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‘Look great to feel great’ – self-improvement and body image

I’ve just read ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach (of Fat is a Feminist Issue fame). Her main point is that in recent times we’ve got further and further away from seeing our bodies as a taken-for granted places that we live in, and more and more as a project, something to be remade and perfected through exercise, diet, cosmetics and in extreme cases, surgery. More and more techniques are becoming available through which we can, and are expected to, improve our bodies.

This is something that I’ve noticed myself. Take the example of bikini waxes. I remember when they first became available, they were marketed as a one off thing to try if you wanted to spice up your sex life, but now they’re just completely common place and loads of my friend are having them done all the time. It freaks me out a bit all the money, time and pain that is being spent on changing the look of something that is basically completely private. Other examples are the way anti-ageing creams are marketed to ever younger women (and men), and the emergence of new body parts to worry about – does anyone remember how were supposed to spray paint our ankles with fake tan to make them appear thinner last year?

Orbach argues that this development is in large part a cause of the parallel rise in body issues and disordered eating. When we’re faced with companies and the media telling us about ever new beauty things to worry about, we really should be going ‘How dare you tell me I look crap?’, but instead we go ‘Oh yeah, great idea, I’ll try this new face cream/beauty treatment/diet and I’ll feel good about myself for improving myself’. We internalise the implied criticism of our bodies, and hold only ourselves responsible for any so-called failures. We lose any sense that our bodies are just sort of there and fine as they are. And obviously that’s not great for anyone’s mental health.*

It’s not like the media pressure is out in the open, or explicitly oppressive. It’s internalised. This quote from the book explains it better than I can,he’s talking about people who come to her practice in her day job of psychotherapy:

“Like many of us, the people I work with wish to and do reshape their bodies in small and dramatic ways. They find fault with their bodies and say it makes them feel better, more in control, to improve them. Like most of us, they do not like to believe that they are being unduly influenced by outside pressure, and may disdain such an idea, with it’s crude sense of manipulation. Whether followers of fashion or health trends or not, we take for granted that looking good for ourselves will make us feel good. And yet there is a subtle tracery of outside urgings which works on us, creating new and often dissatisfied relationship with our bodies.”

What I want to talk about here is the way this relates to what I’d describe as the ‘look great to feel great’ argument which I often see on blogs about body image. This basically says that if you’re feeling bad about yourself and your body, you shouldn’t let yourself go, and throw on any old thing. Instead the thing to do is put on a nice dress, cut your hair and get a manicure (or go for a run, or whichever other self-improving beauty thing). The argument goes that if you look pretty, you’ll feel better about yourself, you’ll be more confident, be more outgoing and people will react more positively to you, further boosting your confidence. It’s a virtuous circle.

And obviously this is true. If I get lots of compliments on an outfit, I feel great, and I remember when I used to have my hair highlighted, I felt like a million dollars, and it probably did make me more outgoing and happy. So I can see the logic behind the ‘look great feel great’ argument.

But I just worry that ultimately this emphasis on not letting oneself go is counterproductive in terms of getting women (and men) to feel happy in their skin and accept their bodies. Because every time a woman tries to get over feeling crap about herself by buying a glamorous new frock or straightening her hair (or whatever), this raises the bar just a little and creates an expectation for everyone to wear glamorous frocks and straighten their hair. And if you don’t, then you have ‘let yourself go’ and it’s partly your own fault that you feel bad. What might be good for us as individuals, is ultimately bad for us as a society.

The ‘look good to feel good’ idea maintains and reinforces the idea that responsibility for body image lies with the individual, and ignores the social pressures (including beauty businesses and the media) that are to a large part responsible for the negative body image in the first place. It’s understandable of course, since the individualistic self-improvement is something to make us feel in control, something we can actually do ourselves, now, whereas changing social structures is bloody difficult and uncertain, can only be done through collective action and may in the short term actually make us feel worse.

I don’t have any answers for this conundrum – I just think we should maybe be slightly more critical and less enthusiastic in our support for self-improvement as a solution to negative body image and not ignore the strong social forces at work. What do you think?

Oh, and if you’re thinking about reading the book – which I highly recommend – read a review here.

* This may not be exactly what she says, but that’s what I took from it anyway.

photo by sarah france lovesdesign*.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Katie 27 January 2010, 5:24 pm

    While I do agree that I feel better on days when I'm happy with the way I look, my problem with the "look great to feel great" attitude is that it depends on external influences to alter internal emotions. Ideally, how you feel about yourself should come from within; otherwise, you relinquish a certain amount of the autonomy of self. Even if the only validation on your looks come from yourself – arguably one way to remove the external influence of others, you're still relying on the external influence of yourself.

    At the end of the day, I'd rather feel good because I'm content with what's going on inside and have how I look just be the frosting on an already gorgeous cupcake.

  • Sal 27 January 2010, 5:38 pm

    A great and thought-provoking question!

