20 Something Crisis Survival Expert’s Tip of the Month – March

Twenty-Something Body Image
Excerpt from Twenty-Something, Twenty-Everything
©Christine Hassler

One way in which we cruelly compare ourselves to others is physical. We do this because our awareness of our appearance, which starts in our teens, becomes especially acute in our twenties. There is no question that we women invest a great deal of time in enhancing (or criticizing) our appearance. Just think about the money we spend on grooming, new clothes, and gym memberships, and the effort we put into dieting, working out, and judging one another’s appearance, all in an effort to feel better about ourselves during a time of self-doubt.

After taking a trip during which she lost weight and was constantly complimented for it, Sandy, twenty, has become obsessed with her weight and what she eats. “I constantly think about my body and what I eat; I punish myself for eating something I shouldn’t; if I go out to dinner, I think about what I am going to order. I don’t like eating in front of other people because then I can’t do my neurotic ‘Sandy’ stuff. It’s like I’ve lost freedom and control with food.” When I asked her if she talks to her friends about her struggles, she said no. “My friends always say things like ‘Oh, I shouldn’t eat that,’ or ‘I am only going to order dessert if you have some.’ Not a single meal with one of my girlfriends goes by when we don’t talk about food or our weight, but we never talk about how we are really feeling emotionally.”

I shared with Sandy that my body image and my relationship with food started to feel less out of control when I started to talk about it. When I did, I found to my surprise that many other women had the same demon inside their heads. I began to feel less crazy and less ashamed. So many of us stay in our heads and allow the issue to grow. As we become more honest and give voice to those out-of-control feelings, we feel more balanced and less alone.

As I talked to women about their body image, most of the feedback I received was negative:

• “My self-confidence really goes up and down depending on my weight.”

• “I feel the extra fat around my middle.”

• “I need to get up and go to the gym, and when I think about what I had for dinner, I am usually disappointed in myself.”

• “My appearance is a major burden on my shoulders, and I am never satisfied.”

• “I’ve always struggled with my weight.”

• “I fight to even stay a size ten, which is very frustrating.”

Scores of books are devoted to body image and eating disorders. We will focus on how body image can threaten the sense of security we seek to establish in our twenties. A common tendency among young women struggling to find their identities is to allow their body image to rule their self-image. When this happens, the questions a twenty-something woman asks herself become even harder to answer. A negative body image that becomes a negative overall self-image has a ripple effect on other areas of life. Some twenty-something women report feeling so insecure and unhappy with their bodies that these feelings keep them from going after the things they really want. This dynamic affects everything from jobs (“I always wanted to be a performer, but I am not thin or pretty enough, so I never went for it”) to social events (“Every summer my friends go to the beach, but I never go because I know I would need to be in a bikini; now I kind of feel like I am on the periphery of my social circle because I’ve missed out”) to relationships (“I don’t date much, and when I do I usually end up sabotaging the relationship before it gets physically intimate because I hate the way my body looks naked”).

When I asked women, “On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being ‘Not at all’ and 10 being ‘I can’t get it out of my head’), how much time do you spend thinking about your body’s physical appearance?” their average answer was 7.5. That is a lot of time. Why do we expend so much energy on our physical appearance?

First, as we all know only too well, we feel pressured by the images constantly thrown in our faces and the ways that they define beauty. Alluring promotions for age-defying, fat-reducing, and physical-enhancement techniques are ubiquitous. Even plastic surgery is on the rise among women in their twenties.

Second, during our twenties, when so much is up in the air and our confusion about who we are and what we want feels so out of control, we might fixate on things we can control. And, for the most part, we are the direct bosses of our bodies. Some of us become obsessed with diets, exercise plans, and making carb a four-letter word. We feel that if we put our time and energy toward achieving a certain dress size, maybe we can delay dealing with questions that scare us, such as “What am I really scared of?” Beauty magazines, fitness gurus, and diet fads offer us quick-fix answers to the question of how to look good on the outside. However, answers to the harder question of how to feel good on the inside can’t be found in the aisles of our local drugstore. We need to take a good, hard look at how much our appearance determines our security. If we do not address our insecurities about our bodies and how those insecurities affect us, they will continue to weigh us down, cracking our foundation.

~Christine Hassler
20 Something Crisis Survival Expert, Campus Calm

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