Our standards have changed.
The traditional model for assessing mental health is to compare an individual’s thoughts and behaviors to what is statistically “normal” or common, while also considering the degree to which the individual is in psychological distress.
But what if that which is normal or common in society is itself unhealthy and distressing? This is the situation in which we find ourselves when it comes to eating and body image, making the traditional model obsolete.
The reality today is that our culture has an eating disorder—and we all suffer for this in varying degrees, especially younger people.
I deal with this issue in my novel, Body: or, How Hope Confronts Her Shadow and Calls the Flutter Girl to Flight, an inspirational fiction comedy exploring body image and intuitive eating. The story of Body focuses on Hope, a married mother of two in her thirties, and her niece, Lana, a young woman in her late teens, and the difficulties they encounter as they navigate a conflicted culture. Conflict is the driving force in fiction, and unfortunately, our society promotes so many conflicting ideas about health, beauty, and self-worth, it was not difficult for my protagonists to get themselves in trouble.
We are all well aware of our society’s contradictory messages: Accept yourself as you are, just make sure as you are looks a lot like Gal Gadot or Chris Hemsworth; be a constant consumer of goods, travel the world, and buy the biggest house you can afford, as long as you lead a minimalist life and leave a small carbon footprint; be a wild child living on the edge with a hedonistic enjoyment of food and alcohol—but deny yourself with the South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, the Atkins Diet, the Paleo Diet, the Raw Food Diet, the Macrobiotic Diet, the Keto Diet . . . you get the idea.
Contradictions like these lead to an internal chaos and an external chasing of extremes—self-destructive indulgence on the one hand, unhealthy restriction and self-condemnation on the other.
And it’s not just that we receive mixed messages from our culture, it’s that we are bombarded with messages all of the time. Even when these messages are positive or neutral, they often draw our attention by using images of human physiques selected for their visual appeal. This creates a situation in which the body’s physical appearance is exaggerated in importance. The body’s appearance is not the only factor involved with eating disorders, of course, but a culture obsessed with bodies that look a certain way—genetic ectomorphs for women, mesomorphs for men, often augmented by extreme diet-exercise regimens and cosmetics, as well as surgical, pharmaceutical, and digital enhancements—pairs quite well with a manipulative view of eating. We no longer eat to nourish our bodies but to shape them in the image our culture portrays as beautiful. (We also eat, or abstain from eating, to experience relief from emotional chaos and distress, but this too results at least in part, for some of us, from our physique-focused society.)
Why do these messages, especially when presented as visual images, affect us so much?
Psychologically sophisticated advertisers pair products with images intended to create an emotional reaction and a release of dopamine within our brains. According to Psychology Today, the neurotransmitter dopamine “causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information. Dopamine creates reward-seeking loops in the sense that people will repeat pleasurable behavior, from checking Instagram to taking drugs.” Our body is the vehicle by which we maneuver in and interact with the physical world; it experiences ecstatic pleasure and excruciating pain and everything in between; it plays pianos and paints masterpieces and builds engineering wonders; it rides bikes and swims and embraces loved ones; it is capable of sexual coupling and the creation of life; it is capable of violence and murder—being human, there is no image as powerful as the human body to evoke an immediate emotional reaction and get those neurotransmitters flowing.
Marketing experts don’t need to explicitly state the false message that drives sales: “Buy this shampoo, and it will make you beautiful, and when you’re beautiful, life is better—people are nicer to you; romantic partners come easier; life just becomes more delicious.” Instead, they show a model applying the shampoo and waving her hair in captivating slow-motion, and our minds fill in the rest of the script. We buy the shampoo, work it into our hair in regular motion, and then look in the mirror disappointed we aren’t the model we saw in the ad; we are not living the fantasy we conspired with the advertisers to concoct within our minds. What to do? Cram our minds with more dopamine-releasing images, buy more of that shampoo—or cologne or clothes, or join that gym or push harder on that diet . . . It doesn’t matter that our efforts fail to produce the desired, impossible result. Even the model in the shampoo commercial isn’t living the dream she portrays. The thirty second ad of her slow-mo hair washing took hours of high-pressure work and a team of video and “beauty” professionals to achieve, and she knows it, of course. What drives successful marketing is not fulfillment, it is the sense of need it creates in you.
