Body image is a sensitive subject and something that most American women struggle with at some point in their lives, if not forever. In my travels, one of the most enlightening aspects of certain cultures is the predominantly healthy relationship women have with their bodies, leading me to believe that all of us can learn a little something from European and other cultures, about self-acceptance and, well, taking it easy.
Body Image: At Home
Having been born and raised in an international household, I spent every summer of my youth and teens abroad, either in Germany, Spain, or Turkey. Once I graduated college, I moved to Istanbul and have been living here for nearly 6 years. There are many differences between Europe and America. However, one that struck me early on was the very different approach to body image.
My formative years – the years I learned to relate to my body – were shaped by the American experience. To me, that has always meant a hyperawareness of body size and shape, beginning at a startling young age, and a constant inclination to compare myself to other women. It’s a pervasive acculturation, to say the least. The degree to which your relationship with your body affects your lifestyle varies, but for many it can be socially and emotionally crippling, even when you least realize it. Being a bully – to yourself, no less – chips away at your confidence and can compromise your potential in relationships, the workplace, and overall happiness. To me, it has always felt like such a shame that something so external, so superficial, could stir such a degree of self-loathing, or, at least, linger in the back of your mind as a subtle reminder of why you aren’t good enough.
Granted, there are many reasons, some not so obvious, that ultimately create a negative body image–it is impossible to escape the influence of popular American media’s thin ideal. Our obsession with Hollywood celebrity-ism, heavily photoshopped covergirls, weight loss product promises, and interest in hardcore fitness and diet trends isn’t self-made; it is shoved down our throats on a daily basis. We have been forced to value what can actually hurt us, either by media or as a result of peer pressure. So, it comes as no surprise that 8 million Americans – 3 percent of the U.S. population – suffer from some kind of eating disorder, be it anorexia, bulimia, or something related. This incidence rises to 4 percent among college women.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. maintains its reputation as the land of excess. Most Europeans view America as a place where people can’t control their eating habits. And, who could argue? Our serving sizes have doubled, if not tripled, over the past 20 years, and a recent study showed that nearly 60 percent of an American’s daily calories come from “ultraprocessed” food and less than one percent from vegetables. Many European countries have a strong culture of favoring organic foods and are not as plagued by processed foods as the U.S.
The statistics and general food climate aside, what I found myself most influenced by during my travels in Europe was the lack of excessive thought, wasted time, and anxiety surrounding food and exercise. It just felt different, and oddly, liberating.
Body Image Impressions: Abroad
My first realization of body image being something positive was when I was 15 and in Turkey. My best friend and I were sitting with my aunt and some neighbors for a snack, and in reference to my friend, instead of saying her name, they called for her attention with what literally translates to “fat girl.”
It rolled off my aunt’s tongue so matter-of-factly, it didn’t feel negative. I remember looking at my friend, shocked and embarrassed my aunt would call her that, but my friend didn’t think twice. She smiled and looked up, as if indeed, that was her name. Would her reaction have been different had she been raised up until that point in the U.S.? I remember being very confused in that moment. Why wasn’t anyone scolding my aunt for being so blunt and rude?
What I learned since then is that the Turkish culture calls it like it sees it. If your name is Bob and you have a big nose, Turks call you what translates to “big nose Bob”. They skirt no superficial trait, because it’s not taboo and deserves no depth. In fact, the first thing Turks will comment on when they see you after a long time is whether or not you’ve gained weight or look tired/old. No one is ever offended by being told they look “fatter” than usual. He or she reacts in honest agreement, laughs, shrugs, and moves on. If someone thinks you’ve lost weight, he or she will comment on it without it being framed as a compliment. After my friend, a young vulnerable teen, was called “fat girl” (and clearly, it wasn’t the first time), she never had a moment where she sat alone in her room and cried and began to demonize her body.
As I grew older, I learned to appreciate, if not fully love this aspect about the Turkish culture. It does not put body image on a pedestal, isolating it to the point that it becomes “a thing.” Instead, it honors character and community ties. This is a trend that is prevalent in many non-Western cultures.
But moving more westward, toward more mainstream Europe (the UK is an exception), many of the same tendencies seemed to hold. Body image is a surface issue that doesn’t go much deeper. It’s a matter of practicality. If you’ve gained weight, you lose it – no fuss. If you’ve lost weight, you gain it back – no fuss. Most women aren’t adhering to extreme diets and aren’t always on the endless pursuit to be or look like someone else. Exercise is less of a trend, and life’s pleasures are enjoyed, but rarely abused. Meanwhile, women and men aren’t so shocked or praising of a strikingly beautiful person – he or she is just another human (insert shrug here).
This isn’t to say that Europe and places like Turkey, which straddles both the developing world and the western world, have it figured out – they don’t. Slowly, the trend is veering toward American influence, with women becoming more self-aware and developing complexities about their body. Meanwhile, obesity is rising across Europe, adding fuel to the imbalance. In EU countries obesity affects as much as 30 percent of adults.
Body Image: The Take-Away
While living abroad, I’ve slowly begun to shed some of my uptightness about fitting a certain mold and have found myself appreciating my body more. I credit this almost entirely to context. Society isn’t forcing me to care as much as I should by U.S. standards. Women aren’t constantly comparing themselves to an ideal. Foods like butter, bread, cheese, and meat aren’t considered evil or worthy of a guilt-trip. A gym membership isn’t a life necessity. And when you love your body more, adhering to ideal sizes and shapes doesn’t matter. Happiness does.
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