Where’s the limit to enhancing your looks?
Paying attention to your appearance is a very human trait. And though we talk about accepting our bodies and learning to love them, most of us still think about our image a lot.
We’re not the only species that groom,” says researcher and clinical psychologist Deb Mitchison. “Most species are interested in how they look so it’s not a drive that I think we can expect to eliminate.” The problem is that parts of society take advantage of our natural drive to look and be better. They profit from creating insecurities around how we present to the world. This can lead to body image issues and eating disorders.
The situation raises some philosophical questions about our society. At what point does enhancing or investing in our appearance turn into a problem? “There’s a need to constantly update yourself or be better than what you are,” says philosopher Mary Zournazi. “It can give you power but be detrimental at the same time.”
In this episode of Butterfly: Let’s Talk, we explore the difference between putting your best foot forward and going too far, both for society and your own physical and mental health.
Mary Zournazi 00:08
We have to realise how empowering it can be for people to change their bodies. I mean, why not like why, you know, it’s part of our history, but it’s when that becomes your only source of value, so in other words, if your life is offering you no opportunities, but that that’s the problem.
Jess King 00:27
It’s almost like letting go of, like this drug or this addiction to wanting to be smaller and trying to change your body so badly. It’s, yeah, it’s a weird, it’s a weird kind of concept.
Deb Mitchison 00:39
Being interested in how attractive you are to potential partners is seen as a vital strategy for the goal of species survival for reproduction. So it’s not a drive that I think that we can expect to eliminate it at any point.
Jess King 00:56
It does make me sad in a way that it took other people to tell me that I was okay and that I was good enough for me to be able to work through those issues and start to heal and start the journey back to accepting my true self again,
Sam Ikin 01:12
We talk a lot about accepting our bodies and learning to love them for what they can do for us and not what they look like. But taking pride in your appearance is a very human trait. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to enhance the way we look within reason.
Deb Mitchison 01:26
It’s completely natural, right? And we’re not the only species that groom. There are other species that pretty much most species that are interested in how they look.
Sam Ikin 01:36
This is Butterfly: Let’s Talk from your national voice for body image issues and eating disorders, Butterfly. I’m Sam, Ikin and I’m so glad you’re here. Cultural anthropologists tell us that body adornment, grooming and even body modification can help create a sense of belonging and signal that someone’s part of a particular group. In every culture throughout history, we care about what we look like, because we want to fit in. We’re all social animals. In most societies, people perceived as attractive are rewarded for the way that they look. And while many of us are sucked in, to one extent or another, it drives far too many of us to question our value, and even overinvest in improving ourselves.
Deb Mitchison 02:18
Fundamentally, it’s seen as being interested in how attractive you are to potential partners is seen as a vital strategy for the goal of species survival for reproduction. So it’s not a drive that I think that we can expect to eliminate at any point. And it’s really just something that is not really within our control. It’s a really an innate part of who we are.
Sam Ikin 02:45
In this episode, we’ll be talking to a clinical expert, a philosopher, and a curve model just to make sure we cover all our bases. This is our expert, Deb.
Deb Mitchison 02:54
My name is Deb Mitchison. I’m a research fellow at Western Sydney University. I’m also a clinical psychologist. I think that that drive, there are parts of society that have taken advantage of that drive, and I guess, have built on that by causing insecurities related to that drive. And I think that that in some way has given rise to issues around body image and eating.
Sam Ikin 03:19
You’re an academic, but you also work with patients, so you live in both real and the fake world.
Deb Mitchison 03:27
Yeah, that’s right. Well, it’s so important, actually, to my practice, into my research that I straddle both of those worlds. For me personally, it’s difficult to have my research grounded in what the real experiences of people who live with eating disorders or with body dysmorphic disorder, if I’m not talking with them on a weekly basis. Both my practice and my research means a lot to me. We all have body image, we all eat, we are all exposed to an environment where it’s placed as really important. And there is a lot of talk in our families, in our schools, in the media, about bodies and eating.
