It is difficult to live in this society and not be influenced by its constant overt or subliminal messages about unrealistic beauty standards. It is incessant. No matter the culture, socioeconomic status, gender, or age – it is everywhere. Even when you take the time to unfollow and unsubscribe from toxic messages about your body, even when you do not necessarily believe your worth is based on how your body looks- the message is powerful enough to break through those barriers.
Shall we get into these a little bit? We understand that we are a nutrition-related practice, but the connection between these two topics is strong. Unrealistic beauty standards have a powerful influence on many individuals. The underlying feeling of shame can keep people in a vicious cycle of intense eating restriction and then uncontrolled binge eating episodes. Nutrition becomes a weird passage to achieve these unrealistic beauty standards even when these nutrition interventions are not evidence-based.
Let’s name a few:
Unrealistic beauty standard 1: The assumption that skinny = healthy.
What a load of crap this is! Here’s a true story to bring this to life a bit. I witnessed a determined woman suppress all of her hunger cues and starve herself to be “healthy”. I saw her being praised by her doctor and family for “looking great” and “doing the right thing for her health.” The doctor and the family knew what this person’s eating habits had been for the past few weeks. They KNEW that she was suffering from fatigue and feeling faint while walking. They KNEW she was starving. Meanwhile, I am watching this situation unfold with my eyes popping out of my skull in disbelief! How could they congratulate her on engaging in disordered eating behavior?!
I don’t care what your BMI is, you should NEVER starve to pursue health. Can we please think about this for a second? Starving. The thing that will cause most animals in the wild to die is the very thing we are telling grown humans to do to be “healthy.” Huh?
This is the reason why our collective societal obsession with skinny bodies is SO harmful. This one, out of many unrealistic beauty standards, is no joke! The obsession with our bodies looking thinner can be dangerous enough to lead to malnutrition while other people praise you for it. You could be walking into a social gathering with your hair falling out (inadequate protein intake), hardly any energy to walk (inadequate energy intake), scaling skin (zinc deficiency…AKA, malnutrition) – and people are like: “Wow, you look great! Keep up whatever you’re doing! You look so healthy!”
What the actual fork? Can we make a collective pledge NOT to comment on people’s weight changes or body shape? We can’t possibly know what that person’s inner dialogue or mental state has been while trying to achieve some of these body changes. Maybe they are in a really good place and it’s wonderful. Maybe it’s been literal hell.
Our societal pressure to achieve these unrealistic beauty standards is so intense that we simply cannot trust that these messages are working as harmless motivators. This pressure isn’t an innocent motivator. These marketing campaigns have a goal. It’s not for you to be “healthy.” The goal is for you to spend money to change your body. Therefore, let us move away from the constant message that skinny is healthy. Skinny is skinny. Health is something entirely different, my friends.
Unrealistic beauty standard 2: A specific body shape is attractive.
I was presenting in a group nutrition class where someone asked me what foods made their behind bigger without affecting their belly size. Umm… It took everything in me not to blurt out: “Your genes will do that, not the food.” The crazy thing about this specific unrealistic beauty standard is that only people who already have THAT specific genetic predisposition benefit from it. It also changes with popular opinion. Big butts are in now, but maybe in a decade we will go back to shaming those who have big butts again like we did before. Tall is best. Muscles are okay in women if they look toned but not overly muscular. Men should show muscle. We care about women’s toned legs and men’s toned arms… for some reason.
Insert nutrition trends related to these desired body shapes and a massive eye roll from us at Nutriving. Have you heard of protein bars specifically marketed for women? Or protein powders for men only? Or hormone balance nutrition interventions for a desired body type shape? Or supplements for a specific desired body shape? It’s so heartbreaking to see these marketing campaigns use unrealistic beauty standards to coax people into buying specific nutrition products that have zero scientific evidence behind them and quite simply do not work. Side note, protein is protein. Don’t fall for the pink or blue protein bar wrapper.
Unrealistic beauty standard 3: Clear skin: acne is caused by junk food consumption. So, shame!
Acne, unfortunately, does not always go away after puberty. Some of us are stuck with it in our 30s! This unrealistic beauty standard particularly makes people feel that the reason why they have blemishes is directly related to their eating habits. I used to think this way! I would see a blemish starting to peek through my skin, and I would immediately feel guilty about eating pizza the night before. This notion did not just come out of nowhere. A quick google search will let you know that most people blame their diet as the main cause for their blemishes. We have allowed little room for changes in hormones, stress, pollution, or skin care products to be on the list of possible culprits.
Well, does eating highly processed foods cause acne? There is no SINGLE thing that causes acne. This is not a super satisfying answer, but it’s the most accurate answer. Research [1-2] shows that there may be some association between dairy or simple carbohydrates and the development of acne, but this an association, not causation. Research  also supports that changing your diet is not an effective method for preventing or curing acne. There is some good evidence to support that a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods may help alleviate the acne-associated inflammation .
All this to say, there are factors like genes, stress, hormones, age, and pollution that can also contribute to acne. Clear skin is not a reflection of “perfect eating.” Clear skin may simply be a combination of hitting the genetic lottery jackpot, lack of exposure to irritating pollution, good skin care products, hormone balance, and factors we cannot control. So there. Clear skin means clear skin.
Some of you reading may ask, “is it bad if I want to be thinner? Or want to work on my body so it looks a specific way, or avoid specific foods for a clear skin?
No. Absolutely not… as long as this effort is NOT rooted in a belief that you need these changes to become valuable, and worthy of love and acceptance. Being skinny and having a small waist and clear skin are not the same as being healthy. As long as we are on that same page, we have no problems!
If you have a goal to practice self-care in a nutrition-related area, we think this is great! Evidence-based nutrition recommendations are fantastic and can become a game changer in how you feel! This is what we work on with our clients day in and day out. We love it! We want to be Yoda to your Luke Skywalker, Professor Dumbledore to your Harry Potter, Morpheus to your Neo. The point of this article is simply to shed some light onto the ridiculous unrealistic beauty standards that can really put a damper on our journey to better nourishment. Eat more veggies, drink some water, and stop blaming pizza for your acne.
- Pappas A. (2009). The relationship of diet and acne: A review. Dermato-endocrinology, 1(5), 262–267. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.1.5.10192
- Penso L, Touvier M, Deschasaux M, Szabo de Edelenyi F, Hercberg S, Ezzedine K, Sbidian E. Association Between Adult Acne and Dietary Behaviors: Findings From the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study. JAMA Dermatol. 2020 Aug 1;156(8):854-862. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2020.1602. PMID: 32520303; PMCID: PMC7287950.
- Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013 Mar;113(3):416-430. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.11.016. PMID: 23438493.
- Barrea L, Donnarumma M, Cacciapuoti S, Muscogiuri G, De Gregorio L, Blasio C, Savastano S, Colao A, Fabbrocini G. Phase angle and Mediterranean diet in patients with acne: Two easy tools for assessing the clinical severity of disease. J Transl Med. 2021 Apr 26;19(1):171. doi: 10.1186/s12967-021-02826-1. PMID: 33902622; PMCID: PMC8074493.