I have been talking to Polona Fonda about the battles women have with their bodies. Polona is a weightlifter, writer and advocate for strong women. Her online magazine, FONDA Strong is an inspirational resource offering engaging stories and profiles on all things sporty, female and, of course, strong. Here’s a copy of our exchange on women’s body image from Polona’s magazine:
Polona -‘I feel like I’ve been at war – with my body. And also with my eating habits.
That said, I am also a perfectionist, never satisfied with how I perform at something. Anxiety and shame are just two of a broad range of feelings I experience every day. But that’s a pretty ordinary life (for me).
What drives me, and millions of other women, to think this way?
I talked to Jessica Johns-Green, a counselling psychologist with specialism in performance and an accredited cognitive behavioural therapist, to dig deeper into the issues of body hate and disordered eating.’
The following are Polona’s questions and my responses. Our conversation is divided into 3 chapters. You are reading chapter 1.
1. Why so many of us struggle with body image and eating behaviours?
Assumptions about what women’s roles should be and assumptions about how women’s bodies should look are intertwined. So much so that these assumptions can be seen as biological fact rather than socially constructed perceptions that explain gender differences as well as reinforce and perpetuate culturally acceptable gender roles.
All that means that the expectations that women should be gentle, delicate and slender become the primary ways women are judged as normal, or not – judged as valuable, or not.
Women that fall outside of these standards are often stigmatised in some way, and this can provide an enormous motivating factor for women to see their bodies as a project – something to be perfected.
However, I would add that these gender specific expectations also have an impact on men who might be expected to be big, powerful and muscular.
Naturally, the media has a role to play, but it’s also important to recognise that while people can be highly influenced by media, we are not always passive receptacles for media messages. And, that the media is only a form of communication about the body ideals that already exist in society.
The question is not whether the media depicts unrealistic images, but what would make these images feel so valuable that women (and men) might decide to sacrifice health, relationships and mental wellbeing to attain these standards.
I find in practice with clients who suffer with disordered eating (overly restrictive, over eating or a combination of both), that somewhere along the line, it has started to feel that perfecting the body means perfecting something else in life.
It might create a sense of control, predictability or security when life feels out of control or frightening. It might be a way of calming emotions, like fears of rejection or failure. It might provide a rush, through exercising discipline or being overly indulgent, and a distraction from the less comfortable aspects of life.
Whatever is being satisfied by the body focus, disordered eating only makes the underlying problem worse.
Unfortunately, much in society and life reinforces the idea that perfecting the body makes life more perfect, and these deeply held, culturally pervasive beliefs don’t shift easily. They can be so central to our sense of self and relationships, that it seems like the natural order of life that leaner women are more successful women.
Breaking free, and gaining a healthier body image, is about drawing these underlying beliefs out and questioning them for what they are – just one way to see things.
2. Disordered eating and obsessive weight loss seem a bigger problem today than a century ago?
Women’s bodies have always been objects to perfect, scrutinize and judge, but it really took on a different form with the rise of media in the 20th century and increased availability of images.
People started being exposed to ‘ideal’ bodies and the mass produced message that being perfect in body will equate to happiness in other areas of life – love, success and happiness all being tied up in body shape.
Body shape becomes intertwined with ideas about self control, self worth and righteous living which carry a source of culturally defined power.
In short, being a good person is often confused with looking a certain way, and this is reinforced by society.
People might be more stressed and less happy compared to 100 years ago in part because these body standards are so powerful and pervasive.
You are totally right that food, especially food that provides a quick, predictable and pleasurable sensations is widely available, more than it ever was in previous generations. But I would add that in this age of social media, our lives are lived with increasingly wider awareness of how other people look and how they live. This might have the illusion of connectedness and being part of something, but is more likely to fuel feeling isolated, worthless and helpless.
These are stresses that might seem small compared things that people dealt with 100 years ago, like wars, poor health and poverty. In those kinds of stresses, people just want to feel safe, have food and shelter – have basic needs met.
While stressors today are different, our bodies are built in the same way they always have been, and we will feel driven to satisfy uneasiness, stress and fear by finding ways to feel safe and happy.
Unfortunately, this means that stressors that have no simple or easy solution – like feeling unworthy compared to others on social media or being sad about a terrorist attack – are often coped with using food.
Our bodies and brains are built to seek out the nice feelings food can give when we feel bad. It’s just that in our society, this quick fix, feel good foods are far easier to get than they ever have been.
3. I feel like being a woman my job is to self-criticize myself, to bring myself down… to never be satisfied with myself. I can see a lot of women feel that way?
I know many women feel this way, too. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
Historically, women have been expected to be nice, kind and overly concerned with the needs of others, and there are still people out there who share this more ‘traditional’ view of women.
While this is a struggle, no one ever benefits from maintaining their role as a victim. That means taking responsibility for ourselves by being true to our feelings – saying ‘no’ and ‘yes’ when we want to, rather than when we believe we should.
These rules apply regardless of gender, and although people can feel trapped in traditional sex roles, I have also seen individuals make brave choices to be more real with themselves and those around them.
I wouldn’t really focus on men suppressing women, although that can happen. It’s just not normally useful to blame. Instead, I would ask women in this position to think about what consequences they fear if they start to assert themselves.
Often we are afraid of rejection, abandonment, judgement and criticism. These are all tough, but are not insurmountable barriers to a more fulfilling, happier life.