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Turning Back the Clock to Locate the Deep Roots of Negative Body Image

Photos: Courtesy of Bradford Willcox

Though advertisers themselves state that models and the photos they use of them to sell their products are meant to be “aspirational” rather than reflections of the reality of what most women look like, there is a part of us that just doesn’t seem to get that. We can hear it, yet, for some reason, we’re reluctant to let it really sink in.

An unavoidable pattern

Bombarded by the unending barrage of unrealistic images, we constantly compare ourselves — negatively, of course — to the bodies we see in them. Tossing out logic, we look, without question, at what our society tells us is beautiful. We feel the tremendous wave of self-loathing that washes over us in that moment of inadequacy, as we tell ourselves how miserably we fall short. Rather than saying, “Real life isn’t like that. I’m beautiful the way I am,” we say, “That’s how I should be. I am a failure. I need to fix myself!”

To make matters worse, we rarely step out of this thinking pattern long enough to even grant ourselves a new perspective. Our brains have simply grown accustomed to these images, no matter how unrealistic they are, because, in our culture, they are now the norm for advertising fashion, beauty and other kinds of products. This applies to social media as well. The result is a continual deterioration of our self-esteem.

Digging up the roots​​​​​​​

In order to discover true and lasting self-love you need to first locate the root of your self-loathing. Here is a scenario that might help put things into perspective for you. Say you come home from work after a storm to find that your house is full of water. What is the first thing you are going to do? Are you going to start filling empty buckets? Are you going to get towels and try to stop the water from reaching another room? Or, are you going to locate the source of the leak and stop it, so that you can then make progress as you try to do the cleanup? Of course, you want to locate the leak and shut that down first. This applies similarly to negative body-image. We can look in the mirror a million times and say, “I love myself.” But, unless you discover why you don’t like yourself, those words will be your proverbial water bucket. You will think you are making progress, yet your house is still flooded.

Looking back

It is important to remember you are born loving yourself. Love is our natural essence; I am reminded of that every day I spend with my happy, eight-month-old baby girl.

Do you recall a memory from childhood when you became aware of your physical appearance not being “good enough”? What beliefs did you develop about yourself from that experience? For example, my aunt mentions her self-loathing began with a boy saying she had “Russian shot-putter legs” in the third grade, which lead her to believe she should never wear shorts. Looking back, my aunt realized that there was nothing wrong with her legs, as she was lead to believe, and she regrets not wearing shorts all those years in her youth. Once you locate the experience and belief that was developed about yourself as a child, it is time to ask your adult self: is that belief true or not?

This is the kind of self-work that we can be doing to strengthen our sense of self, body image and self-esteem as we battle cultural expectations that are harmful and limiting for girls and women. We will never be able to escape the media or cultural influences, but when we have a strong sense of self and think freely, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to prevail — even when the odds are stacked against us.  

Katie H. Willcox, Founder and Author, “Healthy is the New Skinny: Your Guide to Self-Love in a ‘Picture Perfect’ World,” [email protected]

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