Ego, Features, Fitness, Spirituality

Buddhism And Body Image — Applying The Middle Way Philosophy

The Middle Way was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born into a rich family in the ancient city of Kapilavastu, Gautama lived a comfortable, privileged life within the grounds of his family’s palace. Gautama first set foot beyond the confines of wealth and luxury at the age of 29. He was horrified by what he saw — death, disease, misery, suffering. Humbled by this new reality, he was struck by the realisation of the thread of suffering running through humanity. From that moment, Gautama began his quest to find a way beyond suffering, to Nirvâna.

In a moment known as “The Great Renunciation,” Gautama calmly abandoned his life of leisure, giving up his status, wealth and possessions. His initial attempt at awakening was through asceticism, an extreme form of self-discipline. Six years of little food, little sleep, little interaction and hours and hours of meditation each day took their toll; Gautama collapsed in ill health. After this worrying wake-up call, he realised an important truth — an extreme, unbalanced approach would never lead to enlightenment.

Buddhism And Body Image

Despite being accused of cowardice by his pro-ascetic peers, Gautama knew a balanced approach was essential to reach Nirvâna. At the age of 35 he sat beneath The Bodhi Tree, determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. After 49 days, he became The Buddha (The Awakened One). He then saw things as they really are, leading to his formation of the The Four Noble Truths, a philosophy on suffering. This principal formed the foundation of Buddhism.

The Eight Fold Path is a central teaching in this philosophy. This “path” avoids sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Its ethos: balance. This article will apply this philosophy to the complex and sometimes conflicting topic of body image. Below are five separations. Each distinguishes extremities in areas of suffering related to body image, carving a middle way. This is my attempt to structure the unspoken, abstract and often subconscious way spiritual practice has drastically improved my relationship with my body. I’m hopeful it’ll help you, too.

Separation #1: Worth From Appearance

“This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.” — Excerpt from The Heart Sutra – Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh

Effective techniques to alleviate negative body image require unlearning. What do I mean by this? Improving body image requires us to undo the internalisation of strong cultural messages, messages assimilated since birth. The previous article explores the importance of unlearning the warped and unrealistic cultural definition of beauty. In similar vein, the first separation requires us to unlearn the cultural delusion that how we look has any influence, whatsoever, on our worth. This separation distills worth from appearance, avoiding the extreme of placing value on personal appearance — a remedy guaranteed to cause insecurity and anxiety.

Inherently, most of us agree our worth isn’t skin deep. You may be thinking, “that’s obvious Ricky, tell me something new.” But living and breathing this truth is a far cry from agreeing with it. That’s because intellectual acknowledgment — “I know I should feel this way” — is different from experiential understanding — “I feel this way.”

To clarify, think of a time when you’ve really, truly appreciated someone or something. Remember how it felt. You may have experienced a warming energy moving freely through your body, accompanied by an upbeat sense of ease, an unexpected outpouring of joy. These feelings are spontaneous. They don’t arise because of judgemental thoughts, as the consequence of evaluating a situation and deciding it is a moment for appreciation. These feelings arise in the absence of all thinking. Rarely, if ever, do they follow the thought: “I should appreciate this.”

Now, think of a time when you told yourself: “I should appreciate this moment.” How did you respond emotionally? For me, these types of thought are always followed by a suffocating sensation of guilt, accompanied by a self-sabotaging spiral of thoughts: “Why don’t I feel appreciation for this moment? I must be a bad person.” Self-worth follows this same blueprint.

body image worth
Our worth exceeds our physicality.

The antidote is moving beyond the intellect, to a place we can spontaneously feel self-worth. There’s no magic pill or quick fix; it takes regular meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate appreciation, compassion, love and acceptance — for yourself, for others, for situations. Experiential understanding in this sense breaks down into increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.

The good news is you don’t have to focus on attaining self-worth. Developing experiential understanding causes self-worth to radiate from within, arising in the absence of thought — just like the appreciation example. And when this feeling radiates from within, the value placed on external factors (including appearance) starts to evaporate, all by itself.

Take action today — here’s a guided meditation on self-acceptance.

Separation #2: Satisfaction From Vanity

“We must distinguish between pride and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart.

How do we apply the Dalai Lama’s above advice to body image? The key lies with Separation #2: satisfaction from vanity, the sweet spot between body shame and narcissism. Feeling content with the way we look isn’t indulgence. Vanity is. It’s a manifestation of the ego, a fragile form of attachment. Vanity causes suffering because indulgence in the body misplaces self-worth and attaches to the illusion of a fixed concept (more on that shortly). I’m not going to claim I don’t give a damn about my appearance; I cut my hair every three weeks and have an ASOS Premier Delivery subscription.

