The first time I saw a TV commercial for a skin whitening cream called ‘Glow & Lovely’, I was six. I saw those commercials many more times throughout the years and became more and more enamoured with the idea of what it could do for me, or in this case, to me. Face whitening creams are heavily marketed in Asian countries, where colourism – discrimination against people with a dark skin tone – is common. I finally tried ‘Glow & Lovely’ when I was 13. I was so excited, thinking that I would finally be able to change the dark skin that I had gotten many negative comments about. It didn’t work.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, body image refers to the way you see yourself, whether it be when looking through a mirror, or when you picture yourself in your mind. It involves factors such as what you believe about your body, and how you feel about it.
Many people are at risk of experiencing a negative body image due to things like societal pressures, and media mostly portraying unattainable beauty standards. However, for many, their culture also has a huge impact on the way they view their body, and it adds another layer of pressure to conform to a certain image.
My cultural background is Sri Lankan, and I would say that I share many traits with a typical Sri Lankan woman. Despite this, growing up I was told that there were many things wrong with the way I looked. My skin was too dark, I was too short, I wasn’t skinny enough, and so on. It didn’t help that whenever I would see Tamil (the language I speak) movies, the heroine would always be fair-skinned, slim, tall, extremely beautiful, and very different from the average Tamil woman.
All of these influences and pressures caused me to view my body in a very negative light. It always felt like there was something wrong with me, which made me feel unworthy of being considered beautiful. This negative view of myself really affected my behaviour. I lacked confidence and isolated myself out of fear that I would be rejected for the way I looked. At Sri Lankan parties, hosts would always encourage me to eat more, but I often felt like I couldn’t because doing so would justify any negative thoughts they had about my appearance.
To this day, I never feel like the way I look will be fully accepted in either a Sri Lankan context, or a more Western context like Canada. And for many people like me who have such cultural influences on their body image, that is a very defeating feeling. It feels like you will never be enough in anyone’s eyes, and it fills you with shame.
“However, self-acceptance and learning to view bodies in a more neutral light can help us realize that just because our body may look different from other bodies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything to ‘fix’. Bodies are diverse, and that is normal.”
Even though there are so many pressures, there are ways you can slowly overcome them. Something I am working on is more self-acceptance. When I first started to work on my body image, I felt that I had to learn to love every single part of my body without fail. However, this ended up creating unrealistic expectations and put even more pressure on me. Instead, I started to work on viewing my body in a more neutral light that did not have any moral value of good or bad. I was working on accepting the fact that my body looked the way that it did, and that there was nothing inherently wrong with that.
Sometimes it can feel like it is our responsibility to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ our body, and this desire can be multiplied by cultural pressures and beauty standards. However, self-acceptance and learning to view bodies in a more neutral light can help us realize that just because our body may look different from other bodies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything to ‘fix’. Bodies are diverse, and that is normal. This definitely helped me in terms of being less self conscious whenever I would go out to crowded places. Of course, this is not something that can be done overnight, and I am still working on this. However, by continuing to work on my self-acceptance, I am taking the power away from external media and voices to control how I feel about the way I look.
Some of the other ways I am working to deconstruct my negative body image include:
- looking for more diverse representations of bodies in the media I consume
- focusing on all of the amazing things my body can do like singing, breathing and jumping
- learning more about the ways in which colonialism has historically impacted views of beauty in my culture
If you are really struggling with your body image, remember that there are people you can reach out to for support. This can include your parents/guardians, doctor, teachers, counsellor, and any other trusted adult.
It takes time to work towards a more positive body image, but it is possible. Even if it sounds cliché, this is a reminder that beauty isn’t just limited to conventional physical traits, but all of the components that make up who you are.
Jeanna Pillainayagam is currently a member of the Foundry Provincial Youth Advisory Committee and a Youth Research Assistant. She also has volunteer experience with mental health organizations including CMHA-BC and Jack.org, and has previously worked on mental health projects with groups such as Anxiety Canada, the University of Northern British Columbia, and the BC School Counsellors Association.
Keywords: body image, body positivity, body neutrality, self compassion, self acceptance
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