Society’s Gaze on Body Image

As I’m on hold with the pharmacy, the automated system is telling me that women feel significantly more insecure after seeing a Photoshopped image. The recording encourages women to post photos of themselves without any makeup on, without any filters, no editing whatsoever, and to add the hashtag “Beauty Unaltered.” The problem is that this campaign is sponsored by companies that only use models and actresses—Neutrogena, CoverGirl, Revlon, and Loreal, to name a few. It’s not about the Photoshopping that removes a few freckles. It’s the standardizing of what it is to be considered beautiful. These companies suggest the standard, “thin women, with high cheekbones, perfect white teeth, who do not need to use the products they are selling.” It’s no coincidence this campaign was created during the holidays. It’s a marketing ploy.

You hear the same jokes every year about gaining weight during the holidays. It’s a strange paradox that we associate the food and beverages that we love with this pseudo-gluttony. The aftermath is that the average middle-class American carries around extreme guilt and a drive to undo the weight gain. Being healthy unequivocally plays a part in our present and future. A resolve to hit the gym in the new year is among our perennial New Year’s resolutions.

Moreover, there is a significant difference between exercise and exercise addiction. Exercise addiction is real, but it is often a result of an underlying eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder.

For further insight on this issue, I spoke with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Melissa Lester Olson. Melissa specializes in women’s issues, eating disorders, trauma resolution, and coming out later in life.

“Distorted body image can result from many variables and various combinations of these many variables. Genetic predisposition, family culture, and societal pressures can come together in a wide array of constellations,” says Melissa. “One of the most common misconceptions is that they are rare. The number of people in the U.S. with Eating Disorders and or Disordered Eating is upwards of 75 percent of American women. In a culture obsessed with appearances and ‘the self,’ food has become an acceptable lightning rod for all of our other issues. In other words, it’s not about the food. It is about everything else.”

These illnesses manifest at a very young age. The Center for Mental Health Services states that 90 percent of eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25. And according to the National Organization for Women (NOW), 40 to 60 percent of elementary school girls are conscious about their weight or becoming “too fat,” a trend that has been rising since the 1950s.

Americans are vexed by constant reminders of their appearance, perpetuated by images on magazines, film, and, most of all, social media. The obsessive behavior is further driven by health gurus, athletes, yogis and personal trainers, and models. Their ample social presence passes them off as divine beings—traveling every day from country to country, standing on top of mountains, spooning water from their hands into the mouths of toddlers in African villages. Flaws seem light-years from their radius. But we know it’s manufactured, an analysis that can be simple to say out loud but challenging to internalize.

Melissa provides measures that can be taken to maintain a positive and healthy body image. “External influences—whether they be people, places, things, or culture—have a disproportionate effect on us when we are disconnected from the Self,” says Melissa. “Connection to Self must be cultivated over time. Connection to Self must be cultivated intentionally. The more connected we are to our own internal voice, the less sway the voices of others have on us. Developing an intentional practice of connecting to Self eventually leads to a strong and enduring sense of Self, and a greater ability to distinguish between Self and ‘other.’ Be curious and begin asking these questions. What fills me up? What nourishes me? What energizes me? More of this. What depletes me? What drains me? What upsets me? Less of this. Checking in with Self and learning to trust what you find is the first step in creating a meaningful, peaceful life.”

As the pharmacy’s automated message looped, I was brought back to the time before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sleep apnea, and had gotten sober. A time without prescribed medications, I relied heavily on alcohol and cigarettes. I was underweight, frail, and restless, usually sweating out hangovers. My medication put me at a healthy weight; a weight that felt alien but comforting. I received compliments, and insults, from people I’ve known my entire life and from people I’d see in passing. If others had noticed the change in my appearance—it reassured me that I knew nothing about women’s experiences. Being a father to my daughter made it apparent that I need to be better to ensure that her confidence is intact.

Melissa Lester Olson can be found at She has a women’s therapy and counseling practice and specializes in Women’s Issues, Trauma Resolution, Binge Eating Disorders, LGBTQ Issues, Coming Out Later in Life, Relationship Issues, Depression, Anxiety and Stress.