Beauty – or rather, the socially constructed appearance norms that are assigned the label of ‘beautiful’ – has long been framed as a measure of worth. From a young age, we’re faced with an onslaught of idealised images, and taught to appraise aesthetics as central to our status and identity.
Lifelong exposure to unattainable body ideals leads many of us to develop an all-consuming preoccupation with our own appearance, basing our feelings of worth on what we see in the mirror. This is known as having appearance-contingent self-worth.
Those whose self-worth hinges upon their appearance are more likely to internalise the gaze of spectators, resulting in an objectified body consciousness. This means that we view ourselves not as a whole person, but as an object existing for the visual gratification of others. We seek recognition not for our individuality, creativity, generosity, or kindness, but for our alignment with beauty standards, beating ourselves up when we inevitably fall short.
In a society that places tremendous emphasis on aesthetic traits, and teaches us that physical appearance is the currency we trade in for love, success, and acceptance, disentangling our sense of worth from how we look is by no means easy. Recalibrating our self-perception to derive value from more than our bodies defies what we’ve been told about how our image-obsessed world works.
While it’s difficult to challenge the culturally salient belief that our bodies are the most important thing about us, doing so is also hugely liberating. Through disrupting the influence that appearance standards have over us, we gain back valuable time and energy to channel into other activities that can enrich our lives.
Resisting and rejecting appearance-contingent self-worth enables us to become architects of our own value. Here are five ways we can get started down the path of accepting ourselves, and recognising our true worth.
It’s easy for the conversations we have with ourselves to be swayed by our cultural tendency to critique and criticise. Self-directed body shame can feel like second nature when the world has programmed us to believe that we’re ‘not enough’. However, it goes without saying that launching verbal assaults on our bodies does no good for our mood or self-esteem.
Instead of perpetuating a pattern of negative self-talk, try to nurture a more encouraging and supportive inner dialogue. Notice when you begin to ruminate over negative body thoughts, and make a conscious effort to say one positive non-appearance related thing about yourself. Remind yourself that you are more than a body, and you don’t exist for the viewing pleasure of others. You have so much more to offer the world than how you look.
Though it might feel a little uncomfortable at first, the more you practise speaking positively about yourself, the easier positive self-talk will come.
With the proliferation of activity trackers or ‘wearables’ over the past 10 years, many people have grown increasingly dependent upon self-tracking technologies to guide their understanding and relationship with their bodies. However, research suggests that those who closely monitor and manage their bodies in this way are more likely to reduce themselves and their worth to their physical characteristics.
A recent study published in the journal Body Image found that adolescents who engaged in vigilant body monitoring experienced higher body shame. Another article, in the journal Sex Roles, suggested that using self-tracking technologies may exacerbate appearance concerns, and increase objectified body consciousness.
Opting out of body monitoring, shifts our focus away from our physical selves. By ditching self-tracking apps, and renouncing our reliance on their feedback, we open up space to explore and recognise others parts of ourselves from which we can draw our sense of worth.
There’s no denying that our society is set up to provoke comparison. With social media and influencer culture constantly presenting us with a curated feed of highly-stylised content that sits in stark contrast to our own imperfect day-to-day reality, we’re often compelled to compare ourselves to these idealised versions of life.
If you regularly compare yourself to others online, it may be worth minimising the opportunities you have to engage in this. Set yourself a limit on how much time you spend on social media, and unfollow people who make you feel negatively about yourself. Fill your feed with content that doesn’t centre on physical appearance, and remind yourself that there is always more to what we see on the internet than meets the eye.
With every industry, from wellness and beauty to stationery and home decor, adopting the capitalist command to ‘treat yourself,’ self-care has become a bit of a buzzword to market living luxuriously. However, engaging in self-care is about so much more than bubble baths, and building a ‘hygge’ home.
In her book, A Burst of Light, poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Confronting issues relating to civil rights, disability, and explorations of black queer female identity through her work, Lorde spoke of periods of rest and respite as integral to survival in the face of adversity and injustice.
Body ideals are undeniably political. They’re entrenched in wider structures of oppression and discrimination, intent on keeping marginalised identities small, silent, and subordinate. When we abandon the cycle of shame and self-punishment that arises from appearance-contingent self-worth, and pledge to care for ourselves, we are not only preserving our wellbeing, we are engaging in an act of resistance.
After a lifetime of being taught that our appearance determines our worth, it can be difficult to unlearn this belief. We are, after all, shaped by the culture we live within, and rejecting this tyranny of aesthetics can feel like a total worldview overhaul.
If you find yourself struggling not to let how you feel about your appearance dictate how you feel about yourself from time to time, don’t beat yourself up for it. Show compassion, you are doing your best.
Not every moment will be filled with an abundance of unadulterated self-love. But every second you strive to know your worth beyond your appearance is a triumph that is worthy of celebration.
Positive mental health is a journey. Start yours by speaking to a therapist at Counselling Directory.
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