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More To Feeling Beautiful: A Closer Look At Beauty Ideals

Feet pounding the pavement, wind in my hair, air in my lungs, sweat on my brow, and my long-tongued grey-haired canine companion Ivy, running right alongside with me, I was...

Feet pounding the pavement, wind in my hair, air in my lungs, sweat on my brow, and my long-tongued grey-haired canine companion Ivy, running right alongside with me, I was feeling fit - fitter than I had ever been, so why didn’t I feel beautiful like the magazines said I would?

I shortly returned home and found myself in front of the mirror once again, scrutinising myself like a pageant judge; “I’ve lost 25kg, why don’t I feel good enough?!”

How do we look our most beautiful? What even defines beauty? 

Beauty standards have changed tremendously throughout history. I like to think we are in an important shift; recently witnessing the rise of body positivity. Which to me, has felt like a very inspiring and much needed movement.

As a woman living in western society, what is our number one sensitive point? Body image.

It's the sore point for almost all of us, or at least has been at some stage in our lives. This area often breeds shame and judgement from ourselves and also the rest of the society. Has it always been like this? Is it like this across all cultures around the world? I suspect not. However, it has been for many years; especially in our increasingly materialistic consumer driven culture over the past half century. 

Are we all just “material girls” living in a material world? As Madonna so eloquently described in her hit 1984 song. Well, I can’t give you a straight answer to that one, but I do know that the “ideal body” of a woman has undeniably morphed many times by society's standards. I would love to understand who even decides such a thing, or what triggers such a shift in cultural ideals. In my opinion, it is completely unrealistic for anyone to fit into any one box, for anything.

Like most women, I've endured my own body image journey; discovering the issues at heart were deeply rooted in shame and judgement through an incessant drive to “look more beautiful.”

If you had asked me in my teens or early twenties what defines beauty, I probably would have answered with all the things I saw on TV or in magazines; responding to the things I believed I didn't have…

Clear skin, a bronze tan, tiny waist, long straight hair (because mine is naturally wavy; so of course not “beautiful enough” *insert sarcasm*), long eye lashes, no body hair, toned body/skin, some muscle, and a “good sized” booty.

Something similar to this list anyway… The point I’m making is that all of these “ideals” are based on appearance alone. Today, my answers to this question would be significantly different.

Back then, I did everything in my power to acquire all these “ideals” - I even took up vigorous exercise regimes and lost a ton of weight. But what else was I losing in my approach?

Unfortunately, even after losing all the weight, I still didn't feel much “more beautiful.” Ugh, what an anti-climax. Have you ever been so excited about reaching a goal only to get there, and feel no different? You see, I didn’t “feel” more beautiful, even though I looked different. What I’m bringing to your attention here is precisely around the word “feel”. The big question is; is it really all about looking beautiful, or is there more to it?

The experience of losing all of the weight opened a massive can of worms for me that I didn’t realise existed. I became obsessed with the way I looked. I was constantly looking in the mirror, taking regular photos and even looking at comparison shots to confirm to myself how much my appearance had changed.

Dressing myself became far more complicated than it had ever been before. I would ask, is this top too baggy? I need other people to see how much smaller I am. If I wear something too baggy, then they won’t be able to tell that I've lost weight. This top is so tight I feel like I have to suck in the whole time I'm wearing it so I look even smaller. It became (and felt) suffocating. In my head I knew I was a lot smaller than before, but my insecurities were still there. I couldn't for the life of me understand why I didn't feel different?! It was so frustrating. I believed that if I acquired these “ideals” that I would feel more beautiful. So why didn't I? 

I’ve come to realise that body image isn't something you can improve by changing externally. It can feel very confusing, frustrating, and self defeating if we have changed ourselves on the outside (in the hopes of feeling more beautiful), but neglected to pay attention to our internal beliefs, shame, and judgements surrounding our body image and the perception we have of ourselves; in doing so, we don’t see what’s actually in front of us, but rather, a distorted image created from the perception we have of ourselves.

For me, this was a massive red pill to swallow. So, if the most impactful work we can do to feel more beautiful comes from the inside, is the outside just obsolete? Not quite. I don’t believe it’s obsolete. Instead, I believe it's a mixture of both. I believe we all have “an optimal body” at which we are able to feel most authentically ourselves while physically functioning in our lives the way we most desire, feel comfortable and confident, and be the healthiest version of ourselves, in all its definitions.

Only you can decide what your optimal body is, no one else can tell you, because it's not only about how you look; it's about how you feel in your body.

I used to think that if I learned to love myself exactly as I am, and fully accepted the way I looked, that I would “let myself go'' - so to speak. But what actually happened was that the more I got to know myself on the inside, the more love I started to give myself, and as my acceptance grew for all that I am, I naturally shifted more into my optimal body. It was through love that this shift happened, whereas previously, any changes or shifts in my body had been through shame and judgement. It seems ludicrous to think that we could shame or judge ourselves into feeling more loved, yet it’s been so normalised in our society, that we don’t even notice it. It’s scary how blind we can be to the social norms we live in.

If you were to ask me now what defines beauty, I would say confidence, self acceptance, kindness and compassion (including for self), courage, passion, commitment, vulnerability, and an open mind.

The mind and body are directly linked. If you don't take care of your mind and emotional wellbeing, it will show up in the body, and the body will find a way to communicate with you one way or another.

Next, I want to share five strategies with you that help rewrite our internal judgments and beliefs about ourselves. Think of it as a little practical guide to help kick-start some long-lasting self acceptance.

  • Unfollow anyone on social media who makes you feel like you’re not good enough. Anyone who triggers feelings that you need to change who you are and what you look like - to be more like them. There are many body positive role models out there of all shapes and sizes who have cultivated their own sense of internal acceptance and are loving themselves in their optimal body. Following along and watching those who arent is self torture, this is a loving reminder to stop doing that to yourself.
  • Donate away those jeans in your closet that make you feel like you can't breathe or eat, along with the “I’ll fit again one day” size. They won't stop making clothes in all sizes. You can always buy more later, but keeping them as a reminder of you not being the size you want, is likely holding you back, not motivating you.
  • It’s been said many times before; comparison is the thief of joy. Notice what comparing yourself to other people feels like. I don’t want to tell you to just “stop doing it”, because realistically it takes work for this, and perhaps never completely goes away. Just try to catch yourself as it happens, and notice how you're able to turn it around.
  • Talking with someone or a professional therapist who “walks the talk” and embodies a healthy sense of self acceptance and compassion for oneself can be extraordinarily healing, especially if you realise your internal world is causing you distress. Sometimes we could all do with a little extra support than we can get from our regular lives. Over the years, it has been so beneficial to work directly with a professional I really vibe with.
  • Write a list of all the things you already love about your body, what you're able to do in your life because you have a body; what the possibilities of having a fully functional body gives you; and what your life would look and feel like if you showed yourself and your body the type of love you really deserve.

We can change our appearance in a never ending variety of ways, but if we don't feel loved from the inside, it will always feel as though there’s something missing to feeling truly beautiful. We only have one permanent home in this life, and it's with us for the entire ride. Take care of your body the best you can - from the inside out.

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