Spirituality and Body Image

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Almost every one of us has something about our physical appearance that we would like to change, but it is only recently that I came to the realisation that our physical appearance does nothing to change our happiness in the long term, unless it is truly the only reason that we are unhappy.

Just like millions of other women I went to various "big name" weight loss salons in the search for a beautiful, trim body because I thought that this was the answer to all the things that made me unhappy. I bought their "magic solutions" in the form of pre-packaged foods and potions and lost all the weight that I needed to make me a new, beautiful, woman. I became very ill with malnutrition, since I was not getting the nutrition my body needed to survive. My skin yellowed, I had intense headaches, ear-aches and I couldn't stand for more than 5 minutes without fainting. People on the street would yell at me and call me a "f---ing junkie" because I had dark circles under my eyes, I was weak and couldn't walk straight or focus on what I was doing. When the doctors I visited found out how much and how quickly I had lost weight they told me to get out of their offices and stop wasting their time. I didn't understand because I thought I was doing the right thing, they had told me to lose weight all my life but no-one had given me enough information on how to do it. I gained back the weight I had lost and remained unhappy and ill for two and a half years. It was only recently, about 8 months ago, that I realised I was not just greedy as I had been told. I had an illness called a 'compulsive eating disorder', which is now under control simply because I have enough real information on the problem and have stopped looking for happiness in the advertising world's ideal of what a perfect body is. I actively look for things in my day to day life that make me happy and enjoy them when I do.

I don't deny the fact that I still dislike the way I look but I no longer strive to look like Elle MacPherson in an attempt to be happy I want to be healthier so I can enjoy many more things that my body can do and I don't wait for my body to change in order to enjoy the things that are in my life already.

The fallacy that a beautiful body makes a happy life is ingrained in women almost from the day we are born. Girls wear pretty dresses and don't play rough in case they hurt themselves or get dirty. Magazines and advertising portray perfectly proportioned women in perfect clothes and makeup but what we're not told is that many of these women don't really look that way. They are air-brushed images of so-called perfection. Their bodies are reshaped and smoothed using software packages that are designed to fool us into believing the lies that decades of fashion and advertising have duped us into believing, and so, when we cannot reach these ideals of what a "real woman" is supposed to be we purchase the miracle products, we follow the fad diets, we starve ourselves in the hope of obtaining an impossible goal. And if we are one of the very few that reach that goal we find that we are still not happy because we have not dealt with the real problem that made us unhappy in the first place.

In order to be happy with our bodies we need to be happy with our lives. Speaking from my own experience, I honestly thought that being thin would make me happy but the truth was that when I reached my weight goal I still hated the way I looked because I was still unhappy. I thought that I must still look 'wrong' because my life was not full of joy and love and interesting social engagements as the diet organisation I had been going to had promised me. I was only nineteen years old. I had been brought up on a steady stream of teen magazines and b-grade American movies in which all the happy girls were thin, blonde and pretty and the fat kids were objects of amusement.

At twenty seven I finally realised that the reason I was unhappy had very little to do with the way I look. I was eating almost constantly to cover up the fact that I was desperately confused about my sexuality and depressed about my bad childhood. I realised too, that I really did want to be thinner, but not because I thought only this could bring me happiness. I value courage, strength, the ability to defend the people I love should the need ever arise. These were the reasons I wanted to be thinner. I wanted my physical self to represent the things I value.

And so I finally understood that I did not need to submit to society's idea of beauty, or what a woman's body should look like. It is my own idea of beauty that is important. I also realised that I did not have to accept being overweight. I had to learn the reasons that I became overweight and the reasons that I kept over-eating so I could lose weight safely and successfully. And so now that I have begun to lose weight again I know it won't solve any problems in my life other than some medical ones. I look at those other problems for what they are and deal with them as they come along. I enjoy all the things and people that make me happy, and I enjoy them now, rather than 'when I am thin'. Just like anyone, I have some days when I feel insecure about the way I look, but I know I have the strength within myself to deal with those feelings because I like the person I am.

Sarah Bradberry, February 23rd, 1998

Copyright © 1998 Sarah Bradberry