As a society we have come to recognize that for far too long women have been dissatisfied with their bodies. We have grown tired of the restrictive diet of Photoshopped, ethnically homogenous, young women in our mainstream media. And for the last five years, largely thanks to grassroots movements on social media, we have finally seen people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and ages fill our feeds, and more recently, our mainstream media. Women (primarily) are breaking free from corseted beauty ideals, being released from shame filled narratives, and becoming confident in their bodies. Yet something seems to be missing.
In the last number of years, one of the popular methods to ameliorate body dissatisfaction has been to create acceptance around all forms of bodies. Yet, body dissatisfaction continues to exist. Why is this? I believe it is because we continue to have a singular focus on the physical body to the exclusion of our larger selves. The conversation often seems to stop prematurely; being comfortable in our bodies is good, being released from shame is good, but is there something more we could be aiming for?
When I scroll social media, peruse magazines, or read popular articles on various news outlets there has been a proliferation of #bodypositive content. People understandably want to feel comfortable with themselves and happy with their appearance. Yet, news stories continue to abound indicating people, primarily women, are still not happy with their bodies. Global News found 1 in 5 Canadian women did not like their bodies. Meanwhile, the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence surveyed over 10 000 females across 13 countries and found body dissatisfaction on a steady incline, and every year The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reveals that plastic surgery rates continue to rise from the previous year (from 2017 to 2018 overall rates were up 2%).
What is going on here? I worry that a collective idea has emerged that developing a positive body image can be simplified or reduced to superficial memes about feeling confident, or posting selfies of our cellulite, wrinkles or fat.
If I think of my body as a vessel through which I experience life, is the highest goal to be comfortable, confident or happy with the appearance of my vessel? Taken one step further, if a voyager was to spend copious amounts of time posting photos of their vessel and stating how much they loved all the angles, you’d likely wonder, “Why aren’t you adventuring anywhere? Or, why aren’t you doing something more with your vessel?”
Of course, we want to invest in the vessel because a vessel that is taken care of and well maintained is paramount for a successful journey. But it seems, that our collective societal focus on being happy or confident in a wide range of possible vessels (or bodies) continues to short change us because we are still focused on our vessels instead of preparing ourselves for the incredible adventures we could go on.
The research is quite clear for people who have a positive body image - they value and appreciate their bodies, and they spend time and energy cultivating the entirety of who they are. Developing a positive body image in the beginning can unfortunately feel like work. It may be difficult because we need to uncover the deeper issues that are creating discomfort and dislike in ourselves in the first place. Taking an honest look at our beliefs and habits and examining the impact they are having on our life is not easy or fun. But this process is incredibly worthwhile as we free ourselves from unrealistic expectations and stop falling prey to unhelpful thinking traps and unhelpful behaviours.
Developing a truly positive body image becomes a lifestyle. It means protectively filtering the information that you view (e.g. if you feel like garbage after viewing a certain social media, it means you unfollow that one and any other similar account); it means recognizing that you have untapped potential and you need to cultivate the different qualities of who you are by investing in them (e.g. it means going off line and finding a hobby or learning a new skill); it means finding people that value you, not for your body or appearance, but for who you are as a person and providing the same environment where others can feel like themselves; it means shifting your internal voice to noticing and appreciating how your body moves and carries you throughout the day. 4,5
These things take time and aren’t captured in a #bodypositive selfie. We can continue to embrace every body type as good, but we need to individually and collectively shift our focus to something deeper than just our bodies.
Our bodies are good and important, and if we truly want people to become more confident and happy in their bodies, we need to pursue body positivity as the hard inner work that it is. Rates of body dissatisfaction will shift substantially once we start to spend more time, energy and resources doing things not so hyper-focused on our bodies. We would become a more resilient, embodied, holistic people and the surprising by-product we would laugh about is that we finally learned to be comfortable and appreciate our body.
1 Global News (2015). 1 in 5 Canadian women not satisfied with their appearance survey. Retrieved here: https://globalnews.ca/news/2025789/1-in-5-canadian-women-not-satisfied-with-their-appearance-survey/
2 PR Newswire (2016). New Dove Research Finds Beauty Pressures Up, and Women and Girls Calling for Change. Retrieved here: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-dove-research-finds-beauty-pressures-up-and-women-and-girls-calling-for-change-583743391.html
3 American Society for Plastic Surgeons (2018). 2018 National Plastic Surgery Rates. Retrieved here: https://www.plasticsurgery.org/documents/News/Statistics/2018/plastic-surgery-statistics-report-2018.pdf
4. Tylka, T. L. (2011). Positive psychology perspectives on body image. In T. F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image:A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (2nd ed., pp. 56–65). New York, NY, USA: Guilford Press.
5Holmqvist, K., & Frisén, A. (2012). “I bet they aren’t that perfect in reality:” Appearance ideals viewed from the perspective of adolescents with a positive body image. Body Image, 9(3), 388–395. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.03.007