The Middle Way isn’t a lack of care. It’s taking care of physical appearance, without undue emphasis. This is particularly relevant to exercise and body composition. As mentioned in Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image, my body image struggles were sparked by feeling “too skinny” or “weak” or “not manly enough.” I started weight training because I thought building muscle would enhance my self-worth and value. I quickly learned a lesson. Instead, self-judgement increased as self-esteem decreased because I was paying even more attention to my physical form. I had gone from one extreme to the other.

I still weight train, and I finally feel I’ve found balance, most of the time. The key lies with perspective, not pull-ups. I no longer objectify my body as a piece of flesh I’m desperately attempting to sculpt by constantly pushing it to its limits. I value it as a vital extension of me, not something I own. I try to use exercise to increase the mind-body connection (at roughly 70% success rate). I listen to it and respect it by making a further separation.

Separation #3: Functionality From Objectification

“Apart from the obvious health benefits, we received evidence that physical activity can improve body image by diverting attention from what the body looks like to what it can do.” — A Body Confident Future

In a world obsessed with objectifying physical form, switching focus to functionality is an effective way to tackle self-objectification. Exercise plays a valuable part in this process. A philosophy I’ve developed for weight training is:

Switch mindset, from judgement to intrigue. Move from evaluation to fascination.

From the moment I ordered my first protein shake and stepped into the sweaty, windowless confines of my local gym, I was desperate to move away from self-perceived inadequacy. Consequently I began mindset of judgement and evaluation. What did that lead to? It led to constant self-judgement and self-evaluation, even once I’d got going. I’d feel frustrated and downbeat staring at my reflection. I’d obsess over the parts (parts = objectification?) of my body not developing as quickly as I’d hoped.

I’d started to change my body to change my self-esteem, yet I was operating within the paradigm of unrealistic beauty standards. I was placing my worth on how close I was getting to the perfected images I’d seen in the media. This expectation, this hope, was fuelled by a deceptive fitness industry that sells a lie of what is possible, without the aid of steroids. I’d internalised a distorted expectation of the functionality of my body. I wasn’t tuned into me, I was tuned out, hopelessly trying to attain someone else’s look.

The above philosophy has radically changed my outlook. I take a playful approach to the way the body changes and adapts. I try and step back, simply notice changes without actively labelling them “good” or “bad” or myself a success of failure dependent on my reflection. I take a curious approach to when I feel weaker or stronger on a particular day, or how certain foods give me more energy than others. At a basic level, I’ve developed an appreciation for the miracle of the human body, and its ability to change.

Self-criticism does of course still catch up with me. I get days where I feel anxious about my appearance — maybe I’m shrinking, putting on too much fat, incapable of exercising properly, not eating enough, eating too much — but these are reduced, fleeting, they don’t stick and I’m able to step back quicker, rationalise.

Separation #4: Impermanence From Fixed Concepts

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Attachment is fixation. Attachment to fixed concepts causes suffering. Fixed concepts are an illusion — the reality is nothing is fixed, everything is constantly changing. Impermanence (anicca) is central to Buddhism, and one of the three marks of existence along with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). Ignorance to these three marks causes suffering, as all elements within our universe are transient, in constant flux. The Four Noble Truths, as mentioned previously, are:

  1. All existence is dukkha. Unsatisfactoriness, suffering… Ultimate happiness cannot be found in anything we experience. Gaining six pack abs or dropping a dress size won’t bring happiness.
  2. The cause of dukkha is craving. We grasp at some things, push others away, putting us at odds with the way life is. We grasp perfect beauty standards, we push away images of perceived ugliness.
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. We can’t change what happens to us, but can change our response. Our bodies are our own, each a unique shape and size and composition. Severing the craving for a different body and accepting our body as our own can reduce suffering.
  4. There is a path that leads from dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.

One of the biggest attachments we develop is to the body. Eastern practice offers remedies to this; the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, for example, is practice of developing mindfulness through contemplations on the body. If we can accept the impermanent nature of the physical body, its inevitable fate, the decay over the course of time, we can cultivate a more peaceful relationship with it. Balance with this separation is respecting the transient nature of the body, avoiding attachment (indulgence). Conversely, we simultaneously want to cultivate a sense of ease with this knowledge. Impermanence and eventual death doesn’t justify bodily neglect (mortification).

Separation #5: Health From Aesthetics

Western culture is heavily invested in the idea the self, intelligence and consciousness is all contained in the mind. Other traditions don’t see it this way. Chinese medicine, for example, correlates emotions to specific organs, and treats symptoms accordingly. Viewing emotions are a form of abstract experience is a fallacy — look no further than cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, referred to as “public enemy number one” for its damaging physical effects. Then there’s growing evidence that gut microbes may influence our mood. A 2011 study by McMaster University discovered implanting bacteria from anxiety suffering humans into mice increased their level of anxiety-like behaviour.

