was regularly criticized for being "too" skinny and having small boobs. It affected my confidence and left me feeling unattractive and undesirable.

Through the passing of time, I have come to realize that anyone passing comment on my looks was overstepping and that it is not OK for my body to be the unsolicited talking point of anyone else.

Moreover, I am grateful to my body for carrying me around the world on many adventures.

My body is my partner in crime, I have learned to accept what it looks like while celebrating what it can do.

RELATED: How To Change The Way You Think About Body Image Issues

Here are 3 tips to be more body-positive:

1. Focus on what your body can do

I’m a huge advocate for appreciating what our bodies can do. How often do you take our body for granted?

My thighs may be bigger than my ideal, but they allow me to run over mountains. My boobs may be smaller than society would like, but they suit my lifestyle.

I’ve given up on hair straighteners and learned to embrace my waves and curls. Setting my hair loose and embracing its natural form symbolizes my body positivity journey.

What does your body let you do?

Tip: Pay attention to what your body allows you to do instead of what it looks like.

2. Gain body perspective

They say you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Following an accident, my friend is now paralyzed from the waist down and relies on a wheelchair. This stark awakening showed her how transient the beauty dialogue is. Striving to be the "ideal" weight and seeking perfection through makeup became irrelevant in the wake of her grief for simple and easy movement and her longing to do the basic things in life that you and I may take for granted.

Let me ask you something: Do you associate how someone looks with whether they are a good person?

If you lost weight or gained muscle, would you be a kinder person? Maybe you would be a healthier person, but would you be a better person?

Tip: If you want to bring about change, focus on changing from the inside. Work on looking better inside through self-improvement, and watch how you flourish.

3. Stop comparing yourself to others

Are any of us ever 100 percent happy with how we look?

From airbrushed models to filtered social media posts, we consume lies and unrealistic beauty standards and then set ourselves impossible targets. And when we don’t meet these targets, our self-esteem, confidence, and feelings of self-worth nose dive!

As Baz Luhrmann sang in his song "Everybody’s Free," "Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly."

Comparison is absolutely the thief of joy.

Tip: Marie Kondo your social media. If an account doesn’t bring you joy, unfollow it! Then follow accounts that nourish you from the inside and help you embrace body positivity and self-love.

You are beautiful

Instead of trying to meet the arbitrary and transient beauty standard floating around in the ether, I encourage you to embrace your perfectly imperfect body and your flawlessly flawed face.

If you want motivation for change, use optimum health as a goal instead of aesthetic targets.

Smile through your eyes and share the beauty of your soul.

Beauty is only skin deep, but body positivity is elevating and all-encompassing.

RELATED: 3 Ways To Respect Your Body When 'Body Positivity' Feels Impossible

Ali Hall is a writer, reader, runner, thinker, and conversation starter. She is a former police detective with a degree in psychology with sports science and an advocate of destigmatizing the childfree choice. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.