Cissy Brady-Rogers
Cissy Brady-Rogers Cissy Brady-Rogers Cissy Brady-Rogers

Archive for February, 2011

Reclaim Your Original Beauty

Today is the first day of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Communities and universities across the country will hold events to educate and inspire participants with healthy ways to approach diet, exercise and beauty.

I attended a kickoff event on Saturday evening where “plus-size” model Crystal Renn, author of Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves, spoke about her passion for size diversity in the modeling industry. She is a former “straight size” model who earned success in the mainstream fashion industry through compulsive exercise and restrictive eating.  But when her self-destructive patterns couldn’t keep her skinny enough to meet those standards, she found hope in the plus-size segment of the industry.  Her discovery that she could eat normally and still work at the job she loved marked the beginning of her recovery.

I was taken by her boldness and courage, but my instinct told me that something was not right.  I couldn’t articulate it well enough to speak up during the question and answer time, but clarity came as I talked with my colleague Allison and her husband Steven on the drive home.

Disordered eating is rooted in an insecure self-image. Research indicates that exposure to idealized images of beauty is a primary contributor to the onset of negative body image—typically  the first symptom to develop and the last to heal in the course of an eating disorder.  Beauty and fitness magazines can be primary sources of distorted views of beauty and strength that exacerbate young people’s already unstable identity development.

The fashion industry profits from insecure self-image, using a form of marketing called “aspirational advertising” to increase profits. These ads use unrealistic images of beauty—something to “aspire” toward—to sell us products promising to alleviate the very psychological discontent the ad feeds.

The ultimate goal is not to make us feel beautiful, but to cash in on our insecurities:  Am I okay?  Am I beautiful?  Am I good enough?  Do you like me?

Tom Ford, a top designer, says he wants women to feel beautiful, but, like Chrystal, his perspective is clouded by his financial dependence on the fashion industry. His casual remark, “I’m just trying to make pretty clothes.  And beautiful clothes make beautiful women…” reveals the not-so-beautiful truth.  To the fashion industry, you really aren’t beautiful in the skin you came in—or in your favorite grungy jeans and old college sweatshirt.  Your package isn’t complete without the designer clothes.

I say beautiful women just are!  Beauty is our birthright. No one makes you or I “feel” beautiful.  We allow ourselves to feel less than beautiful when we measure ourselves according to others’ ideals of beauty.

Made in the image of the Creator, originally naked and unashamed, our instinct to cover ourselves—both physically and psychologically—is protective. We live in a world where kids bully each other and adults contrive ways to use our basic human insecurities for their own profits.  While it is necessary and good to clothe ourselves, we don’t need to let others determine what is fashionable.

To reclaim our original beauty we need to know that we are loved just as we are. The truth I always come back to when I’ve fallen into an insecurity rut is simple but elusive:  there is nothing I can do to make God love me more and nothing I can do to make God love me less.  All other loves will end, but the love of God endures forever.  Maintaining a deep and abiding connection to God’s love is foundational to good health and true beauty.

We also need to remember who we are—women created in the image of the Creator of all that is beautiful, good and true. We are already beautiful, just as we are.  But when we fill our minds with images of other people’s notions of beauty, we can’t even begin to see ourselves accurately.

A concrete step you can take to reclaim your original beauty is to resist the aspirational advertising of the fashion and cosmetics industries. Feelings follow thoughts.  When thoughts and images determined by advertisers fill your mind, you’ll continue to feel “less than.”   Careful consumption of (or, better yet, elimination of exposure) beauty magazines is a powerful way to prevent and heal negative body image.

For more on media literacy and other practical steps for reclaiming your original beauty, please check out NEDA’s website for handouts you can use and pass on to others.

I fell in love with indoor cycling five minutes into my first class in 1995. In the early days of Spinning I took two or three classes a week.  I loved the speed, the sweat, and the music.  Plus, it met my extrovert needs for camaraderie without worrying about a group crash  that sometimes occurs on the road.   My attendance is more sporadic these days, but I remain a big fan of this high intensity cardio workout.

My health club recently acquired new bikes which track RPMs (revolutions per minute), wattage, time, distance and calories burned.  I guess this is akin to the rollout of upgrades on the  iphone.  This is the “2.0” of indoor cycling.  They’ve taken it to the next level by adding computerized performance measures designed to make the classes more effective.  Plus, I’m sure it adds a selling feature for the club (“Only at Equinox…generation 2.0 of the latest in indoor cycling”), while also generating more profit for the manufacturer.  Everybody wins, right?

Do I sound skeptical? Indeed I am!

I took my first “monitored” class the other evening.  I did not like it! I found it distracting and disembodying.  I don’t want to know my power output (wattage). I just want to ride my bike, enjoy the power of my body, and sweat.

It used to be we’d monitor our intensity based on a simple 1-10 scale.  A flat road was somewhere from 3-5.  At 6 you began a slight incline.  At 8 and higher you rode a steep hill.  RPMs were guesstimates at best, but everyone seemed to get a good sweat going and enjoy the ride.  And, best of all, we felt better afterward!  There’s nothing like a good spin to release stress and re-boot my mood at the end of the day.

But now, you don’t even need to attach your head to your body to know how your ride is going. The monitor does it all for you.  Just follow the little numbers on the screen and you can be completely disengaged from how your body feels, what your legs are doing, or even if you’re still breathing.  Isn’t technology great!

The instructor did a fine job introducing the monitor, telling us where to look and what it meant.  But I didn’t want to use the “wattage” number to gauge my workout.  I spent the past twenty years learning to listen to my body.  Why would I give that precious commodity up for the supposed benefit afforded by technological advances in fitness?

The spinning bike was the only cardio device available at my club that didn’t have numbers monitoring my progress.  I liked that.  I paid for that.

Now the great numbers game has taken over the spinning experience as well.  What’s next?  A pedometer that will measure the number of calories burned while climbing trees, skipping stones across a river or building forts in the backyard?  Hey – great idea!  We can attach them to children and give them extra treats when they burn enough calories.  Now that’s a great way to motivate people to move isn’t it?

Do I sound cynical? Sorry.  I don’t want to be critical.  But we don’t need more devices to track progress, or programs to tell us how to move or what we should or shouldn’t eat.  What we need is to listen to the wisdom of our own bodies.

I am greatly concerned about the national health crisis–especially the startling rise in obesity among children. But if teaching people to track numbers—be it on exercise equipment or on nutritional labels—replaces teaching them to listen to their own bodies, we’re on a fast track to even poorer health and higher rates of obesity in the future.

I say throw out the monitors and teach people how to sense and track their own progress through body awareness. It is a natural “monitoring” device that can be accessed by people all over the world, anytime, anyplace. Best of all, it’s free!

But keep it quiet!  If the word gets out that people are practicing body awareness some smart Steve Jobs type will invent an upgrade and try to sell it to us.