Culture matters, and it's time to #considerculture.
The role of culture in shaping our perceptions of body image is often undermined or even completely ignored, which is problematic because cultural practices and beliefs fundamentally shape us, both mentally and physically.
The "Culturally Shaped" campaign explores the stories of individuals who reflect upon how the way that they think about their own and others' bodies are influenced by the culture that they grew up in.
WANT TO GET INVOLVED IN THIS CAMPAIGN? It's simple! All you have to do is to send the following to firstname.lastname@example.org:
- A photo of you, with the words "culturally shaped" written somewhere on your body or included somewhere in the photo
- A caption describing how your culture has shaped your ideas about body image.
Vivian's story: Learning to listen
They’re the first thing other people see of us, before they hear our voices, discover our intellect, catch our sense of humor. Our bodies, we are told, are incredible wonders of biology with their range of adaptation, physical movement, and vitality. In that same breath, our bodies also become the basis of first impressions, vehicles of expression, battlefields for political and moral contentions, and measures of self-worth.
People always seem to require things of our bodies. The first comment from a Chinese relative whom you haven’t seen in years (or possibly ever), a comment that often comes right after (or in the stead of) “hello”, will include an assessment of the darkness of your skin, the width of your thighs and stomach, and the size of your eyes. Of course there are cultural norms in place here and none of it is meant in malice or to offend, in fact it’s often done as a gesture of care or kindness or is simply thought of as an average conversational point.
Dance instructors and sports coaches necessarily require things of our bodies, but the ways in which these demands come at young impressionable minds make all the difference. Figures of authority tell us in implicit and explicit ways about all the types of shame we should feel about our bodies, from condemning the blood between our thighs to encouraging camouflage of aesthetically unsatisfactory truths to declaring the responsibility of “asking for it”.
Media, a cornerstone of the modern body image conversation, also plays a heavy hand in the creation of body image ideals- often in very complex and intersectional ways. Slighter examples also appear in everyday life and can be easily recognizable, such as a (likely common) memory from when I was around four or five, standing on the playground with friends after watching some Disney film featuring women who had waists as thin as their necks. All of us were pulling at our stomachs, trying to discern skin from muscle from fat.
A lot of this commentary feels like “suck it up” whining, even as I type it out, because there exists this idea that we shield our children too much in this era of “everyone gets a blue ribbon!” and pad their worlds with lies and soft emotional tip toeing. Additional to that is a shame and entitlement in speaking about relationships with our bodies—as someone who has the privilege to be able to express rather freely with my body in how I present it to the world, to not face an eating disorder, to not worry about getting enough nutrition in my next meal or whether the physical state of my body will allow me to complete every-day activities with little mobile difficulty, to not struggle with dissonance between my gender and biological sex, etc. it often feels as if the difficulty I have with respecting my body and allowing myself to take full ownership of it should crumble at the seeming insignificance that these issues hold when put in perspective.
But the permeation of poor relationships with our own bodies and the resulting adverse effects across genders and ages in a society where we have the luxury and also the burden to treat bodies as more than vehicles to survival and reproduction is undeniable. "It could be worse" does not erase the existence of these issues and is not an excuse for avoiding them. Problematic ways of viewing bodies are normalized and common, though they range in effect and intensity.
Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I struggled, like most others, with various aspects of body image. However, it wasn’t until this past year that I truly realized the relationship that I had with my body. Growing up, I went through stages and phases of dissatisfaction with my body. Not being thin enough, not being athletic enough, having shoulders that were too broad, having lungs that were too weak, having hair that was too straight and too dark, having features that were flat and bland, having skin tinged yellow so that when it tanned it browned and yellowed further instead of turning golden… yet through each gradual struggle and acceptance, I never realized what my body truly meant to me and how I viewed it in the most basic sense.
Up until this past year, I only ever took from my body without ever giving back. And I took a lot. I used my body as the conduit to achieve my goals without ever seriously listening to any of the messages it was sending me. It was common for me to go weeks straight on 2-4 hours of sleep a night, to test the limits of substance intake, to ignore unexplained symptoms and severe allergies, and to physically exhaust myself even when sick to the point of vomiting and fever. As long as I could continue achieving at an acceptable level, health was an afterthought. My body never really seemed to really punish me for this and I was doing the things I wanted to do. Whenever my mental health needed attention, my body always took the brunt of the quick fix.
