Last week, 18-year-old Internet celebrity Essena O'Neill informed her over half a million Instagram and quarter million YouTube followers that she was quitting social media. She'd become obsessed with getting superficial affirmation but was secretly miserable. Engaging in unhealthy dieting habits and spending hours staging and editing images, O'Neill said she wasted her teenage years trying to depict a contrived idea of perfection. Even with a "flawless" body, she was left feeling empty and meaningless. It's not having a particular shape that leads to self-love, it's having a good relationship with your body.
Body image is complex and there are as many obstacles to confidence and self-love as there are people. We are inundated by messages that tell us only certain bodies are beautiful or worthy of love. These ideas are everywhere: from marketers who use insecurity to sell products, friends and family parroting what they have heard, even the comments of strangers on the street. Not only are these limiting notions harmful to our health and relationships, but many of them also perpetuate social inequalities like racism, sexism and ableism.
What can we do to counteract these messages, both for ourselves and for those we influence?
Think about the mean things you've said about your body. If you overheard someone else talk like that, would you think that person was a jerk? Make a list of all the awesome things your body does that are being taken for granted when you wish some part was different. Think about the pleasure it provides, the experiences it enables you to have. Name your favorite parts and why.
Think about the great things about you that are unrelated to appearance. They may not get likes on Instagram, but personalities are what people really love. Being conventionally attractive is cool, but it's subjective and also very temporary. Those who base their self-esteem entirely on looks are doomed long-term, so stock up on sustainable sources of confidence.
Thanks to technology, it's possible to go days, weeks, even years without having to do anything physical. Many folks drive to a job where they sit at a desk and, as a result, never get to feel the enjoyable sensation of using their bodies.
Working out not only strengthens muscles and floods the brain with happy chemicals, but it provides us an opportunity to be really present and appreciate our physical forms. Bodies feel best when they get to move around, take in air, stretch and be touched. Fuel yours with the nutrition it needs and skip the toxins like sugar that end up depressing the system.
Wear clothes that are comfortable and make you feel confident. Find interests that consume your attention, hobbies at which you can be challenged, and gain mastery. Build confidence in your abilities and be too busy doing cool things to worry about dumb stuff.
Seeing narrow and unrealistic images of bodies all the time affects what we consider normal. We pick up on ideas about what men and women are supposed to look like through exposure. Change your media diet to get more varied, and healthy depictions. Skip the gossip magazines and celebreality TV, diversify the sites you visit, and consider consuming more non-visual media like radio, podcasts and reading.
Vote with your dollars to create more body-positive media. There's no big conspiracy to keep people feeling crappy about themselves: It just has been a really successful marketing strategy. If companies thought depictions of middle-aged women in wheelchairs was going to sell their product, they'd use them as models. As long as we support companies that link thin, white, young bodies with luxury, companies will continue to use those ideas. If we support companies with more diverse models, we show them that this strategy is effective.
There will be those who talk badly about others' bodies, but those are not the folks who feel good about themselves. Strict body standards are obviously maintained by the people who internalize them, but no one is actually flawless so it's a tactic destined to fail. You don't have to collude in their error. Hang out with people who are body positive, discourage shaming talk and encourage self-love.
Similarly, we can combat the distortions of the media's imagery by thinking critically. Understand the techniques used by advertisers to shoot and edit to make models look the way they do. Look at the economics of media to see why there may be financial incentives to promote certain ideas together. Talking about a star's post-baby weight is a great move for a magazine that has a parent company or advertisers who sell diet products, for instance.
It can be hard to sort through the endless body-shaming messages, but like the Matrix, once its artificial, arbitrary and oppressive nature is seen, it's impossible to un-see. Loving yourself isn't an easy task but it gets much easier with practice.
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.