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Think about the kindest, most generous person that you know. Think about how they make you feel when you’re in their presence. With that person in mind, did you initially consider their physical appearance or how “good-looking” they are? Probably not.
So why, then, is our society so concerned with one’s outward appearance and ability to keep up with the ever-changing and unrealistic standards of beauty? Why have we become conditioned to constantly compare our bodies to the ideals set by magazine models and social media “influencers?” And why are we so hyper-focused on appearance that we fail to recognize and remember what it truly means to be beautiful?
Meeting the Standard as a Means of Control
As a woman, I have often felt pressured by society to look a certain way. When I first transitioned into my teenage years, I found myself growing more and more insecure and self-conscious about how I looked. Anytime I looked in the mirror, I would focus on what I perceived to be my biggest flaws, feel bad about myself, leave the room for a while, and come back to the mirror a second, third, or even tenth time to see if anything had changed. I was always comparing myself to others; I felt like I needed to fit this “perfect” body type in order to be loved and accepted by those around me, yet my list of imperfections seemed endless.
That being said, many of the insecurities I faced regarding my body image were beyond my control. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, which is a lifelong condition marked by a hindrance in respiratory, digestive, and immune system functions. Due to this preexisting medical condition, my weight has fluctuated pretty drastically throughout the past few years. I’ve watched my body gain and lose up to thirty pounds in only a matter of weeks, stretching to either end of the healthy weight range for my age and height. This has obviously had a huge impact on my mental health. In the past, I found myself constantly obsessing about what I ate and how I looked with the hopes that I could gain some sort of control over my situation. However, because of these unavoidable health-related factors, I ultimately had very little control over the amount of weight that I gained and lost.
Shifting from One Medical Complication to Another
I’m not the only one with experiences like this. Apparently, the pressure to fit beauty standards while facing other medical complications seems to be a growing problem in our society.
Dr. Mary Katherine Ray, an adjunct professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University, has done extensive research on Binge Eating Disorder among patients with obesity. She has also studied the way that body image issues and eating disorders affect children with Type-1 Diabetes.
In an interview last month, Ray told me, “Individuals with Type-1 diabetes are about twice as likely to have an eating disorder. One in three people with Type-1 Diabetes don’t give themselves enough insulin so that they can lose weight.”
Ray agrees that the struggle with body image is especially difficult for people with preexisting medical conditions. “There are a lot of medical complications too that can impact how people eat and the way that they lose weight and gain weight.”
She adds, “Even if you try really really hard, you’re not necessarily going to be able to get to that ideal weight that you want to.”
Ray also notes that while research shows that the rate of eating disorders is higher in females, “It absolutely happens in males. Males get eating disorders—not as often, but they still do. It’s really important that we find treatments that work for that population.”
Eating disorders for both men and women are growing in our society due to these unrealistic expectations of what we should look like. That being said, you don’t have to have an eating disorder to have a negative body image, and struggles with low self-esteem affect a wide variety of individuals.
Recognizing Pressures Faced by Diverse Populations
The first step in providing support for those who struggle with body image issues is becoming more aware of how society’s standards impact various populations. Towards the end of February, I interviewed two individuals to hear their perspectives on issues related to body image.
Fontbonne University sophomore, Whitney Huling, shared the pressures she has felt to fit society’s beauty standards. “As a Black woman, there are expectations that oh, you should look this certain way or that way.”
She continues, “A lot of people expect Black women to have their hair straight, or in certain body images, have a big butt.”
Huling says she combats these pressures by embracing her own standards of beauty.
“In the past, I’ve went through stages where I expressed myself in the ways I think were necessary in terms of my beauty to figure out what suited me best. […] I went through stages of having braids or having colored hair just to see what fit me most, not what society expected.”
She says, “I don’t regard what society says I should look like. I express myself in my own way and I consider myself beautiful based on how I express myself.”
My brother, Luke Steingruby, who chooses not to conform to traditional gender norms, also expressed some of the unique challenges he has faced.
“As a gender-fluid person, I’ve felt pressures that would traditionally be applied more to either end of the gender spectrum. Having a more physically masculine build, there has always been the expectation that I should look more masculine, be bigger, be powerful, more ripped… manly. My feminine side—though society hasn’t pressured me much in this way, since to most people I appear as a ‘man’–wants to have pretty hair, skin, facial features, or the ability to carry myself more softly or delicately when I choose to. I personally feel most myself when I’m blending traditionally masculine and feminine traits.”
“There are new expectations evolving around what it means to be queer and how a queer person might look,” Steingruby adds. “But gender identity definitely plays a role in how we like to present and show up in the world.”
Setting Our Own Standards of Beauty
Society will never be satisfied with how we look, no matter how hard we try to fit the ideal standard.
Ray emphasizes, “You have people that are really seeking out to have this ideal body image that may be completely different in twenty years. So, it’s like you’re chasing a moving target, really.”
She’s absolutely right. Sure, you can achieve the “perfect” body type, but then the expectations will just change all over again. So, instead of comparing ourselves with others and trying to keep up with the constantly changing standards, we should learn to embrace our beauty for what it is.
Huling shares her advice for those striving towards body positivity saying, “Beauty standards should be built by you.”
She continues, “For people struggling with body image, I would tell them to accept themselves for who they are. Only do things that make you happy.”
Steingruby says it is important to remember that “The standard is not even real. Literally every image we see in a beauty magazine or in commercials has been drastically edited to be more visually appealing and impressive. […] Our worth isn’t determined by our appearance, no matter what we are told. I try to remember that for myself and remember that when I see a ridiculously beautiful person in an ad that it has most likely been drastically altered. All I can do is do what makes me feel good about my body and accept where I am with compassion.”
He concludes, “Yes, we all want to be attractive sexy snacks, but snackitude is an inner feeling of fabulousness and self-belief, not anything we get from some external source of affirmation. That doesn’t mean the affirmations don’t or shouldn’t feel good, but they don’t determine our worthiness of love, fulfillment, success or joy.”
At the end of the day, you set your own standards of beauty. You cannot adequately compare yourself to others because we are all created differently and are beautiful in our own ways. Sometimes, the way your body looks is beyond your control. Sometimes, you have to stop fighting to conform to a list of unrealistic standards set by individuals who do not even know the real you.
Think back to the kindest, most generous person that you know. That person is beautiful—not because of the way that they look but because of the way they carry themselves throughout life. If my experiences have taught me anything, it’s that beauty is far more than the shape of your body or the size of your jeans. Beauty is embracing your imperfections and using those as a source of motivation rather than self-deprecation. Beauty is sharing your gifts with others and making a positive impact on the world around you. Beauty is doing what is best for your body and soul and realizing that you don’t need to be anything other than yourself.