Body Image vs. Self-Image

In a book I recently read, a woman who’d recovered from anorexia but was slipping back due to stress, reminded herself that body image is not the same thing as self-image. That really made me stop and think because too often our self-image is reflected by our body image. For example, even though I am fairly realistic, seeing my body as it actually is, I don’t always like the way I look. I try to minimize my flaws, of course, but with mirrored closet doors in my bedroom, it’s hard not to see the unclothed truth. And, even though I generally accept myself for what and who I am, there are times when I can’t help but be influenced negatively by that mirror image of myself.

As a culture, we seem to think that beautiful, thin, fit folks have more worth than those of us who are rather ordinary and out of shape. Although people don’t treat me badly because of my looks (perhaps because the hat amuses them and my smile delights them), I can’t help but feel as if I’m not worthy of all the good things in life. Well, that’s not exactly true. I am worthy. It’s just . . . well, it’s hard to overcome that conditioning.

To be honest, I don’t want to fall in love again — I really am fine as I am — but it does bother me that deep down I think that I am not romantic material. Perhaps it’s due to my reading. In almost all books, whether thriller, horror, mystery, romance, suspense, the heroine — no matter what her age — is beautiful, tall, intelligent, feisty, fit, and attracts the well-muscled handsome hero.

Even if a writer wanted to have an out-of-shape, unattractive heroine, there’s really no way to present the character in a good light. All the adjectives to describe someone of oh . . . I don’t know, perhaps someone of my body shape, are rather unpleasant. Even “pleasingly plump” despite the “pleasingly” part, is rather negative especially since so many of us not-thin folks are not pleasingly plump — unpleasingly lumpy is more like it.

Stout, chunky, hefty, overweight, heavy, obese, chubby, dumpy, rotund, flabby, paunchy, stolid, pudgy, corpulent — these are not words that bring “heroine” to mind. Nor are they words that lend themselves to a love affair, even though most people do not fit the ideal portrayed in books or movies. One of the most disappointing movies to me was “Shallow Hal.” Jack Black was supposedly hypnotized into seeing the inner beauty of a 300-pound woman. Except he didn’t see the inner beauty — he saw her as a thin person which just exacerbated the whole “the only worthy woman is a thin beautiful woman” mystique. Or worse, that “inside every fat person is a thin person struggling to get out.” The movie would have been so much more satisfying if he actually saw the fatness but could see beyond that to the inner person.

It’s amazing to me that anyone of any body shape manages to develop a good self-image despite the current body image situation. Everything we see and hear corroborates that social norm of beauty as all important, so not-so-beautiful people tend to be at a disadvantage. It’s hard not to live down to that body image. As for those with the socially acceptable image, I imagine it’s hard to live up to it. Truthfully, I don’t have much sympathy for tall, beautiful woman because no matter what their self-image, all sorts of good things accrue to them because of how they look. (Of any two job candidates, the winner is generally the taller and prettier.) But still, I do concede that social conditioning is a hard thing to break out of.

No wonder I was so taken with the comment that body image is not the same thing as self-image. It’s an important point to keep in mind as we — no matter our size or age or level of attractiveness — navigate the pitfalls of life.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

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