Body image isn't just about weight

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Sometimes when we talk about beauty and body image, we end up talking almost exclusively about weight. It makes a lot of sense: the people who are touted as the most beautiful are almost always thin. We're bombarded with headlines and images that fixate on the waistlines and diets of the famous. Meanwhile, the war on obesity rages, often confusing ideas about health with ideas about physical attractiveness. Weight is always in the news, and the message is loud and clear: It is NOT OK to be heavy. Lose weight! Gain self-respect! Look better!

So I get it. I get that beauty and weight are wrapped around each other in our heads. I get why so many people find themselves convinced that if they could only get thinner they would be better in every way. But there is a lot more to the cultural story of beauty, and when we talk about weight without talking about other things, we are being careless. Who do we forget when we say “body image” but mean “weight”? Everyone who doesn't fit the beauty standard in a variety of ways that they are sometimes acutely aware of, even when weight isn't an issue for them.

Pointing out such struggles can feel nit-picky – as though people should just get over them, especially if they aren't connected to the science-friendly subject of health. But the constant nagging sense that there is something wrong with the way you look, the quiet preoccupation with features that seem unfairly proportioned, can chip away at self-esteem in profound, long-lasting ways.

We have seen so many examples of what beauty looks like that we have become almost shockingly good at identifying the things about ourselves that don't fit that mould. “If my legs were longer . . .” we hear ourselves say. Or “if I didn't have this saggy skin . . .” We can explain all of the ways that we fail, physically, to meet a certain level of attractiveness. It can feel embarrassing to care, or so ordinary that you hardly notice yourself being critical. But in either case, the ways we don't live up to our own ideas of "successful" beauty are diverse and complicated.

Sometimes they are persistently single-minded, too.

I agonised about my nose for years before I got cosmetic surgery. I tried not to care about it. I tried to be proud of it. And yet I backslid infuriatingly into hating it for making my face look a way that seemed unacceptably abnormal. It seemed like every other girl had a simple, nice nose, while mine insisted on taking up a lot of space and expressing a lot of creative differences with the rest of my features. If only I could change my nose, I thought, I would be pretty. And maybe it wasn't so much that I was desperate to be prettier but that I was desperate to stop thinking about my nose.

My interest in body image began after I underwent two unsuccessful facial surgeries, and became increasingly aware of the way girls and women around me seemed to be engaged in a wrestling match with their appearance, fighting to change themselves, to remake themselves so that they might more closely resemble an unreachable ideal. I had attempted to remake my face, and it had failed, and I was tired of trying. But when I started talking about body image, it quickly became clear that everyone else was talking about weight. When I wrote about weight, I got more responses, my pieces gained more traction. Weight was hot. When I wrote about faces, there was less noise.

But when I listen to people talking about their appearance, their concerns and criticisms tell a different story. Wrinkles, hairiness, breast size, physical asymmetry, eyes that are “too small” or “too close together”, lips that are “too thin” and the myriad shapes and compositions our bodies take that aren't represented on any billboard all become targets for angst in an environment that shines a harsh spotlight on the way women look.

Recognising this can be depressing. Beauty hasn't always been so mixed up with thinness. For a lot of history, the characteristics of the most celebrated beauties had little to do with tiny waistlines and toned arms. And when we admit that beauty is still not just about weight, we are forced to admit that body image is more complex. Maybe there is no escape – when you victoriously lop off one head, the hydra of body image grows 10 more.

I prefer to look at it in a more optimistic way: if body image is about more than weight, and beauty is about more than being thin, and if most of us are failing to fit the standards of beauty stuck in our brains, then what's really happening is that these standards are painfully inadequate. They have failed to account for our diversity. They have neglected to acknowledge all of the ways that we automatically consider each other attractive without referring first to a lingerie catalogue or a hottest bikini bodies list.

I've also learnt that the things we are agonising about today, or even for the last 10 years, are not necessarily the things that will matter to us later. Ideas about physical beauty are, after all, often fickle. My nose didn't look a lot better after surgery. Actually, it didn't look very different. The surgeon, flustered and trying to explain it in lay people's terms, said, “Sometimes these procedures just don't work out”. But I find that I have grown to like the uniqueness of my appearance. After all, that's one thing about appearances that has held true for all of human history: we look fascinatingly different from one another. We are intricately ourselves.

So really, it worked out just fine.

10 comments

  • “When I wrote about weight, I got more responses, my pieces gained more traction. Weight was hot. When I wrote about faces, there was less noise”.

    Excluding people whose excess weight is due to genetic or individual physiological disorders, I think it is easier to change one’s weight (e.g. diet) whereas it is more difficult (if not impossible in certain cases) to change one’s facial features, bone structure, skin suppleness, and so forth. This might explain why you got more responses to articles about weight.

