On Self Image, Eating Disorders and Real Beauty

Disclaimer: None of the following is to say that skinny isn’t beautiful. Skinny is beautiful. It’s stunning, when it’s natural. This is also not to say that obesity is or isn’t beautiful. We should desire that all women achieve the healthy weight their body was designed to carry. That varies for every woman. Please keep this in mind as you read.

Florence, a middle-aged woman, timidly enters the room to find a man, Gil Zamora, sitting at a drawing board with his back to her. To his right is a long curtain and on the other side of this curtain is a chair. Florence takes a seat in the chair and waits. Gil, a retired forensic artist for the San Jose police department, picks up his pencil and poises his hand over the drawing board.

“Tell me about your hair,” he says to Florence, seated on the other side of the curtain. This question is followed up by others similar to it and she soon realizes he is drawing her.

“Thank you,” Gil says when he is finished drawing her portrait. Florence leaves the room quietly and he does not look at her as she goes.

A second woman enters and goes to the chair on the other side of the curtain. The forensic artist picks up his pencil again. “I am going to ask you some questions about the woman you met in the waiting area outside,” Gil says, referring to Florence. The woman nods, though the man cannot see her. “Tell me about her eyes,” the artist continues, and the process is repeated. After he finishes asking questions, the woman gets up to leave and the artist hangs the sketches side by side.

Florence is invited back into the room to view the two drawings. What she sees brings tears to her eyes. On the left is the picture drawn based on the descriptions she gave, and on the right is the picture drawn based on her new acquaintance’s descriptions. The picture on the left is of a homely, sad and older woman. On the right is a woman full of life and hope, her eyes sparkling with laughter. On the right is a beautiful woman.

What I have just described to you is the premise of one of many videos in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, Dove Real Beauty Sketches. In the film (you can view it here), several other women are interviewed by the artist. The reactions they gave to their own pictures are similar: all are stunned by the difference between the drawings resulting from their descriptions and those resulting from the descriptions of others. Gil Zamora nicely sums up the evidence of these drawings when he asks Florence, “Do you think you are more beautiful than you say?”.

According to the Dove website, the Real Beauty campaign began because of a study called The Real Truth About Beauty: a Global Report. “The study proved the hypothesis that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable. Among the study’s findings was the statistic that only 2% of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful.”

This sad statistic created a stirring within the Dove employees and thus, with the intention of inspiring belief in a woman’s self and positive thinking on her appearance, the campaign was born. It is a movement to “Widen the definition of Beauty” (Dove®). Dove’s hope is to recreate the ideal of true beauty and to show women that each and every woman is beautiful in her own unique way.

Why do women view themselves the way they do? Why do they see themselves as uglier than others see them, as evidenced by Dove’s film? Our perceptions of true beauty are built upon the influences of peers, media and our pasts.

This is not to say that peers tell us we are ugly for they often say the opposite. This is not to say that media says beauty is limited to one particular “type” of woman as they never directly say it. This is not to say that our past defines our future because only our present does.

We make the assumption that others see us based upon what we see through the murky colored glasses of our past.

Did you know that in the 1950s, skinny was considered awkward and ugly? Simply put, curvaceous was in style and skinny was out. Not that long ago, Marilyn Monroe was the epitome of beauty with her wide hips, large bosoms and cheeky smile. She was the one women looked to and said “I want to be like her!” Her look was easy to attain as it was the natural look of a woman’s body. Yet today, women are struggling to become rail thin and wear a size zero so they can feel beautiful.

So what changed? Media changed. Rather than placing women who look like Monroe on the front pages of their magazines and covers of their movies, they have taken to glorifying women like Dakota Fanning and Anne Hathaway, two women known for their stick-like figures. Healthy and voluptuous has gone out the window in the craze for women to become this often unattainable ideal of beauty.

The craze for thinness has triggered extreme responses in women and resulted in an epidemic of eating disorders. Teens everywhere are falling prey to the temptation to starve their bodies in order to look like the models they see every day in stores, magazines and on TV screens. In the Teen Mental Health book, Self-Image and Eating Disorders, author Rita Smith says that “many experts blame the fashion industry for promoting thinness as the ideal, which can often lead teens to develop eating disorders.” Fashion is changing to keep up with the modern media look. As it changes, styles are becoming more and more limited in size and fit.

Blatantly put, women who are not even obese are unable to wear these styles because of a few extra pounds. The ep36-million-quoteidemic is on a rise and a study done by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) revealed that more than eleven million people in the US alone are suffering from an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, and another twenty-five million are battling compulsive eating disorders, such as stress eating and binge dieting. That is thirty-six million people out there thinking they are not beautiful and need to change themselves to become the ideal man or woman.

It’s not just older women and teens falling prey to the desire to be skinny. I know a girl who is underweight for her height, yet she complains that she’s afraid of getting fat and she can only eat vegetables and lean foods. She is nine years old. A second study done by Dove® in 2011, The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited, revealed that 72% of girls between the ages of ten and seventeen feel “tremendous pressure to be beautiful.” This pressure results in even young girls taking the same extreme measures as older women to turn themselves into the ideals they see on the screen.