Sam Ikin 04:10
Is there a similar kind of drive towards us, judging others on the way that they look, and not wanting to even have anything to do with people based on the way they look?
Deb Mitchison 04:20
We do that, to some extent, but what I think more so we, it’s sort of like, we see that happening from media, right? But when you actually ask people and talk to people, they often so I talked to a lot of people who have insecurities with body image, whether it be about their weight or something else. It could be about their nose, their hair, anything. But often actually, there’s a double standard in that they would never say that other people because of their level of attractiveness would be less worthy of being happy or you know, finding love and things, but they hold the standard for themselves that they are not good enough. So we actually are a lot more critical towards ourselves than to others. And there’s this tendency to compare ourselves with other people and to feel really bad about ourselves when we, when we feel like we’re not looking as good as other people.
Sam Ikin 05:23
Evolutionary psychologists tell us there’s a drive to partner with a perceived healthy prospect for meeting a nest building. And although it’s simplistic and incorrect, looks are often equated with health. It’s a complex survival mechanism. However, in today’s circumstances are different from ancient times. Not only do we have access to more technologies to modify our appearance, but we’re exposed more relentlessly to a hyper visual world of body and beauty ideals.
Mary Zournazi 05:54
Historically, human beings have always been involved in one form or another of display or characterization or, you know, formulation of their bodies according to the sort of social etiquette of the time or the social ideals at the time. So there’s always been that going on, I think. So that’s not new. My name is Mary Zournazi. I trained as a philosopher. That’s my background. I teach in a sociology department at the University of New South Wales. But I’m also a filmmaker.
Sam Ikin 06:24
What do you make of the current desire for so many people in our society to enhance the way they look from, I guess from a sociological or even anthropological perspective, what do you make of it?
Mary Zournazi 06:36
I think social media has produced an influx of presentation of ourselves not representation, but presentation. So there’s a need to kind of constantly update yourself or be you know better than what you are according to a set of perhaps more data oriented forms of image making, as opposed to perhaps more organic forms of image making. One of the things I want to stress is that I think as human groups as human collectives, there’s always a mode of ritual and identification, that is in play in that collective grouping. My father who had dementia, and one of the most important things for him every day was to get dressed, was to brush his hair, put his tie on look good, but look good, because it was a sense of dignity and integrity. So there’s something in the the mode of looking after ourselves, which I think is actually quite important to the grooming of us as animals, you know. So it’s not, there is something inherent in wanting to look good, in a sense. But there’s a difference between the point of just being part of the kind of ritual of identification as a human, and then the sort of exploitation of your own body in a sense to images and products, which might tell you to look, you can look better this way and this way. Rather I think there’s something important in us reclaiming the fact that we do have these habits, that we do want to present ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to present yourself.
Sam Ikin 08:15
We’ve kind of circumvented all of the natural evolutionary things by civilising and growing our own food and doing things that we don’t need to worry about being part of the tribe and being you know, ostracised you can just go to the supermarket and all of these different ways that we’ve gotten around it. So are these things still appropriate? Should we be resisting them?
Deb Mitchison 08:37
I think we should, we should resist and it’s not resisting our inner drives. As such, they’re natural, we need to accept them. What we need to resist is the one we’re talking about in terms of these drives being exploited. So the message of you know, it’s not okay to be larger in size. For instance, let’s start a social justice campaign, right, let’s collectively resist that, because that’s not healthy for anyone. So, we can absolutely fight against the exploitation of these drives, these new things that we have in terms of technology is quite recent, our brains ancient and so we are not going to be able to get around these drives as such. And marketers, promoters, media organisations, they know this and they exploit our drives because our drives are also the source of our insecurity. Because we do crave belonging, we do feel a need to survive to find a partner is a huge element of people’s drive from you know, when they’re in their teens through to when they’re into their older age. So this this idea of success and have happy relationships and of just being, you know, happy with yourself, being tied to your level of attractiveness is what I guess the media have picked up on it and, and tried to promulgate to sell that message to sell their products to us.