Not only does this study bring new meaning to “gut feeling,” it highlights the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul. The way the body is treated has a significant impact on the mind. One of the biggest tools I’ve used to manage depression and anxiety is to make sure I’m treating my body well. At a stage of crisis, the first point of call to assess exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress, alcohol and drug consumption. My direct experience tells me to achieve an optimum mental state, a solid foundation to handle day-to-day fluctuations, all of these areas have to be in order.

health body image
A focus on overall health, not aesthetics, is proven to improve body image.

Mental health can’t flourish whilst the body is abused by junk food or neglected by lethargy. Sadly, our culture is so set on bodily abuse is taking active steps to better health is sometimes seen as a rebellious (or even presumptuous) act. Just try abstaining from alcohol and see how challenging it is. Forget exercising and eating well to shape up to Instagram models or Hollywood stars; this level of care is crucial not to look good, but to feel great. Ignore the messages saying you don’t deserve it — you do.

That’s why the fifth and final separation is an important one. Learning to tune-in to your bodily sensations and energy can act as a visual guide to your health. This is very subjective and personal to you. Weigh up the pros and cons and be your own guide. If you feel a certain way after eating a certain food, or feel energetic after less than eight hours sleep, follow your guide. If your skin indicates a lack of hydration, or too much fatty food, follow the guide. Respect the body, refer to it, let it guide you to good health.

A final word

Drastically improving body image is possible. But no article, no single tool, no words of wisdom or fads or movements or meditations will magically flip a switch. It takes hard work. It takes daily application of the tools, some of which I’ve shared, many of which are out there, waiting for you to uncover. The moment you consciously decide a negative body image isn’t serving you, is the moment you spark change.

Good luck. You can do this.

Features, Fitness, Psychology, Social Media

Improving Body Image: How Perception Of The Body Is A Reflection Of The Mind

negative body image
Body image issues arise in the mind, not the body.

Let’s begin with a simple truth: the mainstream media, particularly the advertising industry, defines beauty standards. These definitions are deliberately unattainable and perfect, because they fit an agenda. Making us feel bad about how we look works in the favour of profit-making corporations. With multiple billions at stake, it’s unlikely we’ll witness diverse, attainable and imperfect definitions of beauty in the mainstream media, at least in our lifetime.

If power structures won’t change, there’s no choice; the onus is on us to reshape and redefine beauty, by our realistic standards, improving negative body image in the process. But how do we redefine and change our mindsets? How do we reverse and unlearn conditioning that has been drilled into us, our entire lives?

Ideas presented here include: reframing ideas of beauty; becoming aware of (and accepting) ways we instinctively judge others and compare; body shaming vigilance; understanding body image psychology; accepting impermanence; and understanding the illusion of fixed concepts, such as appearance.

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Redefining Beauty And Celebrating Individuality

The cultural concept of beauty is forcefully promoted billboards, TV screens, webpages, beauty products and everywhere since forever, like a cynical, slow-dripping serum of deceit, disguising itself as truth. But it isn’t truth, and the more we actively and consciously reject these images, the more we redefine beauty. A key principle behind this approach is redefining from aesthetic perfection to individuality.

How? We retrain our minds to look at others, and ourselves, the way we look at nature. Because as much as we may see ourselves as separate entities, cut off from the world around us, we are nature, too. Instinctively we embrace the untamed uniqueness of a landscape, sunset, forest, mountain, whatever it may be, and we see beauty. Imagine if we did the same with people? Discussing self-judgement, spiritual guru Ram Dass writes:

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is.

“The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Ram Dass references the totality of a person, but his words are easily applied to body image. Just as every tree in the forest is beautiful in its own way, so is every person. Training our eyes to discover beauty — away from a narrow template of physical traits and towards appreciation of uniqueness — is a powerful shift. Once we see non-discriminatory beauty in others, the next step is seeing it in ourselves. But first, we must move away from the mindset of judgement and comparison.

Stop Judging Others, Stop Judging Ourselves

Judgement is comparison with a gavel (that’s a judge’s mallet, by the way — yeah, I Googled it). Evaluating others with a discriminatory eye is the opposite of appreciate the beauty of uniqueness. There’s a reason non-judgement is at the core of spiritual philosophy; the way we perceive the world is reflected in the way we perceive ourselves. Evaluating and judging others frames the human body as an object to be observed. As explained in Instagram’s Influence on Negative Body Image, objectification leads to self-objectification. It’s a vicious cycle.

Judgement reflects right back at us.

