What’s the actual outcome of working on body image, anyway??
All my love,
What Is the Body Image Healing End Goal?
The definition of “body image” according to Oxford Languages is: “the subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body.”
Years ago, I didn’t care about the subjective picture of my body. It was the objective that was more important. What was the point of learning to accept a body that was unacceptable? It felt like being duped. I only understood my body from a third person lens, and had never considered any other point of relevancy– after all, I was raised female at a time when “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” pretty much summed up the conversation around female bodies. Working on my body image (which several therapists suggested I do) felt absolutely beside the point.
I mention this because I think we have to reach a certain point to want to work on our body image to be able to improve or neutralize it.
Until then, we’re going to stay far away from terms like body positivity, body neutrality, and body image healing. We’re going to chase weight loss in the pursuit of addressing the objective experience of our bodies in favor of the subjective.
Once we want to address body image (and by extension, to value our lived experience rather than simply existing to be objectified), where are we trying to get to? What is the end goal?
I asked my Instagram followers what their personal definition of body image healing is, and received answers like the following:
Freedom from feeling like garbage
Not to hate myself
Stopping the constant negative commentary
To feel comfortable in my own skin
Freedom from chronic self-consciousness
To stop letting my body shame prevent me from doing social things
To love myself no matter what my body looks like
To not have my mood dictated by how I look
To appreciate and honor my body the way she deserves
To be my own friend instead of my enemy
To become more confident in who I am, not what my body looks like
To be comfortable with myself and believe I am attractive enough
To not internalize judgments I believe people are making about me.
(It’s striking how many of these answers reflect a desire for the repair of relationship with self, beyond just the body, isn’t it? How none of these goals reflect a desire for the body itself to change, but for something internal to shift instead?)
The thing about these answers however, is that body image healing rarely actually takes a person to any of these places.
The end result of body image healing isn’t actually a place at all, but rather a muscle, an ability to return to the self.
Body image healing is about learning how to navigate our way back to a state of neutrality and self-acceptance when we might otherwise feel the pull of self-abandonment. In that sense, we have to build a muscle where there once was none; and then use it consistently to maintain its function, the way we would a physical muscle.
Body image healing, then, isn’t about reaching a final frontier, but about repeatedly flexing the muscles that might lead us there.
We can also consider body image healing as a reclamation of the four components that make up body image itself, including perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral aspects.
Our perceptual body image is the way we see ourselves.
This means that we may learn to interpret the way our body looks in a way that feels more neutral, without the filters of our own stories and perceived defects. In practice, this might mean including more body diverse imagery into our landscape of visual input so that we are able to recognize our body as just another body in a sea of bodies that don’t all look uniform. The perception then has room to move from “a deviation of an ideal” to “a body, like and unlike other bodies.”
Our affective body image is the way we feel about our bodies.
I would argue that this one might be the most difficult to nudge, especially where our feelings seem to run on more of a subconscious track.
But as a muscle, it is not required that we feel affection, admiration, or even neutrality about our bodies all the time. We do not need to be in a constant state of positive or neutral affect to know how to get back there when we need to. There are moments when I find myself feeling frustration in my body, and I remind myself that feeling temporary frustration in my body is not the same as living in a chronic state of frustration with my body. There are pathways that influence our affect over time (including our thoughts, nervous system states, beliefs, and behaviors) which support the affected muscle.
Our cognitive body image is what we think and believe to be true about our bodies.
Our culture has likely largely influenced these thoughts and beliefs, but I would argue that these can be more easily shifted than affect. Our reasoning can take in new information; in practice, this might look like learning about weight set point theory, body diversity across cultural and ethnic landscapes, the role of capitalism and patriarchy in beauty standards.
We can use affirmations and statements of gentle or fierce self-compassion to rewire the automated routes of our habitual thoughts until the thoughts become beliefs, slowly and steadily over time.
The final component, behavioral body image, refers to the actions we take in relation to our body image.
Healing might involve choosing to wear clothes we might believe we “shouldn’t,” resting instead of spending extra time at the gym, not “letting body shame prevent me from doing social things.” Theoretically, part of healing body image is in the actions we take (or don’t take), regardless of how we see, feel, or think about ourselves.
So…does looking at body image as a breakdown of components change the way you might consider your own process of healing? Are some components easier for you than others, or can you imagine healing on multiple trajectories instead of having to arrive at a more vague destination? What muscles are you flexing these days, and which ones feel harder to build?
As always, I welcome your thoughts.