Body Love and Body Kindness

The Truth About Toxic Body and Beauty Lies

I dream of a world in which everyone feels peaceful and powerful in his or her body.

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But we are not quite there yet, and here is why.

From the time we are very small, we (especially girls and women but increasingly men, too) are surrounded by constant messages communicating that the most important thing in our lives is that we be thin and beautiful according to external standards that someone has set for us.

These standards are extremely exclusionary: most people don’t and can never fit into the standards.

These standards are also often arbitrary. For example, they change from decade to decade. Sometimes waif-like thinness is in vogue, and in other decades, an hourglass figure is idealized.

The standards are also often contradictory.  For example, women and girls regularly receive messages that they should both be very thin (for instance in their waist) but have large breasts and a big booty.  Or they receive the message that they should be waif-like but also very strong and muscular. Achieving these body standards is not possible for most people.

In addition to being subjected to unrealistic body standards, we also frequently receive the message that our appetites are out of control and that if we listen to them, we will gain enormous amounts of weight and become unattractive and undesirable. To make matters worse, we are also often surrounded by pictures of beautiful, decadent food and told to treat ourselves.

These ideas are a part of many (if not a majority of) media and advertising messages. We see them every time we go to the mall or shop online, and they are also often communicated in other places in society such as our homes,  our doctor’s offices, our churches, and schools. This happens when these institutions are uncritical of larger societal messages and end up replicating them, rather than being a safe, nurturing place.

All of this can get very confusing.

It is no wonder, then, that for many of us, being thin and achieving certain standards of beauty is so important. It is one of the primary ways we are taught to earn worth and get love from people, and we all desperately crave worth and love. It is also not surprising, given these messages, that we are afraid of our bodies and appetites and that we are also afraid that we will lose control.

What is especially insidious about these ideas is that they are communicated so subtly that we often do not realize that we are being taught these things until we begin to experience the psychological harm such as anxiety, depression, and self-loathing that come from constant self-monitoring and self-punishment. (You can read more about this here.)

For our own well-being, it is important that we begin to see the truth about these harmful messages.

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Not Healthy, Not Helpful

Quite frequently these ideas are cleverly disguised as promoting “health”. So, rather than explicitly pressuring people to be thin, for instance, the pressure is to be “healthy”. And it just so happens that almost always, “healthy” is associated with being thin and meeting a certain standard of beauty. (You can read more about this here.)

One of the things that helped me escape the stranglehold of these ideas in my own life was when I began to realize that habits and mindsets often promoted in the name of “health” actually promote the exact opposite.

For instance, organizations that treat and deal with eating disorders are increasingly warning that dieting behavior can be a precursor to the development of eating disorders. (See here and here.) And while these organizations don’t say so explicitly, they suggest that this correlation remains whether one calls the restrictive behavior a diet or just “being healthy”.

For example, eating disorder specialists are increasingly discussing a new eating disorder called orthorexia, which is an obsessive-compulsive eating disorder characterized by obsession with clean and healthy eating. On the surface, orthorexia looks like a desire to be healthy, but people who have this disorder become obsessive about good and bad foods and usually increasingly limit the foods they permit themselves to eat. (You can read more about orthorexia here.)

This can increasingly interfere with people’s abilities to socialize and navigate everyday life (because orthorexics are afraid they cannot control their food choices), and they often become obsessed and extremely anxious with monitoring their bodies, their food intake, etc. They also often damage their health with restrictive eating.

And even if people do not develop a full-blown eating disorder from adopting dieting behavior, almost all of us have witnessed in ourselves or others the obsession, shame, anxiety, and depression that come from constantly scrutinizing our weight, worrying that we are “too fat”, trying to lose weight, gaining it back.

Consider how many women and men you know (maybe you have suffered this yourself) who are ashamed to engage in social situations, make new relationships, try new hobbies or classes, or pursue their goals because they believe they are too fat or not attractive enough to pursue them? When we have beliefs like this, we believe we cannot really start living until we have lost weight and morphed into a magazine model.