This isn’t specific to conscious, mean-hearted judgement, either. It applies to the habitual, instantaneous thoughts arising when encountering the rich variety of bodies throughout each day. Think you’re immune? I promise you, we all have this inner-judge to some extent. Living in this world, it’s impossible to avoid it completely. Unless you’ve spent your life under a rock, or living in the Big Brother house, you’ll likely have internalised a number of these biases, probably without consciously registering this process.

The next step is a difficult one — it’s time to put your ego aside and dig deep into yourself to discover these unfriendly thought-processes. I’ll go first…

I’m A Judgemental Body-Shamer

I like to think I’m a non-judgemental, caring-kinda-guy. But when actively tuning in to my inner-dialogue, I notice how quickly I react to bodies around me — too fat, not muscular enough, too hairy, too hairless. Noticing this unsavoury thinking loop is disconcerting, because let’s be honest, it comes across as mean and not very pleasant, and I don’t like to think of myself as a mean person.

However, to overcome the dark crevices of a conditioned brain, we must actively accept them by applying a mindful approach — let thoughts arise without indulgence (“Maybe these thoughts are the truth, after all, that person doesn’t fit the definition of beauty I have in mind”) resistance (“I don’t want these thoughts!”) or judgement (“I’m a horrible person”).

Such thoughts spring into our minds, outside of our control. Where do they come from? Jungian psychology suggests the “shadow,” an unconscious dark side of the psyche. I’d argue the shadow is the source of unsavoury, judgemental thoughts. Word of caution on practicing this step: having these thoughts does not make you a bad person. They are your thoughts, they aren’t you. We may not control the thoughts entering our minds, be we can control our reaction.

“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are,” the brilliant psychologist, Carl Rogers, writes in On Becoming A Person. “Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. Accepting dark thoughts with compassion and non-judgement allows them to be processed adequately.

Imagine your subconscious as water in a saucepan, below the conscious mind. Difficult thoughts and emotions occasionally bubble to the surface. Repressing or rejecting this process is the equivalent of placing a lid on top the saucepan. What happens? The water boils quicker, the bubbles increase. In acceptance we surrender and allow the water to evaporate. The temperature lowers, the bubbles calm.

The Importance Of Creating Communities

“It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.” — Fabienne, Pulp Fiction

Call me a deluded optimist, but I have a vision of self-aware utopia where we support each other’s wellness, and frame our own definitions of worth, beauty and success. Imagine how incredible it would be if we formed communities that actively promote equality, kindness and universal acceptance. Community, in this sense, doesn’t have to be a city, or even a district. We all have spheres of influence.

A challenging aspect of taking steps towards this utopia is calling out body shaming or objectification, when we can. Screaming obscenities won’t help, but attempting to educate the oblivious or ignorant will. This includes rejecting established structures and damaging stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes and hetero-centric stereotypes.

There are actions we can take, today, to forming such communities. In terms of body image issues, it’s imperative we are open and honest in discussing its significance. It’s imperative we take the challenging step of sharing vulnerability. Scary it may be, but in doing so, we can connect with others and create spaces where we can each thrive.

“In the last year or two I’ve accepted my body more and feel more comfortable about it — mainly owing to the people I spend time with, my friends and partner, and also just knowing myself better as I get older.” — M

In a world where more and more of us are connected in cyberspace but crave real connection, I urge you to have an open, honest and challenging conversation with those close to you about your feelings on this subject. You’ll be surprised how universal these issues are, as I was when asking friends to share their experiences.

The Way We Feel About Our Bodies Is A Reflection Of The Mind

“Our perceptions of outer appearances are profoundly affected by the inner conditioning of our minds.”  — Master Hsing Yun, Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism.

Psychologist Elizabeth Halsted advocates increasing self-esteem as a catalyst in improving body image. Frequently, negative body images form due to low self-esteem. As Halstead writes on Psychology Today, someone experiencing low self-esteem has self-critical perception of their personality. Consequently, someone may believe people don’t like them, or they have nothing to contribute in social situations. This lead to over-reliance physical appearance “to create a positive effect on others.”

redefining beauty
The onus is on us to redefine beauty.

Halstead identifies the importance of acceptance, instead of self-criticism. In particular, there are three thinking processes commonly associated with body image issues: perfectionism, comparison, and judgement. When I experience a bout of depression and self-critical thoughts swirl around my head in a mind-storm of self-loathing, my appearance gets caught in the crossfire and I begin to pay more attention to it. Increasing concern over my appearance is often the first warning sign for an oncoming bout of low-mood.

