Mirror, mirror: Body image, for better or worse

I was a pre-teen when the British model Twiggy hit the magazines back in the sixties. I clearly remember the attention that this first “supermodel” got for her boyish figure as she became the darling of fashion magazines. Just as I was heading into that time of life when girls become preoccupied with their appearance, we were suddenly being told that the feminine ideal was a teenager who was 5’6” and weighed less than 100 pounds. I don’t care how small your frame is, that is a body type that allows for none of the normal curves that an adolescent girl should be developing.

When it comes to the “ideal” body, fashion trends come and go, more so for women than for men. One era embraces the curves of Marilyn Monroe, another the androgynous look of Twiggy. The pendulum seems to swing back and forth, and the airbrushed magazine photos correct any “flaws,” providing us with images that seem impossible to live up to. So how does all this impact body image for the rest of us mere mortals?

The concept of body image includes not only the mental picture of ourselves that we each carry around in our minds, but also how we feel about our appearance, our assumptions about how others view us, how we think and talk to ourselves about our physical characteristics, and how it feels to inhabit this body as we go about daily life. Having a positive body image doesn’t mean that you think you’re the perfect physical specimen who should be gracing magazine covers. It just means that most of the time you see yourself fairly accurately, and that you feel comfortable in your body and relatively good about the way you look. You may not be thrilled with the pear-shaped figure that you inherited from your mother and grandmother, but you’re happy that you also share their beautiful brown eyes or shapely legs. You make the best of the total picture and you don’t lose much sleep over it.

Body image is shaped by many factors, both personal and cultural. We get direct and indirect messages about body image from TV, magazines, movies and other media. You need go no further than the corner newsstand to see cover photos of slender women and men with six-pack abs that help to shape our ideas about what we “should” look like.

But it’s not just media that shape our body image. The people around us influence it, sometimes for the positive, sometimes for the negative. Since I have been working in the area of weight management for many years, I’ve heard countless painful childhood recollections of being sent to “fat camp” by well-intentioned, concerned parents; of being teased or bullied by classmates for being overweight; of the pain of the so-called compliment that one has “such a pretty face,” with its unspoken reference to the not-so-pretty body that it’s attached to.

Peers, friends and romantic partners help to shape our body image. Conversations about clothes, looks, attractiveness, strength, fitness, and athletic ability all reflect our body consciousness. The normal aging process influences body image as we pass through phases of life: during adolescence, it’s the awkwardness of rapid changes as we morph into adults; pregnancy can do a number on body image, especially when the weight doesn’t come off after that bundle of joy arrives. Menopausal women often complain of “shifting” of certain areas even without weight gain; and if we’re lucky enough to make it to old age, we may look in the mirror and think, “”How the heck did that happen?”

So, how can we embrace, or at least come to a truce with, our own bodies? Try a few of these strategies and see if they have a positive impact on how you see yourself.

  • Stop the trash talk. Listen to how you talk to yourself about how you look, especially if there’s an abundance of criticism (“I hate my thighs.” “I’ve got to lose this gut.” “I know I’m going to be the fattest one at this party.”) Beautiful comes in many different shapes, sizes, colors, heights and ages — look for it in others and in yourself.
  • Realize that there are certain things you cannot change. Let’s face it, you are not going to get any taller in your 20s or 30s. Everyone has a certain body type, whether it’s muscular, lanky, top-heavy or “big-boned.” This doesn’t mean that we can’t make some modifications with diet and exercise, but there’s a genetic inheritance that sets the stage. Rather than clinging to unrealistic expectations, strive for your own personal best.
  • Move around. Take pleasure in your own physicality. Walk in the park, dance in the kitchen as you make dinner, go for a bike ride with your kids, reach for the ceiling and stretch when you get up in the morning. We notice the pain, both physical and emotional, when our bodies are not working right. Pause from time to time and appreciate how good it feels when they are.
  • Find some body image role models. Whether it’s someone in the public eye or a friend or family member, look for people of different sizes and ages who seem comfortable in their own skin. My 93-year-old Aunt Marie has earned every wrinkle on her beautiful face, and she walks with a cane now, but she’s one of the snappiest dressers I know, and she has refused to let inevitable health issues keep her away from her water exercise classes at the Y. And I don’t think she’s worrying too much about how she looks in her bathing suit.

Think of all the mental energy you could free up if you spent a little less time fretting over your body. You might just find that you feel happier and more engaged. So take a few steps back from the mirror and few steps toward all of the other important, interesting and fun things in your life.