Unrealistic beauty standards cause so many people so much pain. In the last decade, I have stopped chasing them, and I am happier and more resilient because of it.
I was originally going to title this post “How I Gained Weight and Went Grey, and I am Happier and More Resilient than Ever.” And I still kind of like that title, but perhaps it is a little misleading. Because in this post, I’m not going to try to convince you to gain weight (or lose weight), to go grey, or to color your hair. You are the boss of your body, and you are in the ideal position to know what is best for you.
I Have a Different Suggestion
If we want to be happy and resilient one of the best things we can do is to stop making external standards like weight, size, and certain beauty standards a priority. Instead, we can make internal goals a priority. Internal goals are goals like becoming friends with our body and whole self. Or they are goals like showing compassion to our self or practicing playful movement. Another such goal is adopting a love-centered approach to eating. (You can read more about these things at the end of this post.)
I will discuss how to do all those things shortly, but first, let me talk about gaining weight, embracing grey hair, and becoming happier.
Adventures in Finding Myself
In another post, I have detailed how when I was younger, I suffered some painful bullying instances that caused me to be terrified of gaining weight for most of my young adult life. (You can find the link to this post below.)
These bullying instances caused me to equate being smaller with being safe. In addition, distorted media messages taught me that I was only beautiful or worthy if I met certain media standards of beauty, like extreme thinness. These experiences certainly led me to adopt unrealistic beauty standards.
They also caused me to be rigid about my eating and exercise habits for years, which eventually caused me to develop symptoms of body dysmorphia (distorted body image). I also developed symptoms of orthorexia (an obsessive-compulsive disorder focused on eating healthy food.).
This is not just something I struggled with. Recent research suggests that an increasing number of women in America struggle with some form of disordered eating, even if they don’t have a full-blown eating disorder. This suggests that many women in the U.S. struggle with unrealistic beauty standards, too.
I have been so fortunate to have so many wonderful people and things in my life that have given me great happiness. Nevertheless, my symptoms of body dysmorphia and orthorexia caused me a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety for a while.
A Different Way to Live
In fact, they eventually caused me so much anxiety that I had to find a different way to live. And I did. I decided that I was going to honor my worthiness and my light at whatever size I was.
In addition, I decided to eat food that nourished me and that I loved. I also decided to focus on living a life filled with joy, magic, compassion, and adventure. And I focused on developing authentic, loving relationships with other people.
I call this Living from the Inside Out.
During this process, I have gained weight; lost weight, and stayed the same. (And I have repeated this cycle several times). It may seem strange to say this, but in a society that prizes thinness almost above everything else, I am grateful for the weight I’ve gained.
It taught me that I could gain weight and still…
Shine my light and be my own beautiful self
Have magical adventures.
Be worthy of love.
It taught me I could finally let go of unrealistic beauty standards.
And of course, all of this was true all along, but I had to experience it myself to believe it. And whether I lose weight or gain weight or stay the same in the future, these things are still true about me. They are true about you, too.
I have had a larger body and a smaller body, and I discovered that feeling good in your own skin has very little to do with the size you are. It has very much to do with the body beliefs and practices you adopt.
People can be extremely thin but feel horrible and anxious in their own skin. On the other hand, people can weigh more but have a beautiful relationship with their body because of their loving beliefs and practices. (By the way, this picture has the Clarendon filter from Instagram on it because I like the tint it adds to the picture.)
Letting Go and Learning to Live
My adventures in becoming friends with myself has been good (even awesome sometimes). But it has also been painful. It can be difficult and frightening to try to undo years of rigid eating and exercise habits. I often found myself mourning the loss of the sense of control that being rigid about food and exercise gave me. (When it wasn’t making me absolutely miserable).
It can also be frightening to give your body permission to do what she needs to do in order to be healthy and strong. This is especially hard when you daily face media images that communicate “Thin is better” and “Thin is beautiful”. Women pretty much hear such messages from their first conscious moments. (I believe men increasingly face this same pressure.)
This is the seduction of unrealistic beauty standards. They promise you control and happiness, while eventually delivering the complete opposite.
In my process of becoming friends with my body, I sometimes felt like I was losing my one, guaranteed way to gain people’s approval (or so I thought). That is losing weight and being thin. When you’ve been a people pleaser your whole life, losing this kind of people-pleasing mechanism can feel terrifying.
As I have gone through this process, I have often felt like I was learning to breathe and live again.
