Depression and Body Image: Why Appearance Matters
Today is Sunday and I will be meeting a friend for coffee and a chat. We both lead very busy lives as parents and so it is a big deal to get out of the house without the children. Ah…adult conversation! Much of our conversation is talking about the kids but then it usually veers off to talking about a topic most women love to discuss: Our changing bodies. Although we are 40-somethings we have been talking about our bodies and appearance since adolescence. The question of “What is happening with my body?” is independent of age. Remember sleep-overs as a teen and your friend trying on jeans and asking, “Do these pants make me look fat?” This same question is being asked around the world first to our girlfriends and then to naïve boyfriends and spouses who have yet to understand the concept of the little white lie. The concept of striving to be the “right” size or weight, pretty, sexy, and attractive is engrained in us as little girls. Yet these concepts are vague, ambiguous, and ever-changing. It is as though we are all trying to grab that elusive brass ring which never existed in the first place. And for some this struggle to fit in with our culture’s vision of beauty is depressing. There are many women and men for that matter, who suffer from low self-esteem and depression because of this insane ideal that we should all look a certain way.
In a previous get-together my friend tells me about her husband’s response to her baited inquiry, “Do you like my outfit?” His response left her puzzled. As we were browsing the jewelry section of the department store she laughed and said, “Get this. He told me I look good in a mature way. What does this mean?” I laughed with her. Just a hint: People past the age of forty don’t really like being called mature as a descriptor of appearance. My friend was so puzzled by her husband’s comment that she even told the clerk behind the counter about this transaction. The woman, who was roughly our age, smiled a knowing smile. She then countered with a story of her own of something her husband said that was less than complimentary. Upon our next visit my friend told me how her husband responded to my friend’s question, “Do you think I am gaining weight?” To this her husband looked at her and pinched her belly and said, “Sure you are a little rounder around the middle.” Although my friend laughed there was pain in her eyes. She was very hurt and then admitted that she was feeling bad about herself and her body. I took her by her shoulders and wanted to shake her. Instead I looked her in the eye and commanded “You do not ask such questions of your husband anymore.” I reminded her, “You are beautiful and you don’t need someone to tell you this.” She looked at me pleadingly and replied, “But I do. I need to hear it.”
If you think that appearance doesn’t matter look at the huge industry of cosmetics, anti-aging remedies, and plastic surgeries. The sad thing is that women who already look perfectly fine feel the need to drastically change their body to fit some ideal image of beauty. I am sure you are all familiar of the story of reality star Heidi Montag who, at the age of 25 had ten plastic surgery procedures to become “perfect.” Take a look at this HuffPost image of her before and after and tell me that she didn’t look better before. This type of surgery is not without complications and some people do die on the table. Music artist Kayne West lost his mother due to such cosmetic surgery complications. And as for Heidi Montag, she reportedly has said that she regrets her surgeries and she sure doesn’t seem emotionally happier as a result of achieving her vision of “perfect beauty.”
If you are feeling depressed that you do not match some standard of beauty let’s look at the lives of some of the people our culture does deem as “perfectly beautiful.” Elin Nordegren, the ex-wife of Tiger Woods is what most people would agree to be exceptionally beautiful. Yet her beauty didn’t make her any less vulnerable to being in a dysfunctional relationship. The fact that his wife was both sexy and attractive did not prevent Tiger Woods from having multiple sexual affairs. Kate Moss, a super model known for having a “perfect” look was the industry's way of promoting what became known as “heroin chic.” Her look was no coincidence as it was found that she had a hard-core drug addiction. And then there is Marilyn Monroe, a timeless sexual icon. Did her fame and beauty bring her happiness? Not so much. She committed suicide at the age of 36. Having a great body or a beautiful face does not guarantee that you will have healthy relationships, be less susceptible to mental illness, or that you will be happier than anyone else.
In an intriguing quote Marilyn Monroe validates society's insistence that girls and women be pretty.
“All little girls should be told they are pretty, even if they aren't.”
I find this quote personally interesting as I was told as a little girl that I was pretty. But my “prettiness” was explained as the reason for the sexual abuse I endured as an early age. For many years I wished to hide my appearance as I felt it was associated with being violated. I remember as a teen being asked why I walked all hunched over. In therapy I explored the issue and found that this was a way of covering up my budding sexuality. I did not wish to be noticed. For other sexual abuse survivors they may gain weight so that their appearance and sexuality are “covered” up. Our appearance can be a source of internal shame and depression regardless of what we look like.
Appearance does matter in our society. I would be lying if I said it didn’t. But perhaps it is time to look at the reasons why it matters and how to change this equation. There is something wrong with a society which prizes appearance over other aspects of self. Achieving some ideal of beauty does not equate with happiness or mental well being. This is an illusion we need to expose and put to rest.
When I tell my friend that she is beautiful this is no lie. She does not need to be a certain size, weight, shape, or form for me to see her beauty. If only I could get her to see this for herself. It is a struggle I fear most women go through. When most of us look in the mirror we are also seeing our harshest critic.
Here are some websites to help women who are feeling depressed over body image that I wanted to share with you:
• My Body Gallery: What Real Women Look Like Here you will see images of non-photoshopped real women of all shapes and sizes. I think it helps to see that most women do not look like the images from magazines.
• The Belly Project This is a blog dedicated to showing real people and their tummies. Here you will see bellies of all shapes and sizes. If you have had children and you have a pooch or muffin top you are going to see that you are not alone.
• Dove’s Evolution of Beauty video depicts a rather ordinary young women being beautified and photoshopped for a billboard may help you to see how much of beauty shown in the media is created and not natural.
• Miss Representation Trailer (2001 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) depicting how the media has created a skewed representation of women focusing more on their appearance than their intellect or talents.
We would like to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic. Do you suffer from poor self esteem or depression due to your body image? How much of an impact would you say appearance plays in feelings of self worth particularly for women? Share your stories and experiences. We are eager to hear from you.