There is POWER in being gross & ugly to the people who want to oppress you!
“I’m just terrified of anyone ever thinking I’m ugly or gross.”
A new coaching client said this, while telling me the story of her body image issues, and I reassured her that this is a very common fear for folks who resonate with the Self Objectifer body image avatar. Then I asked her to tell me what exactly she was afraid would happen, if people found her ugly or gross.
“Oh my god,” she responded, visibly distraught. “I don’t know what exactly, but something horrible. Even just thinking about it right now makes me feel panicky and sick.”
This might sound irrational or extreme to someone who doesn’t understand how body image issues work, but I wasn’t surprised. As a body image coach, I’ve heard similar stories expressed hundreds of times.
Each of the four body image avatars that I created (and present in my book BODY NEUTRAL: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Body Image Issues) represent a different underlying reason for body image issues to exist. The Self Objectifier’s reason is that, on some level, they believe their worthiness, value, and ability to get what they want and need in the world are based on how attractive or desirable they are to others– specifically, to men.
Given the way women and femmes are sexualized, objectified, and treated in our culture, this makes sense, right? Women who meet conventional beauty ideals are constantly praised and glorified for their appearance, while women who don’t are treated poorly, harassed, or erased altogether.
Plus, we live in a patriarchy (which teaches us that men are fundamentally more deserving of respect, agency, autonomy, and power than women), in which only a few generations ago women couldn’t legally have their own bank account, refuse sex with their husband, or vote. So whether or not it was ever stated explicitly, many of us were conditioned to believe that the key to getting our needs met in the world is to gain the approval and protection of men… and that men only bestow approval and protection on women they want to fuck.
Given this, it makes sense why someone might feel sick with terror at the thought of being found ugly or gross, even if they can’t identify what exactly they’re afraid would happen. A lot Self Objectifiers simply associate being attractive to men with being safe.
The truth is that it’s freaking scary to live in a world where men perpetuate the vast majority of sexual, physical, and emotional violence against women, and where men still tend to have more power, privilege, and money than women.
Most of us have a long list of personal experiences that taught us to fear men. Through moments both big and small, those that are obviously traumatic and those that just seem “normal,” most of us have learned first-hand that men can be scary, threatening, and dangerous— especially when their fragile ego is bruised, they feel “emasculated,” they’re denied something they feel entitled to, or they find themselves in a position of power over others. Then our personal experiences have a way of merging with the horrifying stories we hear about men, like the teen boy who murdered a girl who wouldn’t sleep with him, the CEO who sexually groomed and exploited his subordinates for years, and the beloved community member who was charged for beating up his wife.
The end result of these experiences and stories is that many women and femmes live in a constant (though often unconscious) state of fear, and this is the position that a lot of Self Objectifiers find themselves in.
To be fair, they’re often not consciously aware of how much fear they carry, or how that fear impacts them day-to-day. After all, they know (and love) plenty of wonderful and trustworthy men who would never threaten or hurt a woman, and they recognize how unfair it would be to let a few “bad apples” spoil the bunch, as it were.
But the fact that their fear of men lives below the level of conscious awareness actually makes them far more vulnerable to the “help and protection” offered by body image issues.
Body image issues always exist for a deeper reason, and they are always trying to help or protect you in some way. They are always part of an unconscious “plan” to help you solve a problem or meet a need, and I call that plan your “Hidden Body Image Purpose.”
The Self Objectifier is unconsciously operating under the belief that men will treat you with respect and kindness, as long as you give them what they want. That you will be safe, and able to get your needs met, as long as men want to fuck you.
There is an unsurprising element of internalized victim-blaming in this plan, because it supposes that women (or more specifically, women’s bodies) are responsible for men’s feelings and behavior, rather than men themselves. Our unconscious minds, having taken in some of patriarchy’s favorite messages like “boys will be boys” and “she was asking for it,” seem to conclude that because men can’t be held accountable for what they feel or do, it’s up to us to make them treat us well.
And how do we accomplish that? Easy!
We just have to become whatever it is that men like and want, so that they view us favorably and treat us well! We just have to make them feel comfortable and happy, protect their egos, conform to their desires, and meet their standards at all times!
This, my friend, is called “internalized oppression.” Our patriarchal conditioning teaches us that our safety and ability to get what we want and need in the world are dependent on whether or not men like us, as individuals or as a collective. It also teaches us that we’re responsible for making men like us, by behaving how we’ve been taught they want us to behave (nurturing, selfless, submissive, sexually available, and never making demands of them), and looking how we’ve been taught they want us to look (thin, young, feminine, attractive).
Is it any wonder, then, that so many women and femmes are terrified to gain weight, show signs of aging, or be viewed as “ugly” or “gross”?
It’s not about vanity or self-absorption, it’s about believing the only thing protecting you from disrespect, violence, punishment, and subjugation is your fuckability. It’s about living in fear, and trying to make your oppressors happy, in the hopes that doing so will make them like you and protect you.
In other words, it’s about survival.
My client was experiencing this kind of primal fear. She was terrified of what would happen if she stopped pleasing the people she viewed as having all the power, and she’s not alone.
Luckily, there is a way out of this. You don’t have to spend your life worrying about making your oppressors happy, obsessing over your appearance, or living in fear. But if you’re like my client, you’re not going to like the solution.
The key to breaking free from this kind of internalized oppression is to embrace ugliness.
Yes, seriously. If you want to divest from patriarchy, reclaim your power and agency, and stop worrying about how closely you conform to conventional beauty ideals, you have to let yourself become gross and ugly to people who want to exploit or oppress you. Why? Because a man whose respect, kindness, or lack of violence is dependent on whether or not he wants to fuck someone is dangerous. He is not a good person, and you do not want him in your life. By striving to conform to what a man like this wants and likes, you are helping create an environment in which he never has to reveal his true colors, which means he gets to come off as safe and a “good guy.” This makes it more likely that you’ll let a dangerous man claim a space in your life. If, on the other hand, you stop conforming, he is likely to show his true character earlier, so that you can get the hell out of there. Trust me, you want men like that to think you’re ugly and gross. It may sound counter-intuitive, but there is power and freedom in learning to disgust and disappoint the people who want to exploit and oppress you. So much power and freedom, in fact, that I’m currently creating a new course to teach you how to do exactly that, called PROJECT UGLY: Disrupting Patriarchy, and Breaking Free from Self-Objectification. I’m so excited to make the course details public when they’re ready, but for now you can just hit reply and say “I’m interested!” if you want to learn more, or apply for private coaching with me here to work together! Yours in liberation and power, Jessi