These behaviors and beliefs do not encourage mental or emotional health, and yet, given our societal obsession with thinness and given that over 95% of diets fail (and often cause people on them to gain back all of their weight and then more) it is no wonder that people (and once again, especially, women), get caught up in self-destructive loops of body and weight-loss obsession and their accompanying anxiety and shame. (You can read more about this here.)

And this obsession and shame is not anomalous in our culture. It is ubiquitous, and these worries are beginning at an increasingly earlier age. For example, “A University of California study found that up to 80% of nine-year-old girls studied organized their own lives around dieting–jogging daily and counting calories obsessively” (You can read about this in Susan Bordo’s book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.)

And it’s not just little girls who struggle with this. Depending on the study one reads, somewhere from 70-90% of older women are dissatisfied with their bodies, too. (You can read more about this here and here.)

Nourishing is Good, Punishing is Not

Please note, I am a total fan of loving our bodies with good food and exercise (and with all the other things that nourish us like sleep and water and love and friendship.) I believe that the more we show ourselves kindness, compassion, and respect in these ways, the happier and healthier we are.

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I walked four miles in the beautiful fall air today as an expression of love to myself, and it was wonderful.

In critiquing diet culture, I am not critiquing self-care. I am merely pointing out that an increasing number of doctors, nutritionists, and medical researchers suggest that our obsession with weight and “health” and thinness and beauty are actually not self-care and are contributing to mental, emotional, and physical health problems.[1]

One of the ways we escape this culture is to become aware of the lies it commonly perpetuates.

Toxic Lies

Here are some of the most common body and beauty lies. You will notice that with each of the lies, I have replaced it with a body truth and affirmation. I find affirmations personally helpful for retraining my thinking. Perhaps you will find them helpful, too.

Lie One: Our worth is something we earn, and we earn it through our bodies—by being beautiful and thin.

Why this is a lie: People’s worth lies in their human dignity. It is internal, not external. We recognize this with little babies. No one (except for a very cruel and stupid person) would go around critiquing babies according to how they meet body and beauty standards. We recognize the inherent beauty and awesomeness of babies.

We further realize that we need to love and care for babies unconditionally, and when we do this, we help them grow and flourishing into the best version of themselves. We still carry our original beauty and dignity with us into adulthood and our entire life.

Body Truth: Each of us has an amazing, original light in us that is unconditionally valuable. This light is naturally beautiful because it is tied to the most wonderful gifts of humanity such as our wisdom, compassion, creativity, and love. The more we nurture this light with kindness, compassion, and respect, the more its originality and beauty shines.[2]

Lie Two: Achieving cultural beauty standards will make us happy and make all of our problems go away.

Why this is a lie: If we look around, we will notice that some of the most unhappy people in the world clearly meet cultural standards of beauty[3], and some of the most happy people in the world do not meet these standards.

This is because happiness does not come from the way we look. It comes from practices like showing kindness to ourselves and others; cultivating authentic relationships; and pursuing a good, meaningful purpose in life.

In addition, it is important to realize that life has both happy and sad moments, as well as tragedies and celebration. Looking a certain way is not some kind of lucky rabbit’s foot that keeps all the bad stuff away. This is why learning to show ourselves compassion is so important. The practice of compassion teaches us that no matter who we are, we have hard times in life, and we need to be gentle, nurturing, and kind to ourselves during these times.[4]

Body Truth: Happiness comes from cultivating authentic relationships with ourselves and others and from pursuing a meaningful purpose. In addition, everyone faces hard times in life, no matter what they look like or how thin they are. Showing ourselves compassion helps us to make it through these hard times and bounce back from them.

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Three: Thinness means health.

Why this is a lie: While there are naturally thin and healthy people, thin can mean many different things that are the absolute opposite of healthy. For instance, thin can mean weight loss because of an eating disorder. Thin can mean weight loss because of an illness like cancer. Thin can mean an obsession with diet and exercise, which undermines mental health and fosters shame, anxiety, and depression. Thin can mean weight loss from medication. Thin can mean weight loss from depression.

