Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. Body image has been defined as “the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves.” Our body image can be affected by personal experiences, social factors and cultural influences.
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I have often been asked to speak about body image, including at a TEDx event. I usually begin by admitting that it’s a very difficult topic to speak about. It’s often misunderstood and is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. In an effort to clear up these myths, I wrote a blog called “The Truth About Body Image.”
I did not expect the backlash I received.
It was like I had opened Pandora’s Box. People were very angry with me for posting this information, even though all of the information came from scientific studies and articles in peer-reviewed medical journals! Some of the most common responses were:
You must be anorexic or bulimic!
You don’t know what you are talking about!
You are fat shaming us!
You don’t represent us!
But here’s the thing: none of those things are true. And this is exactly why it is so difficult to talk about body image. I would have thought that clarifying misinformation would be helpful, but apparently not.
In the last few years, I have become increasingly aware of how difficult it is to talk about body image. Almost everyone has a different perspective on the subject, and it is hard to find common ground.
I’ve given this topic some thought and realized that many things contribute to the difficulty in discussing body image. Here are a few of my thoughts:
Body Image Is Complex
Body image is complex because it can mean so many different things. It can mean how you FEEL about your body (i.e., feelings). It can mean how you see your body (i.e., sight). It can mean how you THINK about your body (i.e., thoughts). It can mean how you perceive your body as others see it (i.e., as interpreted by others). It can mean how you perceive others see your body (i.e., perception of others’ perception of you). And so on…
Body Image Is Personal
Body image is personal because our bodies are absolutely unique to us. No two bodies are exactly the same, even if they look similar at first glance. Yours is yours alone, and mine is mine alone, and we each experience it differently based on our unique experiences and relationships with our bodies over time.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that women struggle with body image. I started this blog in 2012 because I was frustrated with the lack of evidence-based information about body image. I wanted to provide a space where people could come to talk about their bodies and get accurate information, rather than the myths that are so prevalent in our society.
There is a ton of information out there from the media, from health professionals, from friends and family. But how much of it is grounded in science? How much of it is based on personal opinion or experience? This can lead to confusion for women (and men) who are trying to come to terms with their own bodies.
Body image is complicated; it has many different components and each person’s relationship with their body is unique. It can be influenced by many different factors including culture, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and more.
Body image is also personal; it is shaped by one’s own history and experiences. As a result, it can be difficult for people to discuss their body image openly.
Whenever I speak with someone about body image, they always say the same thing, “It’s so difficult to talk about body image.” They are not wrong. I’ve personally found that talking about eating disorders, disordered eating and/or appearance concerns can be very emotional.
Even though these issues often cause extreme distress, it is so important that we continue to have conversations about them. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to reduce stigma is to share my own story; this helps to destigmatize mental health issues and demonstrates that recovery is possible. I’ve talked about my body image journey in a couple of places, but have been meaning to write a more thorough overview of my experiences for some time now.
So here goes (I apologize if this seems like a novel):
I remember being around 11 years old and wanting to start collecting anime. I wanted to have my own Sailor Moon stuff, and at the time, online shopping wasn’t really a thing. So I had to order from mail-in catalogues. The problem was that I was plus size.
I couldn’t find any Sailor Moon costumes in my size at all. I ordered a Lingerie sailor senshi costume because it was the only one I could find in my size. It was okay, but not what I wanted.
Then came high school and by then, online shopping started becoming big so I ordered an actual sailor moon costume, but again in a plus size. To this day, it still doesn’t fit me very well because it never came with a proper measurement chart.
So while everyone else can order regular-sized costumes and they all look good on them, fat people like me have to make due with whatever fits best and hope that it looks okay even if they are wearing something much larger than their normal size (and yes, we get made fun of for that).
What’s worse is that some companies don’t even bother making plus sizes and just tell us to lose weight… like that’s helping anybody.
This is my favorite part of the story, and it’s also the most important. Usagi, who is merely a second year middle school student at this point in the series, has to defeat a powerful and physically mature woman, who also happens to be her mentor. This woman is using her power and influence over Usagi to control her and force her into submission.
In the end, Usagi manages to defeat her master by sheer force of will. Her willingness to “give up” some of her pride allows Usagi to reconnect with everything she has learned over the course of the entire series: friendship, compassion, cooperation, trustworthiness, and selflessness.