Women have long faced relentless images of what we ‘should’ look like, dictated by narrow and unrealistic beauty standards designed to make us feel inferior.
Women once strived for the hourglass figure of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe by drinking weight gain shakes, fuelled by shame that a skinny frame indicated poverty or a lack of fertility.
Now, increasing numbers of celebrities use extreme diets and weight loss injections to attain the problematic super-skinny aesthetic, perpetuating body image issues for everyone who idolises them.
Even more appallingly, the popularity of drugs like Ozempic or Wegovy for drastic weight loss is creating a global shortage of these lifesaving medications for people with diabetes who need them for survival.
Seeing drastic weight loss glamourised once more feels like a disappointing and scary step backward for body inclusivity.
The beauty and diet industries tell us what is ‘wrong’ with our appearance to purposefully rob us of hope, empowerment, and comfort in our own skin.
Even if we sacrifice a massive chunk of our lives to live up to some arbitrary beauty ideal, a new one is just over the horizon.
By constantly shifting the goalposts, they perpetually reinforce the message that we aren’t enough.
Shame and dissatisfaction with our appearance keep us spending our time, money, and energy on beauty and diet products that often don’t work and have harmful side effects.
If we are satisfied with our appearance, we spend less money on things that promise to ‘fix us’.
If we realise that happiness and confidence are internal, we are less susceptible to toxic messages that keep us hooked on the idea that if we look a certain way, our lives will be happier and more meaningful.
With so much stacked against us in the media and our social circles, how can the average woman fight against these toxic and unrealistic beauty standards?
How can we remember that we are perfect and whole in a world that constantly tries to convince us otherwise?
Unlearning toxic beauty ideals is not easy, but it is well worth the effort to protect your long-term wellbeing. Nobody should waste their lives despising how they look or spending all their time, money, and energy trying to change it.
Doing this difficult inner work will also benefit future generations by breaking down deeply rooted systems of oppression. Youth-centric beauty ideals are inherently sexist. The idealisation of thinness originated from a historical context of racism.
Everyone has the right to bodily autonomy, but this freedom is illusory in a context where thin, young, white, conventionally beautiful people receive more privilege and access to social and material resources.
Separating a human’s value from their appearance is a vital prerequisite for a world where we are free to live, feel, think, and look however we want.
How to start healing from body image and unrealistic beauty standards
Here are a few ways you can fight against unrealistic beauty standards and start healing your body image perception:
Find the real cause of your insecurities
Our bodies are often an easy target for coping with trauma, fear of rejection, lack of safety, and deeper self-esteem issues.
My struggles with food and exercise were born from a desire to feel some control in a world that felt unsafe. Trying to heal from disordered eating felt impossible until I had other support to manage my difficult emotions and lack of self-esteem.
Speak to yourself like a good friend
Many people are harsh self-critics with brutal inner dialogue.
When you notice cruel thoughts about how you look, imagine you are speaking to someone dear to you or your younger self. Use kind, compassionate language to reconnect with your body lovingly and protectively.
Find beauty in all shapes and sizes
Diversify your social media feed and realise there are endless ways to be beautiful.
When feelings of inadequacy arise, get gently curious about their origins. Have you heard this said in the media or your personal life?
Can you broaden your idea of beauty to include all shapes, sizes, and differences? Spend some time curating your social media algorithm, unfollowing accounts that make you feel insecure, and replacing them with empowering anti-diet and toxic beauty culture content.
You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes.
Find movement that feels amazing
Exercise is great for physical and mental health, provided you don’t use it to punish or change your body.
A good indicator that your exercise regime is healthy is that you genuinely enjoy it and would love doing it even if you knew it would never burn a single calorie or change your body in any way.
Get active in groups fighting against toxic beauty culture
It’s no coincidence that the same people promoting ‘heroin chic’ and buccal fat removal for an emaciated aesthetic are the same people who will later convince you that you need Botox and filler to look more ‘youthful’.
Connecting with activists and learning about how capitalism and patriarchy directly profit off our insecurities provides a healthy outlet and reminder of why fighting these standards is so important and liberating.
Create a safe space by confiding in your loved ones
Talking to your trusted friends or family may help reduce the stigma and shame many of us feel about widespread body image and self-esteem issues.
Not everyone will be supportive, as these beauty standards and stereotypical expectations are very deeply ingrained.
In these instances, you may need to have some difficult or awkward conversations or practice the challenging but worthwhile act of setting boundaries with people who make triggering comments so you can show up as your authentic self where it matters most.
Seek professional support
If you have severe body image concerns, seek help from a psychologist or dietician with experience in the challenges you are experiencing.
Finding the right mental health professional for your needs can take time, but is worth the effort to have a highly trained, educated, and compassionate source of support and reassurance as you go along your healing journey.
Unlearning these lessons may initially feel scary, uncomfortable, and challenging. Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted is expected when consciously challenging your thoughts and beliefs about your appearance and worth.
Stefanie Michele, an online body image and nervous system healing coach, explains that, at first, this takes a lot of mental energy. It’s similar to when you move house and need to use a GPS to find your way home. Over time, the drive home starts to become automatic, and you no longer need as much brainpower to get there.
The same will slowly happen as you start to detach your self-worth from your looks and reject societal messages that dictate how you perceive beauty.
Eventually, you will realise that obsessively striving towards impossible beauty standards that you thought provided safety and control was actually controlling you and preventing you from feeling at home in your own body.
Once we let go and stop trying to meet other people’s expectations of our appearance, we can begin our journey to finding true freedom and a peaceful home within our bodies.
Other useful resources
Women Don’t Owe You Pretty by Florence Given
You Just Need to Lose Weight by Aubrey Gordon
Untamed by Glennon Doyle