Letting Go of Unrealistic Beauty Standards and Learning to Breathe Again
Nevertheless, despite all this, I know that I am healthier overall and more resilient now because of it. (Resilience is our ability to rise to the challenges in our life and to bounce back from difficult times.) Here’s why.
I survived one of the things I used to fear the most: gaining weight. And I realized that it’s not a big deal. I know I am still safe and worthy.
Also, I learned how to stop focusing on weight as a measure of health. And instead, I have formed a confident partnership with my body. In doing so, I have developed more confident and loving habits.
I learned to show myself compassion; breathe more deeply; and eat food that makes me feel good. And I’ve also learned to move in ways that make me feel magical in my own skin, no matter if I lose or gain weight. I have learned to comfort myself when I feel gross in my own skin (because it is normal to have both good and bad days).
And I tolerate much less tomfoolery (which is a fancy word for bullshit) from people. I’ve realized that when people are cruel, bullying, and controlling, it’s about them and not about me or you.
No one has the right to be cruel to you or to me, to bully us, or to try to control us. So, I have stronger boundaries now. And generally I refuse to allow people to engage in this behavior with me. (Also, I’m still learning how to do this.)
I eat more fruits and vegetables because they are full of magic and sunlight and make me feel good.
And I also eat pizza, potato chips, cookies, fried chicken, and chocolate, and it’s not a big deal. I don’t binge on any of these foods anymore. And I also often get tired of them sometimes. And I go a long time without eating them—primarily because they don’t make me feel very good. Now that I can eat them any time I want, they have lost their allure.
I move and play almost every day. And I am stronger now in some ways than I used to be even though I am about fifteen years older. I also still have some areas of strength I am working on. For example, I have better endurance now, but I still need to build my arm strength.
I know that I can survive hard things and come out on the other side more confident and loving towards myself.
And I am more compassionate towards other people.
Rejecting Unrealistic Beauty Standards and Building Body Partnership
I still have a lot that I want to learn about building a strong partnership with my body. And I also still have some moving, eating, and thinking behaviors that make me feel poorly, just like I did before I became good friends with myself.
The difference now is that I have fewer of these behaviors, and I engage in them less frequently. I also have an excellent set of tools to address the issues, and I know that I am headed in an increasingly confident direction.
Building a strong body partnership is a daily and continuing adventure. Health is about our mind, body, and spirit. These different aspects of our life change from day to day. Thus, body partnership is always an adventure in process.
New Medical and Nutritional Discoveries
Overall, I am grateful for the confidence and happiness this process has brought me. And it is not surprising that I would find that I am now healthier, happier, and more confident in many ways. There is a growing body of medical and nutritional research that suggests that our fixation on diets, clothing size, and numbers on the scale is helping approximately no one. In fact, it is harming a great many people. (You can read about this here, here, and here.)
This same body of research suggests that the as people forge a mindful and attentive partnership with their body, the more likely they are to achieve physical and mental health.
You can read about this here and here.)
Unrealistic Beauty Standards and Skewed Positions on Health
Our country’s long-term focus on scale numbers and sizes have, unfortunately, given many people a skewed position on health. We tend to automatically equate thinness with health. But that is far from an accurate and holistic perspective of the issue.
Someone can be very thin but engage in unhealthy physical and mental habits to maintain their weight. For instance, sometimes people use techniques like starvation, chronic under-eating, over-exercising, yo-yo-dieting, bingeing and purging, self-hate and self-criticism, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors to control their weight.
The more a person engages in behaviors like this, the less physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy a person is, no matter his or her size.
On the other hand, someone can be overweight but be physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy because of the habits he or she adopts. (You can read more about this here and here.)
Thus, an increasing number of doctors, nutritionists, and everyday people are shifting a focus from weight and size, foci which encourage unrealistic beauty standards. They encourage people to focus more on life-giving habits like self-acceptance, self-compassion, body kindness, mindful eating, and joyful movement.
Here are some of the folks that have inspired me the most in this area: nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch; Dr. Michelle May; Dr. Linda Bacon; and nutritionist Rebecca Scritchfield.
Watching these women on their inspiring journey has validated my own experiences. And it has given me the confidence to continue down the path I am already on.
I see this confidence spilling over into other areas of my life.
