Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

The Land of the Beautiful People

How do you stop comparing yourself to idealized images?

Last night I sat in a circle of beautiful women, college students in their 20s. We talked about the land of the beautiful people. Many of them were from Southern California and had felt pressured all during childhood and adolescence to be perfect. To be skinny, to be tan, to be flawless. And that’s why they left – why they moved to Boise, Idaho of all places. Too cold for bikinis most of the year, no beaches in sight, and a lot fewer ‘beautiful people.’

And I’m not blaming Southern California for their perfectionism, nor am I trying to say that there is anything wrong with looking a certain way. I don’t blame Southern California. I blame the media, I blame society. I blame our ideal notion of what it means to be beautiful.

And even though I spent last weekend in Southern California and too felt the pressure, the need to compare myself to the beautiful people there. I found myself lacking. I tried very consciously to not do that – to not compare myself to the perfect bodies on the beach. And it’s hard. I get that, and in talking to these women last night, I understood a little better just how hard it is not to compare yourself, not to start the fat talk or other negative self-talk when you’re standing in the face of perfection. To not feel like you’re never going to measure up. To not feel like you don’t belong in the land of the beautiful people.

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I shared with you a few weeks ago that I am recovering from my eating disorder. I have been eating more and had a little freak out when I gained five pounds in two weeks. I talked to my friend, my therapist, my dietician, and I thought that I had overcome the freak out, that I was immune to the land of the beautiful people. But I wasn’t.

In the past three weeks, I’ve lost three pounds. Two steps forward, three steps back. Or in this case, maybe it’s the other way around as my weight is still up from where it was a month ago.

But it’s hard. How do you not compare yourself? How can you ignore the land of the beautiful people when you are constantly surrounded by it? One way is to escape it – by coming back to Boise, where everyone is in coats instead of string bikinis, where everyone is still pale from winter instead of tanned by the summer sun. That got rid of the visual need to compare myself because I don’t see it all the time. This is the same reason the women I was talking to last night left California.

Yet you can’t fully escape the land of the beautiful people. All you have to do is go grocery shopping and you’ll undoubtedly spy a magazine cover or two. So how do you live in the land of the beautiful people and not compare yourself, not feel inferior, not feel as though you’ll never be good enough?

I think it takes a conscious effort, a very conscious decision on your part to not suffer at the hands of the beautiful people. To not live up to some sort of ideal that you can never meet.

We discussed 4 strategies for improving your body image a few weeks ago, but I would like to add a few more to that list:

1)      Get educated about what exactly goes into those cover shots. After two hours of hair and makeup and photoshop, everybody looks like a model. Don’t believe me? Watch these two videos: Dove Evolution for Women and for Men, as well as BuzzFeed's Photoshopping Real Women into Cover Models.

2)      EnVision what you want – make a Vision Board – one focused on positive goals, not appearance because you are so much more than what you look like! Bonus points for asking your friends to help you review your vision board. They will be happy to tell you all the good things they love about you that you left out!

3)      Get comfortable in your own skin. There are several ways to do this. The first is to close your eyes and feel. Feel the cool air on your skin, the touch of the clothing on your body, the weight of your hair, your feet firmly on the floor. Get comfortable with what your body feels like right now. Once you’ve conquered that challenge, next up is Body Art. Write positive messages on your body in places you will see them to remind you of how wonderful you are. I start my day by writing “I love you, Mary!” on my hand. It’s corny, but it works to bring me back to the now and to appreciate my body for all it does for me every day. Give yourself a pep talk – especially when you are feeling down about yourself. This could be as simple as looking into your own eyes in the mirror and saying “I love you” to praising your body (especially the parts you don’t like) for all they do for you. Things like, “Thank you butt for having all that padding so it doesn’t hurt to sit down,” or “Thank you belly for having some extra fat so I’m covered if there’s ever a food shortage!” Last, but not least, if you wake up in a bad mood, dress for success – even if you’re not leaving home. Putting on a favorite outfit or piece of jewelry can help lift your mood and get you through your day feeling energized instead of in a rut.

So can you ever fully escape from the land of the beautiful people? In short, no. But you can take active steps to minimize the harmful effects of exposure to ‘ideal’ bodies. And that can go a long way to feeling better about yourself.

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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