In the third episode of the Rediscovering Self with Amrutam podcast, host Preethi Parthasarathy explores the theme “I don’t like how I look” with Rhea Mathews, a mental health researcher working with an NGO called Sangat in New Delhi and a practicing counseling psychologist working towards building safe spaces for people to express themselves.
Obsession with conventionality
It is no secret that the world we live in places some, if not a lot of value on physical appearance. How we look is often one of the first few things based on which people form an impression of us. Most of us desire to look a certain way a lot of the time. But a thought that has most likely crossed all our minds is this: “I don’t like how I look.”
In the first segment of the episode, Preethi dives right into the question. Where does this thought come from? What is this obsession behind believing there’s a certain standard to aspire to in terms of how we look?
In response to the above questions, Rhea counter-questions Preethi and asks, “How many times have you heard or said this to yourself or met people who are entirely happy with their bodies and the way they look?” As someone who has battled with body-image issues for a good part of her life, Preethi responds by saying she’s never met anyone who is entirely happy with how they look.
“This is a universal feeling for people. Across cultures and across time, not being happy with your appearance and body. It is easy to feel like that because you are constantly surrounded by messages saying you are not good enough; you are not loveable and you are not worthy and you have to look a certain way to be loved. It starts at home, at school and people in your social circle. On social media, there’s diet culture, cosmetics, fashion being promoted and the emphasis on looking conventionally appealing. All of this contribute to how you perceive yourself.”
A complex interplay
This interplay between social, cultural and psychological factors is so complex that it also affects our daily lives. Situations of sexual and physical abuse, instances that cause trauma can also contribute to our observation of our bodies and appearances. For example, if you are born in a family where it is common to throw around casual remarks on someone’s weight or comment on someone’s color of skin, you are more likely to be critical of yourself. And when we grow up and go out in the capitalistic world that thrives off of our insecurities simultaneously conveying subtle messages, we end up internalizing those and don’t even realize that something may be wrong in how we’re working.
The way we way function and lead our lives is basically constructed around our bodies. While acceptance is something that seems like the most ideal solution, it is also inexplicably hard and consumes so much of our time. “Since we are continually getting these negative messages, I would think it is normal to dislike your body. It would be almost a radical thought to fully accept and appreciate our bodies. Of course, it would be liberating but it is also hard,” says Rhea.
Understanding the underlying triggers
On self-acceptance and appreciation, Preethi shares her journey on battling body-image issues. “For the longest time, I refused to wear shorts because I was so unhappy with how my thighs looked. If I wanted to go to a beach, I would plan months in advance and start dieting so I could lose a few kilos just to have fun at the beach for some time. I am still in the process of accepting and loving my body, but it is really hard.”
“It is a very difficult process to move from negative feelings of shame, anger, disgust, dissatisfaction to positive feelings of joy, appreciation, kindness. Even reaching a place of neutrality where you don’t care or are indifferent about how you body looks is a long and excruciating process. Where your body does not consume you and you are able to attend to the everyday things in your life.”
What is important to note is that we attach a lot of our self-worth and self-esteem to our appearance. It affects our lives and our relationships. “In a lot of body-image issues and concerns related to disordered-eating, there are underlying triggers where certain unmet needs are manifesting in the form of your body,” explains Rhea. Feelings of not being loved or appreciate – we end up manifesting in and projecting on our bodies. These negative feelings are intangible but having control over our bodies that we can touch and see gives us a false sense of power and stability. Dieting or exercising extra gives you a feeling of control that you crave from having these difficult and unprocessed emotions.
Things you can do
To put it simply – it is a very long and hard battle with wanting to love yourself but not being able to because you don’t look the way the world expects you to and then punishing yourself for not meeting those expectations. This in turn affects how you function, your ability to feel and experience joy, pleasure, rest, and also causes problems in your relationships and sex life.
Towards the last segment of the episode, Preethi and Rhea discuss the ways and methods to be more self-aware and gentler with our bodies and notions of conventionality.
Who would have thought there’s so much that goes behind this one simple statement: I don’t like how I look? Our harshness and critical behavior and their consequences thereafter may lead us to believe that acceptance let alone appreciation is almost impossible. But Rhea disagrees.
“It can definitely happen but it is a long and difficult journey because you are literally fighting against all the negative messages including yourself. If you have a tendency to be self-critical and to believe in the perfectionism ideal then of course your body is going to be something else to work on as other aspects of your life. There are things that have happened to you in the past, things you have internalized that you need to become aware of. That inner work is really important.”
That said, Rhea also recommends things like staying away from people who comment on your body or think it is okay to comment on anyone’s weight or appearance, not tolerating negative comments from friends or family members, being assertive, tailoring your social media feeds, and moving away from counting your calories. This does not imply that you become unhealthy and consume junk and sugar. It simply means that you should shift your focus on nourishing your body and working on its functionality than focusing on how it looks.
Our bodies give us so much, they keep us alive and we should be kind and gentle with it. While it is difficult to set good intentions, it is not impossible.
Find a therapist
We hope this episode was helpful to you. If you are struggling with your mental health and wish to seek therapy, then here is a list of mental health professionals that you can reach out to. All you must do is filter out the professionals that fit your criteria and write an email to them introducing yourself and explaining briefly what you are going through and be a little patient with their responses. The right professional will reach out to you soon and we hope you have a meaningful journey of getting to know yourself and building self-awareness through therapy.
Team Amrutam sincerely wishes you all the best and lots of love.