Consuming Thoughts

Understanding eating disorders and body image.

Knowing Thyself

Can we ever see ourselves as others see us?

With the opening of the Sex and the City movie today (May 30, 2008), I have been reflecting on my favorite episode of series — "The Real Me" (written and directed by Michael Patrick King who is also writer/director/producer of the film). In the opening scene, Carrie suggests that her friend Stanford approach a gorgeous man. Stanford rejects her suggestion because he feels he is not attractive enough, stating "I know what I look like." Carrie responds, "Then you can't see what I see." Shortly after, Carrie is invited to participate in a New York fashion show but resists the notion saying, "I'm not a model" to which Stanford responds, "Then you can't see what I see." This leads Carrie to question whether we can ever see ourselves as clearly as we see our friends. The question could be rephrased to whether we can ever see ourselves as others see us.

I suspect that the answer is "no." Our eyes are designed to take in the world around us, and their placement in our head makes it impossible to see our bodies at anything other than a skewed angle that no one else has. We can look at ourselves in mirrors, shop windows, photographs, and video recordings. However, these representations are limited. In real life, we have three dimensions, we don't stand perfectly still, and we are not the constant focus of others' attention. Plus, each person sees us differently anyway. Thus, unlike other aspects of ourselves for which we enjoy the inside track on self knowledge (how we feel, what we are thinking, names we do and do not recall, and the history and minutia of our daily lives), there is this significant domain in which others simply have a view that we cannot achieve. This creates an opportunity for insecurity, giving rise to questions like, "Do I look fat in these jeans?"

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Because we cannot really see ourselves as others see us, we create a mental representation of what we think we look like to others — our body image, and this is where many women and more than a few men struggle. Yes — there are unrealistic ideals for beauty that only a very small proportion of real people can achieve. However, in addition to this, there is a fundamental inability to know where we fall in relation to these ideals. So, how do we improve body image? There has been a call to stop promoting an unhealthy, ultra-thin ideal of beauty, and this would definitely help. In addition, it might help to accept that no one, not even the most perfectly proportioned person in the world, can see herself as others see her. If we truly accept this, then perhaps we can relinquish the responsibility of trying to monitor how we look to others and focus instead on how we feel in our bodies.

 

Pamela Keel, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University.

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