Posts Categorized: body image

Body Image and Paradigm Traps

fat shaming

[This post discusses dieting, exercise, and fat-shaming.]

A friend sent me these infographics about cultural paradigms. The two featured are shame/honor which is described as a central paradigm in some Eastern cultures and guilt/righteousness which is attributed to Western cultures, with fear/power getting a passing mention but no spotlight. Big ideas associated with broad generalizations, and I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that “most peoples of the world” ascribe to one of these models.

However, all three can be applied to how we discuss weight, weight loss, and fitness in American culture.

Movie stars, models, and singers who conform to pervasive body shape and size ideals are revered. Fitness gurus like Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper are idolized and seen as doing the honorable and important work of making fat people thinner. On the flip side, both famous and non-famous people are shamed by the press, the medical community, and sometimes their own families for failing to force their bodies into the single shape and size we’ve deemed culturally desirable.

The diet industry thrives on couching things in terms of righteousness. Talking about “good” and “bad” foods is a common practice and leads to people explaining that they’re “trying to be good” when offered foods they’ve been told or decided they can’t have. And I know many people swear by it, but the existence of the term “clean eating” implies some pretty heavy-duty righteousness along with the underlying message that all other ways of eating are dirty. Guilt is what many people feel when they treat themselves with food, overeat, skip the gym, or do anything that doesn’t actively move them toward achieving smaller bodies.

Even fear and power play into our perceptions of fitness and fatness. Language describing workouts or meant to motivate people to exercise is often couched in terms of conquering, winning, beating, and destroying. Thin women often earn higher salaries than non-thin women, and money is most definitely a form of power. And we are taught to fear weight gain, not just for health-related reasons but because we know we’ll be subject to shame, guilt, judgment, and more if we dare allow our bodies to get larger instead of smaller.

I believe that every individual person has a right to decide for herself if she’s going to take steps to change her body. But I also believe that some of the worst and most harmful motivators for change are shame, guilt, and fear. When you’re excited about making a change, the steps you take feel positive and affirming. When change is driven by negativity and anxiety, the steps you take feel fraught and desperate. Paradigms are deep-seated and tough to alter, but we can fight them on an individual level. When you hear rhetoric about weight, weight loss, and fitness that tries to make you feel shameful, guilty or afraid, try to push back. Eating is not shameful, it is necessary for survival. No food on earth is fundamentally good or bad.* People of all shapes, sizes, and weights can be brilliant, beautiful, accomplished, and worthy of honor. And anyone or anything that tries to make you fear your body should be censured and banished. Your body is your home, and you deserve to feel as safe and secure as possible in your home.

*Except licorice. Licorice is just plain evil.

Image courtesy Beauty Redefined

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Enhancing Appearances


For most of my young life, I washed my face with Dial soap and walked out the door with nary a swipe of cosmetics. I’ve made a lot of changes since then. I don’t do much, but I like my face better with BB cream, blush, lip color, and defined brows. I feel like I look healthier, more polished, like an enhanced version of my regular self. But occasionally I come across diagrams like the one above – showing techniques for visually contouring the face using makeup of various colors and shades – and I realize that I’m only hitting the tip of the face-defining iceberg.

I wear padded bras. As I’ve mentioned more times than I ever expected to on a public website, I have perpetually erect nipples. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m ashamed of this, but I acknowledge that it can be a distraction. So I pad. And I will admit to liking how a little bit of extra volume in my bust balances my figure. But in my bra shopping excursions, I always avoid  the super enhanced, gel insert, push-the-girls-sky-high models. The phrase “false advertising” floats through my head, unbidden and unwelcome.

I own shape wear. If I’m going out in a fitted dress and want a little jiggle-mitigation, I’ll slip it on. I have never believed nor seen evidence that shape wear can make anyone look five pounds lighter, but I know that wearing these undergarments changes how I look to the observing eye.

So much of what we do when we dress and groom is meant to amplify or enhance what we already have. Some of what we do is meant to alter how our natural figures and faces are seen and perceived. And what fascinates me is how each person, as an individual, feels about levels of enhancement and amplification. Some people would consider dying their hair to be an act of deception, and some would feel perfectly comfortable undergoing surgery to transform their body’s essential shape and consider it to be a welcome enhancement. It’s personal, variable, and totally fascinating.

I’d love to hear about the choices you make to enhance or subtly alter your appearance and how you landed upon them. Do you do padded bras? Contour your face with cosmetics? Wear shape wear? Color your hair? Have you had elective body-altering surgery? Have your experiences with these techniques and garments changed how you feel about your appearance overall? If so, how?


  • If you feel strongly about this issue, express your views respectfully and civilly or they will not be published. I’m happy to participate in a discussion that includes contrary opinions, but will not tolerate cruelty.
  • Be courteous and kind to each other when responding to remarks from other readers.

Image via Batalash

This post and discussion have been refreshed and revived from the archive.

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Affection for the Unchangeable


An anonymous commenter had this request:

How about a post on learning to love (or a least accept) physical features that you don’t like and can’t change? Big nose, bad hair, weak chin; features that can’t be hidden or made more attractive by careful dressing.

And I thought IMMEDIATELY of a scene from “Roxanne.” Do you remember the one I’m thinking of? YouTube didn’t have a clip, unfortunately, but here’s the gist: Charlie/Cyrano decides that perhaps cosmetics can help downplay his nose. He goes to the local five & dime for some makeup counter assistance, and the woman there attempts some “shading,” which pretty much just makes his nose look … dirty. She tries her best, but there’s no makeup product or technique that’s going to achieve what Charlie is hoping.

And we’ve all got stuff like that. The way I see it, our physical traits fall into four buckets:

  • Things we actively love
  • Things we recognize as valuable
  • Things we don’t love, but choose to minimize or downplay
  • Things we don’t love and can’t downplay in any way

I love my delicate wrists and ankles, my waist, and my wild, unruly hair.
I see my muscular thighs and broad, sure feet as valuable.
I don’t love my excessive body hair and cellulite, but I can minimize or downplay them.
I don’t love my upper arms, and when it’s sweltering outside, I can’t mask them in any way.

I’ve come to have some measure of affection for my little spare tire of a belly, and just keep telling myself that ALL knees are kinda weird looking, so I can make peace with those things. But no matter how much I weigh or how many pushups and arm curls I do, my upper arms refuse to change shape. And since I absolutely will not wear three-quarter-length sleeves every damned day no matter the temperature, they’re quite visible during the summer months. I wish I could say that I just adore every single aspect of my own figure, but if I’m being truly honest, I am yet to make peace with this one.

So, instead of getting overly touchy-feely on you, I’m going to keep that in mind as I write about ways to love the “unlovable” parts of your own body.

  • Life is balance. Just as the things you love and accept about your body define you, so do the things you dislike and wish away. You are unique because of that mixture. And unique can be tough, but there’s no denying that it’s also valuable.
  • You may never know what they are, but there could be biological reasons for your traits. Every biology class I’ve ever taken has reminded me that Sickle Cell Anemia hasn’t been genetically eliminated in Sub-Saharan Africa because carriers of a single Sickle Cell allele are Malaria-resistant. What if the keratosis pilaris on my skin is keeping me from getting a brain tumor and scientists just don’t know it yet?
  • Your physical appearance links you to your family. Even if you didn’t WANT your grandpa’s big schnoz or your Aunt Imelda’s frizzy curls, it’s pretty wonderful that you can carry a little bit of your family around with you wherever you go.
  • Remember that EVERYONE has things they hate. Heidi Klum, Michelle Obama, Jillian Michaels, Rachel Bilson, that flawless-looking girl who brews up your morning latte. There is no “perfect” in this world, and there is most definitely no “perfect body.” You are not alone.
  • Everything is relative. YOU may think your nose is big, your chin is weak, your hair is bad … but not everyone will see it that way. Husband Mike likes to call purple things pink and blue things purple, reminding me that each eye perceives the world in a slightly different manner. Bodies are no different, and what annoys you may enchant others. I tend to have a bit of a complex about the junk in my trunk, but a colleague laments her lack of booty curvature. Another friend feels her ample rack is overwhelming on her tiny frame, but I all I can see is the gorgeous, full breasts I’ll never have. You may not be able to see yourself through the eyes of others, but you can bear in mind that you are likely your own harshest critic.

Think hard about WHY you hate certain aspects of your physical self. Did someone insult you once, or call you out for some distinctive trait? Have fashion mags given you a complex with endless articles about firming up your arms and abs? (This one definitely gets me.) Or do you dislike these traits in other people as much as you dislike them in yourself?

Self-love isn’t about brushing the bits you hate under the rug. There is no rug. Loving what we hate is incredibly challenging, and sometimes actual love is impossible, but acceptance will do just fine. Even if none of my ideas ring true for you, give some thought to actions and thought patterns that might move you closer to accepting your whole self with affection. The work might be hard, but the payoff will be so very, very worth it. Just think of all the extra energy you’d have if you stopped burning it off loathing your big nose, bad hair, weak chin. You could take over the damned world.

This is a refreshed and revived post from the archive.

Image courtesy jaliyaj

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