No Prince Charming Can Conquer Your Body Image Battle
When it comes to how you feel about your body, you’re not a damsel in distress. Yes, you might be a damsel and your body image might be in distress, but no dashing prince can rescue you from this one. No matter how strong or charming or handsome, no man can ever really save you from the yucky, painful darkness of body shame or appearance obsession. YOU are in charge of your fate in this story. Fortunately, you’ve got a lot of help on your side to ensure that you not only survive, but THRIVE and bask in your beautiful, powerful, healthy glory … if you decide you want to.
The Fairy Tale-ish Scenario:
Protagonist (who we’re rooting for): YOU. Or any other female dealing with body anxiety, shame, or preoccupation with weight or any aspect of appearance. I know, it’s tough to imagine a real female protagonist in a fairy tale, but remember this isn’t your typical fairy tale!
Antagonist (villains, evil forces, anything in the protagonist’s way): Profit-driven media. Haters. That script running through your mind. Well-meaning family members, friends, romantic partners who say stuff. You know the stuff: “Didn’t Beyonce lose all her baby weight in 6 weeks?” “You look exactly like [insert the last name you want to hear]!” “Are you OK? You look so tired.”
The Dilemma: Body shame and anxiety, preoccupation with appearance. The vast majority of women and girls in the U.S. are shown to feel terrible about their bodies. More than half of adult women claim their bodies “disgust” them and 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance (Dove International, 2007). Two-thirds of adolescent girls wish they were thinner, though only 16% are actually overweight, and 35 % of 6 to 12-year-old girls have been on at least one diet (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). When girls and women are disgusted with their bodies, it consumes their lives. Constant fear of being looked at, non-stop clothing or makeup or hair adjusting, worrying about what they look like at every moment — all of that amounts to the equivalent of being locked in Sleeping Beauty’s dungeon. Females who experience body shame — regardless of what they actually look like — are less likely to exercise regularly, more likely to make poor eating choices, and they perform worse on all types of skills tests — from throwing a softball to solving math problems.
Supporting Character: Dashing Prince … or intelligent prince, or charming prince, or hilarious prince (or all four) — this is your current or future romantic partner. In a regular fairy tale, this person would save the day. This hero would rescue you, the helpless and beautiful damsel in distress, from whatever forces were working against you. This person would save the day, get all the credit, and whisk you away to happily ever after. But the villain in this story is a bit too powerful for even the Dashing Prince to conquer. This is not a battle for a man; this is a female fight.
The Battle Story: Negative body image is a crushing force that, as mentioned, most females in the U.S. (and similar societies) struggle with on a daily basis. Men can be a huge help in this fight, and they can also be a huge hindrance in this fight, but they can never conquer it for you. Since body image is such a complex matter, and is influenced by so many outside and inside factors, it doesn’t really matter how many times your boyfriend, husband or significant other tells you you’re beautiful, or compliments your appearance in some other way — that just doesn’t solve the problem for people who struggle with body anxiety and shame. It would be nice if it were that easy!
At Beauty Redefined, we’ve received countless comments and messages from men with serious concern for their girlfriends’, wives’, sisters’ and friends’ body image issues — whether it’s the painful self-consciousness that holds them back from ever putting on a swimmingsuit, the disordered eating she privately maintains “just until she fits in those old jeans,” the unnecessary cosmetic surgery procedure she’s going into debt for when she’s got bills to pay and no perceivable flaws to fix, or preoccupation with some aspect of her appearance that distracts her from anything else more worthwhile. Body shame harms relationships and families just as much as it harms individual women.
An awesome Beauty Redefined supporter in Texas, Kristin Hastings, wrote us this short but powerful message that reflects countless others we’ve heard and received since starting this fight:
“I can’t tell you the difference reading your articles has made in my marriage. I turned to my husband the other day and said, “Hey, you know what? I am beautiful!” and he said, “Kristin, I have been trying to convince you of that for the last three years.” I feel like someone has finally given me permission to stop loathing myself, and to start living my life.”
Kristin’s account gives me goosebumps not only because it’s exactly the influence I want Beauty Redefined to have, but because it is true. Her husband could have told her years ago that she didn’t need to worry so much about her appearance — and it sounds like he definitely had — but it wasn’t until she did the legwork (or mindwork) herself that she really believed it. That legwork is a process of learning to recognize and reject the harmful messages we’ve been sold about women’s bodies since birth. Profit-driven images and messages have convinced us and reminded us that women are primarily meant to be looked at, and are valued (and devalued) solely for their appearances. That means any part of our bodies, faces and beings we can be persuaded to see as a “flaw” or in need of “fixing” brings in HUGE money for a variety of industries.
We see new flaws invented constantly, whether it’s those unsightly underarms in need of Dove’s “armpit makeover” or those insufficient eyelashes in need of Latisse’s prescription may-cause-blindness-and-discoloring-of-skin-around-the-eye solution. Women tend to be the main consumers in the household — they control the cash. Therefore, notice no one cares about men’s unsightly armpits or insufficient eyelashes*.
Part of the legwork in Kristin’s battle against body shame was through increasing her media literacy. She did that by reading up on the research on our site and informing herself about the influence of media on teaching women to view themselves as objects to be looked at. That’s a great place to start! By learning to recognize which messages are harmful to body image and why, you give yourself the power to reject them — either by turning away from it or, if you’re not quite ready to cancel the subscription or give up that TV show, looking with a critical eye about why the messages and images are engineered the way they are, and consciously keeping tabs on what it does to your self-perception.
