"Women have been brainwashed all our lives to hate our bodies. That's the fact of it. And everything that surrounds us reminds us how imperfect we are." Emma Thompson, Berlin International Film Festival.
When I first saw Thompson unreservedly address body image in such frank terms, I leaned back in my chair, stunned. I paused the video. I hit rewind, and I watched it again. Thompson was on to something.
In her recent movie, "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande," she, a 63-year-old woman, must be naked in front of a mirror, with no flattering retouches or lighting. Thompson must show her character coming to terms with her ageing, naked body and finding her way to a neutral acceptance of herself, a harsh exercise for most people. Thompson said of the experience, "You try standing in front of the mirror with your clothes off and don't move…. just accept it… it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do." I imagine it is the hardest thing any of us would dream of doing; it's almost too terrifying to consider.
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But Thompson gave me something else to consider. Why are women being brainwashed to hate our bodies? Surely, it’s not just to be more desirable to others. A depressing thought crept into my mind: our discontent with our bodies makes someone money. Look at any magazine cover on the supermarket shelves and count the ways it tells you to change - from cellulite erasing creams to tummy tightening ab exercises to learning how to be sexy for a man. The more we look at these messages, the more we become squeamish about our insecurities, and as a result, we buy the products and the beauty industry profits. According to The Intelligence Node, the beauty industry is currently worth $511 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach $784 billion by 2027. The unfortunate fact is that beauty products don't sell because we are perfectly content as we are. The whole industry is built on creating problems with ourselves and, in turn, buying their solutions.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where female bodies aren't celebrated as beautiful unless they fit into a prescribed societal ideal. This constant commentary on the female form can profoundly impact us. According to Paula D. Atkinson, LICSW, a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, "societal messages that we soak up from a very young age suggest bodies are either good or bad based on their shape and look. We're brainwashed."
We are taught to apologize for our imperfections, as if they are shameful, like being overweight or ageing naturally. It's as if we can visually offend someone by simply looking our age, sizing up an outfit, or, god forbid, looking tired. Women seem to be constantly open to critique, and nobody is safe from society's demands to look a certain way. Take, for instance, Jurassic World star Bryce Dallas Howard being told not to use her natural body in cinema; studio executives lobbied for her to go on a diet, she admitted. I find this a little outrageous because, for one, Howard is incredibly beautiful, and, two, the movie is, umm, about dinosaurs. It's hard to swallow that we can imagine million-year-old dinosaurs coming to life, but we can't extend our imaginations that a woman is beautiful when larger than a size 2.
The most troubling aspect of all this is that we look up to and aspire to be like the images we see on social media and tv, but we don't understand the cost. We want to assume that there is an elusive level of beauty, a woman who is so beautiful to be lucky enough to have zero beauty problems and require no solutions. They can eat what they want, wash their faces with plain soap and water, walk down the street wearing no makeup, and still look ravishingly beautiful. They can even sit in front of the mirror, naked, accepting without discomfort.
However, it isn't as simple as that. I recently went on a social media dumpster dive and found a video of Yolanda Hadid, mother to famous supermodels Bella and Gigi. In this video, Gigi calls her mother and says, "I'm feeling really weak; I had, like, half an almond." To which her mother replies with this. "Have a couple of almonds and chew them really well."
First, process the fact that was even said to someone, anyone, in the first place, and by a parent, no less.Then understand that Gigi was a teenager at the time, an age where attitudes towards food and bodies are often irretrievably shaped. Bella, too, admitted to having anorexia in high school and, according to an Insider article, ate "three raspberries and a celery stick for lunch." These are two of the most celebrated beauties in the fashion industry, the very kind of girls we secretly hope one day to look like if we just bought the clothes, wore the same makeup, or dieted just like them. And even they have deep wounds and struggles around fitting society's norm.
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So, this leads me to an interesting question. The antidote to embracing constant negative critique is to wildly swing the other way and unabashedly love our bodies, according to the advocates of the body positivity movement. However, I don’t think we can expect women to make that drastic shift against the beauty industry’s barrage of messages. I’m not saying that self-love isn’t the ultimate goal, but shouldn't there be a stop on the journey where a woman can sit, rest and enjoy self-acceptance? Self "love" is a powerful statement, but I don't think "acceptance" is any less powerful. It’s powerful because it’s more realistic.
Psychologist Susan Alders, PsyD, agrees. In her interview for the Cleveland Clinic, she tells us, "Body positivity is a subset of toxic positivity," notes Dr Albers. "Some feel that it blames people for how they feel based on their mindset. It can also push people into trying to feel something they don't." Alders suggests a middle-of-the-road suggestion: body neutrality. “As the term suggests, it is neither loving nor hating your body. It's based on the notions of acceptance and having respect for one's body rather than love. The approach acknowledges that your body is only one part of who you are — not the totality. It also shouldn't dominate how you feel about yourself,” she said.
I go back to Thompson, who shares her biggest lesson about accepting her body through this exercise. "When you look in the mirror, you don't need to say ‘what a wonderful body.’ But what you really need not do is waste your time, your energy, your passion, your purpose in life thinking you have to make it different."
If that is not a powerful and compelling argument to try and learn to practice self-acceptance, I don’t know what is. Are you prepared to try?
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach