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Stop Criticizing Your Body And Start Critiquing Our Culture's Devotion To Thinness

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In my last blog, I encouraged you to make a different kind of New Year's resolution. Instead of vowing to do whatever it takes to lose weight and "improve" your figure, how about committing to practicing peace with your body? In other words, why not make a conscious effort to accept, appreciate, nurture, and enjoy body you have?

I borrowed the phrase, "practicing peace with your body," from my friend Cissy Brady-Rogers, who is a therapist specializing in the treatment of women with body image and eating problems. She coined the phrase to emphasize that making peace with your body is an ongoing process, rather than something you achieve once and for all. In a culture that worships the slender ideal and constantly encourages us to go to war with our bodies--to monitor, control, restrict, punish, loathe, "fix" and fixate on them--learning to live harmoniously in one's own flesh is the journey of a lifetime.

This journey begins when we wake up to the false promise our society has sold us, namely, that our happiness resides in the size of our bodies. This promise is part of a culture-wide devotion to thinness that has many of the features of traditional religion, including beliefs, images, myths, rituals, and moral codes that teach us to define our value and purpose through the pursuit of a "better" (read: thinner) body. Learning to recognize and critique this "Religion of Thinness" is a crucial first step on the path to overall health and well being.

This critique involves a paradigm shift: from the illusion that losing weight will "save" you (i.e., by somehow solving your problems and making you happy) to the insight that various industries and markets are profiting from the sense of inadequacy so many of us, particularly women, feel about our bodies. Indeed, this new perspective understands that weight-loss markets in particular benefit from the very sense of shame they are so good at stirring, particularly in women. Shifting our paradigm thus entails examining the taken-for-granted notion that healthy, happiness, and beauty come in one uniformly narrow size, and asking: who benefits when we buy into this belief?

Such questions are central to the practice of cultural criticism, which means questioning the dominant norms, values, and assumptions that circulate in our society and that are largely taken for granted; and it means investigating whom these norms, values, and assumptions really serve.

Cultural criticism of the Religion of Thinness begins with the simple insight that women are not born wishing they were thinner. Rather, we are indoctrinated into this belief by a society that glorifies the fat-free female figure. Years of exposure to media images of "beautiful" women who are uniformly thin conditions us to associate slenderness with beauty. Though it is virtually axiomatic in our society, this association is actually far from natural. In fact, if we had lived just over a hundred years ago, a well-cushioned body would be the ideal to which we would be encouraged to aspire, though probably fewer of us would have developed the kind of intense preoccupation with physical perfection that women experience today because back then people were not bombarded day-in-and-day-out with mass media images of the ideal.

In our image-saturated culture, it doesn't take long for us to internalize our culture's devotion to thinness. One study found that 80 percent of fourth-grade girls interviewed in the Chicago and San Francisco areas said they had already been on diets. Roughly the same percentage of women in the mid-50s report a desire to be thinner. For many, this desire amounts to a life-long ambition. Whatever our age, unless we are aware of its pervasive influence and vigilant about challenging its authority, we easily, without giving it any thought, internalize our culture's dictates about body size into our own psyches, bodies, and spirits.

But when we identify the messages our society sends us about the importance of being skinny--when we notice how advertisements target our insecurities and promise us fulfillment through a slender body; when we scrutinize magazine images that equate "women's health" with a fat-free female figure; when we ask why all the "sexy" women on TV and in movies are uniformly thin--these messages have less power over us. Such conscious, critical awareness gives us the freedom to think differently: to think for ourselves. As we begin to realize that we have been culturally conditioned to distrust our bodies and believe that there is something wrong with them, we can redirect our criticism away from our own thighs and tummy towards the industries and ideologies that seek to profit on the very feelings of shame and alienation they stimulate.

Here are some basic questions you can ask to practice cultural criticism of the Religion of Thinness, particularly in relation to media images (i.e., advertisements, magazines, movies, TV, internet, etc.):

1) What messages does this image give me about my body? Is the message conveyed in a way that is explicit? Or is the message more hidden? (Practice looking for both kinds of message--the obvious and the subtle)

2) Who produced this image and what do they want me to feel when I see it? Who benefits if I buy into the message this image is conveying?

3) What vision of "health," "happiness," and/or "beauty" does this image depict? Does it suggest that these qualities only come in one size? What alternative visions of "health" and "beauty" does it leave out?

4) What other qualities or assets are associated with slender bodies (i.e., affluence, romantic success, self-control, etc.)? How do these associations add to the appeal of the tight and trim figure?

These are just some of the questions you might ask as you develop a critical perspective on our culture's devotion to thinness. There are countless others and I encourage you to come up with your own ways of unmasking the lies we have been taught to believe about the ultimate value of the slender body.

Though it requires intelligence, practicing cultural criticism is not just an academic exercise. I also see it as a kind of spiritual practice because it is about transforming our consciousness so we can be more awake to ourselves and to the world we live in. In this sense, practicing cultural criticism of the Religion of Thinness is more than an antidote to the persuasive power of our culture's obsession with being slim; it is also an alternative source of purpose and self-definition, one that is far more meaningful than the shallow quest for that slender ideal.

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