Success tends to be defined as having a lucrative career, an ultra-lean body and a whirlwind social life. But what if we defined it instead as having meaningful connections, radiant health and a great work-life balance? What if we judged each other not by our size but by our values?
Idealistic it may be, but unless we strive to find value in more than just the way we look, a healthy self-esteem and positive body image will continue to be out of reach for just about everyone.
According to Elizabeth Venzin, CEO of Mind Shift – The National Self Esteem Initiative, over time low self-esteem can lead to more serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety if it isn’t addressed. Low self-esteem can also be a precursor to body dissatisfaction for both men and women.
“When we’re really down on ourselves or, even worse, are suffering from depression or anxiety, we can become our own worst enemies and fixate on our appearance as a fault,” Venzin says. Mind Shift is a non-profit organisation working with individuals, schools and corporations to improve people’s self-worth and purpose by making a positive mind shift in how they see themselves.
The impact of how we feel about our bodies should not be underestimated – it can infiltrate every aspect of our lives and affect our sense of happiness and wellbeing.
If you accept, appreciate and respect your body, you are likely to be one of the few people with a healthy body image. On the flipside, if you feel anger or shame about your body, your body image could be better. Focusing on more than just how we look may be the key to a healthy self-esteem but it isn’t easy to achieve when our looks tend to be valued more than any other attribute.
Australian research shows that 45 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men in the healthy weight range think they are overweight. At least 20 per cent of women who are underweight think they are overweight and are dieting to lose weight.
Women often aspire to the super-skinny ideal, despite the fact we are naturally different shapes and sizes, and men are under increasing pressure to achieve an ideal of their own: the ripped look.
“For boys, that’s been happening over the past seven years,” says Christine Morgan, CEO of Butterfly, a foundation providing resources and support for people with eating disorders. “For girls, it’s been there endemically for decades.”
In reality, she says, very few girls are genetically predisposed to have the waif-like slender figure they aspire to have.
“In many cases, they’re fighting their own genetics but believe they’ve got to be this thin ideal if they’re going to be successful and find a partner and have a wonderful life … we live in a culture where too often our bodies define our values and define our self-worth rather than us concentrating on what our bodies can do.”
What many people don’t realise, Morgan says, is that when people deprive themselves nutritionally to achieve unattainable body ideals, it can start to drive neurological changes in the brain. If they have a genetic vulnerability, the environmental stressor of not eating enough can be the trigger that tips people into an eating disorder.
“And then you can’t just exercise willpower and get out of it,” Morgan says. Recovery is possible, but she says it’s a complex path involving medical, psychological and dietetic treatment.
It’s no longer just adolescents that struggle with body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem; women are now vulnerable in two other life stages, too – after giving birth, when the focus is on getting back to their pre-baby weight, and after menopause, when women’s bodies put down a layer of oestrogen-rich fat to protect their bones.
“We’ve moved as a society from letting our bodies do what they’re physiologically programmed to, to saying it’s much more important that you shouldn’t put on weight,” Morgan says.
“When you meet someone who is comfortable in her own skin and is just healthy, natural and her own self, she will look great just as she is,” Morgan adds.
Butterfly runs a phone and online helpline for people with eating disorders and those who care about them, and launched an awareness campaign in May called Don’t DIS My Appearance, where people are encouraged to paint the fingernail of their middle fingers. The idea is to deliver the message that you don’t want to be judged on how you look. “Judge me on my values, or what I’ve just done, or what I’ve just said, but don’t judge me on my appearance,” Morgan says.
Accept who you are
Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier is well aware of the impact societal values can have. He’s the global chief strategy officer of Cummins & Partners, a creative media agency that has developed advertising campaigns for Heidi Klum Intimates and L’Oréal, among many others.
“There are lots of messages in society – and I’m responsible for a lot of them – that say you’re not okay as you are, you have to be something else,” Ferrier says.
“In advertising, actual self plus brand equals ideal self,” he explains. “A lot of advertising messages, whether consciously or not, try to create distance between the actual self and the ideal self. The brand is the answer.”