It’s no different in entertainment, the weight loss and health industry, and media in general. We humans have been figured out long ago. Tap into our emotional centers and stir up our neurotransmitters, and you’ve got us.
In Body, Hope has always hated her body, yet, in her work as a graphic designer, she perpetuates the fantasy imagery that leads to a sense of need for her client’s product:
Hope hadn’t invented these enhancements, just as she hadn’t invented the details she incorporated into her own secret self-portrait. These improvements were the result of millions of images brought before her eyes and shoved into her being from television, movies, magazines, and advertisements. And these images drove the ongoing stream of conversations with girlfriends over the years: evaluations of other women, famous and not, coworkers and bosses, strangers and friends; a dash of praise with a generous helping of judgment, the sharp tools of the sculptor-critic, always whittling away at that already perfect and miraculous form—the female body. The result was an internal dialogue about what is attractive in a woman’s body, and what is not, which prattled oppressively in Hope’s thoughts.
Author and speaker Heather Creekmore puts it this way in her book about body image, Compared to Who?: “Comparison hurts—it hurts our relationships, our children, our marriages, and (most of all) it hurts us. Comparison distracts us from our purpose while keeping us entangled in its petty contests.”
This is all painfully amplified in adolescence, a time of life in which relationships, social positioning, and comparing ourselves to others can be especially challenging and confusing. In Body, this is explored in the teenage character, Lana:
Puberty intensified her anxiety. A new body. A new reaction from girls. A new reaction from boys, and even some men who looked at her with barely subdued fire in their eyes. She grasped around that dark room for cover, for protection, for a way to freeze time or head back to that prior feeling of security she once had. She didn’t find it.
As if traditional media hadn’t led to enough confusion of who we are in relation to our bodies and our approach to eating and exercise, the social media age has driven these distortions to absurdity. In social media, we have become that inflated promotional blowup man placed outside of auto dealers that is larger than life and flailing about ridiculously, waving its arms to get everyone’s attention.
With social media, we become our own brand. We take notes as we sift through the fleeting images and attitudes and vocabulary and stories of others on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok, or whatever the social media flavor-of-the-day might be. We experience the same emotional and neurotransmitter reaction as we do with the products of marketers and the entertainment-media complex. We put out our own PR, we generate our own content. We stoke desire within ourselves and others, not usually for wisdom and generosity and sacrificial love for others, but for a physical look, for control over our own and others’ interpretations of us—especially when we’re younger. But we are that model in the shampoo commercial. We know the image we present is the product of manipulation, of artificial enhancements, at the very least of just selecting that one photo, sharing that one moment in which everything looks and sounds great—it’s fake. And we feel fake. And let down.
In Body, Lana is a ballet dancer who is trying to find herself in this world of contradictions and insecurity. In this scene in which she battles insomnia, she turns to her phone for relief but finds only a magnification of her restlessness:
Lana’s thumbs danced across glass, tracing a meaningless array of shapes that would make Jackson Pollock jealous. Tap. Expand. Scroll. Back to the top. Slide to the side.
Lana should have been asleep, but her mind raced, and her fingers followed. There was something about the nighttime. It led to strange places she didn’t visit during the day, where digital birds dashed about unsettling cobwebs from unfinished business.
She tried to sleep again, but every time she closed her eyes, the pre-sleep field took the shape of a ballet routine in motion. The vision wasn’t really a dream. It was more an emptying of memory stores which overflowed with surplus. Her eyes had viewed the world from the perspective of one moving in repetitive patterns over and over and over again, and her brain was trying to squeeze those patterns back out through the mercurial screen of her mind. The images themselves were neutral, but their display was oppressive because it was intrusive and relentless—tiny improvements straining ever closer to that asymptotic horizon of perfection.
Back to her phone. Back to the birds and the places birds go. The crevices, the nooks high and low that need wings and a tiny body to reach.
