The hallways are a battleground, and on most days, you’re out to kill yourself. They are always at the back of your mind: the eyes that must be scanning you for flaws, the comment that must have stemmed from judgement, and most of all, the bathroom mirror that must have reflected the gaze of thousands of students picking themselves apart before shuffling away to their B block classes, still thinking about their noses or shoulders or legs, perhaps even an ugly pinky finger. Meanwhile, the media sings of slim limbs and wide eyes, the religion we were all introduced to unwittingly.
You’re not alone. A 2013 survey of Korean female university students showed that almost 95% of them were unhappy with their bodies, and 61% of them said they felt the need to lose weight to be more attractive. All of them were in the normal weight range. Even small children are beginning to lose their naivete- according to the Body Image Center, 42% of girls in grades 1-3 want to lose weight, and in another survey, 81% of ten-year-old girls reported to having dieted at least once. What’s important is that, according to a study commissioned by Dove’s self-esteem project, a girl’s self-esteem is more strongly related to how she views her own body than how much she actually weighs. Think about it: this means their self-hatred stems from their own minds rather than actual appearances.
The effects are devastating. Teenaged girls with low self-esteem are three times more likely to engage in behaviours such as disordered eating, self-harm, and bullying, and 78% of them admitted that it is difficult to feel good at school when they do not feel good about themselves. But these statistics and the prevalence of self-hatred comes at no surprise to many of us- it’s the water we swim in. After all, studies have shown that conventionally attractive students are more popular, both with their classmates and teachers, who give them higher scores and have higher expectations of them. It continues later on in life- attractive applicants have a higher chance of getting jobs, and earn higher salaries when they do. They are even more likely to be found innocent in a court of justice. Can we blame these teens for having their minds on their looks?
A large portion of this comes from the media. The average American woman weighs 165 pounds at 5’4, while the average American model weighs 120 pounds at 5’11. Overweight characters in film and television are often the “lovable comic relief”, ready to be ridiculed to get a laugh out of the audience. Meanwhile, the romantic heroes and heroines are typically more muscular or thinner than average. This has a powerful grip on the population’s psyche, since people are exposed to as many as 5,000 advertisements a day, and the average American watches five hours of television daily.  Because people psychologically rely on external models to form their self-perceptions, their concept of an “ideal person” is molded by the media.
The “ideal” body is fictional. It is a mirage we chase after. And there is no strategy, no workbook to follow, because eventually, the only tool we have to love the way we look is our own willpower. Some never get there; but is it not incredibly liberating to think that you could live a life free from self-judgement? It’s so easy to pass this off as “impossible”, because it requires a total shift in perception, but challenging yourself to stop criticizing your body in the mirror is the more valuable thing to do than spending hours staring at pictures of people we want to look like, sacrificing precious time at the shrine of physical beauty.
When I was little, I found it peculiar that my mother would peer into every mirror we came across, turning around to examine her legs. I would tease her about it. Then I felt self-conscious about my body for the first time in middle school. As I tried to lose weight in 8th grade, I remember catching myself looking into every random mirror, and suddenly realizing that I had crossed a threshold that I may never be able to cross back. Maybe I’ll look into mirrors all my life, well into my 50’s and 60’s. Maybe this is how I’ll end up wasting away so much of my hard-earned happiness. Maybe this is generational, and my daughter will look at me with the same confused eyes when I stare too hard at a mirror or opt for a menu objectively less delicious.
I write this article as I google the calories in my Starbucks drink. Some of you have never done this before. Some of you do this every single day, even while knowing how irrational it is. Maybe you’re even opinionated enough to lecture others about it, as I am, and maybe you’re a victim nevertheless, as I am. I do not pretend to be any wiser than I was in 8th grade, or any happier about how I look. But things have changed, even from the mere realization that I was a prisoner of my own mind. There was a certain power, new and electric, in taking ownership of my body and consciously reminding myself that every second I spend dissecting myself is a fraction of my life wasted, and that I have much better things to do. I began to blame society, but it was better than blaming myself.
I know the next time my friends and I start comparing and criticizing our own bodies, I will be the one to cut the conversation off. I know I’ll stop complaining about the way I look to those around me. I won’t let it slide when someone in the room says something like “she’d so pretty if only she lost some weight”. This is a lifelong journey, but I am not lonely, because I know many of my readers are on this boat with me. We are all headed the same way. Maybe after enough genuine compliments and supportive conversations, after enough forgiving glances at the mirror, we will learn that sometimes, happiness is a choice.
– Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)
- Featured Image- Hannah Kim (‘19)