Many of us struggle with our appearance, but is there a way to break free from society’s ongoing obsession with what we look like?

It was six p.m., bath time, and my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was standing in front of me wearing nothing but her socks. She was, as one would expect of a toddler, not in the least bit ashamed of her body as she proudly patted her belly.

“Look at my tummy!” she said, sticking it out as far as it would go. “Look how big it is!” She grinned at me expectantly.

“It’s not big!” I exclaimed as if that would be a bad thing. “It’s thin and beautiful!”

And there it was. The moment I realized I’d failed as a mother.

I, who had vowed to embrace all body shapes and sizes, who had ditched the scales as soon as I became pregnant, who had sworn never to say the four-letter word “diet” in front of my daughter, was sending her the message that her body should be judged on size.

My goal was to be a positive role model for my daughter. I wanted her to realize she was beautiful for being exactly as she was. The truth was, though, it was hard when I was embarrassed about my own body. I felt like I fell short of some idealized notion of what was attractive in other people’s eyes. So I went on diets and attended gym classes, all under the guise of so-called, “self-improvement.”

Why, as a mature adult, should I be embarrassed about my body? Why did I believe that my body was somehow fundamentally flawed?

Psychologists, counselors, and exercise physiologists agree that body image – the way we view our body and the assumptions we make about how others view it – is a complex issue that begins in childhood.

“The most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves,” says relationships counselor and psychotherapist Charmaine Roth. From a very early age, we hear messages about ourselves from our parents and other adults about how we should look and behave. As we grow older, these messages are reinforced by the images we see in the media. These images, together with the early messages, can reinforce unrealistic expectations about our appearance.”

Most of us understand that media images are manipulated. The Australian Press Council stipulates that publishers should provide readers with information about digitally altered images where there is the potential for readers to be deceived. “Creating unrealistic expectations about what is a ‘healthy’ or an ‘ideal’ body shape could lead to the risk of adverse effects on the physical or mental health of readers,” says chair of the Press Council Professor David Weisbrot.

Eating Disorders Victoria CEO Jennifer Beveridge agrees that exposure to unrealistic images in the media can contribute to negative body image. “Heavily photo-shopped advertising campaigns using models who lack diversity sends a message that only one type of body can be considered beautiful,” she says.  

The problem is a lot deeper than photo-shopping, and no generation is exempt. I grew up in the eighties, at a time when Barbie was asserting her independence. As a young girl, I admired her ability to be a surgeon, an astronaut, and a racing car driver, but I also admired her long skinny legs and tiny waist and viewed them as a prerequisite for being a successful woman. This is despite an analysis by the University Central Hospital in Finland which estimated she would, (if she were a real woman) lack the 17 per cent minimum body fat required to menstruate.

My mother was a teenager in the 1960s, when one of the most famous women in the world was English model and actress Lesley Lawson. She was voted, “British Woman of the Year” in 1966 and the very name that she became known by – Twiggy – reflected society’s worship of thinness.

There are perhaps some evolutionary reasons as to why humans focus so much on looks. “It’s a natural survival mechanism to judge and compare ourselves against others, and for us to need to be accepted by others,” says Sydney-based psychologist Sharon Draper. “This dates back to the beginning of human kind since our mammalian brain has had to constantly scan the world for evidence of possible rejection, since this would be dangerous to our species’ survival.”

Thankfully, these days, our dress size or how we wear our hair does not dictate our actual survival. The fact remains that humans have always admired beauty and perfection, something which is only exacerbated by the highly visual society we live in, notes clinical psychologist Sam Van Meurs. “We are more aware of our physical selves than ever before due to the ever present social comparisons that we make on social media and when we see advertising,” he says.

This is certainly true, says physiotherapist and clinical Pilates instructor Nikhil Taneja, who has seen many young women compare themselves to celebrities and try to be the same. “They come to me because they want to know if yoga or Pilates will give them the same kind of physique as the celebrities they follow. When I try to explain to them that these celebrities also go on extreme diets, many of them don’t come back.”

Research indicates that eating disorders are on the increase and it is clear that perceiving our body in a negative light can potentially have serious repercussions on our health. So what steps can be taken to help develop a more holistic body image?

“Focus less on what your body looks like and more on what it can do is a good first step,” says Jennifer Beveridge. “Emphasise your inner strengths and value things unrelated to your physical appearance. Cut out negative self-talk, and engage in plenty of self-care.”  

Health and community psychologist Dr. Marny Lishman agrees that we need to stop putting ourselves down. “When we are self-accepting, we embrace all the parts of ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, the good and the bad,” she says.

When it comes to our children, there are many things we can do to encourage a positive body image, says Charmaine Roth. “Encourage mealtimes to be a time when the family can sit together and talk, rather than it being too focused on food,” she says.

Other strategies she advises we employ include taking care with the language we use, maintaining a healthy attitude towards diet and exercise, and praising our child’s strengths and abilities rather than appearance.

As for me, I did my best to reduce my negative self-beliefs. I began to focus on my strengths and I worked on accepting my feelings.

In the end, though, the most powerful lesson came from home.

It was my daughter’s bath time again and I’d gotten into the tub with her to tackle the challenging task. After the shampooing, detangling, washing, rinsing, and the obligatory bath toy games, we were back on the bathmat, drying ourselves off with towels.

“Mummy,” my daughter said, looking up at my naked body with a bright glow on her cheeks. “We’re the same.”  

And in that moment I suddenly realized something. My daughter, with the innocent eyes of a young child, could look at my body and see that our similarities were more important than our obvious differences.  

I knelt down in front of her and put my hands on her shoulders. I could feel the outline of her bones and the soft slope of her arms.

“We are the same,” I said, “and we are beautiful.”

And even though I’d been telling myself to love my body, for the first time in my life I truly meant it.