Embodying Beauty

The time has come

Tannis Hugill, MA, RCC, RDT, ADT

Reprinted from "Women's" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (4), p. 7

ideals of beauty are a part of every culture. If we look at images throughout Western history alone, we can see how these ideals change according to what is valued and needed by the culture. Historically, women’s bodies have been the primary images of human beauty. Women have long been valued mainly for pleasure, adornment, and birthing children.

Often a culture’s ideals oppress the body. This is true today; the oppression of women and the ‘cult of thinness’ are linked to a view that sees all living bodies as objects. We live in a society that emphasizes the surface, not the substance, of the human being. After over 25 years of feminism, a woman’s self-image, as well as her social and economic success, is still largely determined by her looks.

Standards of beauty are often intertwined with fashion. How we choose to dress is a complex cultural phenomenon—it’s a way we create ourselves, participating in cultural norms of acceptance and self-expression. This helps us to connect, while affirming our differences.

Slenderness came into fashion in North America and Europe at the turn of the 20th century. It came to be the aesthetic of modern mechanization and coincided with the increasing freedom of women.

Fat phobia began after World War II, when the health industry and insurance companies began to persuade Americans to lose weight, and this phobia intensified throughout the 20th century. Weight loss techniques proliferated, the fitness craze developed and plastic surgery expanded. The bare-boned adolescent image of Twiggy appeared in the 1960s. In 1950s, models weighed 4% less than the average woman. Now, fashion models weigh 25% less than the average woman—a diagnostic criterion of anorexia nervosa.

The current fascination with altering the body is poignantly demonstrated by the popularity of ‘reality’ TV shows, such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan, in which people undergo plastic surgery in the quest for a more desirable look.

Weight prejudice in this culture is rampant and not significantly challenged. ‘Fatism’ is as damaging as sexism or racism. The corporate, advertising and cosmetic worlds, and the diet and cosmetic surgery industries, have huge amounts of money invested in deluding us into starving, cutting and mutilating our bodies. In this social environment, where normal-weight women are considered overweight or ‘fat,’ it’s no wonder that so many women and girls have the negative body image and chronic low self-esteem that lead to eating disorders. At the same time, more and more people are poorly nourished from eating fast foods, and obesity is on the rise, causing a new wave of fat phobia. The pressure to be thin is now affecting men; one in 10 people with eating disorders now are men and boys. These are life-denying standards of beauty.

The mandate to be ultra thin is everywhere—magazines, newspapers, billboards, movies, television, stores, and so on. The cult of thinness promises that if we fit this image, we will be successful and happy. We are brainwashed at a subconscious level, so we cannot see that the promise is false. We live in stressful times and we displace anxiety to things we imagine we can control—how our bodies look, for instance. Driven by guilt and shame, many people punish themselves, diet, limit their self-images, disable their imaginations, and find themselves in a spiral of sado-masochistic self hate.

We must break this addictive pattern. Cultures are made up of individuals. If we become media literate, develop a healthy relationship to food, nourish our self esteem by loving the bodies that we have, and focus on what really fulfills us, we can challenge the collective obsession with distorted ideals of perfection. We can discover the true beauty that is our birthright. We can talk to each other and validate the ways each of us is beautiful—inside and out.

By joining together, speaking up and stepping out, we can create and celebrate new images of beauty that reflect the diversity and humanity of all.

 
About the Author

Tannis has over 20 years experience in healing through the arts. This includes directing a hospital eating disorder program and teaching somatic approaches to the treatment of eating disorders. She is a registered clinical counsellor, dance and drama therapist, creator of ritual performance, and teaches Authentic Movement. Please contact Tannis at (604) 267-9951 or tannisis@shaw.ca

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