How to Conceive Yourself In Your Image

BY: Kasia Jezak

Last summer, my friends and I met up for a day we planned to spend hiking, but we ended up swimming in a local pond fully clothed, as you do. Karen just had laser eye surgery and she even taped lab goggles to her face to protect her eyes, but that still failed to entice her into the water. Immediately after we emerged dripping wet with our clothes sticking to our bare skin, we decided that we were hungry and that we had to go to Lui-Lui’s to solve this impending dilemma. We drove there in Quigley’s big white van and slid into a circular booth together, perusing the menu. Leon, Quigley and Carlo all ordered baked mac and cheese, which was our usual. I decided to try the lobster ravioli, and Barbara went for the lobster mac and cheese. I ordered an Italian soda. We cursed ourselves briefly for how much we were going to pay for these things, but decided we had the right to enjoy ourselves and not feel bad about it.

When the waitress came around to Karen, she ordered water, which was her usual when we went out to eat together, except that the game had shifted from general broke-ness to the fact that she was skipping all her meals every other day. It was her technique. We had been aware of this for a few weeks, but that day, we all reached our breaking point with her.

“I’m gonna order you a side salad and you better at least eat some of it,” Carlo told her.

Our afternoon out together slowly descended into an intervention. “You don’t want this to get out of control,” said Barbara, who began detailing the horror stories from when her eating disorder was at its worst. “I couldn’t leave the house or go anywhere by myself,” she told Karen. “My girlfriend thought I hated her for the whole summer. You can’t even go to the bathroom by yourself.”

Karen kept denying that she was spiraling into a similar situation. “Help me out here,” said Barbara. And with that, Quigley and Carlo started detailing their own eating disorder experiences with her, trying to deter her before she was too far gone for us to reach her. At that moment, something clicked for me. We were at a table for six people and four of us had a history of struggling with eating disorders, and I knew that while I had not developed a traditional eating disorder, I did not have a particularly healthy relationship with food, either. Even though I knew my friend group wasn’t close to being representative of any general demographic, there was something wrong with this picture.

Long after that day, I had another realization: two of the four people in question here were female, and two of the four were male, so the issue was split fifty-fifty between us, even though eating disorders are thought to be more common among females. Nobody is truly immune here.

These kinds of revelations always make me think: Is this problem, which is so widespread and so ingrained in us, unique to our society or societies like ours? Probably. Have people historically always struggled this much with their own self-conception? I can’t answer that with confidence, but I can say with confidence that the distinctive features of our modern consumer society play a crucial role in the extent of these effects. Eating disorders are only one of the more dangerous effects of our image-obsessed society.

It’s hard not to see self-image as a competition in a society in which a prime marketing technique functions by playing on people’s self-esteem, with the inescapable forces of social media playing up its importance. Virtually every product or service that is marketed to people focuses on selling it to them as some improvement of the self. It’s so hard to be at peace with yourself in a society that constantly tells you that there’s something you need to change.

I have seen friends of mine become so overwhelmed with spending so much time stressing out over their self-image, recognizing its toxicity and deleting all of their social media outlets. The constant pressure of having to be present in social media and comparing themselves with everybody else cuts to them hard, and I can’t say that I’m immune to it, either. All of these forces have created an insecure society, and consumerism is both the life force that keeps it alive, and the system of checks that keeps it from going beyond its bounds and approaching the realm of self-acceptance. This is a society in which peace is not assumed to be a potential end-goal, because that would mean huge losses if the consumer audience stops letting producers feed its endless flame of self-doubt and self-hatred. The longer that self-improvement is a constant battle and a game that is never done, the greater the profits for producers and marketers. The hunger to be better, to fit a different image, is boundless, and with no shortage of offers to make this dream a reality, the pool of desire is ever-expanding and endless.

You already know how this is going to go. If you can’t beat the system, why not just play the game? In a world where we cannot escape the society in which we live without sacrificing everything good that it offers, that’s really all we can do, but we need to be aware of how the system operates on our insecurities and use this knowledge to our advantage. Instead of letting retailers tell us what the ideal body image is, we can cultivate our own self-image and use the consumer world to help us express who we are, instead of letting it dictate who we should be. Instead of letting social media play on our fears and insecurities and infiltrate us with negative thoughts about ourselves, we can use it to spread positive messages and listen to each other’s stories. Instead of letting this world make us so caught up in how we view ourselves, we can use it to connect with others and realize that we are all being targeted in the same way, and that it’s not a struggle we face alone, but one that our society has implanted in our lives. It’s time for us to realize that we can turn the tables and use the same forces that have been used against us for our benefit, to love ourselves rather than hate ourselves, and to feel more connected rather than divided. These forces are too strong to kill, but we can channel them for our purposes instead of letting them conquer us, and if we preach a doctrine of self-love and self-acceptance, marketers will follow and play our game.

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