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Navigating the Body Image Issues As a Parent

Body weight is a topic filled with land mines. I’ve been observing how my 10-year old daughter navigate this topic for herself and others. It’s a tough one. Most adults have a hard time. We are bombarded with mixed messages, trapped in a double-bind; damned if we do, damned if we don’t. We hear about the grave consequences of the obesity epidemic, but at the same time we are told to love our own bodies no matter what shape and size. As a parent, I want my daughter to live an active, healthy life, but at the same time, I would not want to cause her to have neurotic body image issues either. So, what’s the right thing to do as a parent?

The first thing we need to do is to untangle the mess. Part of the reason why we hear so many mixed messages is because there are multiple independent problems in what is commonly discussed as one problem. I can think of at least three: health, body image, and mental disorder. Just to be clear, in this essay, I’m not going to discuss the last one, obsessive/compulsive behaviors associated with food, weight, or eating.

If we look at this topic strictly from the point of view of health, it is relatively objective and easy to understand. If you are able to stay in shape in today’s food environment without consciously controlling what you eat, I would say you have some sort of genetic abnormality. With those genes, you would not have survived in the Stone Age. For the rest of us, our bodies have not been able to catch up with the speed at which our environment has changed. Today, foods loaded with calories are available everywhere 24/7. Finding the same amount of calories in the Stone Age required a lot of work, or wasn’t even possible. If you have a normal body, you should get fat in our environment today. It’s sort of like working in a factory with toxic fumes; if you are able to work for years without a mask and stay healthy, then there is something definitely abnormal about you. You should get sick if you are normal. Given this predicament, all of us should learn how to control the number of calories we consume, and I think this should also be taught to kids. To me, this is a basic requirement, a survival skill, of modern life unless you happen to have the genetic abnormality.

Body image is where this problem gets more complex. The media, particularly the fashion industry, is often blamed for creating a toxic psychological environment. We often hear this message: “Love your body.” I might get smacked by some critics for saying this, but I disagree with this advice. We shouldn’t love our bodies. We cannot love something if there is no possibility of hating it, so we will inevitably go through the rollercoaster ride of loving and hating our bodies. To say, “Love your body” is actually the same as saying “Hate your body.” Those two go hand in hand.

We also hear this message often: “Everyone is beautiful.” Again, I disagree. There is no meaningful concept of beauty if everything was beautiful. It is as absurd as saying everyone is tall. We could redefine “tall” to mean anyone above an inch, but such a definition would have no use, therefore no meaning. If there is no meaning, it has no value to anyone; therefore it would do nothing to solve our problem. I don’t think anyone would ever say, “Oh really? Everyone is? Now I feel better.” In fact, it trivializes the pain of those who are not beautiful.

These are superficial remedies that address only the symptoms of the problem. The real problem lies in how our own perception works. Just as some men cannot look at pictures of women without thinking about sex, some women cannot look at the same photos without wishing to look like them. This is analogous to the way alcoholics look at a bottle of fine wine or scotch. To be able to truly appreciate and enjoy anything in life, we cannot be attached to it.

We often say men “objectify” women. There is nothing wrong with men looking at women as sex objects if those women want to be seen as sex objects. The problem arises when men have no control over their own perception. That is, they cannot control the fact that their self-interest dominates and distorts what they are looking at. So they indiscriminately look at all women as sex objects. They are failing to transcend their automatic responses to what they perceive. This process is actually the same when some women read fashion magazines and wish they looked like the models in the photos. Their experience is dominated by self-interest too, and they too have no control over it. Even if we can eliminate all the fashion magazines from this universe, it would do nothing to address this lack of control. The stronger the self-interest, the more serious this problem becomes. When we look at less critical qualities, this becomes clear.

We all want to be smart, but most people’s desire for intelligence isn’t so strong. I once watched a comedian on TV who asked a random woman on the street, “If I told you that I can make you really smart but it would make your butt really big, would you accept the offer?” The reason why this is funny is because we all know what the right answer is, since we are repeatedly told, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” But if this offer was real, the choice wouldn’t be as easy to make as we think it would be.