    I am a huge proponent of the look-good-feel-good cycle because it has worked wonders for me, in terms of confidence and self-esteem. And while I can totally see how it might, on some level, encourage MORE bodily scrutiny and up the bar on what "looking good" means, I still believe it is a valuable argument. I believe that interior self-care and self-love can be linked directly to lavishing affection on the external self. Yes, my personality, smarts, talents, and inner self are at my core … but why shouldn't my body get some love and credit, too? To me, making my body a second class citizen fosters a disconnect. Body, mind, soul – it's all me. And when I nourish all of them, I feel my best.

    It's tough because any discussion of this nature necessitates VAST generalizations. Yes, self-improvement actions like getting haircuts or bikini waxes are both influenced by outside forces and can end up sucking people into a cycle of upkeep that is beyond their means and needs. But it really depends on how you're wired, doesn't it? Dabbling in those things can be fun and fine if you don't let them rule your psyche. And I wonder if backlash against making any minor changes to appearance will eventually be seen as caving, selling out, weakness. If I don't like how I look at this weight, it's fine for me to try to lose a few pounds – responsibly and healthily. If I love how my legs feel when they're waxed, there's nothing wrong with getting that done regularly.

    Furthermore, how do we tell for sure what is us/ourselves and what is external? I can honestly say I have little idea what I like inherently and what I like because it's been shown to me.

    That got mad long. Sorry.

  • Oranges And Apples 27 January 2010, 6:14 pm

    See, I agree with both of you. I honestly geniunely don't know how to square this circle!

    I'm the last person to argue that looking nice doesn't make you feel better, but it does feel like something of a band aid. It doesn't actually solve anything.

    I guess the point that Susie Orbach is making, and the reason I included the quote, is that it's not a matter of us wanting something and external forces manipulating us. We do want it ourselves and we do enjoy it and, but that doesn't mean that for many people it makes them feel worse in the end. It's the same as the patriarchy: we are part of the society that creates the forces that are bad for us. It's not some evil mastermind sitting somewhere planning it all.

    Sorry, now I'm rambling. But please, Sal, don't cut yourself short. I want to hear it all! Plus the number of ridiculously long comments I've left on your blog!

  • Audi 27 January 2010, 7:21 pm

    I think it really all depends on what motivations you allow yourself to foster. If I tell myself, "This and that are WRONG with me; I'll try these products or go on this diet to try to FIX them" then that's obviously feeding into a very counterproductive and unhealthy mindset. Because the fact is, if we allow ouselves to believe that we need this cream or that tummy-control undergarment in order to look acceptable, then there will ALWAYS be something else on the horizon that will be deemed to need improvement. And when even the most ridiculous of bodily 'flaws' are corrected, then will begin the rounds of new and improved ways of correcting the things you thought you had under control: What, you're only getting bikini waxes? Haven't you heard that everyone is getting a Brazilian now?

    On the other hand, by approaching the look good/feel good cycle as a way to celebrate, decorate, and/or pamper the body that you love and appreciate, then you can look at any sort of beauty treatment or regimen as an indulgence and a treat. I approach 'improvements' to my physical appearance in much the same way I do for my apartment: it's just about as perfect as it can possibly be already, so why not spend some time rerouting that cord so that it doesn't show as much, or finding a better way to store my knitting stash? It keeps the place feeling tended, fresh and updated, without essentially changing it. And that's what beauty should be about: caring for and tending your physical self, not trying to alter it.

  • Sara Lynn 27 January 2010, 7:33 pm

    This is excatly why I love reading your blog. I do agree that the "look good, feel good" attitude has it's ups and downs. I like dressign up everyday because it makes me feel great. However I don't rely on others to tell me that. I do post outfits on my blog, weardrobe and chitopia, but there are days when I dress nice and I don't post, or I don't leave the house.

    I really wish that people didn't have to physically do things to themselves to make them feel better, like tanning or take pills to lose weight. But they see it as "makeup". Just a little something extra to do to make themselves look better, even though it can cause a lot of harm in the long run.

  • elena-lu 27 January 2010, 7:58 pm

    see im the other way round! i feel good to look good! i've found out that in my life journey and evolution the more i feel good about myself the better i look to others! when i feel good i stand up taller i am confident i am outgoing i smile more and i take care of my appearance and all of that seems to attract peoples possitive thoughts and feedback to me.
    conversely i could be looking like a million bucks but feel like crap and yup you guessed it i get a crappy day filled with crappy people saying crappy things to me.
    see i think its perception.
    its how we view ourselves
    its how we view others
    its how we view whats being said and done around us
    if we are feeling good then we arent worried about how we look. we are just being we are living we are experiencing life
    so if we are feeling bad then yeah everything becomes somethign to worry and think about to the point that it drives us nuts
    but how to feel good? its individual i think
    cause for me its being fit. sleeping enough. not eating too much sugar. its the feeling of having my body healthy and working when i feel good. also when my spirit is calm and when my mind is positive thats when i am at my best -i feel good.
    when i do the opposite of what i listed then i tend to feel bad and no matter what i wear or how i do my hair or whatever it just doesnt cut it.
    but thats what works for me. its not what works for her or you or him or them or anyone.
    i think that the biggest mistake is to think thatmagazines, tv, books and anything else can speak for everyone. they speak for a number of people but not everyone. we are all a like and we are all different. so some will agree and find it hits the truth for them while others not.
    i must tell you that i love it when you do posts like this! it gets us talking 🙂

  • Rebecca 27 January 2010, 10:03 pm

    I'm with you on the conundrum! While I think it can be a dangerous cycle, I also feel good when I look good. (But I also see what Elena is saying above about looking good when you feel good..)

