Every society has standards for beauty and acceptability. For the most part, these standards do not present an inordinate number of problems for the individuals in the society, especially when it comes to the basics for happiness and survival. However, for some, those standards can be destructive and can get in the way of health and happiness.
In our own society, and others that are considered “well developed,” the standards have changed over the years. There was a time in our country, for example, when the standard of beauty for women was a larger body size than it is today. Women’s and men’s acceptable roles in society also were different.
If you consider that happiness requires a sense of personal worth (self-esteem) and a feeling of general peacefulness with life, it becomes simple to determine which standards set by a society will be healthy and which will not.
Everyone wants to be happy and goes about life pursuing that happiness. However, that doesn’t mean everyone is heading in the right direction in that pursuit of happiness. A person can believe that what they’re seeking will bring them happiness when it’s actually making them miserable.
If the standards of beauty and acceptability set by a society are flexible and healthy enough, they can help people achieve a higher quality of life. If they’re not, the citizenry will push harder and harder to meet the standards only to fail repeatedly, creating a culture with higher stress and lower health, both physical and mental. Today we find ourselves in that situation. Despite efforts from many well-intentioned sources to make people aware that health comes in many shapes and sizes, and that rigid ways of eating usually aren’t healthy or sustainable, messages to the contrary have taken root and spread over several generations. It’s not uncommon for my patients to be their family’s third generation with cases of eating disorders, binge eating or body dysmorphic disorders. Many other patients come from families where it’s the norm to be focused on their bodies and to talk about dieting on a daily basis.
The culture is now raising children who are surrounded by family members, friends and a media that suggest that they should be preoccupied with their bodies and every morsel they eat. Their minds are confronted each day with messages that tell them that they are not acceptable unless and until they measure up to a certain standard of appearance and eating. This is why there are so many cases of eating disorders and disordered eating today.
As Jennifer, a high school sophomore in treatment for an eating disorder, put it, “Isn’t it normal to be preoccupied with your body? All of my friends are.”
Just because many people around you behave or think a particular way doesn’t mean it’s normal or healthy, or that they have the key to happiness and success.
A wise person considers the cost to themselves that following a group’s standards entails.
What most people who successfully go through the process of therapy for body image and other disordered eating and weight issues discover is that you have to let go of expectations and behaviors that lead to chronic feelings of inadequacy and embrace those that bring inner peace and self-acceptance. It’s the latter that ultimately lead to the happiness everyone is seeking. With respect to body size, weight and eating, it means realizing that rigid ways of judging yourself and food have to go out the window and be replaced by sensible and flexible approaches to health and beauty.
This is important even if everyone else is going down a different road — even if the society you live in is telling you differently. After all, you won’t really be in the minority (even if it’s the minority of your own society) because, if you consider the billions of other people in the world, you realize that most people aren’t preoccupied with their body and food. So, it’s really not the norm.
Take the advice of those who subscribe to flexibility instead of rigidity, variety instead of deprivation, self-acceptance instead of severe self-judgment, health based on scientific facts rather than commercialism.
Set your own healthy standards for weight and eating. Don’t let society dictate what will be acceptable for you if it means that you have to compromise your self-worth, happiness and quality of life.
Previously published in the Tampa Bay Times