Suddenly in the past year, I broke out into severe hives that covered my entire body and face and lasted for months. I became constantly nauseous and tired and my limbs would periodically go numb but doctors first wouldn’t take me seriously and later couldn’t figure out my illness. It was the first time in my life that I couldn’t control the fluctuations of my weight, the depletion of my muscle, or even the way I looked as frequently my face felt unrecognizable and my eyes were too swollen to open fully. I couldn’t fall asleep many nights, and was often in too much pain to concentrate on academics, work, or my relationships with others. It was the first time in my life that I couldn’t ignore whatever physical discomfort I felt. My body had finally gotten my attention.
I was frustrated often and constantly felt trapped, but, in a way, I was also grateful. Though it took an onslaught of mysterious hormone and vision issues, the discovery of precancerous cells, and discomfort that I didn't have the capacity to ignore any longer to get my attention, these were lessons I needed to learn about listening to my body and prioritizing what I physically and mentally needed over what I wanted. I finally started seeing my body as a part of me- not just physically as a way to present myself to the world, as a brain that would learn all the things I needed to know, as muscles that would perform the way I needed/wanted, as a container for my person and all the conversations and experiences I wanted to have, and ultimately as a tool I would use to be the person I wanted. I accepted that it needed too, that it wanted, and that I should listen. I truly understood that it was a mutual relationship, not a dictatorship and ownership.
Body image isn’t often thought of as complex or important, and is often approached with a "get over it" mentality, but our relationships with our bodies affect almost every aspect of our lives. Yes, body image can be external and superficial, but it is also intrinsically tied to our mental, emotional, and physical well-being and surfaces in issues ranging from identity to self-esteem. Struggling with relationships to food, exercise, health, etc. may often not feel worthy of attention or care, it may feel lacking in severity or importance, but giving validation and purposeful thought to our relationships with our bodies is a necessary mentality for so many people struggling with a variety of body image obstacles.
Despite experiencing a sort of limitation unlike others I have experienced before, I am truly grateful to understand that pushing through the pain isn’t always the right thing to do.
Elaine's story: Beyond beauty standards
I am representative of beauty standards in Southeast Asia: I have fair skin, double-eye lids, a slimmer structure, a decent nose shape, and a good face shape. I grew up in a family that relies on the beauty industry to make a living. We sell clothes, sell beautification routines, and skin care products. Being on the side of perpetuators, I can say that beauty standards are dangerous. They drive people to hurt themselves and reprioritize other parts of their lives to obtain a desired image. I used to judge others for their inability to buy into the practices my family and other industry workers sell because doesn’t everyone want to be beautiful? However, I became obsessed with trying to be beautiful and took it too far. I whitened my skin, pulled at my nose to make it taller, waxed, got facials, and developed an eating disorder. Instead of a sense of accomplishment, I ended up unsatisfied with my appearance and bad attitude toward people who seemed to not care about their appearance. I used shame to project my insecurities onto others because the beauty standards my family upholds sometimes equates self-worth and beauty: I have fair skin which means I might be destined for a well-paid career. I have double-eye lids which makes me more desirable in the eyes of partners. I need to cover my blemishes which might affect the way employers receive me. These are not unique or culturally specific ideas about beauty. Many cultures in Asia value fair skin, double-eye lids, and flawless complexions for women.
I think what makes my situation unique is that though I changed the ways I think about beauty standards and its effects on people; I still perpetuate them as a member of the industry. I continue to recommend and sell to people products and services. However, now I am more conscious of the toxic approaches the industry uses, preying on the insecurities and fantasies of young people. Instead, I try to offer kinder messages about self-empowerment along side my recommendations. Everyone deserves to feel beautiful and confident, regardless of what beauty standards say.
