People come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. The tallest man in the world was almost 9 feet, the shortest was less than 2 feet. The heaviest man weighed more than 100 stone. We also come in all sorts of skin colours, hair colours, eye colours, and we adorn our bodies with a mind-boggling array of clothes, jewellery, and tattoos or similar types of skin paintings.
As a species we are almost all a million miles from the original state of nature our ancient ancestors once must have lived in. Yet we can still see the power and influence of image on animals and birds, especially during the mating seasons. Birds display their colours, strut their stuff, and make sounds in order to attract a mate. Mammals display their physical strength to attract females, while at the same time scaring off would-be competitors.
Some of humanity’s earliest creations have been about presenting the body in ways to impress others. The oldest known body ornament is a necklace made over 100,000 years ago, while glass and gold became common materials for jewellery by 5,000BC.
Looks and self-awareness of image have been part of human culture since earliest times, and seems to be a strong genetic impulse common to many species, not just humans.
Mocking or bullying people because of how they look also seems to stem back at least two thousand years, to Ancient Greek and Roman times.
So the two sides of the coin are ancient. We have a wish to look good in our own eyes and in other people’s eyes, and we have a fear, possibly even a dread, of looking bad in other people’s eyes.
Over the centuries over course what constitutes looking good in terms of face and body has changed time and again, influenced by famous individuals (Cleopatra to Scarlett Johansson), artists (Venus de Milo to Rubens’ “full-figured” women in the 17th century) and celebrities in different eras (compare Marilyn Munroe to Keira Knightley).
The big difference between today and previous generations is that now we have truly global communication and image sharing, and as a result, a potentially crushing single view of what constitutes attractive, acceptable, and unattractive body images.
It is important to separate out what is good for our health and what is an anxiety caused by perception about how we look. We know from science that having too much fat in our body, whether measured by BMI (body mass index) or the ratio of hip to waist (which differs from men to women), increases the risk of major health problems. So if we want to be healthy we should aim to reduce our weight to safer levels.
Note that this has nothing to do directly with body image. It is a health, not a looks, concern.
However we also know that, especially in women, and especially in young adults, there are major concerns about how poor sense of body-image can harm mental health. Recent research shows that it also affects older people and men, indeed all genders and ages from all ethnic groups.
As we have seen in my brief guide through history, awareness of looks is both natural and cultural. As society has become more removed from nature it is the cultural view that now affects us most.
Yet mindfulness asks us to look at things sharply, to see beyond the immediate gut reactions, to see what is happening much deeper below the surface. When we do this we find that we are being programmed to see our bodies, and other people’s bodies, in certain skewed ways.
Neuroscience teaches us that we are always being programmed, from moment to moment. It’s called neuroplasticity, the brain’s quality of absorbing every experience we have and adds it to the sun total of who we are. So it that sense, whether it’s about body image or not, and whether it’s about the year 2019 or the year 1019, we’re always being programmed, conditioned, brainwashed by events.
And in this important regard mindfulness impels us to combat this natural tendency, and our genetic impulses as well. Just because the mind naturally programmes us doesn’t mean we can’t act to influence the way in which we are shaped.
Take a giant step back. Notice how you have come to see attractiveness and unattractiveness in the way you do. Think of the famous people, the friends, your family members, class mates at school, colleagues at work, and how you have slowly but surely over the years come to perceive types of shape and looks as pleasant and unpleasant. Note how artificial this judging process is. Note that there is no true, universal determination of beauty and ugliness. Notice that it’s all an invention of your own mind, shaped by the culture we live in. And note that it is an unhealthy, unhelpful, possibly toxic piece of programming.
Do this every day for just a couple of minutes until you are absolutely clear that whole perception of body-image is utterly false and malign.
Resolve to dispel any thoughts in your head about your own body image, good or bad. Do the same when you automatically judge other people’s looks. Learn to let it all be. Learn to accept your body completely.
Next learn to view your body for what it is, an amazing set of tools that allow you to move, to notice with up to five senses, to think, to appreciate, to feel the fresh air on your face, to do work that you need to survive and thrive. Look on your body in this way for two minutes every day until you start to really appreciate what a miracle you haver in your body. Be grateful for having it. Write down how lucky you are to have it. Note what it does for you.
These first two practices can help you defeat poor body-image and the negative states of mind that come with such a view.
Finally look at this remarkable body you have from the point of view of your physical health. Consider your body as the treasure that it is and determine to treat it as precious. This means no longer consuming things – whether food, drink, cigarettes, and other things - you know to be harmful to your previous body. If you lapse don’t beat yourself up about, but do in the next instant get back on with your commitment to stop self-harming through what you eat, drink and consume.
Start to increase the amount of food and drink that you know are healthy for this priceless body of yours.
Finally if you are overweight, don’t feel bad about your looks. Simply join a reputable slimming organisation, commit to losing a certain amount one stage at a time. You’ll find your efforts in trying to cut out unhealthy food and drinks very helpful to your aim of losing weight.
But always remember. You are a precious, remarkable being. View yourself as such. Let go of any negative self-perceptions as they arise, and replace those thoughts with “my body is a wonderful thing.” Keep saying this till you fully believe it, because that’s the reality.
Changing your eating and drinking habits, and starting to lose weight if your health needs it, are not about self-image. They are about your health.