From an Anonymous Source:

There is a secret that not many people know about me. It’s something I feel ashamed to admit, though it is a disease and nothing of which to be ashamed. I am an anorexia survivor. It seems crazy to people when they hear me say that I “survived” an eating disorder.

Sometimes people don’t understand just how far the impact of an eating disorder goes. Anorexia and bulimia have become such common terms to our ears that they have lost their shock value. After all, those suffering from eating disorders could always just stop, right? How is it even possible to totally lose control of eating habits? Anorexia and bulimia are diseases of the mind. They are the cancer of misleading self-perception.

So indeed I did survive anorexia. I survive it daily.

We tend to think that because we have mirrors, we must be seeing the same thing other people see when they look at us. But while we do physically see the same image, we have not-so-rose-colored glasses on that distort what we see mentally. We are blinded by pre-conceived notions because we know the worst attributes of our character. We notice the scars, the wrinkles and the blemishes because those scars, wrinkles and blemishes remind us of our own short comings. Others can see past those marks because they don’t know the whole story. They see only the physical and their vision is not distorted by what is inside.

Anonymous Continued:

As I battled Anorexia, I was blind to any positive features they claimed I had. To this day I fail to see what others see. I have been told my eyes sparkle and dance with laughter, my hair shimmers in the sunlight, and my smile lights up a room, yet I do not believe those things.

When I began the battle, I lost forty pounds in thirty-five days. I was the thinnest I had ever been, an unhealthy thin. My mom grew concerned by the rapid weight-loss and took me to our family doctor who told me that my rate of loss was dangerous and asked if I was purposefully starving myself.

But people with eating disorders aren’t just good at lying to themselves; they also lie to everyone around them. I managed to convince the doctor, that I was merely losing baby fat and that I wasn’t trying to get skinny. She assumed hormones were kicking in as my body developed, thereby causing the weight loss.

My mom wasn’t the only one to take notice. People around me constantly said I was getting skinny, yet I never believed them because when I looked in a mirror I saw where the skin sagged and misinterpreted it to be the extra pounds I needed to lose.

I believed these self-taught lies until one day when I was watching a home video recorded by a friend. This friend was too skinny and even I believed her to look sickly at her weight. In the video she and I were standing side by side. There I was, a foot taller than her, and six inches skinnier.

That’s when I woke up to what I was doing.

For so long people had told me how they saw me, but the glasses I was wearing blinded me to what I was looking at. I couldn’t see it because all I could see was the hurt I felt the first time my grandmother told me I was starting to get chunky. All I could see was the rejection I felt the first time a boy made a joke about me being bigger than he was. All I could see was the ripples on my skin from the torture I had put my body through. All I could see was ugly when beauty was staring back at me.

We are our own worst critic. We believe things and see things about ourselves that others simply do not see. In the Real Beauty Sketches film, the women who described themselves truly believed their description to be accurate until that moment when they came face to face with the drawings. The self-perceived drawing and the acquaintance-perceived drawing brought an undeniable truth to the front of each woman’s mind: I am more beautiful than I had allowed myself to believe; I alone have decided that I am ugly. It is a wise old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what happens when the beholder is the beholden?

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and you need a friend to turn to, I am here for you. Please reach out to me on any of my social medias. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, please find someone you can turn to.


Dove Real Beauty Sketches, directed by John Carrey and produced by Dove®

Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty

The book Self-image and Eating Disorders (Part of the Teen Mental Health book series) by Rita Smith, Vanessa Baish, Edware Willett, and Stephanie Watson

On Self Image, Eating Disorders and Real Beauty

6 thoughts on “On Self Image, Eating Disorders and Real Beauty

  1. Great post Rachel! I absolutely adore those Dove commercials. Have you seen the documentary about women and self image? It is called Miss Representation. I think it is so good about more and more things like that coming out telling girls you don’t need to be a stick. I’ve always had food addictions and binge eating issues. I think it started with my parents divorce when I was young. I had been on weight watchers, Jenny Craig, and even got desperate enough to try diet pills which don’t work and are awful for you. Now that I’ve finally started to love myself no matter what my size I’m loosing the weight easier and getting healthy simply by listening to my body and eating whole foods. I still sometimes have negative thoughts about my appearance usually my chin or chest size but now every time I start hating on myself I force myself to stop and redirect the thought process. It is a slow and steady process but definitely worth it.


    1. Rachel Carpenter says:

      I haven’t seen the documentary, but I checked it out on your recommendation today. I look forward to watching!

      I think what you said about loving yourself is key. The people who turn to extreme methods for weight loss are doing it in hopes that the result will be loving themselves. But if you start by loving yourself, losing weight becomes more about being healthy and taking care of yourself because of that love.

      Thanks for sharing your story!


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