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Looking Good Can Hurt You
Before I was a movement teacher, I was a lawyer. And before I was a lawyer, I was an honours history major.
I still find history fascinating. In studying the past, we connect to a deep-rooted sameness between people utterly separated from us by the chasms of time and space. And we can also be cultural tourists, wondering at the strange and at times barbaric cultural practices of our ancestors. It’s just so interesting!
When it comes to beauty, the prices people in the past have paid to meet cultural beauty standards are often heartbreaking. Pain, immobility, early death and even damaged children were the results of common beauty practices of the past.
But what’s really crazy is that we are STILL doing barbaric things to ourselves to meet arbitrary beauty standards. Your body is almost certainly damaged as a result of things our culture tells us “look good”.
Today, I’m sharing some of the historical craziness, and some tips to help you break free and nourish your health by letting go of some stuff our culture is telling you to do.
Crazy Stuff People In History Did
It’s really quite amazing the lengths people have gone to in order to be fashionable and look good. Sometimes it’s likely that they didn’t know the full consequences of what they did, but you’d think there would be a few clues that things weren’t really working for them. Like, pain for instance.
Lead Based Cosmetics Were Hell On the Skin…& the Brain
Fashionable European men and women in the 18th century used lead-based cosmetics to whiten their skin and redden their lips. These powders and paints inflamed skin and eyes, rotted their teeth and made their hair fall out. It was seriously horrible. Longer term, lead poisoning caused pain, mood disorders, miscarriage, and more, and could be fatal.
Lead and mercury in the cosmetics used by Japanese women in the Edo period is thought to have poisoned their children, causing tragically early deaths, disabilities and lower intelligence.
Corsets Crushed Lungs & Inner Organs
The tight corsets worn by Victorian women bent their ribs and squashed their organs. Often their breathing was impaired – probably why young ladies spent so much time fainting. Skin rashes, gastrointestinal issues and nerve problems could also be the result. Interestingly, many contemporary health professionals were critical of these garments – but their warnings seem to have fallen mostly on deaf ears.
“If women will continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate.”
Benjamin Orange Flower, Fashion’s Slaves
Foot Binding – Pretty Much The Opposite Of What Feet Need
Foot binding was popular for centuries for upper class women in China, demonstrating that they were wealthy and didn’t need to work. Perfect ‘lotus feet’ could improve a woman’s chances of a prestigious marriage, and were considered extremely erotic. At the price of significant pain, infection and permanent disability for the possessor of such feet.
Seems Normal When You’re Doing It
The lens of history makes it easy to see the damage caused by these cultural practices – and hard to see the benefits that the practitioners themselves would have seen. Social identity and status is an incredible driver, so powerful that people clearly will torture and poison themselves in the name of beauty.
But Really, Not Much Has Changed
The irony, of course, is that our culture too is packed with painful and damaging behaviours that the vast majority of people don’t wish to give up.
Parabens, widely used in contemporary cosmetics, disrupt hormone functions and have been found in cancerous breast tissues, as well as potentially reacting with UVB rays and causing skin damage.
We know, absolutely and 100%, that wearing high heels contributes to pelvic floor disorders, bone loss, joint degeneration and foot deformities.
And we still love tiny trunks! ‘Waist trainers’ is a great new term for for corsets but the health impacts haven’t changed. Maybe you’re not wearing a waist trainer, but compressive and tight clothes also have an impact on your body’s ability to work right. Spanx, skinny jeans, underwire bras and shoes that aren’t foot shaped all impair our functions, our health and our comfort.
So many things in our consumer society are about goals other than health. Those might be legit, but if you’re serious about your wellness, then you need to rethink what you’re purchasing.
It’s Not Just Things, It’s Habits Too
And of course, all of those things we buy are really to help us look a certain way. Which can absolutely be about movement.
With our love of tiny waists, many of us make a habit of constantly sucking in our stomachs. Sadly, this habit in can have serious functional impacts on our bodies.
Sucking It In Is So Bad For Your Body!
Sucking in your belly pulls the ribs and pelvis out of alignment which messes up your core muscles. This in turn messes up things like digestion, breathing and menstruation (contributing to more cramps, for instance). It squishes your organs and lungs. And it creates pelvic floor impacts! Since you’re creating all that upward sucking in force, you need to push extra hard to expel stuff. And that means loads of pressure your pelvic floor was never meant to bear.
It’s Hard To Relax Your Belly!
Letting go of a sucked in belly is pretty easy to do, physically.
But 90% of the women I work with find it extremely challenging, emotionally.
I find it challenging too. I’ve never had a flat belly and it’s been a source of shame and insecurity for me since I was a teenager. Letting my belly relax in public hasn’t been easy. If this is hard for you, then let it be hard.
As I get more comfortable with it, it gets easier.
And I hope that maybe my relaxed belly can be a tiny step towards making it normal for women to look like humans instead of like Victoria’s Secret models.
Pro tip: I have bought some new, flowier tops. And I practice every day to change my own self-judgements of beauty, status and success. It doesn’t always work, but its improving. And also, my pelvic floor works again and my periods don’t hurt. At all.
Everyone wants changes they can make that improve their health, no extra time required. Letting your belly relax (and then respond when you load it by moving) is a big one. It’s totally free, takes no time at all, and will probably give you a great opportunity for spiritual growth. Don’t be a historical tragedy!
Here’s How To Relax Your Belly
You can experience it on your own, right now.
Start on your hands and knees. Now, just check in with your belly and let go of any holding, bracing or sucking in.
Simply allow your belly to relax and hang out for a few minutes.
You don’t have to push your belly out here – just allow yourself to let go of any sucking or bracing. Notice if there are deeper layers of tension you didn’t notice at first – just hang out and let go and chill out.
You can rest on your elbows if your hands and wrists get tired.
When you’re done, see if you can transfer a bit more awareness to your belly for the rest of you day. Allow it to relax when you notice tension or holding and try to allow it to simply respond to your other movements. It should work automatically for you once you get out of the way!
Let your belly be what it is – sucking it in isn’t going to change what’s really there.
And remember to buy new shirts if that’s what you need!
This post was updated June 30, 2017, for added clarity and spunk!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body – and she’s always happy to chat about it. When she’s not teaching, you’ll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.