Species check: If you’re human, this affects you. If you’re any other mammal, not so much. Humans and primates are the only mammals that have the self-awareness to look in a mirror and see themselves as they are. Other animals merely see another dog or another cat to play with. But if you put a chimpanzee in front of a mirror, he’ll notice the piece of food stuck between his teeth and work to pick it out. He’ll make faces at himself and mess with his hair.
Humans take it even further. We see ourselves not just as we are, but as we should or shouldn’t be. That ‘should’ comes from a mythical construct called the ideal body type.
But is there really such thing as an ideal body?
Short answer: Yes and no. Doctors and insurance companies tend to agree that there is, in some ways, a healthy ideal to strive for– a magic ratio of weight or body fat to height. They haven’t always agreed on what that range actually is. But recent research has shown that unless you are on the far side of over- or underweight, that number doesn’t seem to have much bearing on your actual lifespan or quality of health.
In either case, that’s probably not the ideal you have in your head. Most people don’t look in the mirror and wish they had a BMI of 19. Instead, they look in the mirror and lament the fact that they don’t look anything like their favorite sitcom star, or the basketball god on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or the Facebook friend taking bikini selfies in Monaco. That’s how far outside of our own bodies we look, to formulate our own personal version of perfection.
Problem: You probably can’t have a Hollywood-perfect body.
It’s genetically impossible for all but a few. Recent studies show that by age 18, over 80% of women are unhappy with their bodies, and over 65% of men are dissatisfied, too. It’s not surprising, when researchers say that only 5% of women are genetically capable of looking like the undersize/underweight role models on TV. They just aren’t made to be that thin, and still remain healthy. Men get a wider selection of ideal body types to choose from in the media, but even so, many simply aren’t built to the Hollywood version of an ideal body.
So why do we keep trying?
Pretend you live in rural Georgia, in the 1920s. What kind of bodies do you see, day in and day out? In all likelihood, it’s your mom, your Aunt Mabel, your Uncle George with the potbelly, your boss maybe, your curly-haired cousin, a sister, and a gaggle of close friends. Most of the people you interact with on a daily basis share your genes, and probably some of your diet and daily activities as well. If you wanted to lose weight and look like one of them, chances are decent that you could do it with a just a few weeks of laying off dessert.
Compare that to today, when on a minute-by-minute basis you are pelted with unrealistic images of rail-thin strangers, photo-shopped celebrities, and internet stars. Instead of the extended family living next door, you see hundreds of meticulously posed Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook pics from your thousands of social media friends. You may or may not have anything in common with them, but your brain is working overtime behind the scenes to Frankenstein these thousands of images into one ideal– those thighs, that person’s arms, this celebrity’s abs. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been altered by expert photo editors. You subconsciously accept them as a standard for attractiveness, anyway.
Then you look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day, and all you can see are the ways you fail to measure up to the standard you’ve imagined.
That’s not fair.
The Social Issues Research Center lists three main reasons why the perfect body has become both more sought-after and more unattainable than ever.
1. Today’s beauty standards are, “extremely rigid and uniform.” Gone are the days when movie starlets ranged from size 4 to size 14. Now it’s 5’7 and 120 pounds, across the board. Thanks to internet-fueled globalization, the same standard applies whether you’re from Vietnam, Germany, or Brazil.
2. “Exceptional good looks seem real, normal and attainable.” That’s mostly due to the fact that we see images of celebrities more than our own families now.
3. The ideal has become more and more of an outlier on the statistical map. It’s simply not as girl-next-door as it used to be.
If that perfect body in your mind is something that’s outside the reach of good health, or even reality, is there any ideal to shoot for?
Aim for the real you, but healthy.
It starts with declaring a ceasefire between your Hollywood expectations and your real-life body. That’s easier said than done. Dissatisfaction with your body can become a lifelong problem. Brown University Health advises students that there can be outside factors that cause it to become even worse– for example, a history of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, a disability, or chronic illness or pain.
Some of these issues might cause you to seek help from a licensed therapist, so you can finally break free from the comments and unhealthy attitudes you’ve received from others, or even inflicted on yourself.
But in most cases, the battle is won in the daily grind. It happens when you decide moment by moment to stop comparing yourself to your facebook friends, and when you recognize that neither they nor the cute girl on your favorite crime show share any of your genetic makeup. It’s when you put away the airbrushed images in the fashion magazines, and when you look for the beauty in your real-life friends and family who you see in the real world. If you can love your mom with her jiggly thighs, and your best friend with her double chin, and your brother with the hefty calves, maybe it’s not such a stretch to think that you could love your own body too.
Read more about body image and the media: