Fitting In: Sociocultural Beauty Standards and The Psychology of Body Image

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Sarah Astarte, PhD is an  ITP at Sofia University alumna where she graduated with her Ph.D in Transpersonal Psychology. She provides spiritual guidance and counseling in Fair Oaks, CA. She and her blog posts can be found through her website

Her first book “The Lover Within: Exploring the Relationship Between Body Image in Adult Women and Archetypes of the Lover” was released in 2010. Her book was based on research indicating that negative self-image, which produces self-abusive thoughts and behavior, is a sociocultural problem for adult females in the United States. Body image is an important part of overall self-image.

We have re-posted her article on Sociocultural beauty standards here.

 

THE DREAM

downloadI had a dream one night during the week that I was teaching about body image and self-esteem in my psychology of women class. I was in the garden of a small house, and it had a large tree with a tire swing and tall grass growing in it. A young girl, about age four, with blonde hair and blue eyes, was my daughter. As more people gathered in the garden, I noticed that the little girl became more self-conscious, and her slender body became more artificial looking and like a doll.

At one point I was on the tire swing with her, and she hugged her knees to her chest, causing her to break into pieces. Her eyes became like glass orbs instead of flesh. I woke up feeling disturbed. Firstly, someone with dark features like mine is unlikely to give birth to a Nordic-looking child. Secondly, I felt pain at the thought of this little girl breaking and essentially dying. I sat with this dream for half the day, and as I reviewed my lecture material, decided to include a documentary about eating disorders to my class.

UNDERSTANDING BODY IMAGE

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 10.27.08 AMAs part of the lesson I have my students make a full, life-sized body map. I do this as a body image workshop as well. It is to take inventory of what we think and feel about ourselves. Each body part must be labeled with either a positive or negative message that we give ourselves. I instruct them to include scars, stretch marks, blemishes, freckles, and body art (tattoos and piercings). I also have them include emotional scars, and where they carry their tension, stress, and pain.

They write and draw on the map, using numerous colors, symbols, words and expressions. I have had both men and women taking a deeper look at themselves, some with curiosity, new awareness, reflection, and even pain. I have had a few people who will cry in the middle of the activity, as they realize that their beliefs about themselves are mostly negative.

EMOTIONAL REACTIONS

We walk around all day with certain thoughts about what we believe about ourselves. We give messages, often subconsciously, about who we think we are, and what our self-worth is. For some, their body image is relatively in sync with what they actually look like, making them people with a good amount of self-acceptance and even self-love. For those that have a self-critical monologue going in their minds, it has very little to do with their actual appearance but more to do with the negative image in their own minds.

After looking at a magazine for three minutes, about 70% of women have a negative self-evaluation. What is also interesting is that the images that we see are airbrushed and altered by computers. In other words, the images we see of perfect bodies are not real. Over half of all American women have normative discontent, meaning that on a day to day basis, they are unhappy with themselves. For men, this is about thirty percent, and climbing.

SOCIETY

8306032982_f261ac2c1e_bAdvertisers play on insecurities to sell consumers products that they do not need. Both women and men are sold on body types and proportions that are not found often in the general population, as about two percent of the American population looks like models. The average female model is about 5’11, a size 0 or 2, and weighs around a hundred pounds. The average American woman stands at 5’4, is a size 14, and weighs 140 to 160 pounds. Men are told to look extremely muscular and wear a large size, and stand over 6 feet tall. The average American man stands at 5’9 and is a medium to large size, and is not necessarily rippling with muscles with only 8 percent body fat.

Having an unrealistic standard to strive towards can lead to constant insecurity, fear of aging and changing with time, and continued discontent and unhappiness with one’s self. It burns a lot of cognitive energy, and can put a damper on anyone’s day. They are less likely to go out in the world with confidence. Negative body image and low self-esteem can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, unhappy relationships and sexual dysfunction. It can also lead to discontentment with life in general. Going through everyday disliking ourselves, berating ourselves, and not valuing ourselves can lead to a less than mediocre existence. The potential we have to be all we can be is diminished every time we look at ourselves in the mirror. Instead of seeing ourselves with love we see ourselves with loathing. This is beyond counterproductive.

No matter what we look like in terms of height, weight, shape, size or color, it is important for us to face ourselves. This is why I have my students do the body mapping exercise- even if we do not like what we see, before we can change anything, we must accept what is. In looking at and learning to accept it, we can develop a higher self-evaluation. Instead of having a berating belief, such as “My thighs are too big.” we could look at it as “My thighs are strong and part of the legs that I stand on,” “my thighs are part of me,” and “my thighs (and legs in general) help me to get where I need to go.” We can learn to look at something we have in a whole new way.

heart-914682_1920.pngWhen we realize how diverse body types and people are, and we can more easily find each person’s uniqueness and beauty. Our bodies tells a story of who we are and how we survived. They are deserving of respect, care and kindness. Our bodies will change with age, and that is also something to be patient with ourselves about, so we should enjoy the abilities we have while we have them. Like the little girl in my dream (who fit the standards of being the beautiful blonde but was more fearful of others judgments and had it ultimately destroy her) we can choose instead to give ourselves the right to live, just as we are. Instead of trying to fit ourselves into unrealistic outlines of appearance, we can draw our own lines and define beauty for ourselves, one person at a time.

Sarah’s first book “The Lover Within: Exploring the Relationship Between Body Image in Adult Women and Archetypes of the Lover” was released in 2010. Intuitive Inquiry was utilized to gain greater understanding of the relationship between self-image in adult females and the archetype of the lover. This research is grounded in Jungian theory. The archetype of the lover, when activated, can nurture one’s creativity, sensuality, emotions, body, and spirit, leading to greater self-acceptance. The work included a 4 session experiential process, in which co-participants engaged in creative activities such as collage making, body mapping, eating different kinds of foods, dressing up, dance/movement, and mirror exposure work. The groups of co-participants were ethnically and culturally diverse. This helped to deepen the understanding of the ways in which this archetype may be of service to those suffering from negative self-image.

ITP-logo_smallAbout The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Sofia University

Since 1975, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Sofia University has continued to be an international leader and pioneer, moving humanity forward in the areas of transpersonal research and transpersonal education. training clinicians, spiritual guides, wellness caregivers, and consultants who apply transpersonal principles and values in a variety of settings.  The Sofia educational model offers students not only a solid intellectual foundation, but an extraordinary opportunity for deep transformational growth and personal experience of the subject matter. How does Sofia University accomplish this? The university builds upon its strong, whole-person psychological foundation to give students a greater understanding of the human condition.

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