“When I decided to stop fighting how my body naturally looks, I managed to let go of a lot of stress.” — F

There’s no question body image is a mental health issue, yet often the first attempt at a solution is changing the way or bodies look, in an outward-in attempt at fixing perception. Which leads on to…

Exercise, Impermanence And Body Composition

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Many people who have a negative body image will attempt to change their body composition, whether through diet, exercise, or even surgery — it’s the reason I initially started to lift weights. Attempting to overcome negative body image purely by changing the body, without an attempt to confront issues of self-esteem, comparison and judgement, is often the precursor to eating disorders, steroid use and body dysmorphia. This comes from the mistaken belief:

“I am unhappy with my body, so I will change it. I want to fit beauty standards I see in the media. Once I reach this standard, I will be worthy. My self-esteem will increase, my body image will be positive, I will be happy.”

Moulding our bodies to fit idealised perfection is near impossible, because all bodies are different. If not genetically predisposed, it’s incredibly difficult to shape our bodies a certain way, whether dramatically slimming down or bulking up. Changing body composition for this reason has the opposite affect by strengthening self-objectification.

Even if “aesthetic perfection” is reached, you’ll be no better off. Why? Because the external is the ego’s playground, and the ego is never satisfied. Don’t believe me? Check out this quote:

“When I look in the mirror, I throw up. I was already so critical of myself, even when I was in top physical shape. I’d look in the mirror after I won one Mr. Olympia after another and think, ‘How did this pile of (bleep) win?’ I never saw perfection. There was always something lacking.”

Those words are from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is idolised by the bodybuilding community to this day, a beacon of physical “perfection” in his prime, validated by seven Mr. Olympia titles. But he’s never been happy with his body, and at 70-years-old, hates his reflection so much it makes him physically sick.

Ego, Craving And “I’ll Be Happy When… I’m Ripped”

If we identify the body as a source of worth and social status or crave desirability by becoming more “attractive,” the act of sculpting the perfect physique becomes another “I’ll be happy when.” Not that I’m going to psychoanalyse the Terminator, but… if I were going to speculate on his thinking process during his peak years, it’d go like this:

“I have reached physical perfection in the eyes of others, the promised land. But I am still unhappy. I don’t feel worthy of praise. There’s more I can change before I’m fully happy, I will keep striving.”

This is an important point: if you don’t address low self-esteem, changing the way your body looks won’t make one iota of difference to your body image. It’s the ego’s nature to constantly seek and crave. It will always perceive itself lacking. Conversely, the ego takes hold and identifies with physical appearance, undesired changes will cause significant stress, as Arnie discovered. This ranges from the mundane (bad hair days, pimples) to the unavoidable yet significant (ageing, illness).

Improving Body Image With Buddhism And The Middle Way

I’d initially planned one article on body image, related to Instagram. But the topic has taken on a life of its own. The more I explore, research and talk to others, the more I’m convinced this a key issue facing this generation — male and female. So, I’m not done yet. I want to guide you along a path I find never fails to offer insight and solace. I’ll apply the time-tested Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way to body image, in a bid to find a balanced approach to our relationship with our bodies. Until then, I hope this article contains meaningful, applicable solutions for you to try.

< Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body ImageA Buddhist Approach To Improving Body Image >

Features, Fitness, Social Media

Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image

Instagram influence body image
Is Instagram damaging to body image?

It’s official — Instagram is the worst social media site for mental health. All social media sites have a potentially detrimental effect on the way we feel, but Instagram, with its heavy focus on imagery, has a particularly negative impact on one specific area: body image. Instagram isn’t the instigator of body image issues, of course, but instead a heavily-filtered reflection of a culture that objectifies, sexualises and commodifies the human body, while promoting unattainable and unrealistic standards of what beauty is.

Beauty is subjective, yet rarely seen in the beholder’s reflection. Global research by Dove discovered just 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful, while simultaneously, 80 percent acknowledge all women have something beautiful about them. This negative self-perceptions begins a young age, with girls as young as six-years-old having expressed body-related anxiety. If unchecked, such bodily insecurities can turn into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), causing “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” leading to “severe emotional distress and difficulties in daily functioning.”

Social media sites, particularly Instagram, have been challenged to do more to combat this growing societal concern. But how can we take control and learn to love our bodies, when the forces of society thrive on us feeling insecure in our own skin?

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Advertising And Beauty Standards

“All we’ve ever wanted,
Is to look good naked,
Hope that someone can take it,
God save me rejection,
From my reflection,
I want perfection” — Robbie Williams, Bodies

Say hello to the beauty industry, a persuasive and pervasive money-making machine convincing the masses we need to improve our appearance. More and more of us don’t like the way we look. As a result, this industry — the cousin of fashion — is growing rapidly. At twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP, to be precise. Skin care alone is worth $24 billion per year, make-up $18 billion, haircare $38 billion. A report by the British Youth Council, A Body Confident Future, highlighted the “massive” role such industries have in setting idealised images of beauty. This comes at cost — a third of young people say media influence has made them feel the need to lose weight.

