The Female Experience: How do we view ourselves?

Body image is the way a person feels about and sees their own body. If you ask most women about the first time they ever felt insecure and ashamed about their body, they could probably describe that moment in great detail.

Hannah Kahler, a 20-year old, experienced these feelings of body insecurity in waves. “It was like a wave crashing, it came on slowly, inching and inching and then flooding over you until you go under.”

Kahler said the first time she ever felt shame about show she looked was in third grade.

“This boy James said I had the body of a teletubbie and all of our friends laughed, I laughed, and then I went home, cried and went to bed without dinner,” she said.

Heather Gallivan, a psychologist, said 80 percent of women don’t like their body and have more than likely taken some measure to correct what was “wrong” about their body. Some women could even recall the feeling of looking in the mirror and seeing a prison cell they’re forced to serve a life sentence in. Some women feel concerned about their body image as early as the age of ten.

Kahler knew these feelings all too well.

Many women, like Kahler, soon find themselves drowning in a sea of insecurities, self-loathing, and all the depression and anxiety that it comes with.

“I feel like a common misconception about self-hatred and hating your body is that it’s innate, and something you’re born with.” Kahler said. “No child comes out just automatically hating their body and for me, it was something that happened as a result of others comments and my own growing insecurities.”

Kahler recalled the first time she was criticized for her weight — it started in second grade. Her classmates begun making little comments about her appearance.

“Once I got to about second grade, other kids would make little comments about my weight. Whether it be flat out calling me big, or insinuating that I was unhealthy, the comments came more and more and escalated throughout elementary school,” she said.

The comments didn’t stop. They only got worse as time went on.

By the time I was in fifth grade I was carefully calculating which clothes would hide my rolls the best and trying to decide which pants gave me the least muffin top,” she said.

The most important part of the day wasn’t seeing her friends or school anymore, it was getting dressed in the morning and making sure any opportunity for hurtful comments was eliminated. “I was ten, but the most important part of my day was ensuring that I didn’t look as big as I was and making sure that people didn’t have the opportunity to point out any flaws or miscalculations in the way I looked.” Kahler said. “Any shred of self-love or confidence I had was stripped away.”

B the age of thirteen, Gallivan said, 53 percent of young girls are dissatisfied with their body.That percentage grows to 78 percent by the time they reach age seventeen.

Kahler said the year 2013 was the most memorable for her.

“2013 was sort of the year that everything fell apart for me,” she said. “It was the first time I’d ever broken up from a semi-serious relationship, the first time I tried to kill myself, and the summer in which I gained 25 pounds. It was by far the worst year of my life, and being in the hospital three weeks out of July didn’t help at all.”

The summer of 2013, barely out of her childhood, she was sexually assaulted. It was a family member and a year would pass before she could build up the courage to tell anyone.

“I was sexually assaulted when I was eleven and my relationship with my body completely changed,” she said. “If I had to pinpoint an exact ‘moment’ where today, I feel like I had an eating disorder, it would be seventh grade. We moved, my mom remarried and I was sexually assaulted. I don’t like to blame my eating disorder on ‘one thing’ in particular, but if I really had to, it would probably be the summer of 2013.”

Kelsey Rusk, who graduated with a degree in psychology, said a lot of different things can go into someone having a negative idea of their body. Any past trauma, social anxiety, perfectionism, critical parents growing up, failure or rejection experienced, scrutiny from a partner. All can contribute to the way you perceive yourself.

“Notice that they are all emotional factors, none actually being vanity,” Rusk said.

After moving, Kahler said her mom’s second marriage and the trauma of a sexual assault her body was a constant reminder of what was going wrong in her life.

When you’re young you don’t know the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, you don’t think about that type of behavior as being bad,” she said. “It [her body] started to feel like a prison, I felt trapped in a place I didn’t want to be. I wanted my body to be as physically different as possible.”

By the time Kahler opened up about the incident, some of her family members refused to believe her.

