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Women’s bodies are sensuous, miraculous bringers of life. Yet a vast number of women harbor feelings of displeasure or even shame about their bodies, maintaining a judgmental internal dialogue of failure and disappointment over their perceived body images. For many women, looking in the mirror exposes a series of self-manifested flaws for which clothing becomes a tool used to remove the embarrassment of any perceived imperfection. What is the root of this overwhelming presence of self-judgment and displeasure?
An answer might lie in the myth of the perfect body. American women are exposed to a constant stream of imagery and consumer propaganda which portrays unattainable ideals, leading women to believe that they are not good enough. ‘Perfection’ is a standard set by fashion magazines and movie stars, both of which present images of tall, young, exceedingly slim women with no visible body fat, toned abs, and unblemished skin that is airbrushed to perfection. Constantly bombarded with these images, many women equate anything short of this imagery to be failure.
The myth that Hollywood creates is difficult for even the rich and famous to maintain. Actress Kate Winslet has spoken candidly in the past about her own struggle to acquire the perfect Hollywood body: “Someone said to me one day, ‘Don’t you realize how much of your day you are spending thinking about your physicality?’ And it was so true. I realized I’d wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do I would look in the mirror. ‘Oh, my bum looks big. Oh, my face is fat.’ And I just felt, ‘What am I doing to my life? I can’t even think about others.’” Conversations like this go on in the minds of many successful women. No matter what their life achievements may be, there is still an underlying distrust and fear of anything less than physical perfection.
This unrealistic expectation of how a fit body should look permeates many aspects of our society, and is an illusion that hampers many women’s effectiveness and ability to maximize their potential. And yet it is just that: an illusion. According to statistics compiled recently by the National Eating Disorders Association:
• The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 140 pounds, yet the average American female model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds.
• Most fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women.
• Half of American elementary school students in the first through third grades want to be thinner.
• Four out of five children at the age of 10 are afraid of being fat.
Another study looked at how strong and repetitive these messages of not having the right body are in our daily lives. In examining 4,294 network television commercials it was revealed that 1 out of every 3.8 commercials sends some sort of “attractiveness message,” telling viewers what is or is not attractive. Over time this message of not being good enough can gain a foothold in even the most balanced of individuals.
Media messages, which place so much emphasis on physical perfection, help to create the context within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body. To the extent that social messages like advertising and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful and what is “good,” the power of these images over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong.
Once you have accepted that the portrayal of body weight as characterized in the media is unrealistic, you may wonder how to define good health and an ideal body shape. The American College of Sports Medicine defines physical fitness as a combination of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility. “By focusing on getting an adequate combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, stretching and sleep, and by eating properly, you can enjoy increased energy, stamina and improved health.”
Fitness can also be defined as the ability to successfully live the life you desire without being hindered by physical limitations. This definition allows individuals to find comfort in their individual body shape and identify their physical fitness in term of their life needs. Beth, a woman in her forties, has a strong sturdy frame that does not fit the norm of the “perfect body.” Yet she hikes, takes yoga three days a week, is very active in her work and community, and is filled with energy. “I’m fit and feel good about who I am. I don’t want to wear size zero. There are other things in my life that are much more important.”
So what are some of the ways that we can overcome these unrealistic goals of perfection, and what is yoga’s role in that discovery? Yoga provides a place where all types of bodies and mindsets can come together and experience their physical and spiritual selves. Through the process of experiencing the potential joy in connecting to the physical body without judgments or expectations, yoga can help release us from the power of society’s messages and the media’s negative external voice.
Yoga can allow us to appreciate all that our bodies can do. With every breath and every movement connected to the core of yoga, we can open our awareness to all of the wonderful things that our bodies do for us on a daily basis. Walking the dog, running, playing with our children, dancing at a prom, or working in the garden. Yoga overcomes the need to denigrate the body and creates an expanded appreciation of the complexities of the human body instead.
Yoga opens a space where we can appreciate the wholeness of our being and find the things that we like about ourselves. Seeing ourselves as a whole person leads us away from the mentality of “all I am is the person I see in the mirror” and allows us to expand out of the trap of a self-centered view of the world and our place in it.
Yoga can provide the confidence, openness and self-acceptance that makes us realize that beauty is not just “skin deep.” When we care enough about ourselves to commit to a practice of self-care, we create a beauty that surpasses that of any actor or supermodel. The beauty that we create in yoga is about spirit, and everything else radiates from that center, encompassing all aspects of our lives.