Updated: Apr 4
They develop to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem. Body neutrality requires that we solve that problem more directly.
Your body image issues make sense.
They developed in order to solve a problem that was otherwise unsolvable at the time; they protected you, distracted you, helped you cope, or got some of your needs met at a time when that was exactly what you needed.
My particular methodology of body neutrality coaching asks you to recognize what problem your body image issues rose up to solve for you, then use your considerable resources and capacity as a grown ass adult to solve that problem more directly and effectively than you could back then.
Think back to when your body image issues first showed up.
How much power did you have in the world at that time?
How much agency to create the life you wanted?
How many skills had you developed to get your needs met, and cope with life’s challenges?
For so many folks, body image issues first showed up when they were extremely young and relatively lacking in power, agency, skills, and resources for coping.
When adolescent girls are tasked with suddenly being sexualized and objectified, well before they’ve learned to speak up, advocate for themselves, set firm boundaries, and regulate their nervous systems through conflict, they may turn to the project of changing how they look in order to avoid being put in situations that are scary or uncomfortable.
When kids are fat-shamed at an age when their brains are still developing, they may internalize the belief that there is something inherently broken or unloveable about them, and set about “earning” their caregiver’s love and approval by rejecting their impulses/body and attempting to control their diet.
Many teenagers discover that the only way to get their emotional needs for connection, belonging, and status met is to look a certain way, and they may commit their time and attention to the project of their body for decades.
These stories reflect a few common patterns, but each individual has their own unique story, and their own unique “unsolvable problem” that their body image issues cropped up to solve.
My work with clients is often about discovering their unsolvable problem, and then getting super creative about how to solve it now, with all the grown-ass skills, resources, and options available to them.
One client, who I’ll call Chloe here, had an older brother struggling with drug addiction most of her life.
Chloe’s dad wasn’t around, and her mom was constantly stressed, exhausted, and distracted by her brother. Her mom used to say things like “I just need you to keep being so good, ok?” and “thank God you don’t cause any trouble.” Chloe got very little attention as a kid, and often felt incredibly lonely and needy, but she was also proud to be the “problem-free” child who her mother could rely on to always be self-sufficient.
Despite being so strong and independent, Chloe developed body image issues around age twelve, and began dieting in secret. By fifteen she had to be hospitalized for a life-threatening eating disorder, and despite the experience being really scary and terrible, she spoke fondly and longingly of the way her mother sat with her, tended to her, worried over her for those few days.
She felt bad for worrying her mother but also it felt so good to get the attention from her mother she’d been desperate for.
Fortunately, Chloe was able to recover from her eating disorder, but intense body dysmorphia and body hatred stuck around for almost another two decades.
When we first started working together, Chloe was able to recognize that her core unmet emotional need was attention, and that she was attempting to get her “attention tank” filled by looking perfect enough that men desired her and women envied her.
But there was also this darker side to it, where she wanted to look sick; wanted to be sick, so that her mother had to worry about her and pay attention to her.
The unsolvable problem that Chloe’s body image issues showed up to solve was that she wasn’t getting enough attention as a kid, but to demand more attention from her overworked mom would have been selfish and unkind.
She couldn’t ask for the attention she needed with her both identity as a “good kid,” and her easy relationship with her mom intact, so her brain cleverly solved this problem for her. It gave her an out. It made her sick. It took her conscious will out of it completely, so that she could get attention without having done anything wrong.
But this solution came at major cost. As an adult, long since recovered from her eating disorder, Chloe was still completely obsessed with body control habits and how she looked. And unsurprisingly, seeing her mother was still one of her worst body image triggers.
We identified the fact that looking a certain way is one of the most reliable ways women get attention in this world, so she naturally turned to her appearance to fill her chronically-unfilled attention tank. The thought of giving up the compulsive body-control behaviors that guaranteed her a certain amount of attention from others was terrifying to Chloe. She told me it felt like she would have to go back to that time as a kid when attention was so scarce.
“Better to be miserable than feel invisible,” she said once.
Chloe also felt guilty for wanting so much attention in the first place, and associated that desire with being bad, and greedy, and selfish. We had to work through the belief that wanting attention is bad, and that self-sufficiency is preferable (or even possible).
Eventually, she admitted to wishing for a more fulfilling kind of attention—one in which she was really seen, held, validated, and celebrated for who she is rather than how she looks. But she also felt terrified that if she started getting that kind of attention, it would be like waking a sleeping beast; she would become insatiable and out of control.
“I want it too much,” she said.
She had become obsessed with her body because it solved the problem of needing attention, but it was an imperfect and costly solution. So we dove back in to solve a twenty year old problem—but this time we used all the skills, resources, creativity, compassion, and pluck at our grown-ass adult fingertips.
Chloe ended up taking an improv class, starting a blog, joining toastmasters, and practicing fear facing in relationships so that she could show up and ask for what she wanted and needed.
She learned how to get her attention tank filled in ways that made her feel genuinely seen and known. She learned to advocate for her needs when she was with her mom, and set boundaries so that their time together was focused on Chloe.
At one point, a guy she was seeing even told her she was “being too needy,” and she dumped him—because at that point, she recognized (and accepted!) that she was someone who needed a lot of attention, and simply wouldn’t be compatible with someone looking for a low-maintenance girlfriend.
Slowly, as Chloe did all this work, her body image stopped being so important.
She thought about how she looked less day to day. She stopped weighing herself, and took more rest days. She had always felt an urge to lose a few pounds whenever she was going to see her mom, but she found herself forgetting to do that before their visits.
The unsolvable problem her adolescent self had suffered through had finally been solved, and her body image issues were no longer needed.
This is how it works. This is why no amount of positive affirmations, or trying to convince yourself that you’re beautiful, will solve most people’s body image issues.
Until you figure out what problem your body image issues showed up to solve in the first place (and solve it more directly!) you won’t be able to strip them of their power.
If you want support on your body image healing journey, you can apply for private coaching with me here!
So much love,
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