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It’s 2023, can we please stop talking about bodies?

by News Desk

Another year, another Oscars ceremony, where as much attention was paid to what actors were wearing on the red carpet as to their performances on screen.

But last week’s ceremony felt like a time warp back to the early 2000s, as the focus once again was on the size of the actors and actresses in attendance. Even host Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about weight loss drugs in his opening monologue.

At a time when eating disorders are on the rise and levels of body image distress at an all-time high, this type of commentary is problematic for a multitude of reasons – chief among them the fact that we’re still talking about bodies at all.

And it’s not just on the Oscars red carpet. It’s in the tearoom at work. At the gym. In our group chats.

“Babe, you look great, have you lost weight?”

“Oh no, I really shouldn’t have one, I’ve got to fit into a dress for an event in two weeks.”

“Do you think she’s had work done?”

“Hold the phone up higher or you’ll get my double chin.”

“Oh yes, 20 year olds are getting preventative Botox now.”

“If only I could look like I used to…”

Spend more than five minutes with a group of women and you will hear it: the talk of diets, self-deprecating comments, complaints about our bodies, the underlying desire for different ones, the recommendations of new treatments and methods for losing weight…

We’ve become so used to it that we don’t even notice it anymore. We do it with our closest friends. We do it with work colleagues. We do it with people we’ve just met in a shop.

We are constantly talking about our bodies and appearance.

Body dissatisfaction in women is so common that in the ‘90s researchers called it “normative discontent”. Research indicates that 91% of women would change something about their bodies. Most of the time this involves weight loss and, classically, the desire to ‘lose the last 5kg’.

Far from benign and harmless, this discontent can take over our lives, change the way we look after our bodies and have a significant impact on our mental health.

Why are we like this?

We often blame beauty standards on what’s imposed on us by others – celebrities, social media, magazines, advertising, even well-meaning but misguided family members.

But we contribute to it too. Each time we have these conversations, we convey what is acceptable in our ‘pack’. As social creatures, we learn from each other constantly, sharing knowledge and seeking reassurance. We take pieces of information from the experiences of others and look for group consensus on an issue. We compare ourselves constantly, sometimes without even realising it.

So when the conversations above happen, what we learn is:

“If Sarah thinks she needs to lose weight, then I definitely do.”

“Maybe it’s normal to be spending $200 a fortnight on beauty treatments.”

“I’m the only one in my group not having those injections – maybe I should start?”

“If I want to fit in with, and be accepted by, those women, I have to start being more presentable.”

“They didn’t say ‘no’ when I said I needed to start running again – maybe they’ve noticed I’m heavier now?”

“If I want more of this praise and acceptance, I need to keep this up… and perhaps do more.”

As if it’s not bad enough that ideas about beauty and thinness are being imposed on us from a young age, they are being endlessly reinforced by others. It makes us think that how we look is important – perhaps the most important thing about us. And it’s hurting us all.

Ending the war of words

It starts with realising that these comments aren’t harmless. Reflect on the last conversation you had that invariably turned to appearance – how did it make you feel? Being aware of the impact of these comments can help you to be more aware next time your conversations head in that direction.

After awareness we can start to do the work. Many women in their 30s, 40s and 50s have never had the sort of information, resources and programs about body image that young people do now. There has been no intervention to the body-related thoughts and attitudes, and the dieting and disordered eating behaviours we have engaged in for pretty much our entire adult lives.

How do we change these things that are entrenched and so socially conditioned? Compassion is a good place to start, for both ourselves and others – but mostly for ourselves.

There are more than 10,000 scientific articles about the benefits of self compassion and being less self-critical so it’s clear that it’s a good idea, but it can be really hard to do in practice. Get started by making a commitment to stop beating yourself up when you look in the mirror, and try to find kind things to say instead.

Once you’ve stopped judging yourself, you can start to become aware of your judgements of others (including celebrities on the red carpet). When you are less critical of others, you can be less critical of yourself too.

Changing the conversation

Next time you’re in a group of women and the conversation turns to weight and appearance, here’s what you can do:

  • Redirect the conversation: “What else have we done this week?”
  • Praise based on the process, rather than the product: “You look amazing, you’ve always had such a great eye for putting outfits together!”
  • Reassure without joining in: “Jess, I love spending time with you because you’re smart and fun and funny, not because of the size of your pants.”
  • Normalise acceptance: “I used to worry about my arms too, but now I just accept them – it was too hot to wear sleeves all summer anyway!”
  • Propose a big picture question: “I wonder what else women could achieve if we weren’t always trying to reach these unrealistic standards?”
  • Do it for the kids: “Oh, let’s not talk about diets in front of the kids – I’d love the next generation to be free from all the pressure we had.”
  • And you can blame it on me: “I read this article the other day, and this bossy body image researcher said that it’s bad for us to talk about ourselves like this. We’d better change the conversation!”

So let’s change the conversation – starting right now.

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