By Lauren McMeikan, MA, AMFT #92052
Since we were wide-eyed infants, old enough to hear and see, we’ve been told, again and again, that our bodies are supposed to look a certain way. We’ve been indoctrinated by television shows, billboards, magazine covers, and even by the voices of well-intentioned parents and friends. While the details may shift ever so slightly from one decade to the next, the general idea is the same: your appearance is important. In the 90s it was heroin-chic, today it’s fit, trim and toned, but no matter the guise, that underlying message remains.
And the message is potent. So much so that while many of us believe consciously that appearance shouldn’t dictate self-worth, we still automatically judge our merit against society’s standards. As a practicing associate psychotherapist, I meet many people who struggle with these dueling value systems. When I ask them what they actually believe is important about a body they tend to say things like it’s health, wellness, and the capacity to sustain life.
But our culture’s convictions are in direct conflict with our own beliefs. And we are scared – scared of falling short of society’s standards. In this fear, we continue to live lives based on a set of values we ultimately don’t agree with.
Faced with these two belief systems, we are posed with quite a dilemma. How can we mediate the impact of the beliefs that we’ve been handed – the ones that we don’t even feel are truly important – and, at the same time, reinforce what we actually feel is valuable?
Mindfulness is the first step.
The messages that we hear the loudest, clearest and most frequently are those from the media. So we often default to this value system even when we blatantly disagree with it. We can use mindfulness to take a pause, to gain perspective of what messages we’re buying into at any given moment and to determine whether we agree that these messages should dictate our worth.
For example, if you had the thought “I am getting so fat,” you can take a step back and gently consider that thought. What would you have to believe to make that thought harmful? You’d have to believe that appearance is an important part of self-worth and that fat is bad. Do you actually agree with these beliefs?
When asked to explore what you truly value, most of us would agree that appearance is not among the most important aspects of life and that it doesn’t determine a person’s worth. Sometimes the “fat is bad” belief tries to legitimize itself by clinging to the importance of wellness. But as the health at every size movement gains momentum, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the “fat is bad” belief doesn’t have teeth.
Fat is a noun that describes something that every human being must have in order to live. It’s not a state of being. Some people have more of it, others have less of it. But the amount of it doesn’t define us and our worth.
So then the question becomes what do you value? Perhaps you feel that mental health is important or that radical acceptance is worthwhile. If you can identify what you believe in then you can focus on fulfilling that instead of automatically capitulating to what society has told you to value.
You might have thoughts like “Oh, they’re in such better shape than me. I hate my body.” You can take a mindful step back and consider what beliefs make this thought upsetting. This thought is only harmful if you believe that appearance is important and that all people are supposed to have the same body. Again, this belief is one perpetuated by the media, but it doesn’t hold up to reality.
We are all born with a body type and our bodies aren’t like wet clay.
Your body actually isn’t supposed to look like other people’s bodies do. We are all unique beings with a different genetic make-up. The idea of comparing your body to someone else’s is similar to comparing your thumbprint to someone else’s.
If we can become mindful of our thoughts and what beliefs they reflect, we can make a choice to realign ourselves with what we actually think matters most.
Sure, we live in the real world. And there are people who will judge you by your appearance. I wish that that wasn’t true, and I, for one, am hopeful that our culture won’t always put such emphasis on our looks. Still, you probably do things with the intent of making yourself look “better.” I wear make-up and style my hair. I shop for clothing. But even if we do decide to pay attention to our appearance and to groom ourselves that doesn’t mean that our self-worth should be dictated by how we look and our proximity to some arbitrary cultural standard that will likely change again in a few years or a decade. Perhaps more importantly, the judgments others make about appearance really don’t matter if we base our worth on our values.
It may take a considerable amount of time to counteract the effects of a lifetime of brainwashing. In fact, we may always be bombarded by beliefs that we don’t agree with at our core. That said, we can be aware of what value system is operating at any given moment and make a choice to be informed by other’s ideologies or our own beliefs. We can decide what thoughts we buy into and which we deem unimportant.