There are some attacks on our body image and self-esteem that are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them. They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up. Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us. The series begins here on 3/28/12.
Today's Sneak Attack: The "Success" Story
An interesting study showed that the majority of people who viewed pro-ana websites (websites that promote anorexia) restricted how much they ate, with no conscious awareness of doing so, for days to weeks afterwards. When a person in the office loses weight, their co-workers are more likely to experience negative body image issues and depressed mood, even if the same coworker has lost and re-gained the weight before. When a person gets plastic surgery, the friends and family members of the same gender experience increased negative body image.
The world is full of so-called success stories. Generally it's someone who has made a significant physical or financial change in their lives, and sometimes it's an entirely fictional account made up for advertising. Shows like "The Biggest Loser," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Clean House" promote the idea that quick, significant change is not only possible, but can make you into a different person.
Watch out for two things; the "results not typical" disclaimer, and the lack of follow-up. Clean House can take a hoarder's home and restore it to pristine calm in a week. What they don't tell you is that the hoarder then undergoes intensive, long-term cognitive-behavioral therapy to deal with the underlying issue, and often relapses once the cameras are gone. Weight Watchers can flash a celebrity on their commercial, but that celebrity lost weight with the help of extensive wealth, access to personal chefs and trainers, and hours of daily free time to devote to exercise. Do you see the "results not typical" disclaimer at the bottom of the screen? It's in tiny print. What it means is that Weight Watchers has a long-term (i.e. 5 years) success rate of around one twentieth of one percent.
These stories are beguiling. We WANT to believe that instant, long-lasting personal change is possible with little effort. We WANT to believe it is possible to change our insides by changing our outsides. So when we see the smiling poster child, we get down on ourselves for not doing it just like them.
In reality, some change is possible. You may never look like a 16 year old supermodel or an anime figure. You can, however, change your mind. You can look at a "success" story and say to yourself, I can have that happiness without the superficials. I can give myself permission to change inside without waiting to first change outside.
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