Embracing My Silver and Grey
For instance, I recently decided to let my hair go silver and grey. When I made the decision to do this about six or so months ago, I had been dyeing my hair for ten years. It was causing me a lot of fear and anxiety. For years I had thought about letting it go natural, but I had heard negative messages about women’s hair. They basically amounted to this: “Grey hair is unattractive, and it’s all downhill from there.” (This is just another message promoted by the unrealistic beauty standard industry.)
So, I kept dyeing my hair, even though I increasingly hated the process. I hated all the trash I was putting into landfills because of it, and I felt afraid of folks knowing I had a lot of silver and grey hair. GASP!
This all became so stressful that finally I felt like I had to find a different way to live, much like I felt when I decided to stop pursuing unrealistic body standards.
Soon after I made this decision, I found a community of women online who have let their hair go grey and silver. (The group is Curly Silvers.) They are spunky, exuberant, youthful, and beautiful, and their courage validated my own desire to go grey. It gave me permission to continue down the path I was already on, much like the women I listed above who have given me the confidence to make friends with my body.
No Looking Back
I have never looked back, and I feel freer, more confident, and joyful. This experience has also, once again, made me more resilient. I realized I could face a fear I had (letting my grey hair show); be my authentic self (grey hair and all); and admit that I am indeed–spoiler alert–no longer twenty years old.
And the world wouldn’t fall apart.
In fact, the world has not only not fallen apart, it has gotten better.
This picture has a Sahara filter on it from a Microsoft Word editing program because I like the tint it adds to the picture.
What I have Learned from All This
Most women (and increasingly men) face constant pressure to meet unrealistic beauty standards set by other people (none of whom have our best interest at heart.)
Such external standards tell us we must be a certain size; weigh a certain amount; have a particular body shape; look perpetually youthful. And they tell us we must have (or not have) a certain color of hair; have perfect teeth; wear a certain kind of clothing; and the list goes on and on and on and on.
Not only do we face pressure to meet all these unrealistic beauty standards, we learn to believe that we are only worthy of love if we meet such standards. So, most of us spend a lot of our life running around trying to meet all these standards. In doing so, we believe we will finally have the love we desire and be happy.
And all the while we become more anxious, stressed, miserable, and fearful in the process.
And it’s no wonder we feel this way because these unrealistic beauty standards are not created out of love or care for us. People often create such standards because they want to control others, profit off of people’s suffering, or to create artificial groups of “haves” and “have nots”.
Our Unique Goodness
Unrealistic beauty standards ignore our unique goodness and beauty. Because of this, they inevitably bring pain and suffering everywhere they go. Everyone who lives under their heavy hand eventually longs for escape.
And there is an escape. The escape is finding our way home.
Finding Our Way Home
We find our way home when we stop chasing external and unrealistic beauty standards, as well as unrealistic standards of worthiness. And we find our way home when we make friends with our self; and realize we are already worthy–worthy in our body, worthy in our self, and worthy of love.
Being worthy doesn’t mean that you never make mistakes or that you don’t have bad habits. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a jerk sometimes and need to apologize to people you hurt.
Being worthy means that you possess a unique goodness that no one else has. Your unique goodness is a combination of your mind, body, emotions, and lived experience.
7 thoughts on “The Pain of Unrealistic Beauty Standards”
Wow! Great post! It resonated so much with me (I also struggle with Body Dysmorphia, OCD, and ED).
I actually had an epiphany today that was almost word for word what you wrote – I’ve been many sizes in my short life and my happiness level was about the same when I was thin as it was when I had little more meat on my bones.
I’ve also gained some weight after losing a bunch, after gaining a bunch, after losing a bunch 😛 And this time, I’ve decided I don’t want to be on that roller coaster again so I’m working on appreciating my body at any size. Posts like this are very affirming and helpful so I thank you for sharing <3
Friend, thank you so much for writing and for this lovely comment. I really enjoyed reading about your journey, and I deeply sympathize with it. I have gone through a similar experience. I am so glad you found this post affirming, too. I am currently working on writing a book and program that help people in their adventure to greater body peace and confidence, and I definitely want people to feel affirmed in this process. The ideas in this post are the kinds of ideas I write about in my book and program, so I am so glad you found it helpful. Stay tuned for more articles on the topic!
Can’t wait to read more from you!!
So kind, Friend! Really. Thanks for reading and your lovely comments.
I love how you impart wisdom through your own story. And how you always impart wisdom with humility.
That’s such a great compliment, Ali! Thank you. I would love it if my writing conveyed wisdom with humility.