For the third article of body positivity week, Emily Godbold discusses body image, self acceptance, and why mirrors shouldn’t be trusted.
The disconnect between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us, and exactly which of these perceptions constitute ‘reality’, is an issue I find extremely thought-provoking in relation to body image.
Our society, one that bombards its women constantly with images of a very exclusive, unvaried and therefore largely unattainable ideal, has naturally given rise to a generation of women and girls who spend countless hours obsessing over the ‘inadequacy’ of their own bodies. This tedious self-scrutiny that we undergo on a daily basis can make it feel like we ourselves have the most complete perception of our own bodies. If it is only I that spends enough time looking at my naked body to notice the stretch marks across my stomach and the minutely different sizes of my breasts, then surely my perception of my body is most in line with reality, right?
The thing is, every time we look in a mirror, our response to what is reflected back at us is tainted by an ingrained criticism. In judging my reflection by a criteria that has taught me to consider certain parts of my body ‘flawed’, I am gradually desensitizing myself to the parts of myself that I’m happy with: the parts that, incidentally, other people are most likely to notice and remember about my appearance. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the parts we generally love about ourselves, or at least the parts we’re at peace with, are the parts other people love about us too, whilst the majority of things we dislike about ourselves others probably don’t even register.
I’m not in any way suggesting that self-love should be built on the foundations of other people’s opinions; the journey to loving yourself is highly personal and complex, and its progress can be hindered by so many factors and pressures. What I am suggesting is that we can learn from the less harsh, less critical perspectives of the people who already love us, and use them as a step towards loving ourselves. When my self-esteem is at its lowest, I try to view myself through the lens that I imagine my parents, my sister or my best friends, view me through, the same lens that I view them through.
Whenever someone I love or care about has confided in me about their own insecurities, my overriding response has been shock; most of the time these are things I’ve never even picked up on, but also I feel upset at the fact that they genuinely feel these are their defining features. Our appearance is not the only thing we become partly desensitized to; trying desperately not to sound like the world’s biggest cliché, it really is what’s inside that shines through. Love for others is never based solely on appearance, and nor should love for yourself be. Mirrors do not reflect kindness, loyalty, tolerance, respectfulness; they don’t reflect intelligence, funniness, creativity, wisdom, or strength. These qualities, which I for one place on a far higher pedestal than I do physical appearance, can only be recognised by other people and by yourself. The fact that mainstream media chooses to emulate solely what can be just as well reflected in a piece of glass, speaks volumes of its worth.
This disconnect between perception of self and perception by others manifests itself in so many aspects of life. For me, a lack of self-confidence grounded primarily in insecurity over being ‘fat’ (a word whose negative connotations entitle it to an article of its very own), and a consequent fear of others confirming this, has held me back for way too long. Through secondary school, I remember feeling embarrassed talking to boys out of fear they would be embarrassed to be seen with a fat girl; (eventually I had the revelation that any guy who did think that way wasn’t someone I’d want to talk to anyway). However, what I’ve finally started to realise is that maybe this confirmation isn’t inevitable; for every negative comment I’ve ever received about my body, I’ve received a hundred compliments. Please try to keep in mind that so often our low self-esteem stems from an insecurity whose significance we ourselves have escalated through criticism, and which to others holds little, if any, significance at all.
Illustration by Emily Godbold