Updated: Dec 26, 2022
The dark roots of body fixation & perfectionism
When I was 22 years old, I didn’t think very highly of myself as a person.
I knew I was funny (duh) but I also “knew” I was selfish, unkind, lazy, thoughtless, whiney, dramatic, weak, airheaded, flaky, and annoying.
I knew these things with the certainty of someone who had been told them many times, many different ways, from many different sources.
I also suspected that the anger I often felt, and allowed myself to use to lash out at people I wanted to deeply wound, made me a bad person deep down. I felt guilty for not “living up to my potential,” whatever that meant, I was easily overwhelmed and anxious about insignificant details, and my baseline mood was one of low-level existential fear and dread.
I didn’t think I could really change any of those things though, so it honestly never even occurred to me to do anything about it. I figured this is just how I’m built. This is just who I am. Despite knowing that there were a few solid people in my life who loved me, as a person overall I felt like I just… kind of sucked.
I got plenty of positive attention for how I looked though.
Since developing early and fast, I had always gotten attention from men for my body, and when I put in the effort to wear feminine-coded stuff like sexy clothes and makeup, people seemed to like looking at me.
Interestingly, I felt like I had more control over my appearance than I did over my personality.
I could fix my face with products and makeup, I could fix my hair with heat and styling products. I could make myself appealing by wearing clothes that “flattered my body.” And as I gained skills in the fitness industry, I learned that I could use diet and exercise to “sculpt” the exact kind of body I wanted.
I loved it. Tinkering with my appearance made me feel powerful.
I could suck my belly in (and deal with the discomfort) in order to look like I had a tiny waist. I could wear push-up bras and bronzer creams, and I could hold and pose myself carefully so that I looked maximally “desirable” from any angle.
I believed that I could trick people into thinking I was thin or hot or beautiful, and that I was really effing good at it.
So good at it, in fact, that people hardly even seemed to notice how annoying and lost and fucked up I was inside. I credited this to how hard I worked at looking a certain way, almost like I was offering the world a bribe for talking to me, noticing me, or being nice to me.
I felt in control of my body and appearance, in a world where so much seemed to be completely out of my control. My appearance became the big project of my life, and I was proud of it.
Convinced that how I looked was the more interesting, more valuable, and most powerful thing about me, I came to see it as my job to monitor my body and appearance religiously.
I was positive– completely 100% sure– that if I stopped monitoring, controlling, and manipulating every bit of my appearance, that people would figure out I was a fraud, notice in the absence of my “bribe” that I sucked and wasn’t worthy of their love, and reject me.
I was positive that once my pretty-charm wore off and people realized I was just regular looking, that my personality flaws would suddenly become so obvious they would flee in disgust.
It was exhausting, keeping people under my pretty spell. Not to mention my obsession with how I looked ruined loads of experiences for me.
I loved camping when I was a kid, for example, but once I started needing to micromanage my food and face and skin and hair all the time, going a few days without a shower or a mirror became more stressful than fun.
Some people’s body image issues mean they can’t stop thinking about calories and what they ate, others can’t stop thinking about how much they weigh or what size their clothing is.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was sitting or standing, how my face looked, and what the overall effect of looking at me would be. Would someone see belly rolls? Back fat? Is my double chin showing? Do my tits look weird? Are my lips weirdly pale? Is my hair flatteringly parted?
I would check each thing over and over, always trying to be subtle so people couldn’t tell, glancing down to smooth the jeans of my pants which was bunched embarrassingly, flipping my hair in the way I knew made it look cute, tugging my shirt down and sitting up straighter to get rid of my love handles.
This kind of obsession with my own appearance had an addictive quality.
When I looked “good,” I was flooded with praise and compliments and positive attention. When I looked “bad,” all of that positive attention disappeared and I felt lonely and worthless. When I had my hair blown out and my makeup done, the world was nicer, warmer, and friendlier. When I looked “normal” the world felt bleak and scary.
For quite a few years, the thing I was most excited about for every vacation, party, and event was never the experience itself, but rather imagining how I would look during it.
If I didn’t look how I wanted to, I wouldn’t enjoy the experience. If I was having a bad hair/face/body day, I would suffer terrible anxiety and find it completely impossible to connect with people.
All of this fixation stemmed from the deep-down belief that how I looked was the most interesting and most valuable thing I had to offer the world.
As you can imagine, it took a lot of time and effort to identify, uproot, examine, unpack, dismantle, and release this belief.
The belief itself came from a combination of not liking myself very much, not feeling like I could change, feeling disempowered due to trauma, receiving tons of praise for how I looked, and living in a world that treats women with certain types of bodies and faces as superior to all other women.
But on the other side of dismantling and releasing that belief, I am completely free of needing to monitor, control, and obsess over how I look.
As it turns out, I have way more important shit to think about, and way more valuable things to offer the world than how I look.
The beliefs we hold about our bodies and ourselves matter– often without even realizing it, they create our internal experiences and feelings, our behaviors, our lives.
Have you ever felt fixated on, or unable to stop thinking about, food, fat, weight, exercise, size, shape, flaws, or appearance? If so, what belief(s) might be underneath for you? Is it the same as mine, or different? Can you name it?
And more importantly, how much longer do you want to stay held captive by that belief?
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