Love your body; just say no to cultural conditioning
I came across this article today and it got me thinking about the work I’ve done with clients and myself regarding body images- how we see our own body as well as other bodies. In the article, the author asks the question: “Does geography influence the body types we idealize and are attracted to?” The author goes on to talk about the research done, and the results. First, the research: “There’s a lot written about the effects of culture and media on the bodily standards we uphold. But the International Body Project, a survey of 7,434 people worldwide, aimed to investigate whether there were more base-level factors motivating our ideal body types, too.” Then the results:
The researchers found that places with low socioeconomic status tended to value heavier female body types, while places with high socioeconomic status tended to favor thinner bodies—possibly because body fat acts as an indicator of status when resources are scarce. And the effect of media shouldn’t be underestimated: “Our results show that body dissatisfaction and desire for thinness is commonplace in high-SES (socioeconomic status) settings across world regions, highlighting the need for international attention to this problem,” the researchers write.
I happened to be reading something that further suggests that geography influences how we see our body, but contradicts the above study. In studying an Amazonian jungle tribe, Daniel Everett learned that those with body fat were viewed as lazy and untrustworthy (“fat means corruption”), because hard work and a strict work ethic were very much a part of their cultural norms. So even though there was a low socioeconomic status, they valued thinner body types, but for different reasons.
There are many variables that lead people to consider certain bodies as attractive, and others as unattractive, but it seems clear: geography and the cultural norms of the area are directly linked to body image. The ideas related to body image are passed down generationally, and literally become part of the culture and are taken as “truth”. If I look to my own familial norms and beliefs, as well as the culture I associate myself with, I notice that how I view my own body (as well as other bodies) is tainted with biases and viewpoints expressed by my parents, relatives and the culture I most connect with. Here comes the value of inquiry: if not examined, those biases will continue to hold “true”, and I will judge myself and others accordingly.
Body image is literally the way I imagine or remember my body to look like. If you have ever done inquiry, if you’ve ever looked at images coming from the mind, you will know that all images are based on imagination. Yes, all memories too are based on imagination- how we perceived or imagined events to have happened. As such, body images are based on perceptions- how we imagine or perceive our bodies to look. Woven into those perceptions are various meanings. In reading about the studies referred to above, it’s easy to see that beliefs and opinions about ourselves (and bodies in general) influence how we see ourselves (and others). Inquiry can help untangle those often-unconscious beliefs and opinions- the invisible meanings that are part of perception.
Inquiry can help us get a sense of how thoughts/beliefs, images and sensations are linked together. When I close my eyes and imagine my thighs, for example, what words arise? What sensations in my body arise? I might hear the words/thoughts in my mind say “urgh! They are too big” or “I’m so lazy.” There might even be commanding thoughts: “I need to exercise!” When I look closer on that image of my thighs that my mind has conjured up, is there an actual command anywhere on that image to exercise? Is that image actually saying anywhere on it, all by itself, that the thighs are too big or that I’m lazy? Or, is there an actual threat anywhere on that picture? And if you bring your attention to the body, is there a bodily contraction that seems to be connected to that image? If your answer is yes, it’s because you’re doing something that lots of us do all day long, which is velcro thoughts (beliefs), images and sensations together. Through inquiry, done on your own or with the help of a facilitator, those thoughts, images and sensations can become un-velcrod. And when they are, you’ll be able to experience a body that is not weighed down with images that are conveying imagined stories that aren’t actually true.
What is true for you? What kind of stories or beliefs do you attach to various body images, to your own body image? What kind of beliefs about the body have you accepted without question? What sensations in the body arise, as you even consider such questions? Take some time for yourself, rest, and inquire.
 Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes. Daniel Everett. p.159