    Commenter
    MainSail
    Date and time
    April 04, 2013, 8:28AM
    • It's so true. So much focus on weight but actually those feelings of self worth can be very much determined by how we feel about our face. I have believed myself truly ugly my whole life. The older I get the less I'm bothered by it and I'm self aware enough to realise that a lot of it has roots in my childhood where I was the plainer sister alongside a bombshell blonde.

      Year after year I grow more comfortable in my skin but still have days when I curse the face i was born with. I haven't gone down the surgery path. I daydream about it though. I just hope I continue to feel more comfortable and less bound by not being the pretty one.

      Commenter
      Helen13
      Date and time
      April 04, 2013, 8:51AM
      • If we equate our self-worth with our physical attractiveness of course we'll be obsessed. Such a waste of time and misdirected energies. A friendly smile and kind eyes are much the most important physical expressions.

        Commenter
        Elly
        Location
        Geelong
        Date and time
        April 04, 2013, 9:23AM
        • The weight connection is unfortunately so true. People complain about being told they would be beauitful if they were not fat - not a nice thing to hear, I can imagine - however it feels as though if you perceived as ugly, there is no escape from judgment, at least overweight people have that inkling of hope. The unfortunate flipside of a politically correct world has also become the acceptedness of putting down slim women in the name of protecting overweight people - skinny but ugly, skinny and mean, etc, are all generally acceptable comments in a world where fat-shaming is unacceptable. And it is, I do not advocate it, however I do not believe giving licence to shame slim people and include their personalities or looks in this shaming is helping society move to a better place. It would be far better if society included amongst beauty self-respect, elegance, a big smile - traits any person can have, and that are genuinely attractive.

          Commenter
          Sam
          Date and time
          April 04, 2013, 10:00AM
          • It's funny, I'm 25 and am over weight and yet I don't feel pressure about what I look like - why? Mainly because I have zero social interaction so I dont feel like I have to live up the expectations of "friends" to look or feel a certain way, I am somewhat happy in my skin but wish I had less frown lines and will more than likely end up getting botox to correct these (my personal choice) other than that my body does not really worry me. Yes I become frustrated when I can't find clothes that I like in my size but realistically - everyone has issues like that, it's just your self esteem as to whether you choose to let that control you or not

            Commenter
            Sarah
            Date and time
            April 04, 2013, 10:21AM
            • Oh please - as long as you don't have any deformities, and are not unhealthily overweight, beauty is largely about personality and attitude. Just watch out fast a female celebrity loses status if they're seen as being a diva, or a psycho. Why do you think men (coarsely) joke that "No matter how hot a woman is, some guy somewhere is sick of her $h1t". On the other hand, women who are not tall, athletic, or large breasted can be seen as very attractive because they exude a friendliness and warmth to them. Guys don't care about perfect noses, plump lips, whatever it is women do with their eyebrows. A nice smile and genuine friendliness gets guys every time.

              Sexy on the other hand has to do with revealing clothing and physical perfection. Enough men confuse beautiful with sexy that women have started an "arms race" to be the sexiest woman, and they attract men who are interested in that only. Meanwhile, the rest of us guys are sitting back laughing and enjoying the view.

              Commenter
              Ken
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              April 04, 2013, 10:44AM
              • @Ken

                I get my eyebrows waxed. If I didn't, I'd have a monobrow, and who wants to see that in the mirror?

                Commenter
                Jim Moriarty
                Date and time
                April 04, 2013, 11:51AM
              • must disagree, SEXY is all about attitude and that twinkle in one's eye - revealing clothing even when coupled with physical perfection sounds pretty trashy to me. Mind you, I suopose one women's trash IS another man's treasure ;-)

                Commenter
                CROWGRRL
                Date and time
                April 04, 2013, 1:07PM
            • This is most obvious, somewhat ironically, on shows like The Biggest Loser. The contestants are chosen not just for their weight - they are chosen because if they lose weight, they will hit all the categories for typical attractiveness. Straight teeth, clear skin, no stretch marks, nice hair, regular features, not too hairy etc. Cynical in the extreme.

              Commenter
              kindsight
              Date and time
              April 04, 2013, 11:41AM
              • Beauty is not about diversity, it is about perfection, and the pursuit of it. Some may get closer to achieving it than others in their lifetime, but by its very definion it is not something which will ever be completely attainable by anybody.

                The sooner more women realise this, accept this reality, and instead focus on working to their own personal goals and development, the sooner people can stop feeling the need to complain every second day about 'unrealistic expectations'.

                And if external sources can so easily affect how a person sees themself, both positively and negatively, then by definition they did not have any self esteem to begin with.

                Commenter
                Markus
                Location
                Canberra
                Date and time
                April 04, 2013, 12:05PM
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