Maybe flood her mind with more of the same. Ballet videos.
Plie. Fouetté. Port de bras, like ribbons in a pool.
Manège. Across the stage. Through her mind. Into tomorrow. Fast, faster, frantic, frenzied. Getting higher until . . . l’air—grand jeté.
Earbuds. Music. “Flutter Girl.” So loud. Thumbs pushing up. And up. And up. And up. Quivering guitars. Ringing ears. It’s the only song.
Ballet photos. Ballerina bodies. Messages and memes. Collective unconscious pouring
out of lonely minds into slippery cybershadows.
Lamentations over descending chords blaring.
Chaînés. En croix.
Lyrics of spoiled beauty and soiled purity.
What were these girls trying to say? Thinspo?
So, we are trapped in this pattern: Consume images portraying a fantasy version of beauty and life; compare ourselves to the fantasy and come up short, even if we manipulate our bodies or personalities to better approximate the fantasy; repeat. The result is a feedback loop of self-obsession and judgment that leads to dissatisfaction and often dysfunction in our lives.
But what can we do? We can’t escape media. We can limit social media to some extent, but social media is tied to life in so many ways today, including education and professional life, that it’s unrealistic to unplug altogether.
Take heart—there is a way out.
First, seek professional help if your relationship with your body or food is causing you physical symptoms requiring medical attention, or if it’s causing you or others emotional distress. These are not problems that just resolve themselves, and they can be dangerous to the point of being life-threatening. There are many amazing programs out there which will partner with you in restoring order and peace in your life.
Second, be aware of the cultural messaging that bombards you and remember, these messages are fantasy, theater created by people in their own dramas with their own agendas. Being aware you are viewing theater doesn’t make the impact disappear—think of how powerful movies are to us despite our awareness they are fiction. Your brain will still release that dopamine, your mind may still start to compare. But reminding yourself you are consuming fantasy helps you take a step back and see it for what it is. You don’t need to judge it (which usually leads to bitterness and resentment), but you can certainly laugh at it: “Nice try, bikini model on Instagram and six-pack flaunting guy on TikTok. You almost had me there. But it’s not in my best self-interest to try to look like you. My body, however it looks, is a gift. I have my own adventure to live.”
And finally, be aware of your feelings and acknowledge emotions as real, but keep in mind, negative emotions are alarms. They let you know something is wrong; they do not dictate the best course of action. Is it possible that your emotions can alert you to a need to assess and possibly adjust your eating and exercise to improve your health? Of course. Very often, though, the emotion of dissatisfaction with and self-judgment of your body is an alarm indicating that you are falling into self-obsession and perfectionism. Joy, a mentor-like character in Body puts it this way to Hope:
“Perfection is God’s territory.” Joy let the words hang in the soft fog that glowed white over the grass and between the trees.
Hope felt small. Like a little girl.
“Our human territory is a practice field. And it’s filled with mistakes and accidents and false starts and defeats. And every now and again, a victory. This is how we become equipped, not for perfection, but for life.”
In the late 1960’s, cosmic guitarist Jimi Hendrix wrote a song characterizing self-obsession as living in a “room full of mirrors.” Jimi sang, “Well, I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors. Now the whole world is here for me to see.” Great advice for liberation. When we break the mirrors with which we surround ourselves—mirrors we use for constant self-analysis and criticism— we can start to see that we live in a world filled with other people, people trapped in the same theater, people who, like us, need encouragement, friendship, love. And here we find freedom, here we find our purpose, for we are here, after all, to love.
Sean Coons is an author, screenwriter, musician, and educator living in Redondo Beach, California with his wife and son. Sean’s novel, Body: or, How Hope Confronts Her Shadow and Calls the Flutter Girl to Flight, is an inspirational fiction comedy exploring body image, intuitive eating, and spiritual living. Body offers readers a path to a healthier, more fulfilling life. Twitter: @seancoons. Facebook: @seancoonswriter. Instagram: @seanmcoons. www.SeanCoons.com