“Someone in my family touched me and I didn’t get the courage to tell my friends and mom until a year later. When my family found out, my dad and step-mom were furious and my mom and step-dad didn’t really believe me. They made me feel like it never happened and like I was crazy, and they made me stay in the house with my abuser for years and years which lead to years of trauma and emotional abuse,” shed said.

Rusk said the cause of eating disorders is hard to pinpoint.  “An eating disorder occurs because of a disturbance in one’s eating pattern that has gone out of control,” she said. “More often than not, they coincide with another issue rather than it being the cause from food or vanity. They are real life, encompassing illnesses that are treatable but usually have underlying issues.”

The Body Image Center estimates about 1,000 women die each year from eating disorders due to malnutrition, heart attack, and suicide. Various factors can contribute to disorders they can be social, intrapersonal, or psychological. Intrapersonal would be troubled relationships, sexual and physical abuse, and backlash from expressing one’s emotions.

Social issues are one of the more well-known problems, such as fitting into the “cultural norm” and striving to achieve the same body type shown in the entertainment industry.

“Entertainment industries only show men and women of certain sizes in movies, TV, or ads, and the idea that someone’s worth is only skin deep.” Rusk says.

Many symptoms of eating disorders can look like self-scrutinizing and self-deprecating comments about an individual’s body.

Half my family contributed negatively, and the other half positively. My father would always tell me that I looked like I’ve lost weight, even when I’d known I hadn’t.” Kahler said. “But on the contrary, my mother pointed out just about every pound I gain. Just a few weeks ago she told me I look like I’ve gained 40 pounds since I graduated high school.”  

Gallivan said that, by the age of ten to fourteen, thirty percent of girls have attempted dieting. This also includes various methods of weight loss such as fasting, smoking, vomiting, and laxatives.

The Body Image Center says along with family, dieting, traumatic events, social difficulties, and major life transitions also contribute to eating disorders. Social media can also  have varying effects on body image.

For Kahler, social media has overall brought her self-love and confidence up. Media as a whole though has done damage. For heavier women, there’s more representation in the media. Despite this, self-objectification still occurs.

The objectification theory supports this by saying in a society where women are viewed and evaluated based on physical appearance, they foster negative body image.

“Nowadays there’s a lot more representation but when I was growing up there wasn’t an ounce of fat girl representation and most of the world was fatphobic.” Kahler said. “But, being an active member of Twitter and Instagram boosted my self-esteem in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. People seem to be much more accepted there, I felt like it was okay not to be thin, and I actively posted provocative photos of myself. I have a supper not a correctly proportioned body, but people still embraced it and made me feel loved.”

Self-presentations in an online world impact users self-concepts in the offline world. Getting positive affirmations online can help alter one’s view of themselves in reality. In the last few years, a wave of body positivity has flooded both social and mass media. Different body types are being seen in movies, TV, and even music. However just because there is representation doesn’t mean it’s always good or effective.

My body type is absolutely not recognized or represented at all, period. There is fat girl recognition, but only if the fat is accompanied with big boobs and wide hips.” Kahler says. “If you’re like me, fat, small boobed, and straight like a board, no one really pays you any mind. It’s stupid, there shouldn’t be any ideal body, but there is, and it certainly isn’t mine.”

Social media can also have very negative effects as well.

Seeing high-profile people online with a “picture perfect” life and/or body can deepen insecurities. What it does to the masses is create deprecating self worth because they themselves don’t look like that when they roll out of bed. It creates anxiety because it makes people think they’ll never look like that, Rusk said.

“It creates depression because it makes people think they won’t be loved unless they look a certain way. What you see is not actually what you’re getting and I think that is the most critical thing about social media and what it conveys to the masses,” she said.

Gullivan says in the media young impressionable girls see “ideal” body images that are highly edited or have had hours of hair and makeup. Most images these young girls will see are highly fabricated.

In the last five years really has there been a surge of “Body Positive” campaigns from brands on social media to illustrate that everyone is beautiful. Which gives the idea that the industry is changing- but is it? That’s why it’s so important to be critical of social/mass media. Do these brands really want to be body positive? Or do they want to because it’s trendy?” Rusk said..

