“Do I look fat in this dress?”
This is one of the most confounding, difficult questions men have had to answer down through the centuries of Western culture. It’s also the subject of many jokes; because no matter how they reply, it will always be the wrong answer.
But female anxieties about body image are no joke. They can lead to some serious health problems, such as anorexia, bulimia and depression. Nor are these anxieties limited to any particular society or era. The image trap that demands a certain look has pervaded every culture throughout time. The beauty and health industries have historically capitalized on this issue by equating beauty with health.
However, the prevailing opinion about what a healthy body looks like is beginning to change, as it has done from era to era. For example, recently the athletic world was shocked out of its stereotypical slim-body conscious world when Erica Schenk, a plus-sized curvy model, was featured running on the front cover of the magazine, Women’s Running. The response was a plus-sized enthusiastic response from women readers.
“There’s a stereotype that all runners are skinny, and that’s just not the case. Runners come in all shapes and sizes. You can go to any race finish line, from a 5K to a marathon, and see that. It was important for us to celebrate that,” said Jessica Sebor, the Editor-in Chief of Women’s Running, speaking to Today.com.
The model, Erica Shenck, also spoke about the issue of self-image in a recent interview on Fox News. She highlighted the importance of learning to love our bodies and who you are as well as being physically active.
Many women are beginning to heed this increasingly popular advice. Consequently, they are gaining the confidence to publicly challenge the current perception that thin automatically means healthy or beautiful when it comes to body image.
Schenk’s point may be a hint at the remedy, but it is also part of the problem. For as long as we are fixated on looking at body parts – either loving or hating them – our view of beauty is going to be challenged by the prevailing fashion images of models and movie stars. But images of acceptable beauty change all the time. In other words, whether we admit it or not, we are shackled to a very limited, materialistic image of ourselves, which is sometimes tough to love.
What can help us become unshackled is to rethink the word ‘image.’ One definition is: “a mental picture. The thought of how something looks or might look.” So, what we are always looking at is actually an image of what we think about ourselves. And, whether our thinking is unloving and critical, or loving and kind makes all the difference in the world.
However, in every era, some women do discover a different way to think about and view beauty, and it’s worth noting.
Josephine was an actress from the 1950s to the 1970’s. She was very aware of the importance of looks and notions of beauty. “All around me were stunningly beautiful women, and every one of them was critical and anxious of the way they looked, often with devastating health consequences from the over use of pills and potions, diets and surgeries. They worried over every flaw and deficit on their bodies and faces.” They were trapped in an unending cycle of service to the current notions of physical beauty, she told me. She, herself, was a very beautiful woman by the standards of her day and culture. But, seeing this “image trap,” as she thought of it, Josephine wanted to find a different, more freeing way to understand beauty.
Then one day she came across a spiritual “recipe for beauty” that changed her thought about the word.
“The recipe for beauty is to have less illusion and more Soul….”
So wrote Mary Baker Eddy over one hundred years ago. In her book about health and Christian healing, Eddy tackles this problem of the illusion of physical beauty, which was as common in her day as it is now.
Josephine saw that, for her, this recipe was about fundamentally changing her notion of beauty – shifting from seeing it as a physical attribute to understanding and expressing a truer, more divine idea of beauty.
As she began to understand and appreciate this different view of beauty she found that instead of worrying about her image, she focused on bringing that beauty of Soul (God) to every part in which she acted and to every situation in which she found herself. Although she always dressed beautifully, she never felt a hatred of her body, nor anxiety over losing her looks. She looked as lovely in her senior years as she had as a young actress.
Rather than trying to love a changing physical body, learning to love beauty as an innate spiritual quality that expresses the Divine, frees us from the image trap. There is so much that is divinely beautiful to express, and we have a lifetime to live it.
Anna Bowness-Park writes about the connection between thought and health, and the part that spirituality can play. She is a Christian Science practitioner.