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Body image is your brain’s way of protecting you

Updated: May 1, 2023

When I was 18 I signed up for a yearlong full-time dance program.

I wanted to do musical theater, but I hadn’t gotten into the schools I wanted due to a lack of dance training, so I decided to spend a year fixing that.

The studio I trained at required a “uniform” of sorts, with everyone dancing in plain black leotards and tights. The first few weeks of classes, I remember being sooooo damn self-conscious about my outfit and appearance.

This wasn’t unusual, since at 18 I was pretty much always hyper-focused on my appearance, but I felt out of place as a late-in-life beginner dancer, and my brain chose to focus on how I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing, instead of how uncomfortable it was to actually not know what I was doing.

Legs too short. Boobs too big. Hair too frizzy. Outfit too awkward. I was constantly self-conscious of the ways my appearance gave away my secret: that I wasn’t a dancer and didn’t belong there.

Before class every day I fussed over the costume, trying to nail the look of a dancer– casual, lived in, elegant, comfortable. I wished my dance shoes didn’t look so new, I wished I was leaner, and I wished my hair was long and straight so I could put it up in a tight topknot like the other girls.

A few months in however, without even realizing it, I no longer thought about my appearance as much. I became too focused on… well, the actual dancing, I guess.

I no longer needed a full-length mirror to perfect my look before class, and I no longer cared if I looked casual or comfortable because I just was casual and comfortable. I had friends, I felt like I belonged there, and I was obsessively getting better at the skill of dance.

In short, once the feeling of genuine belonging and competence turned on, the need to look like I belonged and was competent turned off.

This is something I have felt a million times since.

Most recently I noticed that when I joined a rock climbing gym upon moving to LA this summer, I felt very conscious of my outfits and appearance whenever I went to climb. For no conscious reason, I changed outfits multiple times before going to the gym. I was new to the sport, new to the people and the community, and new to the whole city. I felt very aware that I didn’t know what I was doing, and didn’t know anyone. I felt like an outsider, and (if we’re being honest) an idiot.

So my brain did what it knew how to do: it made it about my appearance. I didn’t feel bad about myself exactly, just aware of how I looked. I became oddly self-conscious of looking like a person who didn’t know what they were doing, while I sat there on the mats alone, not knowing what I was actually doing.

Predictably, as my competence in the skill of climbing, and my sense of belonging in the climbing community increased over the next few months, my self-consciousness and awareness of how I look fell away. I have friends I climb with now, I know most of the lingo, and I’m acquiring all of the gear. I am no longer a newbie, and I am no longer an outsider.

So how I look is no longer of any interest to my brain, I guess. Or more specifically, it’s no longer interesting in a negative way, because I no longer feel anything negative.

Sometimes though, when I’m decked out in all my gear, I do actually take an enormous amount of pleasure in seeing myself in the mirror because I think… damn I look like a climber! It makes me feel cool.

This is actually just an inversion of the same projection that led to the old self-consciousness.

It’s not about how I actually look, it’s about how I feel.

I feel like I belong here. I feel like I know what I’m doing. I feel cool.

This is just what our brains do sometimes. We feel something internally, and then our brains project that shit onto our appearance. It’s one of the ways body image issues show up to protect us.

Sometimes it’s a way of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable and out-of-control feelings, like how focusing on my outfit was easier to manage than focusing on how maybe I was too clumsy to dance and wouldn’t get into the colleges I wanted.

Sometimes it’s a fear your appearance broadcasting something embarrassing to others, like how I felt sure my appearance at the climbing gym broadcasted “I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t belong here.” (Not like I consciously thought anyone cared if I was new, but on a deep unconscious level I felt like someone might notice and tell me to… I don’t know, leave?)

Anyway, the solution to self-consciousness both at the climbing gym and at the dance studio was to build both technical competence and a sense of belonging, not to change the way I looked, obviously.

Once I felt more confident in my skill at the activity at hand, my brain released the need to care about how I looked while doing it.

I see this in clients, too.

One time a client told me she’d been freaking out about body image stuff lately and when I inquired as to what else was going on for her, she acknowledged that she’d gotten this promotion and was suffering intense imposter syndrome, and feeling like she wasn’t good enough for the job. What did her incredibly smart and protective brain do? Obsess about how she looked and critique her weight, shape, skin, hair, etc. every time she went to get dressed for work.

Being insecure about our skill and ability to do something can often make us feel insecure about how we look while doing it, and feeling like we don’t belong somewhere can make us feel insecure about how we look while we’re there.

To be honest, this applies to life generally as well.

If you feel like you’re not good at (or worthy of) romantic relationships, you might find yourself stressing way more about how you look when you start dating someone. If you feel like you don’t belong with the other mothers at your kid’s school, body image issues might spike every time you have to go to a school event.

If you feel insecure about your competence in all aspects of life, or like you don’t belong anywhere, you might find yourself thinking about and hating how you look while doing life, anywhere and everywhere with no respite. (It’s one reason body image improves for some clients when they tune into who they are and what they want, and start the empowering process of building a life around that for the first time.)

Have you ever experienced this phenomenon?

If you find yourself especially self-conscious or focused on your appearance in specific contexts, check in with why that might be.

Do you feel competent, skilled, and confident in your abilities there? Do you feel like you belong, you know people, and people like you?

Now think of contexts in which you tend to have good body-image days, in which body neutrality is easier, or in which you rarely think about how you look.

Are those contexts filled with people who make you feel safe and connected, like you belong? Are they areas in which you feel completely prepared and adequate to the tasks required of you?

Most importantly, what can you learn from all this? If your brain is using body image issues to distract or protect you, might that change your relationship to body image?

And what skill-building work might you need to do to improve your body image, instead of just constantly actually trying to change your appearance?

Hope this little breakdown gets your wheels turning for a brand new decade of self-worth, body neutrality, and confidence!! 🙂



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