The Ideal Body
It’s no secret that the Westernized ideal body image is becoming, or rather already is, a worldwide epidemic.
I choose the word epidemic strategically, because when we take a closer look at what drives the quest for the fabled ideal body, we find a very dark reality. There are many different motivations that lead to capturing the elusive “perfect body,” but there is really one real root cause. As humans we crave acceptance, we need social support, we enjoy positive attention – and this is all normal.
Throughout human history, the most desired body image has shifted drastically. Looking around it is difficult to believe now, but in certain cultures and points in history having a thicker physique indicated wealth, health, and status – thus, heavier bodies were not only accepted but preferred. As media and fashion progressed, the idea of the ideal body shifted towards a more slender figure, and so too did the cultural acceptance and preference for thin women.
More and more we see how the diet, fashion, and Hollywood industries push for thinner and thinner women, even to the point of sacrificing health and sanity. Since our culture is infiltrated by these industries, and with the help of Photoshop, the general public now regards a largely unachievable body as the “perfect” one. We must ask ourselves if this extreme ideal is worth the damaging effects it has on our mental and physical health, as well as the wellness of the culture as whole.
We live in a bizarre time, plagued by the dichotomy of the obesity epidemic and the eating disorder epidemic, two genuine extremes and both equally as dangerous and damaging. What we are failing to do as a culture is to find an equilibrium of health and happiness rather than resort to the all or nothing mindset. While obesity is incredibly damaging to a person’s health, I would argue that the encouraged Western ideal body image is even more damaging mentally.
Our desire to be accepted pushes many to extremes based on a body image that was manufactured by industries that profit off us feeling poorly about our physical image.
The fact of the matter is that a majority of humans at their healthiest weight cannot achieve the thinness we see encouraged all around us. Even many of the actual women celebrated in the media who appear to have achieved that perfection aren’t even truly achieving it, but rather morphed into a sellable image with extreme photo editing.
Thus, the more we see this level of thinness and beauty put on a pedestal and the less we match that idealized image, the worse we feel about ourselves. So we find flaws in ourselves everywhere we look, we compare ourselves to the highly edited bodies flooding the media, and we are manipulated to believe that achieving the manufactured ideal body is the only way to happiness and acceptance. So women around the world (as well as men, although not quite as prevalent) set out on a never-ending quest for so-called perfection.
Our natural inclination as humans is to adapt in order to survive and thrive in our environment; acceptance and a sense of community are integral to thriving.
Our perception of our physical selves does indeed affect how we want to be accepted by others. When we feel badly about ourselves, our human nature kicks in to remedy that. But what happens when there are other forces essentially brainwashing us into believing our worth is based on an unachievable physical appearance?
Our brains get rewired to believe achieving this ideal is the most important goal and the only way to feel the acceptance we crave. Slowly logic and our biological needs go out the door, and the fixation on imaginary perfection dominates our lives. The thinner we get, the more people compliment us, the closer we feel to that goal, and the better we feel about ourselves.
Because of our current culture, losing weight is a socially encouraged way to alter ourselves, so our brains receive the positive feedback we are hoping for. However, inevitably we hit that original goal and we still don’t achieve happiness, we still don’t feel perfect – so we make a new goal. And so on and so forth until there is no end in sight, no achievable perfection.
Our body and mind suffer, our starving brains turn us into a completely different person, our bodies are weak and frail, our once alive social life diminished. And as the sizes on our clothes drop and the numbers on the scale diminish, it’s still not good enough, it will never be good enough – because superficial perfection doesn’t exist.
So why then are we fed images so edited that they barely resemble the individual posing for it? Why are we pushed to feel bad about ourselves, search for non-existent flaws, and subliminally encouraged to abandon our body’s basic needs to fit into a size 0 – a size that literally represents nonexistence?
The simple reason for this is because immense greed plagues our world economy. Profit above all else, including people, is the currently accepted modus operandi. There is no better way to ensure huge profit margins then to convince the masses to shell out cash in pursuit of an unachievable goal.
We’ve been convinced were not thin enough, not tall enough, our skin isn’t clear enough, our hair isn’t thick enough, our breasts aren’t big enough, our eyelashes not long enough, stomach isn’t flat enough, thighs not small enough… and the list is endless.
