I was happy with the way I looked until I was 14. The media had never been a big part of my life until then, so I didn’t know I had to look a certain way to be loved or worthy. My mom had never been into Vogue or Marie Claire and the only magazines that would occasionally enter the house were gossipy rags I had no interest in.
The internet didn’t exist. Not in my house anyway. It would be my parents’ present for my 18th birthday. TV? Only a couple of hours a day, either a cartoon or a show like Growing Pains. It’s not that I didn’t like TV. I just had better things to do. Like spending time outdoors, bicycling, skating, playing volleyball and just generally running around with my sister and our friends.
All that changed when I started high school. I had a lot of homework, so I started spending more time indoors. Afterwards, I’d just relax by watching TV. Sitcoms, movies, MTV, whatever was on. I also discovered teen magazines and devoured all their stupid advice on how to look prettier, get boys to like you, become popular and have a lot of friends (all things for which being hot was apparently very important…).
I thought it was harmless fun. And yet, the more the media invaded my life, the worse I felt about myself. Reading mags, watching Tv… I enjoyed it at first, but, after a while, and without even noticing it, I started to feel bad about myself. I kept seeing all these gorgeous women, with their flawless skin and perfectly shaped, cellulite-free bodies, and I would ask myself why I couldn’t look like that too.
Sure, I knew they had stylists, hairdressers, plastic surgeons, fitness trainers, photoshop and who knows what else to make them look that way, yet the ideal of beauty they represented seemed achievable. “You could look like that too”, the mags said. “You just need enough willpower and determination to follow our advice.”
So, I would try their crazy diets for a week or so, during which I’d feel even worse. I was hungry and tired all the time, which made it difficult to do pretty much anything, including studying. And all that effort got me nowhere because I only lost a few grams. And yes, I know you can’t really achieve any significant results in a few days, but wasn’t that what those magazines promised you? To get you bikini-ready in five days? So, if I couldn’t do it, it was my fault.
At first, I started to redouble my efforts. I lost a bit of weight, but I never looked like the gorgeous women gracing the covers of magazines or appearing on TV shows. I had enough common sense by then to realise I never would and ditched the diets and crazy fads, but not enough to understand the ideal of beauty I was fed was unrealistic and impossible to achieve. I thought I was ugly and worthless and that there was nothing I could do about it. My self-esteem was at a rock bottom.
I started suffering from depression. I can’t say the media was entirely to blame (it was brought on by undiagnosed and untreated selective mutism, plus, because of another misdiagnosis, I was taking a medication for epilepsy that can cause feelings, such as sadness and discouragement, associated with depression), but it certainly contributed to it. It gave me one more thing to worry about, one more thing that was wrong with me: my body.
It was a thing to hide behind layers of clothing. I would wear jeans even in the burning hot Italian summers if I had to go out because I wasn’t comfortable with people looking at my legs. My insecurities also prevented me from having fun when out with my friends and were even spoiling my relationship with my boyfriend. It was at this point that I decided to fast again.
Only this time, I didn’t give up food. No, I embarked on a media fast. First, I turned the TV off, which was easy enough. By then, it was full of reality TV shows, a genre I always hated. Next, I gave up magazines. All of them bar Vanity Fair, which I still read. But what about all those ads on the streets? Or your friends and family rehashing the advice they learned from TV? And now, there’s social media too.
You can’t escape the media. It is everywhere. But the good news is, you don’t have to reject the media altogether. You just have to take it, like everything else in life, in moderation. You see, when your brain is exposed to something for a long period of time, it’ll come to consider it as normal. If you’re exposed to thousands of images of airbrushed women every day, your brain will think it is really possible to look like that. And that’s very dangerous.
But when you return to watching those images after you’ve been on a media fast, even if for just a few days, you will be more sensitive to their messages, especially to those that hurt you. It will make you question what they say and notice how unrealistic and weird those photoshopped images really are. It will give you the tools to defend yourself against negative messages, so that you can make healthier and better choices.
Little by little, you will start loving your body more. You will appreciate everything it does for you and will be able to take better care of it by listening to its needs, rather than trying to turn it into something else it was never supposed to be. You will never look like someone else, and surely, you’ll never look like those airbrushed models on magazine covers. Not even them do. Some standards are unattainable for everyone.
And that’s ok. Because you don’t have to fit into an unrealistic beauty ideal to be happy, healthy and worthy. But you have to love yourself. My life became a lot better since I went on a media fast. I started reading more books again. I now wear whatever I want. I try to eat healthy, but I will indulge in a pizza or a slice of cake every now and then without feeling guilty about it. I’m less self-conscious and more open to new experiences. And although the media fast didn’t cure my depression, it did reduce it, making it easier to treat.
Of course, not all the media is bad. As I said above, I still read Vanity Fair. I still watch TV shows, such as Supernatural and Glee. I do read blogs (obviously). But these days, I only consume media that makes me feel good. If a magazine is trying to make me feel awful about the way I look, I throw it away. If a TV programme is talking down to me and makes me doubt myself, I turn it off.
The media won’t change. After all, they’re making millions by exploiting our insecurities. But we can change the way we think. Going on a media fast is often the first step to do that.
Have you ever gone on a media fast? If not, are you planning to?