The Cult of Beauty

“Big is beautiful.” “Real women have curves.” “Beauty at any age.” 

No matter what words you use, the message is still the same: a woman’s worth is defined by how she looks. I, like many other women, have been obsessed with my looks since a young age. My mother was always dieting and the highest achievement a woman could attain was losing a few pounds. I suffered an eating disorder for years but eventually decided I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I decided not to count calories or weigh myself and embraced the attitude of “big is beautiful.” I projected confidence and received lots of attention for my beauty and sensuality.

About five years ago, I had a severe bout of diarrhea that lasted much longer than anything I had experienced before. I got a colonoscopy and was prescribed therapeutic doses of Pepto afterwards. I received little to no explanation of the results of my colonoscopy or the treatment until about a year later when I was informed I had a form of colitis in addition to IBS–both chronic conditions.

My symptoms caused me to lose weight, how much I’ll never be sure but my best guess is around 20 pounds. Before I resumed a somewhat regular diet, I endured months of starvation from fear of the pain of digestion and agoraphobia from fear of needing a bathroom if I left the house. My clothes no longer fit and I eventually started to notice the changes in my body: a visible spine, loose flesh, smaller breasts and a higher bellybutton.

I got loads of compliments from “you look great” from my doctor to “skinny Minnie” from an old coworker. I relished NONE of it. In addition to being miserable from the physical and emotional toll of my symptoms, I felt as though I was going through a second puberty, having to get used to  whole new body. I wanted to go through the process privately, without comments from the public.

Just when I thought I had achieved some measure of acceptance , I experienced a horribly abusive relationship in which I was degraded in every way. I was emotionally and sexually abused–needless to say, my self-esteem was at an all-time low.

Six months out and I’m feeling much better. I pride myself on mental flexibility and the ability to change my mind about things when new information arises. While I can’t say that I am no longer defined by my looks, I’m definitely more aware of the pervasive brainwashing that goes on in our culture.

Women are first defined by their looks in relation to an unrealistic standard of beauty. They are then “liberated” by body acceptance and seek to “empower” themselves through exhibitionism–putting themselves on display. But is this really “liberation” from The Cult of Beauty? Or are we simply widening the scope of its grasp? When we are inundated with pictures of half or fully naked women (not men), are we really saying that we are not defined by our looks?

I used to see pictures of big, nude women or elderly, nude women and think, “Yes!” Now, I think. “Don’t worry ladies, you can be objectified no matter WHAT you look like!” Indeed, we still feel the need to take our clothes off before we can achieve “true acceptance.”

The Cult of Beauty needs new members. Are you a recruit? I know I have been. And I’m not immune to culture’s influence. I definitely think about what I look like before I exit the house. I still objectify other women when I look at them–it’s something I struggle with. I still objectify myself and seek approval from outside sources. But I’m also questioning all of it and that’s where our power lies. Always question the messages you’re given and furthermore, question why you need to believe them.

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