It’s not hard to see why. From a young age, we are all immersed in an environment rigidly defining beauty on their behalf, from adverts to fashion magazines to billboards to Hollywood. Look around you, and you’ll see a variation of all shapes and sizes, with no two bodies the same. Look at the media, and the same perfectly honed (and electronically retouched) body shapes appear, over and over again. Women are expected to defy logic by attaining the “curves in the right places and not much everywhere else” look. Men are expected to do their best impression of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, with bulging biceps, washboard abs, a full chest and muscular legs.

Profit — The Reason Your Body Isn’t Good Enough

Sadly, we live in a world where conglomerates like Goldman Sachs question whether curing illness is a sustainable business model. Western culture’s portrayal of conventional beauty is moulded by the same profit-making agenda. Body positivity and revenue don’t fit. If encouraged to age gracefully and embrace wrinkles, would people spend millions on expensive skin care? If encouraged embrace our natural hair, would people use straighteners, or buy hair-thickening shampoo?

Anxiety around appearance isn’t vanity or a case of millions wanting to look nice. Consumer culture consistently tells us we need things to be successful and happy. Advertising no longer sells products, it sells lifestyles. The beauty industry sells us the idea that a beautiful appearance, dictated by their idea of beauty, is the key to success and self-worth. We want to look good because we’ve been told looking good is living a successful life. But the people shaping this falsehood earn money from our endeavours to look “better.”

The Deception And Exclusion Of Mainstream Body Positivity

The Body Positive movement is the mainstream media’s response to body image issues. Body positivity is vital, of course,  but the profit-agenda is still at play. “Brands may pay lip service to the idea of diversity but continue to emphasise the message that some conventional ideals of beauty are important,” according to A Body Confident Future. The movement is defined by ever-so-slightly-altered standards. Or as plus-size fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah put it, “body positivity seems to only serve those who fit the ‘acceptably fat’ description: white, beautiful by Westernised standards, and small/hourglass shaped.” Anyone outside of these standards — the vast majority — is cast aside.

“I went to a strip club in Nigeria and it was really interesting because I’d never seen women who actually look like me. A lot of the time I just see white bodies, but they were all black women with different shades of brown skin. They had very different body types — some were like mine, some weren’t like mine. I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing!’ It gave me confidence.” (F)

For example, women of colour are still marginalised in all aspects of beauty. This ranges from a lack of make-up options for women with darker skin, to Grazia magazine editing Lupita Nyong’o’s hair to “fit a Eurocentric idea of what beautiful hair looks like.” The Western idea that fair skin is beautiful ripples across the globe, too, resulting in worldwide “rampant darker skin stigma,” or colourism. Colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” It’s instigated by institutional racism but isn’t exclusively race-related.

Follow the money and you’ll find the continual rise of a skin bleaching industry expected to acquire $31.2 billion by 2024.

Let’s Talk About Sex(ualisation)

Internet changed the pornography star [Credit: PornHub].
It’s impossible to discuss body image in the media without also discussing sex. Using sex to sell degrades the human body, turning it into an object existing for the viewing pleasure of others. This is a facet of a hyper-sexualised culture, perpetuating objectification in all forms of media. Nowhere is this more evident than the porn industry. The internet has made porn more accessible than ever; in 2017, PornHub received 81 million hits. Daily. Across the year, 28.5 billion hits resulted in 68 years worth of porn being uploaded.

Although porn use in general shouldn’t be a cause of shame, the majority of online videos depict inauthentic, friction-heavy and genital-focused intercourse. By portraying unrealistic gender stereotypes, it influences how men and women feel they should look and behave in an intimate setting. It’s an industry with an underlying, venomous and sometimes violent attitude toward preserving the status quo of gender inequality. Women are shown as submissive bystanders, existing to serve male desire. Although porn feels distant from mainstream media, they share the same destructive aspects, the latter in a diluted form.

The Beauty Myth

Author Naomi Wolf deconstructs objectification and beauty in The Beauty Myth, a titular theory “prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” In her framework, beauty needs to first be approved by men in order to be validated. According to Wolf, this dynamic limits women’s freedom because their behaviour, as well as appearance, is scrutinised — including the way they walk, talk, dress, and interact.

The Iron Maiden is a term Wolf applies to societal expectations and assumptions about the female body. Wolf argues unattainable images of beauty are used to punish women. Any female not conforming is made to feel “monstrous,” despite being physically functional:

“A man’s thigh is for walking, but a woman’s is for walking and looking ‘beautiful.’ If women can walk but believe our limbs look wrong, we feel that our bodies cannot do what they are meant to do; we feel as genuinely deformed and disabled as the unwilling Victorian hypochondriac felt ill.”