    I wish everyone would just strive to be healthy and happy, because I bet we'd all look pretty good then. The problem is that we all have individual bodies and so many people can't achieve the in-looks without drastic measures. I guess it's just freaky to me when bodily things (being ultra-skinny, having big boobs, etc) become a "trend." We should all work with what we have to just be naturally beautiful, I think!

  • elena-lu 27 January 2010, 10:12 pm

    amen to that rebecca!

  • Birdie! 27 January 2010, 10:46 pm

    Well said! There's too much interpretation of what will make you feel better. It's really hard to shut out what the media wants the perfect woman to look like.

  • Diana 28 January 2010, 3:32 am

    It's a push-pull situation with this for me. I know getting a manicure helps me feel better for the moment, but ultimately, it's not going to make my day or make my self esteem. If I'm having a great day, it's not my outfit or my hair. At the same time, if I read a magazine article on how a $500 bag or Botox will make me a better woman, it doesn't make me ponder my life or my physical state. Trends come and go, but it's how you control your state of happiness that shows off how you feel to the world.
    Yet! I don't let myself go- there is a difference between good hygiene like getting regular trims, etc.

    Hope that makes sense! I agree with you on this- how can it stop??

  • Oranges And Apples 28 January 2010, 9:13 am

    Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments. I love a good discussion!

    I think that's a really point that elena and others made, different things work for different people.

    I think it's also a matter of how entrenched your negaitive body image is. If you're just having an off day, then dolling yourself up will be fine and no harm's done, but I guess what I was thinking about was a more serious negative body image.

    I was watching how to look good naked while at my friend's the other day and they had a woman that hated her body so much that she hung sheets over her mirrors because she couldn't bear looking at herself. They made it sound like a serious mental health issue. Then she went shopping with Gok Wan and he told her she had amazing boobs and suddenly she said she felt great and confident. And I'm sorry, that's just ridiculous. Either they exaggerated her problems at the beginning (she was confident enough to go on tv, after all), or it's a completeley temporary fix while the cameras were there.

    I don't want to go into my personal stuff too much, but it might help explain where I'm coming from:
    When I was 18/19 (and had just started university in a foreign country) I was in a seriously bad place. I tried the 'look great feel great' thing and it really didn't work. I lost a fair bit of weight and went shopping for clothes a lot, but while it would give me a short term lift, at the end of the day I still felt horrible and ugly. And I wasn't at all, I looked perfectly nice. In the end I worked on sorting out my other issues and on accepting myself as I was, including my bad points. And then the body image thing just sorted itself alongside the other stuff without me actually doing anything specifically about it. So that's why I think working on the inside is probably more important than fixing the outside. But then, that's just my own experience.

  • La Historiadora de Moda 28 January 2010, 2:44 pm

    I know I'm coming to this discussion late. I was having a hellish day yesterday and I neither felt good or felt like I looked good (even though I did). One of the reasons that I refuse to diet (although I do try to eat healthfully and watch portion sizes) is that it becomes a vicious cycle of self-loathing for me.

    While I think that looking good to feel good does have some workable elements for me – exercise does wonders, putting on a dress instead of staying in pjs all day, etc. – it can only take you so far. Being happy with yourself regardless of what you are wearing or what kind of hair day you are having is worth so much more.

  • elle s'ennuie 29 January 2010, 12:31 pm

    I think a good question to ask is 'why does this make me feel good?' There are biological reasons why for example exercising (reasonably) or eating chocolate makes us feel good (alas, the latter only temporarily..! :). Is there a reason a bikini wax should make one feel good, other than that we have been conditioned to see it as [insert positive adjective]? Or getting the right haircut, or having the right bag? There are of course biological reasons for "preening", but our media- and market-driven society has taken these things to such extremes, in order to profit off of it. It creates new "needs" every season, and a few months later the look that used to make you feel good – no longer does. It keeps us on a leash, always trying to attain something. And when we do attain it, it is only for a brief period of time, and then it becomes passé and we need a new feel-good look, because if we're still wearing what made us feel good a few years ago, we've "let ourselves go"! And on and on and on. All this while we create lots of waste to litter the Earth, more misery for some people – and a lot of money for a few others.

    I've become disillusioned with a lot of style and fashion blogs over the past year, as it seems even the ones that started out trying to portray alternatives to the vicious trend cycle described above, have become more and more a part of it. While superficial lip service is paid to issues like the environment, body image, feminism, they're really often like the big fashion magazines that tout feeling good about your body as is on one page and then advertise the latest anti-wrinkle cream or diet product on the next.

    So I hope you keep writing about these things, the stylosphere definitely needs more critical approaches to many things that are just taken for granted without deeper analysis!