In addition to this, while gaining weight can sometimes be a symptom of unhelpful behaviors, gaining weight can also be a sign of health. For instance, gaining weight can mean someone is recovering from an eating disorder. Gaining weight can mean recovering from a nutrition deficiency. Gaining weight can mean letting go of excessive and punishing exercise routines. Gaining weight can mean letting go of body anxiety and body shame and learning to listen to our body better.

In addition, recent medical studies indicate that it is not extra weight that leads to poor health. It is destructive behaviors such as suffering from poor mental health, eating nutrient poor food exclusively over long periods of time, smoking, drinking excessive alcohol, and being consistently sedentary that leads to poor health. These behaviors, which can lead both to losing weight or gaining weight, are unhealthy.[5]

On the other hand, people who practice healthy behaviors tend to be healthy, whether they weigh more or less.

Body Truth: Every one of us has the capability of cultivating our health through life-giving habits like eating a wide variety of real, nutritious food; by moving regularly in a way that brings us joy; working on good mental health; and by building loving relationships with others. Anyone can do these things, and when do them, they nurture our light, and this lets our unique beauty show itself.

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Three: Thin means happy.

Why this is a lie: If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that when we become obsessed with thinness, it is often driven by the belief that if we lose weight and become thin, we will become happy. If we examine this belief, however, we will realize that it is absurd. For instance, we could find any number of very famous thin people who are incredibly unhappy.

By the same token, we could find any number of people in society who are average weight or even considered overweight but are incredibly happy people because they cultivate habits which lead to greater contentment or happiness or peace.

Body Truth: While some people have a more naturally happy or optimistic disposition than other people, everyone can increase their happiness level to some degree by cultivating good mental health, by showing kindness to themselves, by pursuing a meaningful purpose in life, by practicing good boundaries and forgiveness, and by cultivating meaningful relationships with others.

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Four: Thin means lovable.

Why this is a lie. First, if someone loves you only or primarily because you are thin, that means they don’t love you. They love thinness. This is not a good basis for a loving relationship. Second, long-lasting, happy, loving relationships are in no way correlated with thinness.

Once again, one only has to look at any number of very thin, stereotypically beautiful people in the media who have an unhappy love life (or life in general) to understand this.

In addition, if we examined a hundred couples who have been together for years and have a loving relationship, we would discover that some are thin, some are average, and some are overweight.

Having loving relationships with others comes from healthy relationship practices, not from achieving a certain body size.

Body Truth: We build loving relationships through practicing loving habits like authenticity, kindness, self-care and self-love, and encouragement. The more we value loving habits, the more likely we are to meet people who value loving habits, too, and the more likely we are to establish loving relationships.

By the way, you can read about the qualities of a happy, long-lasting relationship here and here and here. None of these lists mention thinness.

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Five: Our bodies want to be unhealthy and just eat pizza and doughnuts all day, and we can’t trust ourselves.

Why this is a lie: Our bodies are amazing. Every day, our heart beats thousands of times and pumps blood. Our lungs take in air and circulate. Our kidneys filter waste. Our senses give us feedback to keep us safe and preserve our life. Our body does this automatically because it wants us to stay alive and thrive.

Yes, despite the clear intent of our bodies to keep us alive and healthy, we somehow get the idea that our bodies do not know what foods we should eat or the right amount of food to eat to keep us healthy and maintain a reasonable weight.[6]

Of course, it is understandable why we think this at times. We have witnessed behaviors in ourselves and others such as eating nutrient-poor foods exclusively for long periods of time, binge behavior, and other unhelpful behaviors.

However, the question is whether this behavior is a result of our bodies being naturally out of control or whether it is a result of us cutting ourselves off from our body’s natural intuition.

There is certainly reason to think it is the latter. For instance, recent studies indicate that frequent dieting behavior can cut us off from our natural internal signals of hunger and fullness. This can lead to undereating or overeating or binge-eating behavior.[7]

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What is the Alternative:

It is one thing to point out toxic cultural lies about our bodies and beauty. It is another thing to suggest an alternative reality. I will be addressing that in upcoming posts, but right now, I will leave you with three questions that perhaps help us envision that alternative reality:

What if we believed we were worthy of unconditional love right now? How would we treat ourselves differently?

