The Perfect Body and the Impossible Ideal

I probably haven’t been around long enough to say this with much authority, but America (or maybe the West in general) is more obsessed with dieting and exercise than it’s ever been. And not even for the purpose of health, but just to look like Marie Osmond or some other “success story.” Advertizers tout a product’s “slimming” benefits before it tells you what it does to your body (like how a no-carb diet causes your body to burn protein, which is no bueno.) People want a quick fix – “lose five pounds in ten days!” “You don’t even have to leave your couch!” Healthy? No. Appearance-changing? Yes. In my humble opinion, it’s an issue when society as a whole craves aesthetic over well-being.

“Well, duh, Audrey. You can talk about this subjectively because you’re skinny. You don’t have to worry about pinching yourself in the mirror every morning. No skinny person does. You’re healthy, because thin = healthy.”

I’m gonna stop you right there.

At my lowest, I was 100 pounds. That is not super healthy for a five-foot-five young adult. I’ve always been on the small side, but my weight dipped during my freshman year of college for a number of reasons, mainly because it was a side effect of medicine I was taking. I was also under a huge amount of (mostly self-imposed) stress and was so busy I’d often skip lunch and just eat a granola bar.

“For goodness’ sake, eat a cheeseburger!” is something that more than one person has told me (Haha. So original. Very funny.)

I have never been a health freak. I exercise and try to eat healthy between Hershey bars, but I’m not mega obsessed. But I’ve always been pretty conscious of my body and what it looks like, especially in comparison to other people’s. In my health class in high school, my teacher talked about the dangers of fad diets, especially on young, growing bodies. It made sense when I was that age, hearing it from an older, wiser adult – but it’s amazing how quickly we forget that knowledge when we see pencil thin celebrities – or even just see friends who are smaller than us – and start pinching and prodding ourselves in the mirror. Then we see a commercial for SlimFast or Atkins and we think “It worked for them, so why not for me?

I’ve done my share of poking and prodding in front of the mirror, believe me. I’m reminded almost every day by well-meaning friends that I’m “a stick,” but that doesn’t stop me from doing it. It’s amazing what imperfections we find when we do a thorough examination of ourselves in the mirror. Oh gross. My face looks so swollen. I look like I’m hiding two apples inside my cheeks. My butt is the size of Canada. I’m so freaking fat. (Even skinny people think these things.)

It’s a perception. An ugly one, but a perception nonetheless. Some of us would do anything to look like an Audrey Hepburn or Keira Knightley – cut carbs, do a “juice cleanse” (I still have no idea what that is or what it does), or literally starve ourselves. Just to look like what we percieve as a more “desirable” person.

But guess what? It’s never going to stop.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that skinny people have it awful. I’m really okay with being thin, and I know a lot of people are fairly comfortable and secure with their bodies. The problem is we’ve created an ideal – the ideal body that’s flashing on the cover of every tabloid. An ideal body that most people simply cannot attain.

I’m saying that even as a thin person whose weight has fluctuated fairly drastically in the last few years, that feeling doesn’t stop. When I was 100 pounds, I was still picking at myself in the mirror, sucking in my gut, turning my back to the mirror to see what the south side looked like. I’m back to a (reasonably) healthy weight, and I’m still doing it. Still pinching, pulling, tightening my belt, sucking in, flicking the “grandma flab” on my upper arms.

What I’m trying to say in 600 words is there’s no such thing as an ideal body. Because one person could tell you size double zero is ideal, while another could tell you size 16 is. A Victoria’s Secret angel will tell you something different than your own mother, or grandmother, or aunt. (Note: I’m not excluding guys from this conversation, but I’m not as familiar with your body struggles, for obvious reasons. Feel free to chime in at any time.)

I won’t say that the ambiguous shadow of “society” or the giant blob that is “the media” are feeding us this need for “ideal.” It does play a significant part, but it’s actually feeding something inside us that we already have: Need. A Need to finally feel loved, to finally feel accepted, to finally fit into a size 6, to finally walk into the office and hear your colleague say, “Hey, something’s different about you! Have you lost weight?”

That need can cause deep holes that get filled by superficial things. Fads, corsets, binge eating, excessive and dangerous amounts of exercise. But it’s something you can never fill with those things, whether you’re a runway model or a service clerk. There’s no such thing as Ideal, no fast fix to become that.

The only thing that can fill that hole of Need is acceptance, the realization that there is no Ideal to reach, because when you reach it, there will be another one around the corner. You’ll just continue starving yourself physically, mentally, emotionally until there’s nothing of you left. You’ve sacrificed yourself to the Impossible Ideal.

I don’t want to end this on a downer like that. I applaud those of who who fight with self-esteem every day, who feel marginalized or looked down on because of how you look. People are going to say things and do things that hurt because they’ve fallen victim to the Impossible Ideal. When you see those people or hear their berating comments, I hope you feel sorry for them and not for yourself. They’re not confident enough in their own image that they have to compare you to the Impossible. And that’s just sad.

Maybe, one step at a time, we can change the perception and erase that ideal. No fad, food, book, or barbell will be able to do that.

Only you can.

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