By Caitlin Chung
A little girl, about 8 years old, walks into a dance studio for her very first ballet class. She’s wearing pink tights, leather ballet slippers, and a skintight black leotard. Her hair is combed back into a slick bun on the back of her head. Despite her clean appearance, she’s uncomfortable wearing something so revealing, and her head throbs a little from the awkward pulls of isolated strands of hair and dozens of bobby pins stabbed into her scalp. Yet, she is still excited, excited to feel like one of those beautiful ballerinas she admires on TV.
How long would it take until that same little girl feels ugly for looking different from the girls in her class? What long-term impacts would she experience from the wave of harsh comments from teachers, companions, and adults she trusts about her body and beauty? When would western standards of beauty, that is shoved down her throat, start to make her feel small and insecure? When would she start to hate her reflection in the mirror or how she looks in photographs?
As a teenager who finally recognizes that she’s been struggling with body image ever since she was a child, I’ve learned that the inception of these widespread issues and disorders, for most people, begins when they are innocent and vulnerable children.
Body image is such a vast topic that I could probably go on and on about for hours. However, I will try my best to keep this article as concise as possible for the reader’s sake. *Disclaimer: you’re in for a long ride*
I came here today to share a story and hopefully help others recognize their beauty in a world that constantly attempts to blind them.
Self-love and self-awareness have become extremely hot topics, especially in the past decade. The entire world is possessed by this unrelenting desire to achieve happiness, satisfaction, success, and, most importantly: self-love.
In retrospect, it hasn’t been that long since loving yourself equated to being a narcissist. It was all about being “humble,” to the point that you couldn’t acknowledge compliments without feeling arrogant. Instead, you put yourself down and make self-deprecating comments since being insecure was the trend. I mustn’t forget to mention the romanticization of mental health issues, particularly mental illness, it was “relatable” and “cool” to be in pain. One could also argue that the romanticization of mental illness in the media led individuals who were previously mentally healthy to develop mental illness’ as a result of forced perpetual sadness and angst.
There’s nothing wrong with loving yourself; in fact, I wholeheartedly encourage it. However, this unrealistic portrayal and expectation of happiness, success, and self-love in the media makes it harder for individuals to properly acknowledge their insecurities. As a result, it has caused an overwhelming amount of stress among the general public (including celebrities) to lead a performative picture-perfect life. Human beings are easily swayed by external influences so it is especially important for us to be aware and critical of trends, and the information we consume through social media and advertisements.
On the topic of advertisements, marketing companies, and at the root of it all, capitalism, feeds on our insecurities. I won’t go into depth about that, but I’m sure you can understand how capitalism both causes and requires our insecurities to thrive. It’s easy to blame capitalism on virtually everything wrong with the world, but hear me out. We are conditioned to want happiness and success, and we’re taught by the media that being physically fit and “beautiful” will help us achieve such goals. In the same way, the pressure to love ourselves shifts the responsibility of our insecurities solely onto ourselves, disregarding how, in reality, these external factors are the primary influences. Where do you think these westernized, and in some aspects, global beauty standards came from? What do you think propagated and solidified what we understand as beautiful today?
Apart from the general media causing us to be insecure about our bodies, I’d like to talk about something more personal. Words that have been spoken by those around us, especially the people closest to us, about our physical appearance. The thoughtless comments and criticisms made by people about the way we look seem to leave the greatest stains on the lens we use to view ourselves. Like a punch in the gut or the grazing of a knife, these words form bruises and cuts on our self-esteem. Though, unfortunately, they never fully heal. We’re too easily left broken before we’re even capable of recognizing who we are as people.
One of the biggest turning points in my life was when I realized many of my family members and close friends also struggled with some form of insecurity regarding their body image. Before that realization, I thought I was alone in my suffering. Almost as though I was the only one who constantly felt the need to fit the slim figure and “perfect” face ideal in order to be considered beautiful. Not to mention being incapable of looking at myself in the mirror without scrutinizing every part of my body for “flaws,” and later coveting for someone else’s body in devastating jealousy. But rather than my newfound realization being of comfort to me, it distressed and hurt me deeply. What it implied, that too many people suffer from body image insecurities, which too often lead to mental health illnesses and eating disorders.
Why must we suffer? This question quickly turned into: What can we do to prevent body image insecurities in the next generation and help people feel beautiful as they are?
Now, I can’t take out a pocket watch and swing it in front of you a few times while chanting: you are beautiful, you are not swayed by the comments of others, nor the unrealistic beauty standards seen in the media. I can’t zap everyone’s memory with one of those gadgets from Men in Black to create a world where no beauty standards exist, but it does make me wonder how different that world would be. I also can’t simply ban the use of photoshop on social media platforms, and make all cosmetic procedures illegal, since that definitely infringes several basic human rights. It’s most likely impossible to cancel diet culture, just as I cannot go back in time to address the root of this entire issue. Although I can’t stop people from comparing their bodies and faces to others, nor do I feel it is right to blame their natural human behaviour for such insecurities, the least I could do is remind you that what you see is not everything. I still struggle with body image, but I don’t think it’s as severe as before. By increasing my awareness of influences that make me feel small, I can every so often stop myself from falling into a hole of negativity-filled darkness.
We are born into a judgemental society whether we like it or not, but it doesn’t have to dictate how we feel about ourselves. Nor should it interfere with our growth. Understand your worth, and be gentle with yourself. We are beautiful, and I sincerely hope that we can all believe that without hesitation and full of confidence.