Sam Ikin 10:15
Researchers have found that both adolescent girls and boys have conversations about their appearance, and changing their appearances about things like dieting and muscle building. And what they hear from their peers through these conversations, is reflected in their attempts to alter their bodies.
Jess King 10:31
Ever since I was about 14 years old, I worked as a model, but you know, like many other people, in my situation, I was considered too big for the fashion industry. And unfortunately, a lot of those experiences kind of led me to a really difficult time where I battled with really negative body image and disordered eating. My name is Jess King, I’m a crazy cat lady and curve model, based in Melbourne, Australia. Yeah, I feel lucky to, I guess, be celebrated in the body that I naturally am and not have to change that for someone else.
Sam Ikin 11:09
As someone who worked as a TV reporter for you know, 10 to 15 years. I did everything, I had surgery and everything just because you couldn’t be fat and be on television. Take us through your experience of that.
Jess King 11:20
So many memories that I carry with me, like you said, and it’s definitely trauma. You know, I don’t really have particularly great memories of when I was younger and working in the fashion industry. I remember the times where the stylist told me my hips were too big. Or I had an agent who told me I’d you know, never make it in the industry unless I were to lose 15 kilos. It really mars your opinion of the industry. Even now, I still think about it. So makes me sad?
Sam Ikin 11:51
Is it still the same? Like are things changing at all? Is there any improvement?
Jess King 11:56
There definitely is improvement. On my side of things working as a curve model I’m celebrated for the size am. I don’t have the pressure to fit into, you know, a size eight sample, if I’ve put on a little bit of weight over Christmas, that’s not the end of the world. But unfortunately, I have friends who do work straight size models, and I hear terrible stories from them about some of the things they have to go through. Even recently, a friend of mine was told by her agent that she wasn’t looking toned enough. And this is a really beautiful, healthy girl who’s you know, size 10 to 12. I just think we need to kind of change our thinking around what is healthy and that healthy can be different on everyone. And it can be different sizes and healthy is not just a size six or a size zero.
Sam Ikin 12:45
These agents sound awful.
Jess King 12:47
Yeah, I mean, they’re not a lot of them aren’t really changing with the times, that’s for sure. And it’s hard because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who are telling these young impressionable girls and boys, that their worth is based upon a dress size.
Sam Ikin 13:02
There are people who never consider their presentation or what to enhance their appearance or a quiet happy resisting the drive to invest time and energy and improving their looks. And good for them. That’s totally fine. On the other hand, the rest of us are at least partly influenced by those drives and external pressures to always be better. For some that quest can take over their life, their appearance can become a source of constant dissatisfaction and stress. So where is the line? And what’s the limit? What’s the difference between putting your best foot forward and going too far? And who gets to decide that?
Deb Mitchison 13:41
The truth is that we don’t need to meet any specific appearance standard or ideal to be acceptable and to have a happy life and to survive and to thrive? It’s just it’s more than, you know, media and society has decided that, oh, we it’s not okay like to be middling. Right. We’ve got to be this ideal standard that we need to strive for, in order to be happy with our lives, which is just utter bullshit. That’s just doesn’t make sense at all. The people can’t have happy, wonderful lives and beautiful relationships, regardless of their appearance and appearance is only one aspect of attraction as well, which is the other thing to recognise. The message, I guess that is being conveyed a lot of the time is you’re not quite good enough as you are right? I see mostly adults in my clinical practice and their sense of loathing or feeling that they’re not adequate, particularly targeted around their appearance has been with them for a long time, usually since childhood. And for some of them It’s explicit, you know, they’ve had experiences where they’ve literally been bullied about their appearance. But for others, it’s this pervasive, you know, environment that they’ve been in where they’ve, it’s just been accepted by people around them that being bigger is not good. You know, you’re not, you’re not a good person, if you’re bigger.
Sam Ikin 15:20
I think a lot of these things that have been conditioned on us through society, from a really young age, are really difficult to kind of shake, even if you’re consciously telling yourself this is okay, or that’s okay. How’s your view of yourself evolved?
