herald

Friday 15 December 2017

love yourself... then Be amazed at how willing you are to ov erlook your 'flaws'

Our body image survey holds a mirror up to Irish women and asks them not what they see, but what they think. the answers we reveal this week offer a portrait of THEIR BEAUTY, FEARS, AND FEMININITY

Here's a showstopper of a question: "What might we be doing, thinking, feeling about if we didn't think about body image, ever?"

The late journalist and author Caroline Knapp posed it in her book Appetites: Why Women Want.

Knapp was a former anorexic and recovering alcoholic who died aged 42 of lung cancer.

Her writing has been described as "a remarkable exercise in self-discovery" - it's easy to understand why by just reading her description of the mathematical genius women deploy when it comes to food:

"Women are actually superb at math; they just happen to engage in their own variety of it, an intricate personal math in which desires are split off from one another, weighed, balanced, traded, assessed.

Desire

"These are the mathematics of desire, a system of self-limitation and monitoring based on the fundamental premise that appetites are at best risky, at worst impermissible, that indulgence must be bought and paid for.

"Hence the rules and caveats: Before you open the lunch menu, or order that cheeseburger, or consider eating the cake with the frosting intact, haul out the psychic calculator and start tinkering with the budget.

"'Why shouldn't you?' I asked a woman that question not long ago while she was demurring about whether to order dessert at a restaurant.

"Immediate answer: 'Because I'll feel gross.'

'Why gross?'

'Because I'll feel fat.'

'And what would happen if you felt fat?'

'I hate myself when I feel fat. I feel ugly and out of control. I feel really un-sexy. I feel unlovable.'

'And if you deny yourself the dessert?'

'I may feel a little deprived, but I'll also feel pious,' she said.

'So it's worth the cost?'

'Yes.'

"These are big trade-offs for a simple piece of cake - add five hundred calories, subtract well-being, allure, and self-esteem - and the feelings behind them are anything but vain or shallow.

"Hidden within that 30-second exchange is an entire set of mathematical principles, equations that can dictate a woman's most fundamental approach to hunger. Mastery over the body - its impulses, its needs, its size - is paramount; to lose control is to risk beauty, and to risk beauty is to risk desirability, and to risk desirability is to risk entitlement to sexuality and love and self-esteem.

"Desires collide, the wish to eat bumping up against the wish to be thin, the desire to indulge conflicting with the injunction to restrain. Small wonder food makes a woman nervous.

"The experience of appetite in this equation is an experience of anxiety, a burden and a risk; yielding to hunger may be permissible under certain conditions, but mostly it's something to be Earned or Monitored and Controlled. e = mc2."

cried

Perhaps there are some women reading the above who won't relate to it in anyway, ever. But my guess is that they are few and far between. Almost half of the women we surveyed admitted that they had cried about how they look.

And those of us who have never shed a tear for what we are, or are not, might be rather more familiar with the voice of our inner critic - the voice that loves to tell you you're just not good enough the way you are.

Body image has been defined as how a person feels about the aesthetics of their own body.

It is not a weight or size, but a product of personal experience, personality, and various cultural and social factors such as family dynamics, biological predispositions, and cultural expectations - it should be thought of as a subjective experience.

Studies show that almost all women experience negative body image, allowing researchers to coin the term "normative discontent".

So those of us who cry about how we look, or hate how we look, or are preoccupied by how we look, are in fact considered normal.

Indeed, research has shown that women experience discontent with appearance related issues from a very early age, and according to American academic Kasey L Serdar, this discontent often remains constant throughout one's life.

So is this what we all have to look forward to, ad nauseam?

solutions

A wise man once told me "there ain't no solutions" - and he was right. It's a human urge, the desire to "fix" everything. But the reality is we are not actually broken - just imperfect.

The truth is that most of us find it hard to love ourselves. But if you can't love yourself you can't be open to all this world has to offer.

A recent research paper by Kristin D Neff (et al) identified self-compassion as a key component in mitigating body dissatisfaction in women.

A construct derived from Buddhist psychology, self-compassion entails being moved by one's own suffering and treating oneself in a caring and empathetic way, just as one would treat a good friend.

"It is relevant to all experiences of suffering, including those caused by perceived flaws, personal inadequacies, failures, or emotionally distressing life events," says Neff.

"More specifically, self-compassion is defined as being comprised of three interconnected components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

"The sense of common humanity entailed in self-compassion involves recognising that all people are imperfect, fail, make mistakes, and experience serious life challenges, rather than feeling isolated by the experience of imperfection."

Our bodies are wonderful and magical - they face up to the enormous task of getting us where we want to go each and every day and try to provide ample warnings signals when something is out of whack.

Our bodies deserve due care and attention.

Physically we all have an individual set point - this is a weight that is correct for us and one which we can maintain with relative ease. Sometimes life forces, such as stress, can make us go a little above or below this weight our body likes so much, but it takes undue effort to go too far either way.

It takes our mind and body going way off centre for this imbalance to set in.

You know your set point when you get there and can comfortably maintain it for a period of time.

Centered

You know when you are at one with your body because you will feel centred - and you won't be living in your head listening to lots of noise and critical voices.

But it takes work and the journey there can be different for us all. It may be fanciful on my part, but I think the elusiveness of the set point, the reason why it is not automatic for most of us, is that it is also there to teach us patience, appreciation, adherence and ultimately ease - the most important thing that any of us can hope to achieve.

A newspaper's body image survey won't accomplish any of these things for you but it might get you thinking a bit about the rest of your life and what it could be like if you didn't have to waste all this energy thinking about your body image.

As Knapp said: "Anything that connects you - to the body, to the self, to other women - can free. Anything that frees may also feed."

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