Your body image issues need your LOVE & ACCEPTANCE.
"Ugh, I don’t know why I even care so much about this!”
This is something new clients often say to me when I ask them about their body image. It can be truly jarring to acknowledge how much hostility and contempt you feel toward your own body, or how much time and attention you spend thinking about food, exercise, or your appearance, especially when doing so goes against your conscious beliefs or values. My clients tend to be extremely competent, well educated, and good at problem solving. They understand that, realistically, nobody else cares if they wear an “unflattering” outfit, and nobody else would probably even notice if they gain or lose a few pounds. They also tend to be informed and passionate about social justice. They understand that our society is built upon overlapping systems of oppression, and are actively working to dismantle them, both inside themselves and in the world. They understand that beauty ideals and weight stigma are sexist, racist, and ableist, and believe (when it comes to other people, anyway) that a person’s worth is innate and unconditional, and has nothing whatsoever to do with how they look. Because they can recognize all of this on a conscious level, my clients often find it easy to extend compassion, kindness, and acceptance to others, and would never hold anyone else to the impossibly high standard to which they hold themselves. You might think that knowing all of those things would make a person feel better… but you would be wrong. It’s incredibly frustrating when what you know doesn’t match what you feel, and people in this situation tend to be even more critical of and hard on themselves, not less.
My clients simply cannot understand why they still care so much about something they consciously know is wrong. Still caring about their weight after learning about diet culture and weight stigma makes them feel stupid or weak, and still wanting to look a certain way after becoming aware of the harm caused by unrealistic beauty ideals makes them feel like failures or hypocrites. The first thing I do with these clients is educate them on the fact that our body image issues aren’t an issue of logic. They exist on a deeper plane—in the unconscious, and the body—which is why changing your beliefs doesn’t necessarily make them go away. (Check out my book BODY NEUTRAL to learn more!) Body image issues exist for a reason. They’re always trying to protect you, solve a problem, or help you get your needs met—and by “needs” here, I mean your deepest human needs, like safety, love, and belonging—even if you’re not aware of it. The truth is that we live in a world where a person’s appearance can expose a person to rejection, exclusion, and humiliation, as well as literally limit their access to things like jobs, housing, health care, and bodily autonomy. Our bodies obviously shouldn’t have the power to impact our ability to feel safe or get our needs met, but in a culture built on systemic oppression, they do. Is it really any wonder we obsess over something we’ve learned is so important? Is it really a mystery why we care so much? I say all this not to bum you out, but to help you understand that your body image issues make sense, and follow their own internal logic. Being unable to stop thinking about, monitoring, hating, or wanting to change your body doesn’t mean you’re crazy, stupid, weak, or superficial— it just means you’re just a human being doing your best to survive.
My hope is that by recognizing this fact, you’ll be able to offer yourself more compassion for struggling with body image. Because the first step to overcoming body image issues is to forgive yourself for having them. I know this is a weird thing for a body image coach to say, but what if you gave yourself permission to hate your body today? Or to wish it was different? What if you stopped judging yourself for caring so much, and just let yourself be where you are, and feel how you feel? If you’re like most of my clients, doing exactly that will immediately make you feel calmer and less upset, because it interrupts the spiral of meta self-judgment (i.e.: judging yourself for judging yourself). Giving yourself permission to hate your body, or wish it was different—when that is the truth of the moment for you—is often the crucial first act of self-compassion and acceptance that we can offer ourselves. And unlike anger or judgment, compassion and acceptance have the power to start the healing process in your body instead of just your mind. If your body image issues come from a deep feeling that you are abandoned or rejected, that part of you desperately needs you to welcome them with love and acceptance, not shoved down or cast out! If they come from feeling scared or unsafe, that part needs you to show up for it like you would for a frightened child, with comfort and protection, not with irritation or judgment. And if they come from pain or hurt, that part of you needs compassion and care. Because your body image issues exist to protect or help you in some way, being their friend is the most powerful thing you can do to kickstart the experience of feeling different, instead of just knowing different. If you’ve been struggling with this too, try this exercise:
Get comfy. Set aside a few minutes to yourself, and set yourself up in whatever way makes you feel cared for. Put on comfortable clothes (I’m partial to oversized men’s hoodies lately), light a candle that makes you happy, cozy up with a bunch of pillows, or lay down in bed.
Think about your body, and observe what comes up. When you think about your body, do you feel negative sensations or emotions? If so, where in your body are they located, and what do they feel like? Do mean, critical, or judgemental thoughts come up? If so, whose voice are they speaking in, and what are they saying? Just notice.
Open a dialogue with your body image distress. Personify the mean voice in your head, or the uncomfortable feelings in your body. What does your distress look like? A frightened child? A wounded animal? A weird little gremlin? Whatever you picture, say hello to it, and let it know that it’s welcome and safe with you. Talk to it in whatever way feels right, but always with an intention to make it feel safe, accepted, cared for, protected, or loved. Tell it you want to be its friend, and that it’s not alone anymore. Ask it what it needs from you to feel better—and then really listen!
Promise to come back. Whenever you’re done talking to this part of yourself, thank it for talking to you, and either promise to come back soon (if you will), or just let it know that from now on you intend to be its ally, friend, or protector.
Reflect. How did your body feel during this exercise? Did it change at any point? If so, when? What emotions or insights came up, if any? What did you learn about this part of yourself, or what you need to heal? Did any part of the experience surprise you?
Sending you the biggest hug, Jessi
PS: If you’re looking for personalized support and guidance on your journey to body neutrality, I’d love to work with you! I offer several different coaching packages (at different price points and support levels), which you can check them out and apply for here.