Jess King 15:36
I think, because of my involvement in the industry, I’m always going to look upon myself with a more critical eye than perhaps the average person, you know, I’m used to people seeing me as you know, just a visual and as the mannequin rather than a person, I guess, even though I have recovered from, you know, the worst of my body image experiences, it’s always still gonna be in the back of my mind. And I don’t know how much detail I can go into without triggering anyone, but I was extremely unhealthy for quite a long period of time, weighed, you know, 25-30 kilos, less than what I weigh now, just every unhealthy habit under the sun that you could think of to try and maintain a body that just wasn’t meant for me. And it took me a really long time to realise that, you know, we’re not all meant to be one size, when will we all can’t be a size zero, and it wasn’t healthy for me, and I have long lasting health complications because of that. And, you know, I still have to check in with my mental health all the time.
Sam Ikin 16:37
Was there a point where you just went, No, that’s unsustainable?
Jess King 16:40
No, really, there wasn’t really a one catalyst or one moment that I can think of. To be honest, it was kind of gradual. And I talk about this a lot with people because I feel I carry a little bit of guilt in a way because, you know, I had people telling me that I was good enough the way that I was, and I was earning money because of, with my natural body, you know, I was being celebrated for being this size 12 to 14. People were telling me, I was beautiful, just the way I was and I never believed that for so long. And I think it does make me sad in a way that it took other people to tell me that I was okay and that that I was good enough for me to be able to work through those issues and start to heal and start the journey back to accepting my true self again.
Sam Ikin 17:29
So let’s get all hypothetical here. Because this hasn’t happened. If we could decide as a society, that we were collectively just going to resist those drives, and decide that we don’t care, we’ve moved on beyond that, What might be the costs involved?
Jess King 17:44
I mean, realistically, a financial cost in terms of therapy and healing and getting help from the outside. And also, I think, an emotional cost in kind of, I’m sure a lot of people who’ve been through this can relate, but kind of like saying goodbye to a body or a person that you thought was achievable. It’s a weird kind of mourning in that I find and I still kind of like, I’m careful, I’m not sure how to say this. But I miss it in a way but I know it’s just it’s not me, at the end of the day,
Sam Ikin 18:24
you miss what you’re the aspiring to a smaller body, or…
Jess King 18:29
Not so much that not so much aspiring to be a smaller body, because I love who I am now, and I you know, not only the way that it is, but it’s just it’s almost like, you know, letting go of, like this drug or this addiction to beings to wanting to be smaller, and to you know, trying to change your body so badly. It’s, yeah, it’s a weird, it’s a weird kind of concept. And I think a lot of it is about control as well. And you kind of you grieve that sense of control.
Sam Ikin 19:00
If you’ve been listening to our past episodes, you’ll know that Jess is not the first person who said that, that they’ve grieved the previous behaviours and impulses, because those behaviours were something that actually helped them at a time to overcome whatever it was that they were trying to soothe.
Mary Zournazi 19:16
There is actually something that needs to be addressed in perhaps the power that it gives people even though it can be detrimental at the same time. So there needs to be something to do with acknowledging that for younger people, I think, especially if it’s not just younger people, there is something about it can empower there’s a sense of power, even though and control when other aspects of life are not in control.
Sam Ikin 19:40
Obviously, this is a major driver in why people want to change the way they look and people go to such massive lengths to change the way they look. Is there a difference between the desire to enhance ourselves today, as opposed to a couple of centuries ago?
Deb Mitchison 19:55
200 years ago, you weren’t exposed to media in that way. People weren’t trying to sell you things based on your insecurity about your appearance all the time, and especially today, with social media, if you have, you know, a slight insecurity about weight, for instance. And so you Google weight loss remedy, whatever your, your Google algorithm then conspires against you, or it thinks it’s helping you right? To then give you lots of advertisement and curate your social media feeds based on weight loss products, and, you know, so you’re suddenly exposed to so much more based on your insecurity. If you’re only looking at things that are healthy and good for you, then that’s great. The algorithm works in your favour, you get content that’s really uplifting. I talk to clients about doing this trying to trying to curate your feed on your social media so that it’s going to give you more positive messages.