Protagonist beware: the media dragon has to be slayed over and over and over again. This is not a one-time fight where you figure out that the camera zooming up and down all the female characters’ bodies in your favorite show is influencing you to view them as an object, and then you’re done. Nope. These media dragons are pretty sneaky and more dangerous than they seem once you get used to seeing them in the dungeons where you visit them all the time.
Still, conscoius awareness of these not-so-secret media dragons and their power to influence a woman’s self-perception gives the protagonist in any body image battle some real empowerment. Kristin’s story continued as she describes how her new-found media literacy gave her the power to fight back:
“For some reason (even as I type this), I feel this vague unease that maybe I’m not allowed to claim beauty as the normal, imperfect-looking person that I am — but then I remember that I’ve been trained to feel that way by companies whose only objective is profit, and the stick-it-to-the-man side of me kicks in. I will not let my feeling of worth depend on my beauty, and I will not let my feeling of beauty depend on an advertising campaign, for pete’s sake.”
But what happens when the dragons to slay are a little closer to home than expected? Like, in your own head? Too many girls and women have a constant script of mean thoughts about themselves running through their minds. That kind of negativity is not motivational or inspirational — in fact, it’s debilitating. That mean mumbling under your breath when you catch your reflection in the glass door is actually a pretty powerful force that keeps women stuck in their own body anxiety. It takes conscious effort to turn off that negativity and replace it with anything — seriously, anything — else, but it has to be done! The best replacement for that negativity is positivity. Yes, you’ll feel like a dummy, but you’ve gotta slay those mental dragons with some mental self-love: try “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. And I’m beautiful.”
Sometimes the antagonist isn’t just harmful media messages or your own inner mean girl, it’s also other characters in your own story. Sometimes it’s the wicked stepmother, the evil queen, or the jealous townspeople (notice the stereotypical catfight fairytale themes) … but sometimes it’s the so-called Prince Charming. You — the powerful, media literate protagonist — have the power to recognize and reject all the negative body image influences in your life, even if you love him (or her). We truly hope the people in your life are helping you love your body more, and are steering you toward positive health choices and away from self-objectification and body shame. But if they’re not, straight-forward conversation can go a long way to give someone a look into your internal struggles, shut down critical comments, or help someone understand you’re more than just a body to look at. You can use just about anything we’ve written as a catalyst to start that conversation. However uncomfortable it may be, the body image subject is a crucial one to discuss with your current or future significant other — what hurts, what helps, what you struggle with, what your goals are and what he can do to assist you are all critical conversation points.
Unfortunately, sometimes people aren’t so receptive to teaching, and in that case, the “reject” option might be promising. Another Beauty Redefined supporter, we’ll call her Kara, shared this story about dealing with her not-so-charming prince:
“In a roundabout way you girls have helped me in so many ways, from reminding me of my true worth to helping me get out of a bad relationship. A few months after I moved down here I started dating someone whose views of women are definitely driven by the media. He was never happy with my appearance and was always on my case about going tanning, coloring my hair, or purchasing and wearing clothes that showed off my body. He made me feel like all I was to him was “eye candy.” I asked him if he would go to your presentation with me and he refused because he didn’t like the feminist messages you were teaching women. That was the last straw and it gave me the courage to take a stand for myself and get him OUT of my life.”
Once the media messages dragon and the negative self-talk dragon have been slayed and Prince Charming has been educated and recruited to join the battle, you are well on your way to positive body image-ever-after! I wish I could tell you that once the battle has been fought and those dragons have been conquered, you can ride with Prince Charming off into the sunset, happily ever after. But I can’t — and you know why.
It’s because you’re going to get too comfortable with that crappy media that focuses only on bodies, and you’re going to wonder if maybe the Victoria’s Secret catalog would make good motivation to get you to the gym, and you’re going to let that inner mean girl back into your head, and you’re going to get a new Prince Charming who isn’t so enlightened and says dumb things about other women’s bodies non-stop, and your mom is going to make a comment that cuts your body positivity down a few notches, and you’re going to have a baby and still carry extra weight and a stretched-out stomach for months or years afterward — regardless of what Beyonce does or doesn’t look like two months later. All kinds of dragons are going to pop up when you least expect them, but staying conscious of what they are and how they’re conquered is immensely powerful.
When you begin to realize your worth and can really say and believe that YOU are beauty redefined, your life will be much happier and more fulfilling than any amount of appearance-fixation could ever bring. You’ll see the beauty and power you already possess and you’ll multiply it exponentially by believing it and showing what beauty can and should mean. As you move forward beginning to believe in what you are capable of and who you really are, NOT what big industries want you to believe, you will change lives and bring light to a world so in need of your light. Start with this list of strategies for girls and women, and don’t hesitate to share this list of strategies for boys and men who want to help. Males are a crucial component in the body image battle, but they don’t get to be the hero of your body image story — YOU do!*Of course men are increasingly targeted by anxiety-inducing advertising and are experiencing increased levels of body shame. We hate that. No one wins by bringing men down too. The focus of this piece is on females, who are predominantly targeted in appearance-related media and experience staggeringly higher levels of body anxiety.