You’re holidaying in Vietnam, immersed in the tranquillity of the perfume pagoda or tones of a two-stringed moon lute when you’re suddenly shaken from your reverie by a local woman grabbing your arm. Squeezing your flesh, she nods her head approvingly, commenting that you are “so fat”. How do you feel? Positive about the obvious approval or roundly deflated?
This exact scene occurred to a healthily proportioned friend of mine and she recounted how ashamed and demoralised she felt. To her, the words translated as “you eat too much, have no willpower and look fat”. It was only later that she realised she’d been paid the ultimate compliment. In Vietnam, the plumper your body, the better. It shows your high status, proving you have wealth, plenty to eat and don’t have to work 12-hour days engaged in tiring farm labour.
The body image pendulum
The Vietnamese body ideal is the polar opposite of our Australian cultural preference, whereby we compliment people who melt away a few kilos and envy those who can afford a personal trainer or can head off to a health retreat to nurture their body and, by implication, their body image. We regard body image as a fixed state anchored to a fixed self-concept (we love or hate our bodies with no in-between). Yet, in reality, the way you feel about your body is in a constant state of flux.
Over the centuries, other cultures with their reverence for tiny feet, long necks, big bottom lips or indeed, big bottoms, have confirmed how much body image is rooted in social conditioning. Cut to the present and in Western world, where most of us tend to follow body image trends from new developments in fashion, the media and music. In light of the limited images of beauty that popular culture offers, you may find yourself often feeling that your physical identity could use a confidence boost or spiritual makeover.
However, even if your body image is always idling on the low side, there’s a good chance it still goes up or down according to who you’re with, how you perceive their attitudes and how you allow this to influence your own inner dialogue. Reality often has little bearing on the way you feel about your body. Sobering research by the Women’s Health Australia project at the University of Newcastle has shown that 80 per cent of women who are in a healthy weight range still want to lose weight.
Your body image is formed as much by your internal world as it is influenced by external cues such as personal experiences and day-to-day events. It is the sum total of how you think of your appearance and kinaesthetically engage in the world, by feeling (or largely not noticing) your physical body through the senses. Yet it is what you do with what happens to you — and how you allow that to affect your flow of energy, emotions and thoughts — that dictates how much body love you enjoy.