Body Image and Learning to *Want* Different Things
Updated: Apr 5
Trying to “stop wanting to look different” doesn’t work. Here’s what does.
I often see people in the anti-diet world attempting to convince folks to stop *wanting* to be thin, and roll my eyes.
If giving up the desire to be thin was that simple, people would just do it. Nobody is out here trying to be dissatisfied with their bodies, for goodness’ sake.
Here’s the thing. Telling someone to stop wanting something is not effective.
Imagine a toddler throwing a tantrum about wanting candy, and you try to convince them to stop wanting candy.
You might explain how the candy will rot their teeth, give them a bellyache, and keep them up all night. Maybe you make the argument that this particular kind of candy isn’t even very good. That kid is still gonna want the fucking candy.
It’s important to note here that if your ultimate goal was to get this child to stop throwing a tantrum, rather than to get them to stop wanting candy, you could be much more effective. You might offer the child something else to eat, distract them with a non-food-related activity, or have a discussion validating their feelings and offering tools for handling the discomfort that arises when we want something we can’t have.
Focusing on attempting to change behaviors will always be easier and more effective than attempting to change desires.
If you can understand why the above statement is true when it comes to a toddler who wants candy, then you can also understand why that’s true when it comes to body image.
My clients often come to me with the internal conflict of both wanting to accept their bodies, and wanting to lose weight or look different. If I attempted to convince them that they should stop wanting to lose weight or look different, all I would do is invalidate their current desires, which is likely to make them feel even more broken, lonely, and hard on themselves.
Instead of attempting to change the desire, we accept and embrace it; we validate the fact that given the culture we all live in, this desire makes perfect sense. Sometimes I help my client intellectually explore how their desire is based on lies (diet culture lies, patriarchal lies, white supremacist lies, etc.), but I don’t do that in an effort to convince her to stop wanting it. Instead, the focus is on bringing more clarity and conviction to the process of aligning their behaviors with their core values instead of their cultural conditioning.
After accepting the desire to lose weight or look different, and exploring some new information or education on where that desire comes from, we leave that desire completely alone. Then we focus on changing behaviors in order to move closer to the goal of body acceptance, confidence, and a fulfilling, meaningful, and joyful life.
Given the world we live in, I’m not sure the desire to be thin or attractive ever permanently or completely goes away. But I can damn sure tell you that this desire doesn’t need to have even a single iota of power over your decisions, your mood, your behaviors, or the trajectory of your life.
No matter how body-neutral you get, you still live in a culture where thin and conventionally attractive people are put on a pedestal and afforded special privileges, and it’s likely that you’ll still have some moments of wanting it.
It’s kind of like wanting to be rich.
Most people don’t choose whether to be rich or poor, but even if you decided to choose poverty (for example, to honor your ethics and integrity), it’s likely that you would always have moments of wishing it could be different. It may be true forever that you occasionally wish you could just wave a magic wand and be rich.
But that desire to be rich, occasional or not, wouldn’t invalidate a lifetime of decisions dedicated to ethics and integrity. And likewise, a life dedicated to trusting and respecting your body with intuitive eating, HAES, and body neutrality is not invalidated by a desire to lose weight or look different.
It may be true forever that if someone offered to change the way you look with the wave of a magic wand and no consequences, you would accept. That doesn’t make you any less body neutral, self-loving, feminist, or progressive. It just goes to show the power of social conditioning on our desires.
That said, body liberation requires that we learn to want different things; new things; additional things other than how we look. Recovering from body image issues requires that we learn to want things that are more interesting and authentic to our core selves than how we look.
There was a time in my life when the vast majority of my personal fantasies centered around my appearance.
I remember one vivid fantasy I had in my early twenties, of being a super-lean, super-fit, gorgeously glowing pregnant lady. I didn’t even want to have kids of my own, but this was the era of the celebrity mommy, and I wanted the status of being the kind of woman who was “all belly” as I squatted and deadlifted and sashayed around in cute little outfits and made all the other women jealous.
All my fantasies were like this — no matter what they were actually about, they centered around me looking a certain way, and feeling a certain way (confident and superior) as a result.
All my dreams were based on the fantasy that looking good is the (only) key to a life of happiness and fulfilment. I didn’t know how to want anything else. It’s so sad to think about now.
Body neutrality requires that we hold space for our desires exactly as they are, unpack which desires we want to take action on, and start building a life of freedom, fulfillment, and meaning. It also requires that we start being more imaginative in our dreaming, and get more creative as we cultivate our desires.
There are so many interesting and fulfilling things to want than the desire to lose weight, have flawless skin, or otherwise look different—things that spark joy, meaning, and pleasure. Things that speak to the deepest, truest, most authentic parts of ourselves. Things that light us UP.
These new desires don’t automatically erase the old ones, of course, they just sort of… dethrone them. Dilute them. Make them seem weaker, dimmer, further away, and more boring by comparison.
The old desires start to feel less important, less urgent. Further away. Eventually you might forget about them for long stretches of time before you remember again, and it’s like remembering a really bad day that happened a long time ago.
The desires might still be there, but they don’t affect anything today.
So this is the counter-intuitive nature of body neutrality work:
Learning to accept your desire to look different now makes it easier in the long run for this desire to fade away.
You can take action toward trusting and respecting your body every day, no matter how you feel about it.
In order to dial down the volume on wanting to look different, you have to learn to want other things—more interesting, authentic, and meaningful things.
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