What if we believed that our goal in life is never to achieve some standard of external beauty but to express our own unique beauty by shining our own unique light? What if we believed we could do this at any moment we decided to?

What if we believed that our body was on our side and wanted to tell us how to care for it to help us be more peaceful and powerful in it?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one:
Five Things You Can Do When You Feel Ugly and Gross and Your Confidence Plummets into a Deep, Dark Well

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What has helped you escape the grip of toxic body and beauty lies?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.

[1] To see medical doctors and nutritionists who write about these issues, you might like to read Intuitive Eating, by licensed nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch; Health at Every Size, by Linda Bacon, Ph.D, and Am I Hungry? by Michelle May, Ph.D.

[2] If you are afraid that I am suggesting that we excuse bad behavior in ourselves and others for the sake of love, you might like this post.

[3] The lives of many movie stars are a good case study for this.

[4] If you would like to read more about compassion, you might like this post.

[5] Linda Bacon, PhD, covers this well in her book Health At Every Size, which you can find on Amazon.

[6] I understand that people can suffer with a chronic disease or an eating disorder that makes it difficult to read and trust their body signals. Certainly these are special cases in which we need outside help to understand our body and get back on track.

[7] Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch discuss the issues in their book Intuitive Eating.

14 thoughts on “The Truth About Toxic Body and Beauty Lies”

  1. It horrifies me to think that girls as young as 9 are obsessed with calorie-counting. How awful! What on Earth are we doing to ourselves?

  2. You are a gift, Shelly. Your words and your pictures. At 20, I was borderline anorexic, though perhaps more orthorexic (a new term for me). I was very unhappy and felt I needed to control something and have some way of feeling good about myself. Thinking about your question, there were a few things that stand out which helped me think clearer:
    1. My mum crying and being worried about my eating and me not wanting to cause her pain
    2. My male housemate eating something unhealthy and shrugging and saying ‘but I’m active, so it’s ok’. This casual attitude was a revelation.
    3. Over many more years practising yoga, and finding an inner grace and realising there were more important things in life than a flat tummy. One yoga teacher stood out – she was fifty-something to my twenty-five and was so strong! She did not have the perfect body, but just shone from within.

    1. Ali: Your comment means so much to me, and I am so grateful for it and that you found my words and pictures helpful. One of the reasons I write about orthorexia is that I think I came very close to having this problem (and I may have had it). For a few years in my twenties, I became incredibly controlling about my food and continually decreased the categories of foods I allowed myself to eat. I ended up causing myself some health problems and a lot of emotional problems, and at one point I realized, “This is not healthy. I am driving myself crazy and all of this only makes me hate myself more, and it cuts me off from other people.” That realization was one of the things that helped me to realize these messages were a bunch of BS.

  3. True these are such heartbreaking lies that we live and grow up with! It took me too a long time to connect to myself deeper within and find acceptance. There is so much social conditioning that is almost inescapable. Health is something so individually defined, it is important not to assign such mass standards. Your post is so deeply thoughtful and informative.

    1. It took me a long time, too, P! You are so right that social conditioning is really powerful, and it often takes us a long time to escape it. I am so glad for folks like you, P, who are working to communicate beautiful and life-giving messages every day.

  4. An excellent post, and one that I fear is so badly needed nowadays. The message being sent to people (and some still so young!!) about what the perfect body should look like is hurtful aside from just plain wrong. People are built in so many different ways and shapes, and all are beautiful and shouldn’t be held to some impossible-to-achieve standard. Lovely thoughts, as always.

  5. Excellent insight. Yes, we are constantly bombarded by mixed messages and it is no wonder society has physical, emotional, mental and spiritual conflicts. Let’s love and appreciate who we are while still seeking and working toward improvement in every aspect of life – knowing that we are achieving along the way – not according to the world’s standards but those we see are most beneficial. 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Friend! You are so right. These mixed messages really, really do a number on us and can cause such physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual confusion. Thank you very much for reading and commenting.

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