Gullivan says many magazines and online publications have content relating to weight loss and dieting, however, magazines aimed toward women have ten times the content than men.

Project EAT found that girls who read these articles on dieting or weight loss were six times more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors. Similar damaging content can be found on the internet known as thinspiration. It can be photos, text, and video to inspire and or motivate individuals to be thin. Posts geared toward thinspiration also support “pro-ana” diets. Pro-ana diets consist of starvation, little to no food, and various methods of curbing hunger. Google searches of pro-ana have nineteen million hits and thinspiration with two million hits.

Media as a whole contributes to negative body image daily. Representation for heavier women in social media doesn’t always resonate for girls like Kahler.

The problem with celebrities is that they feel the need to put down another body type to raise up another, such as Nicki Minaj saying, “f*** the skinny bitches” or Meghan Trainor saying, “tell them skinny bitches that.”  Some celebrities feel the perpetual need to put down skinny girls to make bigger girls feel better, Kahler said.

“I appreciate the attempts they try to make, in a way, but overall no one has really gotten the body-positive idea down,” she said.

According to Gillivan, over fifty percent of girls use unhealthy weight control methods, while only thirty percent of boys use unhealthy weight control. “I don’t think it’s fair to compare the struggles of each gender, simply because there’s an “ideal” body style throughout.” Kahler said. “Guys are supposed to have lean muscle, girls are supposed to be thick but only in the right places. I feel like girls are more sensitive to it than boys, but I think body hatred and negativity knows no gender. I don’t think it’s fair to compare it because men have unrealistic body images to aspire to as well, but women are definitely put on the line more than men. In my own experience, women are much more accepting of different bodies than men are.”

The Body Image Center estimates thirty million people will suffer from an eating disorder. With fifteen percent of young women living with disordered eating. While treatment for eating disorders is available, many forego treatment.

“People forego treatment for a variety of reasons. Mostly surrounding the idea that they don’t want to talk to a stranger about their problems. Many people tend to talk to their family or friends about things, and although the sheer fact of talking about their issues to anyone is key, sometimes a person too close to them won’t give the ‘outside the situation’ advice and counseling that a person actually needs,” Rusk said.

Many people are also concerned about the cost of treatment. “A lot of times people suffering think that it’s too expensive to find help but it’s very far from the case! Many universities, companies, and local community centers offer free counseling services to anyone in need,” Rusk said.

“Today, there are applications you can download that link you with real people to just talk through your problems any time you need them,” Rusk said.

Sadly, another reason people forgo treatment is because they think they can handle it on their own. “They think they can take care of it on their own or that people won’t understand what they’re going through,” Rusk said.

It’s always easier to start this development in kids. By letting children express how they feel and taking them seriously, instead of writing off their feeling’s because they’re a child, there would be fewer issues.

“A child’s emotions and feelings are just as valid as an adult,” she said. “They may not be able to express themselves as coherent as an adult, but that’s why it is so much more important to listen and help.”

Practicing why you’re upset and identifying what or who caused it can help eliminate influences for negative body image.

I personally tell everyone that everybody is beautiful. I don’t care what somebody’s body looks like, it’s beautiful,” Kahler said. ”It’s going to be a constant struggle, you won’t just wake up one day and decide you love yourself, but you have to remind yourself that no matter what your body is beautiful. Surround yourself with positive people. It’s little things like that that will make it a hell of a lot easier.”

Rusk said other ways to help would be to create a positive relationship with food, be a critical consumer of the media, seek healthy relationships, and explore who you are as a person.

“Remember that your body is a tool for success, not an ornament on a tree,” she said.

For Kahler, the ongoing debate with her body continues.

“I would love to say that I have a wonderful relationship with my body now, but it’s a daily struggle,” she said. “One day I wake up feeling like the baddest bitch, and other days I want to starve myself.”

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