Many people are able to settle with the idea of being smart enough. If this weren’t true, everyone on earth would be killing themselves to get into Harvard or Stanford, and become depressed and miserable forever if rejected. Plenty of people are happy attending average colleges. They are able to accept the fact that there are smarter people in the world than they are. They do not need to keep telling themselves that they “love” their brains.

Some people try to rationalize the difference in intelligence by saying “everyone is smart in different ways,” but not everyone needs to rationalize in this way. They are perfectly happy with the fact that others are smarter than they are. By the same token, there are people who are perfectly happy with the fact that they don’t look like the models in fashion magazines, and are able to appreciate what they see in these magazines without feeling bad about themselves. What they have is the power of indifference. They have transcended their automatic responses. This transcendence or liberation happens internally. They did not require our environment, culture, or the media to change. If we focus only on gaining this power of indifference, the problem becomes simpler. How to gain this power is probably different for everyone, but we cannot become indifferent by attacking someone or something outside of us.

“Transcendence” sounds mysterious and unrealistic, but I’m not talking about becoming a Zen monk. These enlightened people are not hard to find. He might be a high school dropout who can talk comfortably with a Ph.D. from MIT without feeling insecure or defensive. She might be an overweight girl who has close friends who are fashion models; and she can enjoy their company without feeling inferior, envious, or bitter. He might be a poor man who works with rich, famous, and powerful people without feeling nervous, trying to impress, or trying to get something out of them. These enlightened people are hidden in plain sight. What’s different about them? What have they achieved that many of us haven’t? I believe achieving their inner peace should be our first objective. And, by doing so, we would also be changing the world for the better. How? 

The stronger our desire is for a particular quality, the better we make others feel who already have it. That is, by striving for the desired quality, we are adding more pressure to our society and culture for that quality, the very thing we criticize and blame. I’ll elaborate.

Suppose you move to a foreign country where everyone is struggling to make their ears as large as possible. Suppose you happen to have big ears. Suddenly, you possess a highly desirable quality that you’ve never even thought about before; just because everyone around you are struggling to get what you already have. Other people’s struggle inflates the value of what you already have. You didn’t add any pressure to the culture by having the desired quality; they did.

Likewise, today, because so many of us are struggling to control our own weight, having a normal weight has become highly valued. If someone from a hundred years ago time-travelled to today, she would suddenly find herself possessing an object of desire, just because everyone around her is trying to get what she already has.

In other words, our own desire is what is creating the cultural pressure that we resent and criticize. If all of us suddenly became indifferent about how we look, all that pressure would vanish. Our inner struggle is what makes thin people feel good about themselves, and make them want to get thinner to feel even better.

Being indifferent about how we look does not mean that we should not take care of how we look. It simply means we are not attached to how we look. Even if we don’t look good on some days, it wouldn’t bother us. This would in fact make it more fun and enjoyable to dress up and look good, because our happiness wouldn’t be dependent on it. 

The cultural pressure that we hate and criticize so much is nothing more than the sum total of our attachment to our desired quality. All of us contribute to it. Attacking the media is just another manifestation of that desire which inflates the value of being thin. 

When we become attached to something, or fear something, it’s impossible to avoid projection. Ultimately all fears arise from attachment. We fear death because we are attached to life. The reason why fat jokes are so common is because we all fear being fat, and are attached to particular images of how we want to look. Those jokes ease our fears, and make us feel better about ourselves. By laughing at fat people, we can temporarily feel like we have no fear of being fat. People who are indifferent about their own looks do not have any attachment or fear about their own looks, so they wouldn’t find fat jokes to be so amusing or funny. But we cannot achieve their state by ceasing to tell fat jokes. That would be reversing the cause and effect. They don’t tell fat jokes because they honestly don’t find them funny. They don’t need to consciously stop themselves.

As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” And, this cannot happen simply at the behavioral level; something within us has to change fundamentally. Whether we are fat or thin does not matter; as long as we have an attachment about our looks, we would have a fear about it, and therefore will negatively impact the world. Even if we try to control our behavior, it won’t help; our fear will manifest in one form or another to adversely impact the world. The only effective solution to this problem, in my view, is to achieve the power of indifference. How can I help my child achieve this? Again, I think Gandhi is right: I must be the change I want to see in my daughter.

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