Sam Ikin 20:58
At what point would you say that a person’s concern and perhaps, you know, the amount of money that’s prepared to spend or time or, you know, the commitment they’re prepared to put in to their appearance becomes a problem?
Mary Zournazi 21:12
When it becomes harmful to the self to the person that’s trying to kind of participate, make connections, be in the world, you know. So I think the big fallacy in our community is actually that it’s all the individuals fault. I would say that people need to be able to recognise that we belong, we belong with each other. There needs to be also that kind of conversation going on with people around you as well, even though we feel it all internally, and we become very individuated. I think that’s the problem. I think that’s what’s underlying the problem not to what point is it too far? And if you’ve gone too far, I think it’s the problem is how we identify ourselves as just these kind of isolated individuals.
Sam Ikin 21:52
So you’re saying there’s a social component to this as well, at that it’s not just on the person on the individual?
Mary Zournazi 21:58
Yes, that’s right. Exactly. And it’s nobody’s fault, either. I think the problem is, when people see it as a form of blame, that’s what I’m trying to open out. We have to realise that how empowering it can be for people to do to change their bodies. I mean, why not? Like why, you know, it’s part of the history, but it’s when that becomes your only source of value. So in other words, if your life is offering, you know, opportunities, but that, that’s the problem. But if you want the opportunities to have an education, have a good health system, meet people, then that, you know, there’s more scope for you to develop and use your identity and your presentation. But if you’re you don’t have other options, that’s when it’s a problem. And that’s where the societal moment kicks in.
Deb Mitchison 22:45
Some people might spend, you know, objectively quite a lot of money and time on appearance, but it’s not affecting them in a in a negative way for their mental health. So how I usually kind of think about this is the extent to which the investment is causing that person distress, psychological distress, or they’re getting upset when their appearance goals are not met, or they’re comparing themselves chronically to other people and it’s continually making them feel inadequate, or their investment causes impairment in that other areas, like they can’t contribute to relationships in the in the way that they want to, you know, or they can’t, it’s causing problems with their work or with their study. And sometimes that happens first before the distress gets there. An example would be someone might have muscle dysmorphia, for instance, this excessive preoccupation with not being muscular enough. But for some people they are, they’re training a lot at the gym, they’re really big. And actually, if you ask them about their appearance and feel quite proud of it, they feel pretty good. But they’re, you know, completely failing at uni, they can’t hold a relationship down. And there’s all these other areas where their life is chaos. So the distress isn’t there about the appearance at that time. But the impairment is there in their life. And then on the flip side, something can happen, that person gets injured, right? That person gets injured, they can’t work out at the gym, and then what happens around their distress with their appearance? It goes through the roof. It’s so precarious to have all of your well being situated within one element of yourself, which is your appearance is just such a precarious way to prop up your self esteem.
Sam Ikin 22:54
So what do you suggest to people that they do about it once they’ve decided that this is a problem, or once you’ve helped them realise that.
Deb Mitchison 24:51
The first kind of steps is kind of talking about the formulation like why is there problems with the relationship? Why are you feeling depressed? And then once there is the realisation that it comes down to, you know, maybe there’s a problem with how much you care about or overvalue this idea of of looking a certain way, then the treatment really, is to challenge those ideals, see where they come from, I like to really work with clients to kind of get angry against society, and to really think how it pulled the wool over our eyes and made us spend a lot of money, resources, time, energy, and cost us our well being to focus on appearance just so that they can make more money. So I spend a lot of time there. And then also just thinking, well, what are your values? What kind of person do you want to be?
Sam Ikin 25:48
So let’s say you’ve made a very personal decision that you’re going to resist the way that these external forces affect you? How do we resist those, what should we be doing?