Though written in 1991, the myth is still relevant. A 2014 report by the UK’s Government Equalities Office, The Watched Body, highlights how women in leadership roles are expected to adhere to perceived feminine traits in order to be respected. A 1997 study referred to this as the objection theory, where women are frequently “looked at as objects by society, with a sexual focus being placed on their bodies rather than on their abilities.”

Men, Muscle Mass And Eating Disorders

Body images issues aren’t exclusive to women, though. Men used to be conditioned for nonchalance, a squirt of Old Spice and a hurried sink wash. But a shift in masculine stereotypes has seen the male population become more concerned their bodies’ appearance. Last year it was reported eating disorders had risen 70 percent in men, in only a six year period. In another study, 45 percent of men said they’ve experienced a period of “bigorexia,” an obsession with muscle building. Although gender bias with body image issues can make it more difficult for men to speak openly about their insecurities, the insecurities are certainly there.

“Pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder,” Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, told the Guardian. “Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.” These unhealthy images for men focus on an increasingly muscular, low fat physique.

“Body image has been an issue for me since secondary school, especially playing rugby and other sports in an all-boys school. I often felt inferior or weaker, and the pressure was quite high to workout and get big, which I didn’t achieve to the same extent as most.” — M

Hollywood is often a reliable reflection of its time, including changing definitions of beauty. Look no further than the superhero genre, the most lucrative and popular in modern cinema. The likes of Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Chris Evans (Captain America), Henry Cavill (Superman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) saturate the media with images of their bulked up physiques. Away from superheroes, contrast Daniel Craig’s physique as James Bond with Roger Moore or Sean Connery, or Dwayne Johnson or Zac Efron with David Hasselhoff in Baywatch.

There’s also a growing trend of using these examples — attained by 24/7 devotion and support from the world’s leading nutritionists and personal trainers — as ways to inspire the Average Joe to pick up some iron. News outlets shared inside scoops on the A-list’s workout routines and diet, while social media is awash with behind-the-scenes clips. Apparently it’s easy, if only you know how.

The Rise Of Bigorexia

It’s not only acting royalty who promote unrealistic mass. Reality television — tabloid in TV form — presents objectification and beauty standards without restraint. Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York, apportioned blame in the rise of male body image issues on show’s such as Love Island, combined with social media. “In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute,” he told The Telegraph. “I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.”

“I really dislike wearing shorts in public because I genuinely feel like my legs from the knee down are weird. The internet creates a world where we compare, compare, compare, and so when I go out in summer and men are all wearing shorts, I can’t help but compare my legs to other’s. Most of the time it leads to some kind of negative feeling.” — M

Back in the day a little Burt Reynolds chest fuzz or Sean Connery’s realistically slim physique were seen as attractive. Now, muscle is mistaken for “manliness.” Consequently, a growing number of men experience muscle dysmorphia, the mistaken belief they aren’t muscular enough. It affects 10 percent of gym-going men in the UK (and, important to note, some women too). It’s natural to automatically assume vanity is the root cause, but muscle dysmorphia is defined instead as shame over one’s appearance. According to a 2016 study, men experiencing muscle dysmorphia mistakenly believe mass is an outward showing of inner strength, an indicator of success, sexual prowess, and so on. The result? In 2017, steroid use quadrupled amongst 16-24-year-olds in the UK. It’s the only drug with increased usage.

My Struggle With Body Image And Muscularity

body image
Chubby-cheeked, ready to “man up” and… self-objectification?

I’ve always fixated on my body. When I was really young, I was chubby-cheeked and curly haired. Looking at photographs, I look cute (even if I say so myself), but at the time I stressed about being fat. Before going on holiday with family friends who were naturally slimmer, I’d stand in front of the mirror in my trunks and pinch the fat around my body, willing it to go away and wishing I looked different. In my teens I was concerned for different reasons — I was a late bloomer. I was embarrassed as my peers developed hair in strange places, an outward sign of adulthood, while I was left behind.

To make matters more confusing, my body composition changed dramatically when I was 15. Not via exercise or a healthy diet, but glandular fever. Bedridden for weeks, my throat filled with a thousand paper cuts, I couldn’t eat and lost around three stone (40+ lbs). Now I felt stickly thin. I felt I lacked muscular definition and strength. I wanted to feel manly. I was insecure, and my insecurity was validated when people would comment on my weight loss. Apparently, it seems socially acceptable to call a guy skinny, despite this being a common insecurity in men.

Weightlifting was the remedy. With trepidation and high anxiety, I signed up to my local gym when I was 18. On my first session, I looked around at brawny, tattooed Bristolians bicep curling my body weight. I attempted to bench press just the bar to “ease into it.” It was too heavy. No one warned me the bar was forged from Valyrian steel. Anyway, I persisted and eventually gained muscle. I’ve continued to train regularly, and my weight has shifted up and down. Even now, I frequently compare myself to men who are much bigger or stronger or more ripped than I am, like chasing my shadow with Men’s Health under one arm, a protein shake under the other and a sense of despair as to why I couldn’t pack on 30lb of lean mass in 30 days or look like Tyler Durden in six weeks.

