Every woman has, at some point in her life, felt that her body didn’t measure up – or down – to the ideal in her mind.
Perhaps it was when her grade school phys ed teacher had to boost her onto the gym equipment. Or years later, when her post-partum belly was mistaken for a pre-partum bulge. Or just last week, when, in spite of her better judgment, she perused a “10 Most Beautiful Women in the World” magazine issue while waiting at the supermarket checkout.
Do I hear heads nodding?
Occasional twinges of inadequacy in these situations are normal. But when negative thoughts and feelings about one’s appearance become habitual, they form a “poor body image,” or a chronic dissatisfaction with one’s looks.
Where does this negativity originate?
The development of body image begins in childhood, and is influenced heavily by the mass media. Unrealistic standards of beauty are relentlessly imposed by our culture through television, movies, and magazines. Children’s programs underscore our culture’s emphasis on physical beauty by featuring well-built good guys and dumpy, homely bad guys. Shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” spotlight children themselves competing in pageants for the honor of being named a “beautiful doll” or a “fabulous face.”
Other influences on body image development come from interpersonal relationships. Excessive teasing or negative feedback about one’s appearance can do lasting damage to a fragile body image.
I experienced a hurtful incident of this kind when I was in fifth grade. Our class was putting on a play about the first Thanksgiving, and I’d been cast as a Pilgrim girl. As I made my stage entrance during one rehearsal, my classmate Mary Ellen stepped forth from a group of tackily feathered Native Americans, pointed at me, and ad-libbed, “Hey! Look at the fat Pilgrim!”
I was shocked to learn that at least one of my peers perceived me as “fat.” That realization caused me to see my chubbiness in a different way: not as a simple characteristic, like my black hair or brown eyes, but as a source of embarrassment. The “fat Pilgrim” episode changed my perception of my own body, and not for the better.
Once a poor body image is formed, it can give rise to many related problems, including low self-esteem, depression, disordered eating, and difficulties with intimacy in marriage.
In his book, “The Body Image Workbook,” Dr. Thomas F. Cash claims that “as much as one-third of your self-esteem is related to how positive or negative your body image is.” So a woman who can’t come to terms with her physical body is likely to be dissatisfied with herself as a person. And if she doesn’t like herself, she’s probably going to assume that no one else can like her, either. These feelings of inadequacy can make social interactions difficult, resulting in avoidance of certain social circles or activities.
It’s no wonder that the combination of poor body image and low self-esteem can cause depression. Unfortunately, the knot that ties these feelings together can be hard to untangle. A woman who is repelled by what she sees in the mirror may become despondent over a perceived inability to change her appearance. That sense of helplessness can lead to an even deeper dissatisfaction with her body, thus creating a cycle of despair.
Women who struggle with poor body image can go to dangerous lengths to attain a more attractive figure. Their eating behaviors may become erratic, or may involve deprivation, binging, and/or purging. Known as eating disorders, these behaviors are said to affect nearly 8 million Americans. Recurrent spells of overeating, followed by actions meant to reduce the chances of related weight gain (self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, and the use of diuretics or laxatives), are typical of bulimia nervosa, the most common eating disorder. In binge disorder, overconsumption of foods takes place without any effort to counteract its effects, resulting in weight gain and even obesity. The eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa begins with an unwillingness to eat, and develops into an inability to eat. It proves deadly in 10 to 15 percent of cases.
Body image is so closely intertwined with eating disorders that magazines featuring size 0 models, such as Vogue and Elle, are often banned in clinics where these disorders are treated. According to the website of the University of Colorado Wellness Center, seven out of ten women, after viewing images of Vogue-type female fashion models, felt more depressed and angry than they did prior to viewing the images. It’s interesting to note that at least two of Vogue’s cover models, Audrey Hepburn and Margaux Hemingway, themselves suffered from eating disorders.
Although negative body image and its related problems are most common among adolescent and teen girls, research indicates that at least 80% of women over 18 also experience dissatisfaction with their bodies. For many of these women, poor body image can affect intimacy with their husbands.
Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons of the Institute for Marital Healing writes that “one of the major conflicts in sexual self-giving is poor body image.” A woman who believes that her body is unsightly will likely be so preoccupied with her own anxieties during intimacy that she will not be able either to give love or to receive it fully. Her apprehensions will impair her ability to entrust herself to her husband, and to “surrender to and feel safe with” him.
It’s all about the need for acceptance, says Kate Wicker, author of “Weightless: Making Peace With Your Body” (Servant Books).
“Body image problems are often rooted in a fear of being rejected by our husbands,” she explains. “Our obsession with the way we look forces us to hold back. But real love is about the willingness to let go and be touched – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – by another person. If our husbands compliment us or touch us, we should graciously accept these acts, not shrink away from them.”
Even when the cellulite’s in plain view, and the stretch marks extend from here to Kansas? Yes, says Wicker, since “Intimacy is about revealing our whole selves, even the parts of us that we believe are unworthy of being referred to as beautiful or lovable.”
With so much at stake, overcoming physical self-consciousness with one’s spouse must be a process. So says Dr. Lisa Klewicki, a psychologist with Fountain of Life, a ministry which integrates the Catholic faith with psychology. She points out that, before seeking acceptance by her husband, a woman needs to accept herself. Dr. Klewicki uses visual imagery to accomplish this. A woman with poor body image is asked first to imagine herself at the moment of her creation, being made and embraced by God, then to imagine her husband standing with Christ, loving her unconditionally as Christ does. According to Dr. Klewicki, the goal of visualization is to overcome negative body image so that a woman and her husband may fulfill their vocation to “be Christ for each other.”
But the call to “be Christ” is meant, not only for the married woman, but for each and every woman according to her particular vocation. It is a difficult mission in our culture. In his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI says that “The contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.” One way in which this “hatred of bodiliness” manifests itself is through the skewed view that many women hold of their bodies, which God made in His own image.
For a while, I shared that view. I left the fat Pilgrim behind me and eventually slimmed down to a size 4, only to subsequently spend a combined total of over seven years being pregnant, and eighteen years nursing babies. Needless to say, my body doesn’t meet the culture’s standards of beauty. But you know what? I don’t mind, because I’ve found something better.
Kate Wicker says it best: “Every time you make love to your husband, carry an infant in your womb, nurse a baby, or hold an older child until your arms ache, you’re saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you’ (Luke 22:19). Jesus sacrificed his body to redeem ours. Let us lay down our own bodies (and our unrealistic dreams of slimmer hips and taut abs) for our families.”