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Body Image Trauma

DSC09415As an American woman I am conditioned to dislike my body. I am especially aware of this after having lived in Ghana for more than a year, where I am most definitely not conditioned to dislike my body. Actually, I’m affirmed almost daily. (No, catcalls and whistles from strange men are not affirming. That’s not what I’m referencing.)

Back to American culture: We are taught to catalog each flaw. Endless commercials, billboards, and advertisements tell us 1) we are wanting but 2) their product will fix the problem. This message is accompanied by a relentless string of airbrushed images featuring perfect skin, hair, curves and “thigh gap,” (which is totally incongruous with size D breasts).

No body or face can meet an artificially created ideal. Not even the actual people in the photos measure up to their “after” images. Different people handle this in different ways.

Some of us ignore our bodies. Others deprive them of basic nutrients. Others disconnect altogether. Other get mired in the hate. And some, if given the time, the support and the work, come to love and accept their bodies as they are.

And this acceptance is crucial. This might sound obvious but your body is essential to you. You only get one. If your body is unhealthy or injured, it’s hard to be anything but miserable. Your body’s well-being is entwined with your overall well-being. So hating your body isn’t like hating something else. That’s also why it’s traumatic to be trapped in a body in which you feel repulsive and unloveable.

The Problem

The website Beauty Redefined calls it “the normalization of abnormal.” What that refers to is the widespread use of Photoshop to “enhance” people who are already professionally attractive. In turn, that creates the false impression that perfect bodies, skin and facial features are not only possible, but common. The only conclusion for the reader, who is not in possession of these “possible and common” features is that she does not measure up.

The American Medical Association has recognized the harm done by these new “norms” and has a policy “to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those appearing in teen-oriented publications, that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.”

A man is allowed to have pores and wrinkles. Women are not. Unfortunately, Chanel is not the only perpetrator of this double-standard.

Eating Disorders: The Disease That’s a Symptom

Because the causes are likely so complex and long-developing, it’s difficult to pinpoint just what causes eating disorders. However, the National Eating Disorders Association states that narrow definitions of beauty, the glorification of thinness, the emphasis of valuing people based on their appearance, and stress related to how one is treated based on these things are all very likely to be factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders. This is also reinforced by the proliferation of eating disorder symptoms in countries that were directly related to the expansion of beauty image ideals of thinness and perfection.

The Wrong Way

Several years ago, I was watching a show about plastic surgeons. In interviews, they all agreed that they felt proud that their work helped to increase peoples’ self-esteem.

And cosmetic surgery probably does, for a little while. But a plan to boost self-esteem by fixing flaws is a never-ending quest. There’s always something else to find fault with, something else that needs to be improved. It’s also ultimately unwinnable, since aging is inevitable.

The Mindful Way

A more realistic plan is accepting one’s self as is. And not like, “I accept my appearance so I will let myself go.” Acceptance is actually the opposite of not giving a crap. It is in fact about owning what we have.

Basically, it means learning to feel at home in the body you have. Part of making a home is making a place ours, and taking care of it. Place is a home based on what is inside, and the outside stuff…well, that’s just what other people judge, and they don’t really know what’s going on inside, do they?

Again, we have one body and we want to treat it well. That means giving it healthy food and exercise to keep it and our minds in the best possible shape. It also means wearing or not wearing make-up based on what you enjoy. It means having as high or low maintenance a hair style as you want. It means wearing clothes that are very comfortable or very flattering or maybe a little bit of both—depending on what you want, not what you feel like you have to project. Because you really are beautiful, and the best thing in the world would be to see yourself as those who love you the most see you.

Body Image Trauma

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2019). Body Image Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Mar 2019
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