Fat, Ugly, Hairy, Old – how to free yourself from the toxic diet-beauty culture

I wanted to title this blog “eff your beauty standards” but then realised I’d seen that hashtag before and it was already a movement by Tess Holliday, American plus sized super model. So I didn’t. But ‘eff your beauty standards‘ really does get the message across about how angry and frustrated I feel when subjected to how women are portrayed and exploited in/by the media and how toxic the beauty- diet culture is to my daughters, to me and all girls and women. Whether you are conscious of it or not, it is there and is incredibly pervasive.

Did you know that:

  • around 50% of girls between the ages of 5 and 12 want to lose weight
  • 4 out of 10 people have a binge eating disorder or know someone who does
  • dieting is the number one predictor of developing an eating disorder
  • the diet industry is worth around 250 billion dollars a year1
  • Over 50% of the population, at any given time, are actively dieting
  • In a twin study, the individuals that dieted were 2-3 times more likely to have a higher weight compared to their twin that did not diet
  • Seeing pictures of “fitspiration” (thin and muscular people who exercise) does not increase our level of exercise
  • Seeing people who have the “athletic ideal” on social media leads to greater levels of body image concern. This happens because people aren’t inspired, but instead compare themselves to that person and because it is unattainable they feel shame and inadequacy3
  • Fitness images on social media has changed our cultural perception of health and fitness.3
  • Having information regarding the picture (for example, this has been photo shopped) can reduce the negative effects of viewing “fitspo” pics on social media.

My Story

I was 5 when I first asked my mum how I could lose weight. I was 13 when I went on my first diet, 14 when my eating plummeted into disordered and I spent 4 years, restricting, bingeing, purging and self harming all in the name of beauty and thinness. The impacts these behaviours had on my mental health were catastrophic. I was 19 when I visited my dad in hospital and stood by his bed watching him with one side of his face drooping and my mum crying and I vowed I didn’t want to end up like that – in my 40’s and very unwell. I happened to be a manager at Burger King at the time and this coupled with my desire to help people not end up on the path I ended up on (the path of disordered eating, guilt, shame and personal retribution) sent me head long into studying nutrition.

When my first daughter was born, I vowed she would not go through the same shit I went through, the same battle I had with my body and weight. And when I returned to university to study dietetics, I stumbled across the health at every size movement and It. Just. Made. Sense.

Meanwhile, my dad died before he got a chance to retire, my daughter was hit by a car and then 6 weeks later her bff died, age 11, in a tragic bus accident and my Grandma, one of my absolute favourite people, said to me before she died “never grow old, Elise” and I cried and said “I don’t think you get a choice”.

During all of this, I’ve been working as a community needs assessor for the under 65’s for the hospital and around one third of my patients are young and dying of cancer. Many of my patients don’t get the chance to grow old, let alone get wrinkles. I have seen and heard many sad stories in my time but I will never forget going to one patients house to do an assessment and she told me about how, the night before, she had to tell her 10 year old son that “mummy was dying”. Meanwhile, I am now middle aged and am sick to the back teeth of how women are portrayed in the media, how we are not allowed to age, more likely to be portrayed as overly sexualised, more likely to be naked in media than men and less likely to have speaking roles in films.

These events have put life into perspective for me. I refuse to spend my life worrying about my weight or how I look. My body was not put on this earth to be physically attractive to other people. Growing old is a privilege, not afforded to many. Life is way too short to worry about societies narrow minded view of beauty. And I will move hell and earth to ensure my children don’t go through that.

In my private practice, I see many women, and men, on that path. Chronic dieting, hundreds of diets, binge eating, low self esteem, guilt, shame, weight that has cycled upwards for years, depression, anxiety, trauma, discrimination from friends, family or medical professionals about their weight. Some horrific stories of being put on diets as a kid to lose weight, of being fat shamed by a doctor or nurse and told to lose weight or just exercise, even if what they have gone to the Dr for is a sprained wrist or a sore throat, or being unable to have an operation due to weight and being physically and mentally unable to lose the requisite kilos.

I have huge empathy for people stuck on this path, I’ve been there, spent years on it and was very fortunate to find my way off it. I’m not going to lie, it is not easy. Especially now that I am growing older and am middle aged. I definitely feel the pressure. Women my age on the tv and in the media, have zero lines on their faces and no grey hairs. They have less wrinkles on their faces than my 11 year old and I’m – we – we are told that growing old is bad. We’re told to buy anti-ageing creams, to do this treatment to remove “fine lines and wrinkles”. We’re told to change our body shape, our hair, our teeth, our skin. All to look like the photo shopped models, thin, muscular, young, flaw free.

My career goal is to get as many people off that path as possible. But I am only one person. And I don’t have all the answers. What works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. And at the end of the day it’s not our fault. We are swimming in a toxic diet and beauty culture that profits billions of dollars every year by deliberately manipulating us into thinking we need to fix our bodies in ways they don’t need to be fixed. And when we sit back and think “Who profits from this?” It’s not me and definitely not my daughters. Girls and women don’t profit and I would argue that we are in fact harmed by this. It’s industry that profits. And some would argue white male patriarchy – but that’s a whole other blog.

