Ask The Therapist: “I am not happy with how I look…how can I break out of this toxic cycle?”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I’m not happy with how I look. I overthink what I eat, what I wear, and even where I go because I’m so conscious about my appearance. It’s not only about weight though; it’s everything. Do you have any advice on how I can break out of this toxic cycle?”

Shahrukh’s Response

Dear Anon,

I can only imagine how distressing it must be to constantly think about what you look like, and to have such a scrutinised relationship with yourself and your body. What’s striking to me is the level of monitoring as well as the negative emotions that might be coming up for you in regards to how you feel about your appearance. Before we can look into how we can break the cycle, it’s worth exploring what might be happening internally.

Unrealistic Beauty Standards: An Unwanted Birthright

It’s no secret that we all live in a world where we are expected to look a certain way – the “ideal” body type. With the emergence of social media, most of us are constantly consuming content that would be feeding into that message – diet cultures, fitness pages, the fashion industry, influencers and just people in our day-to-day interactions, who are constantly editing and airbrushing in order to make themselves look “good”. Each person has their own journey, and it’s not to say that each person has given into this narrative, but there is an overwhelming percentage of people who believe that they need to constantly scrutinise themselves – in terms of how they look, what they should or should not eat, or even what they wear. It’s a cycle of shame that’s constantly being reinforced.

Living in Pakistan, body shaming is so common, it’s pretty much the norm. Laced with the best intentions, the ones who care about us most (i.e. the aunties you meet at weddings – please note the sarcasm) subtly tell us of how “healthy” we look now. Which, as we all know, is code for: wow, you’ve gained a lot of weight. With that, we put down our dessert spoons and make our way to the gym and begin cutting out carbs, sugar and follow the newest trend in the diet and fitness world. 

The point here is that shame around the body surrounds us. The problem is that even if you were to reach the “ideal” weight or the “ideal” body type/figure, you might continue to scrutinise yourself to the point where you watch each food item you eat, and worry about each pound you might gain. This can extend to how we present ourselves to the world – wearing the right clothes that are flattering and make us “look good”. 

You didn’t ask for any of this, did you? It’s alright, it’s not your fault. You are just one of the millions of people who experience similar feelings about their appearance; in different contexts, perhaps, but rest assured, Anon, you’re not alone. Reading this question for the week made me think of so many others who have gone through this, and who continue to go through this.

What Can I Do?

First and foremost, Anon, if you feel that it’s something that is really taking a toll on your mental health, I would recommend seeking out the help of a counsellor, specifically one who is trained to work with self-esteem, body image and patterns of disordered eating. 

While you get that process started, there are other things you can do for yourself to promote a better relationship with yourself and the way you look.

  • Most people don’t look like the influencers and people in the fashion world: what we often forget is that a lot of the content we consume, or the people we see in magazines on screen are the result of professional-level airbrushing, cosmetics or plastic surgery – mixed in with mega diets and crazy fitness regimes. There are so many things going on behind the camera that we don’t even realise. It’s important to remind ourselves that the standard that’s set for every day women is near impossible, or one that requires restrictions, that do eventually have a deep impact on one’s mental health, and one’s relationship with themselves and their body.
  • Your feelings are valid: self-acceptance is a journey, one that will come with many, many feelings, and it’s okay if you’re not able to feel good about yourself, or if you’re in a place where you’re struggling. Take your time, and explore what comes up, and meet those emotions with compassion and curiosity.
  • Stay mindful of the content you consume: try following influencers who promote the acceptance of bodily “imperfections” – imperfect skin, stretch marks, body hair and cellulite. While it’s not an overall solution, exposing oneself to content like this might begin to normalise something that is, in essence, “normal” for most people.
  • Stay mindful of what you feel comfortable and/or powerful in: I don’t know about you, Anon, but sometimes there’s a look or outfit that I have an I think: yes, this is what I feel comfortable and powerful in. At the end, focus on what feels good for you – outfits and styles that allow you to feel content in your own skin.

Anon, I know it’s difficult to navigate through these feelings, and it can seem like a lot, especially if this is something that’s been around for a long time. Just know that you are not alone in this, and that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. I really hope that you find the help that you’re looking for, and that you are able to break out of this cycle; at your own time and pace. I wish you all the best on your journey. Take care and stay in your power!

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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