Instagram’s Influence On Body Image

“I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop,

Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor,

Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” — Kendrick Lamar, HUMBLE

What about Instagram’s influence on body image? Due to its user-driven dynamic, there’s an expectation Instagram is authentic. Ideally, social media should be the antithesis of the illusions portrayed in the mainstream. Just normal people uploading normal images of their normal lives. Well, not quite. The feverish quest for profit finds its way into anything if there’s opportunity to advertise. Instagram is no different. ‘Grammers with a substantial following earn a tidy sum promoting products via the medium. Fitness “influencers,” for example, regularly make six figures for campaigns shared on their profiles. Those with six-packs and six-figure followings frequently earn $5,000 or more for a single sponsored post.

“When I’m in a good mood, I have no urge to look at Instagram. But when I’m having a day where I feel down, I’ll spend time stuck in the scroll-loop. Inevitably, I end up comparing myself to the women I see online, and I feel even worse.” — F

Though plenty use Instagram to challenge conventional standards, beauty standards have infiltrated social media. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian (who has 110 million followers) regularly receive millions of likes, but they present heavily-doctored snippets of meticulously pruned unrealities. Often, they’ll post airbrushed photographs. Sometimes, they get caught. These airbrushed images mix with photos of friends and family, with no distinction other than a blue tick. Further still, they aren’t images taken on the catwalk or during a photoshoot — they’re “authentic,” behind-the-scenes selfies with everyday, humanising captions. This camouflage erodes the boundaries between the glitz and glamour and us muggles.

I suspect Instagram’s influence on negative body image is enhanced because the nature of the platform catches people off-guard. If you pick up a copy of Vogue, you’re prepared for what you’re about to see. Using Instagram’s perceived authenticity to spread the same unattainable standards of beauty is arguably more sinister, more deceitful.

Instagram and Self-Objectification

This desire to conform to beauty standards is tantalising and has a drip-down effect into everything we do. Unwittingly, as we assimilate the media’s powerful messages, we internalise and reproduce those same ideas. Uploading images to social media conforming with beauty standards is a form of self-objectification. This occurs when objectification is internalised and the person views their body as an object to be evaluated. This is far from a superficial issue, either. There’s a whole host of evidence highlighting the damaging impact self-objectification has on one’s well being, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders and depression. In men, it has been identified as a precursor to steroid use.

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, but social media accentuates the process. Most of us will be guilty of doctoring our appearance on Instagram, whether in the form of filters, choosing an image from a selection of many, or using set angles and lighting that is flattering on the body. I’m guilty on all of these counts. Additionally, each and every like becomes a signal of approval, and for some, Instagram becomes an avenue to temporarily boost feelings of negative body image. In presenting ourselves as objects, virtual feedback provides validation and a fragile sense of worth.

“I’m aware Instagram can be damaging, so I’m careful with who I follow. Even though I’ve never searched for fitness or health, the discover section is ridiculous, it’s just filled with women with perfect bodies. I wasn’t even choosing to look for it, but it appeared and made me feel crap.” — F

Fitspiration is a trend often falling into this category. Its aim is to provide motivation for exercise and encourage a healthy lifestyle, but most posts emphasise aesthetics over health. Studies show browsing #fitspo posts on Instagram, for as little as 30 minutes, increases self-objectification. Further, another study discovered women who shared their own “Fitspo” photographs scored higher in charts monitoring a drive for thinness and compulsive exercise. Eighteen percent of the same group were at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Comparison And Negative Body Image

Body image issues rise in the space between how our bodies really are, and the projection of what our bodies should be. On top of mainstream media, social media — in particular Instagram — leads to information overload and incessant streams of people with seemingly perfect bodies. It creates a vicious cycle of comparison and negative self-perception.

“People not only compare their own bodies, but attribute perceived social value with the likes and followers that come with having a ‘sick’ body. The inverse of that is, someone who thinks they don’t have a ‘sick’ body then thinks they aren’t as valuable as a person. This obviously isn’t true, but we’re all susceptible to feeling shit about ourselves because of it.” — M

It’s possible to change our bodies through diet and exercise, to try and reach levels of perfection. But such is the nature of comparison, no physical change will ever bring lasting contentment. Losing weight or gaining muscle becomes an “I’ll be happy when.” The body is always changing, from the moment we’re born, to the moment we die. We are flesh and bone, a constant flux of regenerating cells. We get pimples, shadows under our eyes, hair in random places. Beauty standards defy human nature because they are designed to be unattainable.

Has Instagram influenced your body image? Let me know your experience in the comments section below.

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