“I love makeup. I post regularly about makeup. It is part of my self-care and self-expression and if you don’t like knowing that your anti-racist, feminist thinkers can also like lipstick, I suggest you leave now.”

Ijeoma Oluo

The Evidence

Social media use is a predictor for teenagers to develop body image concerns and disordered eating. Media that is focused on appearance causes people to internalise those ideals and begin to want those and actively seek to gain those attributes 3,4. These images have been seen to contribute to poor body image, low self esteem and depression. As well as higher levels of body dissatisfaction and low self worth. Social media platforms, like Instagram are highly visual and focus on appearance, they contain images that are extensively edited and do not promote realism or authenticity. As a result, this social platform promotes unattainable ideals which leaves us feeling shit about ourselves.4

We live in a culture that puts exceptional importance on looking youthful and discourages ageing. There is enormous pressure, particularly for women, to remain looking young, which has huge impacts on our mental well being, including increasing the risk of depression, low self esteem, social anxiety, disordered eating and suicide6.

“These pressures are difficult to resist, as although participants are aware of the inevitability of ageing, the injustices of ageism and reverence of youthful appearance ideals, they continued to engage in behaviours that attempted to mask the physical signs of ageing”

Jankowski, G. S., Diedrichs, P. C., Williamson, H., Christopher, G., & Harcourt, D. (2016). Looking age-appropriate while growing old gracefully: A qualitative study of ageing and body image among older adults. Journal of Health Psychology21(4), 550–561. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105314531468

So basically, even though women are aware of the pressures to look young and how inherently sexist and ageist that is, they struggle to not engage in behaviours which attempt to make them look younger. And that totally makes sense when you start to think about how women are portrayed in the media. Even news reporters are not immune, men are often seen to go grey and visibly age over the course of their career, while their female peers, of similar ages, do not and continue to look youthful.

Beauty Redefined's portrait.

“WE DIDN’T CHOOSE THESE TWO IMAGES AT RANDOM.💥They are a nearly PERFECT, truly maddening case study to compare the vastly different way men’s and women’s faces are shown in advertising and media and most of what you see on social media because:

•Both of these images are for Chanel ads.

•Both were designed in the same year and placed within the same magazine.

•Both are celebrities of similar ages – supermodel Linda Evangelista was 47 and Brad Pitt was 49 when these were taken.

•Both people have lived and aged and smiled and laughed and frowned and spent time in the sun and changed and grown older over time *like humans do,* but only one kind of human is allowed to show that reality.

•These images are perfectly representative of the ways men and women are depicted in media, and how we learn to depict ourselves in our own photos. If you’re skeptical, please look for yourselves at how mind-blowingly different men’s and women’s faces look in magazines and all forms of advertising and SO MUCH professional photography and SO MUCH selfie and personal phone photography.

These words are taken directly from Beauty Redefined. For the original blog post click here for their website click here

How to heal

There is no one size fits all rule to fix this and no easy solution. The things I do and actions I recommend are written below. I also have a mid term goal of studying CBT therapy and possibly retraining as a pyschotherapist so I have more skills to help women out of this cultural hole we are in. In the mean time:

Throw out the scales. Go to therapy. Dress in ways that make you feel good. Wear make up (or don’t) if you want to. Shave your legs (or don’t) if you want to. Stop judging others. Definitely don’t judge yourself. Practice self compassion. Eat to nourish your body. Focus on how amazing your body is and for what it can do. Admit your mistakes, realise you have learned, grown and are more wise – now move on. Move your body in ways that you enjoy. Rest when you need to. Hug your friends and family. Accept your body. If you can, love your body – all of it. Laugh. Say to yourself age is a privilege – growing old is a privilege. Stop reading magazines and other media that leaves you feeling shit about yourself. Actively diversify your media to help you redefine beauty. Think critically. Practice gratitude. Learn and unlearn – some resources to help you with this are listed below. Keep learning and unlearning.

References

  1. https://www.noted.co.nz/health/health-nutrition/diet-industry-is-increasingly-seen-part-obesity-problem
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1740144517300657
  3. Rodgers, R.F., Slater, A., Gordon, C.S. et al. A Biopsychosocial Model of Social Media Use and Body Image Concerns, Disordered Eating, and Muscle-Building Behaviors among Adolescent Girls and Boys. J Youth Adolescence 49, 399–409 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01190-0
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1740144520300516
  5. Allen, K. L., Byrne, S. M., Oddy, W. H., & Crosby, R. D. (2013). DSM–IV–TR and DSM-5 eating disorders in adolescents: Prevalence, stability, and psychosocial correlates in a population-based sample of male and female adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology122(3), 720. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034004.
  6. Jankowski, G. S., Diedrichs, P. C., Williamson, H., Christopher, G., & Harcourt, D. (2016). Looking age-appropriate while growing old gracefully: A qualitative study of ageing and body image among older adults. Journal of Health Psychology21(4), 550–561. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105314531468

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