Body Image, Identity and the Commodification of Beauty
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
The default position in our culture is to identify with our bodies and to judge others by their appearance. Why? We did not choose our physical form or sex –– relatively little about the way we look is a choice we make as individuals. Whether it’s your genetically-determined body-shape, your sex, the relative size of certain body parts or any other divergences from "the norm", we draw a lot of our identity and who we are as people from our bodies. Does this help us or hurt us?
I think it hurts us, deeply, and I want to make the argument that we can consciously choose a healthier path.
We all identify with our bodies, it’s just a fact for the majority of us. We are told we have more or less value based on our appearance, but we don’t choose what we look like or earn that value. For the most part, those who are praised for having high-value bodies don’t work for it, or at the very least those people had a BIG head-start or even aid from substances or surgery, yet all around us are subtle (and no-so-subtle) messages about how you can “work for it”. The implication is often that if you don’t have a body that's up to that standard then you’re lazy and less worthy of love and respect. Media of all types exacerbates this entire problem by pushing “perfection” in our faces constantly as a means to sell us the lie that we are inadequate or wrong for being divergent from this objective standard of what a “good” body is.
Why is this standard practice? Because it makes MONEY. Our capitalist culture is centered around profit, and we’ve let it get in the way of us loving ourselves.
This is a huge problem, because when we are essentially monetizing our bodies or being told we're “not enough”, it conditions us to not look at ourselves with compassion and appreciation of the diverse forms that we all take. Instead we manifest our fear of missing out and fear of judgment as criticism for our physical form. We look at our bodies as either the source of our comfort and success, in which case there is a fixation and a fear of change or loss of status, or we look at our bodies as the barrier to our success. Success in this sense could be monetary for the instagram model, but it also relates to our social status, the esteem that other people hold for us, our likelihood to find the best possible romantic partner, or just being seen as someone who has their life in proper order.
If we can’t come to our own bodies with love, we won’t be likely to do the same for others. This is, in essence, toxic! The commodification of beauty has corrupted our ability to love ourselves and each other.
Does this mean we can’t appreciate body shapes we find pleasing? No.
Does it mean we can’t be fond of our own bodies and our own shapes? Of course not.
But we need to consciously choose to relate to our bodies and the bodies we see in a healthy way.
We must strive to separate health from body image.
We must appreciate our bodies, not as a representation of us, but as a home that exists for us.
We must curate our experiences to not allow that appreciation to be corrupted.
We must take action to nourish and strengthen the body to ensure that it functions as we need it to.
We must see beauty in that functionality and appreciate who lives in that body, not just the body itself.
Whether we talk about it openly or not, most people struggle with body image to some extent, even people who meet society’s standards for beauty. These standards are created and reinforced by the cis-white-hetero-patriarchy that our world has been built around. They do not really appreciate or embrace deviations from that which is deemed culturally familiar or attractive to the most dominant class of humans. People with different skin-tones, different shapes or those who diverge in some way from that standard are excluded, tokenized or otherwise treated as less-than.
While these systems must change, and are changing with time, no one is exempt from the toxicity. We all are poisoned by this ideology no matter how well we meet the ridiculous standards that are pushed on us. We all feel we could be “better IF”.
"I would be better IF I didn’t have so much fat right here”
“I would be better IF this part was bigger.”
“I would be better IF this part was smaller.”
These are all words that have floated around my brain on a daily basis, even today. When I first became a trainer and I was asked to approach people in a gym to sell personal training, it became a huge issue for me. In this environment, my physical stature seemed to be a literal representation of my capacity to get people the results I was asking them to pay me for. I felt that my body had become a walking resumé for all to read and scrutinize. I was petrified of the thought of not being successful due to having a physique that wasn't impressive. Though I acted like it didn't affect me, I was petrified that some other trainer or client might dismiss me or my expertise based on the size of my biceps. It often felt that every aspect of my life might be improved if these gripes I had about my body could be resolved. It took me years to recognize that fitness is relative, and it wasn't my body that needed to change, it was my attitude and my environment.
These "better IF" qualifications, which are more or less presumed facts about our physical self, are so damaging to our sense of self-worth. They get in the way of us looking at our bodies as the fantastic biological wonders that they are. The distribution of fat on your body, the width of your shoulders, your height - these are all things that have no bearing on your health as a person, nor are they things that can change. They also have no bearing on your worth as a person, and we need to recognize that a lot of the media we consume subliminally tells us otherwise.
Curate your space.
Love your body and have gratitude for what it does for you.
Cultivate your identity through your passions and values, not your appearance.