Mikayla's story: Strong not sorry
I grew up playing a number of sports growing up. When I was ten, I played for a travel team that would run 2 miles after every practice and 2 miles plus interval training three times a week over the summer. During this period, I would compare my body to my teammates’ bodies, as it seemed that I was gaining weight from running but my teammates were leaning out. I remember thinking, “Why are my quads so big but theirs so small?” When I was eleven, I began swimming along with playing soccer. My shirts began to fit the same way, and I didn’t know what was going on. One day, I was sitting in the car with my mom, and she said to me, “Wow, your shoulders are getting much bigger from swimming.” These two experiences completely shaped how I saw myself. I remember looking at my teammates and friends and wondering why their bodies didn’t change like mine. There were not many female athletes at the time that the media showed, and I didn’t feel that any of them looked like me. As a result, I began to feel self-conscious about my body, especially when I compared myself to women the media typically showed and even my friends. As I’ve grown up and continued to play sports, I’ve realized that my body may not react the same to physical activity as others, and sometimes it does react similarly to others. At the times when I felt self-conscious about my body, I was also physically the most healthy I had been. The media does not portray muscular women as beautiful, and the sports culture does not explain that people may have different reactions to exercise.
Mira's story: Bollywood Body Image
At the age of fourteen I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. My self esteem, especially regarding my physical appearance, took a massive dip during the time of the eating disorder and month of treatment, and it never fully recovered. I understand that each “perfect” woman thrown in my face by the American media, with her ridiculous proportions and flawlessly airbrushed skin is not in any way genuine. But I have always struggled trying not to compare my own body to these crafted products of the media.
But that is the problem: these ever-present images are a product of a society with a distorted concept of beauty. The material presented by the media in India is not any better. The Indian film industry, Bollywood, is larger than the American film industry. Posters presenting both male and female celebrities with the aforementioned, unnatural characteristics now exaggerated by their tight (or lacking) clothing rather than looser-fitting kurtas and salwar kameezes are commonplace in India, plastered all over billboards and advertisements. Women’s perceptions of their bodies are more critical than ever in India with the overwhelming presence of Bollywood, an industry that has become more and more westernized in the last several decades.
Perhaps if we make more of an effort to change our perception of beauty here in the US to one that is healthy and attainable and strong we will see a change in beauty ideals in other countries so heavily influenced by American culture.
Steph's story: Where were the words?
I am culturally shaped. Growing up in a Chinese family and attending an international school, I was exposed to a mix of traditional Chinese values and Western ideals from a young age. In many ways, this mix was fascinating and exhilarating, but it had significant implications for my body image formation process during my teenage years. As I navigated through these crucial years of self-identity definition, I found an increasing number of conflicting notions between the cultures that constituted my identity.
While food was an integral part of social occasions at home, "Shape" magazine swore to teach me "how to survive" these occasions "without getting fat." While it was quite okay for relatives to greet each other with weight-related comments at virtually every one of my grandmother's birthday banquets, it was much less okay to tell someone at school that he or she had gained weight.
But never was cultural divide clearer than when I embarked on my recovery journey from my eating disorder. It was impossible for my family to understand how I had become so mesmerised by the ideals of the perfect body that I forced myself to abstain from enjoying the Chinese New Year treats that I would once beg for another piece of, why I would turn down requests for social gatherings that I had once anticipated so much because I was scared to eat in front of others, and why I had come to associate success and happiness with what my body looked like.
Seeking help for my illness was hard because neither me nor my family had ever approached the idea of eating disorders prior to my illness, let alone dream that I would be affected by one. How could I describe my anguish when I had no language for it, when I hardly knew what was happening to me in the first place? How could my mom bring me to find help when there was almost no information on how to do so? How could my family open up about my experiences when there was such a lack of understanding in our community that emotional and psychological pain deserved just as much attention and care as physical injuries did, when symptoms of an eating disorder were not seen as an illness, but of bad behaviour or of being "cursed"?
Before we even think about how to solve these problems - of stigma, of structural discrimination, of silent struggles - we need to first develop a language for it, and that means being willing to talk about these issues. We need to speak up to hear others, to open ourselves up to diversity in order to discover new points of connection.