We focus on all of the things about ourselves that we would like to fix. We use filters on our photos because we’re afraid to show the world how we really look. If only we could be thinner, prettier, bustier, better muscled, differently shaped, etc. we would be happy…right?

For some people, these feelings are so severe that they literally change what our brains interpret from the image projected back to us in the mirror. For example, a woman who, even though is considered lean and thin, literally will see an image of herself as morbidly obese. This is called “body dysmorphic disorder.” Body dysmorphic disorder is an issue that is getting recognized more often as a legitimate psychological disorder and is one of the leading factors in eating disorders.

So where do these feelings come from? Why do we have them? Why are we so fixated on hating our bodies and obsessed with trying to change them?

According to Brown University, the following factors contribute to a person’s body image:

  • “Comments from family, friends and others about our, their, and other people’s bodies, both positive and negative
  • Ideals that we develop about physical appearance
  • The frequency with which we compare ourselves to others
  • Exposure to images of idealized versus normal bodies
  • The experience of physical activity
  • The experience of abuse, including sexual, physical, and emotional abuse
  • The experience of prejudice and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Sensory experiences, including pleasure, pain and illness”

It is also worth noting that most of the women alive today have been conditioned from a very young age to put other people’s wants and needs above their own and to serve others before they serve themselves. This conditioning doesn’t limit this “urge” to familial and friend-based obligations, it stretches outward to all of society. So, if a woman is constantly fed images of people who look differently than she does, she assumes that she, not the message, is in the wrong and that she needs to change to fit what the message tells her she should be.

And, make no mistake, messages about what a person is supposed to look like are everywhere. They are in the photos presented to us in advertisements.

They are in the television shows we watch.

They are in the arrangement of stores, where the clothing for very thin people is carried in greater quantities and at the front of the store (and featured on mannequins) and the clothing for people larger than a size eight is limited to a very small section of the store and often located in the back corners, if the store carries larger sizes at all.

They are in the news stories that mention a woman’s looks before her accomplishments.  

They are even fed to us in doctors’ offices when a physician’s first instinct is to blame a woman’s weight when she feels ill.

If you think that it is simply “mind over matter” and that people can choose how to think of their looks and choose the importance they place on their appearance, think again. Society as a whole (and it has always been this way) favors those who physically conform to whatever a culture has decided is its ideal. People who fit the ideal find partners more easily, get hired for jobs more often, are promoted more quickly, and generally treated better across the board than those who don’t fit the standard.

Thankfully, these harmful messages are starting to change. More and more companies and designers are starting to design clothing for people with curves. People of color and of varied complexions and sizes are being hired more often in Hollywood and featured in advertisements. The messages are starting to shift to the importance of health rather than size and skin type. Hopefully before too long, we’ll shift into a culture that teaches people that it truly is what is inside that matters than what others think of our looks.