When I lived in Belgium, I made a fairly conscious choice to ignore all the magazines and television that I used to watch in Canada. When I say fairly conscious, the other contributing factor was that I lived in a country where I didn’t speak the official language very well so I was able ignore the rest.
Over the course of eight months, I noticed a mental shift in my attitude about myself.
- I quit stressing so much about the tiny bits of cellulite forming on my upper thighs. I thought, “Well I’m still able to run 5 km anytime I want, time to give my legs a break and pick up some more flattering shorts.” No problem.
- I decided it was fine to go out to the grocery store without make-up on and realized a natural, fresh face is appreciated by most.
- I quit worrying so much about how I looked in comparison to others. My fitness routine wasn’t based on what works for Victoria Secret models. My new Belgian lifestyle required walking and biking as my primary transportation. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about trying a new ab routine to lure out my dormant ‘6-pack’; I was more concerned about navigating a bicycle through narrow cobblestone streets with a heavy backpack of groceries.
- I bought clothes that I truly loved rather than what was considered trendy. If the pants were bigger than my usual size, I was able to shrug it off and find something that fit better without a weight meltdown. I’ll admit I still worry occasionally, but I’m less likely to let it become a major stressor.
- I received more compliments because of my change in confidence. Moreover, I began to remember them and accept them rather than listening to my prior inner monologue of ‘Oh thanks, but this could be better…”
- I ran more, not for the purpose of hitting those goal measurements of 36-25-38, but because it was my moment for reflection and meditation.
- I became more aware of food quality and choosing ingredients for nutritional value as opposed to a calorie count and low-fat content. Bring on the cheese and red wine!
- My conversations with other women weren’t dominated by anything covered in fashion magazines or TV. Coffee dates were focused on personal fulfillment and goals; subjects we found to be authentic, real, and important. I felt less competition with other women and compared myself to others less. I was quicker to compliment than to criticize.
And then I came home. I could feel myself falling into the media trap once again. My Canadian lifestyle is different from my Belgian one and sometimes, it’s the little things that get me: like seeing tabloid headlines ‘Who’s Fat? Who’s too Thin?” at the Canadian grocery store rather than small bars of Belgian dark chocolate while at the check-out line.
However, after my time in Belgium, I can recognize that mainstream American media promotes unhealthy cultural values. Not every woman in the world is subjected to such unrealistic and cruel messages day in and day out.
I’m planning to do everything in my power to keep avoiding mainstream media for my mental health and confidence. I suggest you try it to because it’s liberating in more ways than you think. When more women refuse mainstream media’s messages and we voice our concerns about unrealistic body images, the more likely we are to change them.
I love this post! When I lived in the UK, I bought trashy mags every week: Heat, Cosmo, Glamour – the lot. I constantly watched TV, even the depressing British soaps only had two types of woman: thin, gorgeous, glamorous, or aged and dumpy. I went to the gym for hours every day and lived pretty much only on cereal. I constantly felt fat, despite being almost a size 0 at one point!
I left the UK in 2007, and since then have hardly looked inside any of those mags, and I never watch TV. I am no longer addicted to the gym (although I do work out), and I eat real food. I also eat desserts. I am not as thin as I once was, but I don’t feel guilty about everything I eat either. All of my family and friends say I look much better now than I did then. People told me that when they first met me back then they thought I looked severe.
Recently I travelled around Europe. I went to the thermal baths in Budapest. I was initially really worried about getting into a bikini, as those terrible magazines used to brainwash me into believing that no woman larger than a size 6 should ever dare to wear a bikini in public, but the first thing that struck me is that every woman in the whole place was wearing a bikini, and the whole spectrum of shapes and sizes was on display. They all looked great, and they were all comfortable with their bodies.
It is refreshing to live in places where the media does not have that sort of control over women. I live in Sweden now, where the general lifestyle is very healthy. Women are slim because they are active, not because they don’t eat.
Thanks for your comment! When I was younger I didn’t think twice about buying those magazines you mentioned, but now I look back and can see how much it affected my self-esteem. Luckily, we get smarter as we get older and begin to question and reject that which does not serve us. A happy, HEALTHY lifestyle is where it’s at!
This was/is wonderful – thank you for sharing your experiences! I especially love this realization you came to:
“I can recognize that mainstream American media promotes unhealthy cultural values. Not every woman in the world is subjected to such unrealistic and cruel messages day in and day out.”
My lifestyle right now doesn’t allow me to travel as I’d like to, but it is inspiring to know that the body image fixation Western media has isn’t global.
I, like Runaway Brit (and most women I know), have struggled with body image issues. I hope this post reaches more women who will be inspired and affirmed by it as I am.
Thank you for your kind words Courtney! It’s been moving to see how many women around me have expressed that they also feel the same as I.
I can so relate to this! When I worked in the States, celebrity gossip was the communal office language. We used to troll sites like People and TMZ to find the juiciest stories to share at lunchtime. I broke the cycle almost as soon as I moved to Shanghai two years ago, and have never felt better about myself. It dawned on me recently that lack of exposure to those negative sources was the likely the reason for my new-found self appreciation. Hopefully I will be able to maintain this positivity when I return to the States later this year.
I hope so too Heather! Since I came home I’ve been struggling a bit, but part of it is figuring out my new routine as well. I think once you find that confidence in yourself it gets easier to ignore all the B.S.
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Nice insights! I was flabbergasted with the difference in my attitude once I stopped reading fashion mags and watching TV. All of a sudden I wasn’t bombarded with wants, needs, and images that made me feel like I needed to do MORE about my appearance.
Also, I think now I want to move to Belgium. 🙂
Thanks for the post!