Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about body positivity and body confidence, with plus-size models, stars, and designers speaking publicly about body image, and a growing group of body positive influencers taking over social media. Despite this push to include all bodies in the conversation about beauty and self-acceptance, though, there are still a lot of women who feel uncomfortable in their own skin. That’s to be expected after a lifetime of conditioning, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
When we look at women who feel confident about their appearance and accept their bodies the way they are, there are certain commonalities. Specifically, these are women who recognize that the number on the scale doesn’t determine their worth, who are involved in activism and in their communities, and who have supportive friends. These factors make a big difference in their self-perception and they offer women the tools they need to navigate a world that can be hostile to those who don’t fit into a narrow mold.
Changing Mass Messaging
One of the most powerful factors influencing women’s self-perception is the messaging they receive from brands and from public figures. When a woman walks into a store and can’t find anything that fits her body shape or size, she receives the message that her body doesn’t count and that it’s somehow wrong. Similarly, when they’re inundated with advertisements for diet pills, shapewear, and other tools meant to make their bodies look slimmer and more conventionally appealing, it’s easy to believe that those tools are necessary.
What’s changing in today’s branding environment is that companies are starting to build women up without always trying to sell them something. For example, it’s easy to assert that no woman actually needs shapewear. The problem is that saying so would discourage sales, so companies don’t have any motivation to encourage self-acceptance. In our changing cultural climate, though, it’s easier for brands to sell confidence and a diverse version of beauty. In other words, if shapewear or makeup will make a woman feel better, then she should indulge in it.
Another way that our conversations about bodies have changed in recent years stems from the rise of a social movement known as “Health At Every Size” (HAES). HAES emphasizes that bodies are neutral and that we shouldn’t automatically assume that being heavy is synonymous with being unhealthy. As this discourse has penetrated the wider culture, women have been better able to embrace wellness over appearance, adopting practices like eating healthy and skipping dangerous crash diets.
Similarly, the types of bodies deemed acceptable has gotten broader as women take on the motto, “strong is the new skinny.” Such a perspective draws on similar ideas as HAES – Olympic weightlifters, for example, are undeniably healthy, yet many are technically overweight. This is true about many top athletes, which gives women permission to work out in ways that go beyond shedding pounds. Building muscle is no longer seen as unfeminine and getting thinner doesn’t have to be the end goal of working out.
Women’s bodies have always come in all shapes and sizes, but by giving women permission to be comfortable the way they are, our culture is acknowledging this fact in a new, inclusive way. For so long, women have been taught that discomfort was necessary for beauty, whether that meant squeezing their bodies into corsets or starving themselves. When we give women positive role models and represent a variety of bodies as beautiful, though, we give them permission to say no to the pressure to be perfect.
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