A while back, I stumbled across a Tedx about body positivity on YouTube. While I wasn’t specifically looking for a Ted Talk or videos on body positivity (I was actually looking for haircare videos in an attempt to freshen up my self-care routine), the title caught my eye: Body Positivity or Body Obsession: Learning to See More & Be More.
The video resonated with me in a big way as the presenter, Lindsay Kite, talked about overcoming body shame. But it left me wondering a few things: why do we take on the weight of other people’s opinions in the first place, why do some opinions weigh more, and how can we shed that weight?
Why Do We Take on the Weight of Other People’s Opinions?
Not a lot of people know this about me (it’s not something you really lead with in conversation), but I struggled with body dysmorphia in my teens and early twenties. Like Kite, the speaker in the Tedx video, I was an active kid and an avid swimmer. Growing up in Florida, 10 minutes from some of the best beaches in the country, I spent much of my childhood swimming. Until one day, when I was around 11, I decided I was too fat to wear a swimsuit. Some of it was from what I was seeing in magazines and on TV. I was, after all, a product of the heroin-chic beauty culture of the 90s. Some of it was due to pressure from family to be thin because they had come up in the era of Twiggy and the like, and to them, beautiful was just a synonym for skinny. But none of it was okay.
I didn’t recognize that then. I just knew I wasn’t pretty enough. Even when people called me pretty, it was backhanded: “You have such a pretty face,” or “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight.”
When I was 11, a family member put me on the Slim Fast diet. When I was 12, that same family member encouraged me to stop hanging out with two of my friends because they were overweight, and she thought I would “catch” the obesity.
Fredric Neuman, M.D. writes in this article on Psychology today that “The way people feel about themselves is formed in large part during the time of growing up by the way their parents—or other close family members—felt about them and treated them during that time.” (Neuman, 2013)
And the simple fact of the matter is that our survival as individuals depends on our being accepted into the social group. We feel pressure to conform even before we can pronounce those very words.
Why Do Some Opinions Weigh More When We Put Them On?
By the time I was a freshman in high school, I felt so fat and so disgusting (at 5’4” and 140lbs), that I truly believed no one could possibly find me attractive.
When a boy in my class stopped our conversation to tell me I had a pretty smile, I thought he was messing with me and immediately stopped both smiling and talking to him.
When a senior football player from my Spanish class stopped me in the hall one day to introduce me to his friends, I was certain he’d done so because they were all going to have a good laugh at the awkward freshman girl after I walked away, and I nearly crawled out of my skin to get away from them as fast as I could.
Every day, the boy who sat next to me in Drama would stop me on my way to my seat and ask me out. I was so sure he was yanking my chain, I would shake my head and continue to my seat without making eye contact. Until one day, we went through the standard routine: he asked me out and I declined. Only, this day, he followed up with, “That’s what I like about you, your confidence.” This poor boy thought I was turning him down because I was out of his league, and I was over here doing everything I could to be invisible.
So why didn’t these situations change the way I felt about myself and my body? I have some theories.
First, as anthropologist Krystal D’Costa writes in this article on the Scientific American blog, “…negative opinions held by those outside of our social networks may have less weight than others because they are less likely have an impact on future relations.” (D’Costa, 2012). In this article, D’Costa focuses on behavior in relation to reputation, but the idea is the same. These brief encounters with people who, in retrospect, clearly did not find me abhorrent weren’t enough to change my outlook because they weren’t as close to me, weren’t as large a part of my life as the people who had put those warped ideas about body image into my head in the first place. I didn’t rely on those classmates for acceptance into the family social group or even my friend group (as they were only acquaintances).
How Do We Shed the Weight?
Several more years would pass before I would feel comfortable wearing form-fitting clothing, and even in my 30s now, I still experience a significant amount of discomfort in a bathing suit at the beach.
Going back to something Kite said in her talk, “It is incredibly difficult to feel good about your body if you are judging it solely based on appearance.”
In her Tedx Talk, Kite tells us that women she surveyed who reported feeling good about their bodies all reported a past painful experience or “body image disruption.” The disruption changes the way you feel about your own body. These disruptions can have either a very negative (shame/hatred/disgust) or very positive (self-love/confidence) impact on how you feel about your body.
The key is to develop body image resilience. Lindsay Kite and her sister, Lexie, are the founders of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit whose mission is to teach body image resilience. And there are many other amazing people doing work in this area. I’m personally acquainted with one such woman, Christina Maldonado, founder and principal photographer at Boudoir Tampa. Her mission is to help people shed the weight of unhealthy beauty standards. She’s a master at helping individuals (and couples) recognize that each and every body is beautiful through her photography.
The key takeaway I’ve gleaned from my research is that you have to make a simultaneous public and personal shift.
Putting yourself out there is the external/public piece. It can be anything that pushes your boundaries, from wearing a tank top if you’re insecure about your arms or shorts if you are uncomfortable showing your legs, to wearing a bikini in public. Anything that opens you up and makes you vulnerable to perceived criticism can be an opportunity for body image resilience.
Changing your mindset is the internal side. We have to work to love our bodies for what they can do, not how they look. We can do this through meditation, journaling, etc. and learning to filter out the unhealthy beauty messages we receive every day from the media, from friends and family, and most especially from ourselves. Because we are our own worst critics.
Something else that I don’t see many people talking about is that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Not every person prefers model-thin, perfectly airbrushed bodies. There is an admirer for every body type. I could be built like a caterpillar, and there would still be some human out there who goes crazy for the larval butterfly look.
I just need to change my mindset and put myself out there. And that’s what my wellness journey is all about. I’m learning to love myself just as I am. Every time I put myself out there, it’s that much easier the next time, easier to put myself out there and easier to love myself just as I am. I’m taking baby steps, short skirts and bathing suits and posting pictures/videos of myself for all the internet to see now. One larger goal is to have a photography session with the phenomenal Christina Maldonado. And the more I do these things, the closer I get to the finish line of loving myself wholly and completely as I am and not striving for a perceived perfection. Because we’re all already perfect enough.
Connect with me on social media to be a part of my journey.
TedxTalks. (2017). YouTube. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDowwh0EU4w.
D’Costa, K. (2012, June 4). What other people think about us matters here’s why. Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/what-other-people-think-about-us-mattersheres-why/
Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Caring what other people think. Psychology Today. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201306/caring-what-other-people-think