Deb Mitchison 25:59
We should be teaching our children, you know, not to judge other kids based on size, or, or any other, you know, attribute, right? It’s not just about weight, it’s about how people look in general, but also, you know, disability, and, you know, ethnicity and, and race and gender and sexuality. Having an inclusive society is something that we should all fight and strive for. And it starts with, you know, what we tell our kids, because we have to actively fight against, at the moment, what is promoted in the media, and through education materials, and is embedded in in various kinds of forums and how children are exposed to. It’s not enough to be passive. As a parent, I’m a parent of a five-year-old and eight year old, it’s not enough just to not, you know, to not promote weight stigma at home, I know, they’re being exposed to that, you know, regularly outside of the home. So I have to actively instill those messages of inclusivity.
Jess King 27:08
I, myself still find myself triggered or affected by what I say in the media, you know, almost daily, I think. You know, you you wake up in the morning, and the first thing you do is you’re scrolling your phone. And it’s so easy to get lost in that trap of, you know, feeling pretty crappy about seeing someone who you think has the ideal body or the ideal life and getting wrapped up in, you know, woe is me, I don’t have that I’m lacking my life’s not good enough. I think a simple tip would be to curate your social media, and make it a place that is safe for you. And that is inspiring and surround yourself with people online who make you want to be better and make you feel safe, and talk about things that you can relate to. And that was one of the best things for me, you know, don’t be afraid to go and unfollow people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.
Deb Mitchison 28:02
It is about being social media smart and, you know, there is a bit more of a push to be a bit more literate around this. I think in both kind of mainstream education, but also definitely like in prevention programmes for eating disorders that sometimes rolled out in schools is to understand how media works, you know, and what you’re seeing and be a bit more critical about what you’re seeing why you’re seeing what you see, and what that how it diverges from reality.
Mary Zournazi 28:34
It’s changed the way we look at time, the way we look at, you know, space, because we can see people so quickly, our habits around what’s interesting and what’s not interesting, but you can also turn it off as well. I mean, you can also not plug in.
Jess King 28:48
If you look on your social media, these people are here, they’re here, you know, there, you can find them online on your social media, if you want to diversify your feed, but I think we just need to embrace you know, the beauty that is our differences. And everybody deserves to see themselves represented. And I think in terms of how I felt seeing, you know, a size 14 person in fashion campaigns or on the TV or on neighbours or something, and you know, you just feel you feel seen. And everyone deserves that.
Sam Ikin 29:26
It’s pretty cool, though, isn’t it? When you see somebody who looks like you and you’re like, oh my god, that’s amazing. Well, that’s awesome.
Jess King 29:33
I just don’t think labels are perhaps I don’t think we need them anymore. At the end of the day, I’m a model I just so happened to wear a size 14. I think we just need to keep representing different types of beauty and fashion and media to have a look at what we think is the ideal Australian image of beauty. We’re so multicultural here. We’re so diverse in every single way. You know, the blonde surfer tanned girl next door. It’s just not realistic anymore.
Mary Zournazi 30:04
I think the ways in which we present ourselves is important. As long as we value, our own sense of identity and our own place in the world.
Sam Ikin 30:14
I think that’s a pretty good spot for us to wrap it up. If you want to follow Jess, search Jess King on Instagram. I’ll put the link in the show notes to her feed as well. And I also want to say a huge thanks to Deb Mitchison and Mary Zournazi for lending us their expertise and links to find out more about them but also in the show notes. Now, if you think you need support with an eating disorder or concerns about your body image, the number for the Butterfly Helpline is 1800 33 46 73 Or 1800 ED H O P E. That’s 1800 ED HOPE. For online resources and to chat online go to butterfly.org.au It’s easily the best place to start. Butterfly: Let’s Talk is an Ikin Media production, produced in partnership with the Butterfly Foundation. To find out more about us go to ikinmedia.au. That’s I K I N and if you want to show your support, drop us a comment or give us a rating. We really appreciate that. I’m Sam Ikin and thank you so much again for your company.