Steve Wright, MA, LCPC, Grace Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls
I had a discussion with a client about how she saw herself. It became apparent in our discussion that she was fixated on shaping her body into a form that was “beautiful.” She stated that she longed to look like… and she would name a model or an actress or a peer or a group of people with certain physical attributes. In other words, she had created for herself an archetype or “model” of what perfect beauty is and had convinced herself that, to be happy, she had to approach that ideal.
This thinking is what fueled her eating disorder. She had become obsessed with the fact that she did not consider herself as having met that standard of beauty, shape and appearance. She told me that her belief is that, unless she could see, reflected in the mirror, a representation of that archetype, she would not have value.
As we sat and talked I asked her who defined “beauty” for her. She struggled a bit because she had never really considered where her ideal of “beauty” originated. It hadn’t occurred to her that her concept, her archetype, was not a constant in the universe. She saw it as an axiom, a given fact that could not be contradicted. Eventually she said, “I guess society decides what is beautiful.”
She wasn’t wrong. Society does have archetypes of beauty. Images of women (and men), especially in current advertising, depict the idealization of youth and thinness as the “currency” of happiness, success and power. However, that image has not been static. Prior to the 1960’s, advertising promoted a more curvy idealization of female beauty. If we go back to the renaissance we see the painted images of women as different still. If we look toward other cultures today, we may see a different view of beauty altogether.
The impact of the emphasis on physical beauty leads to some very disturbing mental health problems and is associated with depression, eating disorders, psychological distress, low self-esteem, self-harm, and suicidal feelings (Black et al. 2019; Oktan 2017), as well as social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder (Aderka et al. 2014) and body dysmorphic disorder (Veale and Lambrou 2002).
Societal fixation on the body as an object and, therefore, the person as an object, degrades and belittles the intrinsic value of being human. Body objectification has a detrimental effect on recognizing our human value as more than just appearance, shape and weight.
I’d like to propose a different way of seeing beauty, not as a judgment of physical attributes, but as a representation of inner value. What if, for each of us, beauty became the silhouette of virtue and kindness and gratitude? What if we defined our own archetype of beauty based on what we value about ourselves? What if our shape and appearance could become the outer representation of our own intrinsic value? And, what if we (and society as a whole) began to value each other in that same way?
Of course, the difficulty is that individuals have so often lost the awareness of their own intrinsic value and become fixated on gaining external validation to feel acceptable or significant. They experience such futility in seeking validation in the eyes of others or in their reflection in the mirror. The futility lies in their entrenched false beliefs that they are worthless, or insignificant, or “ugly” on the inside. These beliefs that so often get reinforced both internally and externally are very difficult to change.
However, when they do change, when the internal narrative shifts to the true story that you have worth, significance and inner value, then that archetype can change and you can begin to see yourself, your body, your shape, your physical appearance as the representation of that value. Let’s recognize that we are all beautiful. Some of us just don’t know it yet.
Aderka, Idan M., Cassidy A. Gutner, Amit Lazarov, Haggai Hermesh, Stefan G. Hofmann, and Sofi Marom. 2014. “Body Image in Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Panic Disorder.” Body Image 11 (1): 51–56.
Black, Emma B., Maria Garratt, Gavin Beccaria, Helen Mildred, and Marcella Kwan. 2019. “Body Image as a Predictor of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Women: A Longitudinal Study.” Comprehensive Psychiatry 88 (January): 83–89.
Oktan, Vesile. 2017. “Self-Harm Behaviour in Adolescents: Body Image and Self-Esteem.” Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools. https://doi.org/10.1017/jgc.2017.6.
Veale, David M., and Christina Lambrou. 2002. “The Importance of Aesthetics in Body Dysmorphic Disorder.” CNS Spectrums 7 (6): 429–31.
*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*