Posts Tagged ‘self-image’

Shape

April 21, 2018

Something I read recently got me thinking about how deeply embedded early self-concepts can become, and how amazingly difficult they are to reverse. I entered my teens while living abroad, amid Asian women who were generally both shorter and more petite, thin, wiry of build than I. My mother, afraid of my developing sexuality, critiqued my figure and urged that I hide my curves under loose-fitting dresses. One exact statement was that if I cinched my waist in, as was the mid-fifties fashion, it made made my hips look “so big” that I should never wear slacks. I still can feel the discomfort and embarrassment of being out-sized that pursued me through my teens and into my 20’s, although when I look at pictures taken of me in those years I see a very shapely young woman with the hourglass figure that I have since learned men find very desirable. Exactly what my mother was panicked about, undoubtedly.

With an odd sense of shock I was struck earlier today by the realization that I weigh very close to what I did in the last years of high school and through most of my college years. I’ve been significantly heavier between then and now, and take pleasure in the accomplishment of being at present much as I was then. What I am finding difficult to reconcile is my lingering awareness of how unacceptably big and unattractive I felt then, compared to the compliments I receive now on my figure and how I look in my clothes – especially on those still rare occasions that I wear pants rather than a skirt.

An analysis of the challenges associated with keeping lost weight off includes the necessity of becoming comfortable with a new body image. Many women, apparently, continue to see themselves heavy even after they have reached a desired weight goal. Taken to extreme this becomes the illness anorexia. I don’t think it is just one’s own body image that is misperceived, but an amalgam of images from fashion and films that blend with one’s sense of oneself in  a hodge-podge of sticky discomfort. It did not help my teen self to have Twiggy be the height of British fashion. Nor the tall, pencil thin models of French fashion houses. Marilyn Monroe’s curves were presented to me as implicitly “not okay” because of their “blatant sexuality.”

I know that all cultures have standards of beauty against which women are evaluated. Sloping shoulders were highly desirable at one time in Japan. In many African countries it is still considered preferable to be of a warm, light brown color rather than deep black, although that is changing. Ample hips and buttocks are believed to indicate fertility and are therefore positive attributes in many cultures – though not in my adult lifetime in the U.S.

Whatever the norms, sadly and consistently the primary victims of them have always been and still are female. Progress has been made toward acceptance of a wider standard of attractiveness, but from my conversations with young women, the body shaming continues.

My concern in reflecting on this pattern is not particularly about progress – or lack thereof – in the images our society holds up as desirable for girls. Rather I am interested in how tenacious are the often illusory images we hold of ourselves. How can I look at pictures of my young self and see an attractive and shapely woman, while simultaneously still vividly inhabiting the fat and unacceptable body self I experienced at that time? Reason is insufficient to erase emotions.

Hmm, this is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve encountered a situation in which reason and feeling collide – and feeling dominates. Advice given to any professional working with people who are upset or more seriously emotionally disturbed is consistently to not argue with their faulty conclusions but rather to focus on creating an atmosphere of safety and trust. The first step to doing so generally involves acknowledging their feelings. Therapists working with couples usually set parameters for communication during sessions that begin with instructions to listen to the feelings being expressed and refrain from saying any of these are wrong. Feelings are what they are. They tend to gain in power by being denied. To change someone’s feelings about a situation (or past self image) it is useless to reason that the feeling is wrong.

What does seem to have power to alter feelings is new experience perceived from a new framework which can be related back to the earlier events. In my case, the first new experience I recall occurred when I was visiting with relatives of my then husband in Cincinnati. Mel was what is now called “a person of color” with Native American, black and white genetics, whose extended family lived within the culture of Black Americans. As I left the room where we had all been sitting I heard Mel’s aunt remark that I had “big old fine pretty legs” in a tone of appreciative praise. Those “big” legs were then the primary source of my negative body image, in conjunction with the hips to which they were attached. The emotional impact of that statement was so strong that I can, still now, feel myself sitting in the bathroom to which I had headed, trying to connect what I heard with what I felt and totally unable to see myself as Mel’s aunt evidently saw me.

Over the years, feedback from people whom I trust has helped me evolve a rather more positive self image though it is still a work in process, as evidenced by the latest realization – that I am now very much as I was 55 years ago when I felt so unacceptably large. Most days now I can look in the mirror and feel good about myself. That I am a size and shape admired by my husband certainly helps.

So I presently feel good about the same outer physical condition (objective reality) that once made me feel uncomfortable and shamed. Nothing has changed, according to mind; everything has changed according to emotion.

Yet we wonder why, across a wide range of areas, belief based on feelings is so impossible to alter with rational argument!

Instead of “I think therefore I am”, we manifest “I feel therefore I know it to be true.”

So much for the illusion of rational humanity being – because we can reason – at the top of the evolutionary chain.


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