So as cultural pressure to look perfect builds, we search for remedies to the flaws that these industries created for us. We buy memberships to multiple gyms, we buy diet books and meal plans, we buy hundreds of dollars of makeup and skin products, we get plastic surgery and we focus our lives on that fictitious goal of perfection. We abandon our uniqueness and individuality in an effort to look identical to one another, to all fit the Western ideal body image.
Hollywood and the fashion industry create the story, the fabricated narrative of what perfection is, and the diet industry profits immensely from promoting that story. The media spreads the desire to look like celebrities and models because they have a high worth in a culture that regards physical appearance as the ultimate social commodity.
These industries quite literally manipulated our inherent human nature to be accepted by others in order to profit off ostracizing us. Our real desire, though, is to find our own happiness and a loving community. By linking our physical appearance with our overall happiness they’ve trapped us in their money-making scheme.
As long as our culture continues to obsess over superficial qualities, these industries will continue to sell even more unrealistic ideals, and we will continue to generously spend our money to pursue those ideals. The ruthlessness of the beauty industry is highlighted when we see toll it takes on our collective psyche, and yet the fingers are forever pointed at us as individuals rather than those truly accountable.
Feeling good about ourselves, being cognizant of our health, and wanting to fit into a supportive community are all completely normal and positive behaviors – but abandoning health and resorting to extremes to achieve an image is dangerous.
Unfortunately our current culture has wholeheartedly bought into the idea that our superficial features are our greatest commodity, as if we can do anything in the world if only we could look like the men and women on the magazine covers. So now the beauty and body industries no longer need to do much convincing, since they successfully created a culture in which we police ourselves and each other.
We judge, we ostracize, and we hurt one another if we feel they’re too far from the illusion of normal, and often in an effort to make ourselves feel superior. Thus it becomes a vicious cycle of yearning to fit in, feeling shamed when we don’t, and resorting to extremes to feel better about ourselves.
When you think about it, it’s quite bizarre that we should all look the same – like the Western body ideal. To achieve this, which is simply not possible, we would be essential clones of one another and lose all our beautiful individuality.
In many Asian countries double eyelid surgery and leg lengthening surgery are both hugely popular plastic surgery alterations. Double eyelid surgery essentially erases the uniquely Asian eye shape by creating a crease above the eye, which also makes the eye appear larger. This is an extremely common procedure and it is so popular because it emulates the appearance of Western body ideals. Leg lengthening is an even more extreme procedure in which the legs are broken, pried apart, and set in a way to encourage bone growth in the gap created by the surgeon. When this procedure is done over a series of months the patient will get taller; once again, to more closely resemble the Western body ideal.
Because the Western media is so influential, those same images that are thrown in our faces on a daily basis are also promoted as the ideal worldwide. In the same way we are told we’re not beautiful enough, so are all men and women around the world; except they’re receiving the even more damaging message that their race isn’t beautiful enough, their skin color not light enough, their legs not long enough. So once again in an effort to fit in and feel good, people are going so far as to erase features that are unique to their race in order to more closely fit into a calculated mold.
When we are constantly bombarded with extremely unrealistic images of what a “perfect” body should be, we are left with no choice but to feel shame and guilt when we inevitably fail to reach that purposefully unreachable ideal body.
So we are left with a culture of people who are physically abusing themselves and who are mentally ill from the pressure to constantly be better. We’ve been reduced to objects in the eyes of big corporations, no longer does the collective well-being of a society matter, but rather how much we are willing to spend to improve ourselves and line the pockets of the wealthy elite. The more we are told we aren’t thin enough, beautiful enough, and therefore good enough; the more we believe this to be true – the more we regard one another as competition to be defeated rather than fellow victims in a unwinnable battle.
Our culture is sick with the disease of the individual, and the disease of the superficial, and we are suffering greatly because of these mindsets.
These propensities were purposefully instilled in us in order to keep us divided and distracted from what is really important. But when we remember that the negative feelings we feel about ourselves often stem from an illusion, we can begin to refocus on the evolution of our collective consciousness and our true pursuit of happiness.
We can begin to support ourselves and one another in the fight to accept and celebrate our differences.
Let’s love our body by filling it daily with the nutrients it craves, but let’s also celebrate the human experience by indulging in the incredible food we’re able to create, without the guilt we’re told to feel. We’ve forgotten that good food enjoyed with friends and family is such an integral part of a rich culture.
We’ve forgotten that it is indeed more important and fulfilling to be truly happy then it is to punish ourselves in an effort to fit into a mold we were never meant to fit into.