Body image root causes
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Body image issues *don’t* all come from the same place.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I write my book on body neutrality is the overly general, one-size-fits-all nature of the mainstream conversation around body image.
If you scroll through enough body positivity material, you might think there was more or less one big root cause for all body image issues, which comes down to wanting to be attractive.
Essentially the idea seems to be that body image issues are created by a person looking around at socially created beauty and body ideals, and them feeling bad about how they look by comparison.
This makes sense, on the surface. When someone says they’re feeling bad about how they look, we immediately try to make them feel better by convincing them that, actually, they are attractive! We tell them that they look great, and shouldn’t compare themselves to others because everyone is unique.
This might feel good to someone whose body image issues actually do come down to wanting to be attractive (although even then, they’re not likely to believe you, or feel more attractive just because you said they are). But what about people whose body image issues have nothing to do with wanting to be attractive at all??
Because that’s actually a lot of people.
Think about someone who hates their body because they feel like it betrayed them many years ago, when it froze during a trauma they wished they would have run from or fought against.
Or someone who hates their body because of a disability or chronic illness?
Or someone who is obsessed with body-control behaviors like dieting, exercising, and body checking as a way to numb, repress, or avoid their emotions?
Trying to convince any of the people above that they look great would be pointless, because their body image issues come from a totally different place.
Body image issues aren’t a monolith, and they don’t all come from the same place. There are actually many different root causes that could lead a person to develop body image issues, and by overly generalizing, we completely miss out on the opportunity to figure out what’s actually going on, and what we actually need to heal.
It always seems to surprise people to discover that totally different root causes can manifest in the same exact body insecurities, anxieties, and obsessions or control behaviors… and that the same exact root cause can lead to totally different sets of insecurities, anxieties, obsessions, and control behaviors.
It’s true though — just because you and your best friend both hate your thighs, or are constantly trying to lose a little weight, doesn’t mean your body image issues developed for the same reasons, or would be healed by the same tools or resources.
Let’s take a look at two of my clients to see how this can be:
One woman is in her twenties, and is naturally thin, blonde, and conventionally attractive. She struggles with extreme perfectionism around her body, obsessive body checking and picking apart her “flaws” in the mirror and photos. She compulsively shops and watches makeup tutorials, and spends tons of mental energy worrying that people won’t think she’s attractive.
The other woman is in her fifties and fairly plain looking, and has been “pleasantly fat” (her words) as long as she can remember. She never wears makeup or worries about what she wears, and she never minded her weight until a few years ago when she started thinking about it a lot, and became increasingly dissatisfied, unhappy, and unhealthily obsessed with losing weight.
On the surface, these two individuals don’t have much in common other than the fact that they both struggle with body image issues, right? But actually once we get below the surface and identify the root cause for their distress, there’s a lot of commonalities.
The first woman is focused on looking attractive to anyone who looks at her, and is obsessed with meeting cultural beauty ideals, because she is single and in search of “her person.” She thinks the key to catching the eye of a great potential partner is by looking perfect, and worries constantly that she either doesn’t look good enough and that’s why she hasn’t been “chosen” yet, or that even once she attracts someone, they’ll lose interest if she doesn’t maintain her carefully tailored appearance.
The second woman is focused on losing weight because a few years ago, her husband of over twenty years cheated on her. They decided to stay together and worked through it, but the idea took root during that time: that he wasn’t attracted to her anymore, and she would lose him to someone with a smaller body.
While the details are different, the root cause for the suffering of both women is self objectification, and a belief that the only way for them to get their emotional needs met — specifically the need for sexual intimacy and secure partnership — is to “look the right way.”
Now let’s take another example to see how the inverse works.
I once had a client in her fifties who had hated her fat body for as long as she can remember, and desperately wished it was smaller. If I had taken a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming body image issues, I would have assumed she felt that way because she wanted to look attractive to others. But actually, she didn’t want that at all, and would have been incredibly uncomfortable if she had suddenly gotten attention for being attractive!
This woman’s body image issues come from the fact that her parents were cruel, abusive, and explicitly fatphobic — so she grew up with the message that fat people deserve disrespect, cruelty, and bullying because they’re failures and maybe being treated poorly will “motivate them” to lose weight.
The root cause in this example is totally different than the last two, and naturally, this woman required a very different healing path to letting go of body hatred.
At her core, this woman craved safety and acceptance. She felt ashamed that she disappointed her parents, and blamed her body for their behavior.
I hope this helps illustrate the fact that body image issues do not all come from the same source, and that the first step of body neutrality work is to figure out where your specific body image issues come from in the first place.
Having this insight into yourself is a total game-changer, because once you have clarity about the deeper purpose for your body image issues, and the unmet need(s) and painful thing(s) hidden below the surface of your body image issues, you can actually begin to heal and overcome them.
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