When Body Image and Culture Stress Collide

A story from my home country– On a sweltering summer day in my childhood I was playing outside with my best friend. We were excited about our matching sundresses. A woman walked by and pinched our legs, saying to my friend, “skinny little legs!” and saying to me, “fat little legs!” She was trying to play with us, but her remark made me feel ugly. My friend and I knew our bodies looked different, but we had never cared before. In American culture the word fat is often used as an insult. I felt that my legs weren’t as acceptable as other girls’ legs. This insecurity didn’t completely spring from one childhood incident. On that day, however, I remember feeling for the first time I fell short of some standard.

In high school friends joked that no one had ever seen my legs. I always lied and said I didn’t wear clothes that showed my legs because my dad was a pastor, but in reality I was afraid. I wondered if exercise and sports had somehow made my legs “too muscular.”

On another sweltering summer day in my teen years, I rolled up my pants to the knee because I couldn’t stand the sweat any longer. A friend commented he would win the prize for being the first at school to see my legs. He said they looked strong and nicely shaped. I appreciated the compliment and of course blushed crimson, but secretly wondered if he was insane or just being nice. I couldn’t see my body properly when I looked in the mirror.

A story from my first years living abroad– I carried these insecurities into my first cross cultural experience. Everyone was kind and welcoming, but I was living on a new continent and encountering new ideas of body image and health. Sometimes this was freeing– especially during and immediately after pregnancy. I experienced amazing support about my pregnant/ new mom body in my host culture. It was wonderful. However, over the years there were always comments about foreign women being too tall, too fat, or spotted (I have freckles). I heard comments about my appearance, both positive and negative, almost every time I left my flat. Of course one comment alone did not destroy me, but stress from ongoing judgement about my looks built up and led to some unhealthy habits. I began withdrawing instead of engaging people to build friendships. I could have used help from an experienced global worker to navigate these unexpected challenges.

There were several weeks in a row where I refused to eat dinner and took nausea medicine to stave off hunger pains at bedtime. After a while I reached an unhealthy point were friends in my host culture grew concerned. They told me eating dinner was important for moms with young children and that if I got thin I would not feel beautiful. I was an appropriate weight for my height and body frame, but had developed some unhealthy habits and thoughts to deal with stress. I finally opened up just a little bit and found that women in my host culture also had serious body image struggles. Some of their struggles looked different than mine, but we found sisterhood across cultures and learned how to support each according to our cultural differences. I didn’t change my personality to fit in. I did learn how to appreciate, respect, and belong in the culture around me—as myself. This was not easy or fast. And was an ongoing adjustment.

I’m a few years into life in my third country of residence and I get hit with body image struggles regularly. I teach group fitness and workout regularly, but that doesn’t mean I have a secret confidence booster. I still struggle to appreciate some things about my body. I’ve learned to like having red hair and while the jury’s still out on the gene mutation that causes freckles, I’m hoping it will also give me X-Men abilities someday 😉

All this came to mind last week when I was texting with a friend about body image. Both of us live outside our home countries. We agreed it would be nice if body image struggles were not part of life, but since they are, we need healthy and realistic goals in caring for ourselves.

According to this article (link below) by therapist Collin McShirley, there are four determining factors in how someone develops her body image. It’s easy to see how these developed for me in my home culture. It’s interesting to consider these factors from the perspectives of other countries I’ve lived in.

Most people in the world deal with body insecurities to some degree. However when someone serves cross culturally, all kinds of new factors come into the mix. They collide with whatever personal insecurities and strengths someone brought from her home country. What an interesting thing to have to to sort out! We could all use some support before it happens and while it’s going on. I’m still learning–especially from mistakes. Embracing body image struggles and working through them has led to beautiful relationships. I owe a great deal to friends from several countries who have helped me grow in resiliency and the ability to show grace to others.

Thanks for reading!

❤ , Chrissy

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  • What is Body Image? by Collin McShirley

https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-body-image/

  • A Curvy Girl in the Real World – a short devotional I wrote for Thrive Connection not long after my second international move:

https://thriveministry.org/connection/devotional/a-curvy-girl-in-the-real-world

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Are you preparing to work internationally? It might be a good idea to research body image, health, and wellness according to the culture you’re preparing to enter. What relationships or resources can you put into place before going to help you deal with stressors related to body image, nutrition, wellness, etc.? Talk to your employer or NGO to see what is available to you. If you’ve already been living abroad for a while, it’s still a good idea to find out what resources are available to you through your organization and what is available locally to help you thrive in your new context. This has been a positive game changer for me over the past few years.

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