The pressure to be “successful” is everywhere we look. “In the media, there are lots of talent contests saying you can make it – aspire to be this, aspire to be that – and then in business, you’ve got to design the next app that’s going to take over the world, and how much money have you made by the age of 23?” Ferrier says.
“There are a lot of messages in society to say ‘achieve’ and ‘aspire’ and ‘be better than what you are’, but there are very few messages that say ‘hey, actually, bugger it, you’re okay just for who you are’.”
Gratitude and being thankful for what you’ve got is a “massive untapped answer” for self-esteem and happiness, Ferrier says. He also advises spending money only on things that make you happy. “Having a highly materialistic attitude to life is correlated to low self-esteem,” he says. “Spending on others, spending on experiences not possessions, spending on things that connect you with other people are all ways to give you more satisfaction than buying another pair of shoes.”
“We’re all racing and racing and trying to get more than what we’ve got. I’d love every child to grow up believing they’re okay just the way they are, that they don’t necessarily have to aspire to greatness; greatness can just lie within accepting yourself.”
Challenge your perceptions
Psychologist Dr Lars Madsen says poor self-esteem is an underlying issue for people struggling with everything from anxiety and depression to poor body image and eating disorders.
“People who have a vulnerability to low self-esteem are more likely to get fixated on body image and how they look … they get caught up in telling themselves they’re fat or unfit, and focus on it to the point [that]they become more and more unhappy.”
How we look is directly linked to whether we feel valued and worthy, but we need to look critically at what society is telling us about how we should look, Madsen says.
As well as the digitally enhanced images we see in the media and the messages we receive from the people who matter most to us, Madsen says social media can also have an impact on self-esteem and body image mainly because people put forward a certain picture of themselves (usually looking glamorous and popular) to which we can’t help but compare ourselves. “It’s very contrived and you’re only getting one side or angle, not a balanced view,” Madsen says.
“At the heart of body image problems are unhelpful appearance-related beliefs or ideas shaped through experiences with family and friends, exposure to appearance-related messages within the media and our wider culture,” he says. “Once these beliefs are formed, if they are not questioned or challenged, you run the risk of developing a negative body image that can contribute to reducing your self-esteem.”
Our cultural obsession with celebrities does little to help our self-esteem. But celebrities themselves face challenges of their own, not least a critical media and public ready to pounce on the slightest of flaws. Australian actor and Mind Shift ambassador Kerry Armstrong says there is immense pressure within her industry to look a certain way.
“One of the most disturbing examples is the way actresses are ‘scored out of 10’ in some magazines,” she says. “It’s so demeaning and so telling, because it doesn’t seem to happen to the men.”
Armstrong has been involved with a pilot programme at a Brisbane high school, where students post empowering affirmations about themselves on posters and videos as part of Mind Shift’s Glass Half Full Campaign.
“I felt utterly privileged being able to hear their individual stories and also share my experiences as a person who is often in the spotlight, and who has the very same highs and lows and battles with my own self-esteem as they do. I wanted to let them know that we are all in this together and how good it feels to lift each other up.”
Armstrong can relate to some of the struggles the students are going through.
“I had thick glasses, bad skin and was flat chested … I rarely felt good about myself.” At 16 she “got contact lenses, my skin cleared up and I grew breasts; it was almost a joke how quickly I became ‘popular’ with the boys … I wish I’d been able to feel happy about the attention, but most of the time I was overwhelmed and never really felt at ease in my own skin.”
Anyone can make a pledge in the Glass Half Full Campaign. Visit mindshift.org.au to post your own affirmation online. If you or someone you care about needs help with an eating disorder, call The Butterfly Foundation Support Line on 1800 ED Hope (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected].
How to Focus on your positive qualities, skills and talents to help you better appreciate your whole self:
- Say positive things to yourself every day and avoid negative self-talk.
- Appreciate and respect what your body can do rather than how it looks.
- Set positive, health-focused goals rather than drastic weight-loss goals.
- Avoid comparing yourself with others; remember that everyone is unique and our differences are what make
- Remember that many images you see in the media are unrealistic and represent a
minority of the population.
- There is no right or wrong when it comes to weight, shape, size and appearance. Challenging beauty ideals and learning to accept your body shape is a crucial step towards positive body image.