Updated: May 1
Answering the *big question* when body image gets bad.
So… this is a weird fucking time, am I right?
Personally I feel like we’ve all been stuck inside for about two years already, and it looks like April is gonna be a whole lot more of the same. Oof.
So I figured now would be a good time to get back to talking about body image, since despite the economic downturn many people are experiencing due to COVID, I’m getting more coaching applications than ever. People are trapped at home without their regular opportunities to control their bodies with food and exercise, and they are freaking out.
Having already started the discussion about what an opportunity this whole thing is for people to recognize the role fear-of-fatness has been playing in their life, I’ve been flooded with the big body image question: Jessi, what do I do? How do I stop panicking about food and exercise? How do I stop feeling fat and disgusting? How do I stop hating what I see? How do I stop picking myself apart, obsessing over my weight, feeling guilty about eating, and getting depressed over natural body fluctuations?
What do I fucking DO?
The truth is that if I could answer that question for you, I’d be a millionaire. I can’t, because body image issues are layers, complex, individual, and actually have nothing to do with how your body looks. In an effort to answer this question ethically and completely, I’ve written a whole long book, but sadly it’s still in the editing process and won’t be available anytime soon.
In the meantime therefore, I’ve decided to make a few suggestions, to offer the tip of the body image iceberg, in the hopes that it will be useful to you in this time. None of these will answer The Big Question, because that question can’t be answered with a blanket statement, but they will hopefully offer you insight into the journey ahead, and invite you to get curious.
Because TBH, the only thing to do about this right now is get curious.
These are my tenants with private body image coaching clients:
Body image isn’t about your body. It’s always about something deeper, and that deeper something must be dealt with and healed for body hatred/anxiety/obsession to fade in power. What’s really going on for you on a bad body image day? What are you feeling emotionally? (Remember that fat and ugly aren’t feelings!) What else is going on in your life that you might actually be responding to? See if you can dig below the surface to figure out what the real problem is when your brain tries to tell you the problem is your body. See my TEDx talk for more insight into this one.
Body image issues develop for a reason, and that reason is very often to protect you. Specifically, to protect you from (or help you avoid) something your brain/body didn’t think you could handle at the time. Sometimes obsessing over calories and scales helps you avoid feeling your feelings. Sometimes picking yourself apart in the mirror for being gross and shameful protects you from facing the possibility that your core true self is unworthy of love. Sometimes rejecting yourself protects you from other people rejecting you. Sometimes controlling your body is empowering when you feel like nothing else is in your control. All of this is normal, and healthy, and even good, if we consider that the body image issues developed at a time when you couldn’t otherwise protect yourself or tolerate/handle how hard, scary, and painful life can be. How wonderful that your brain and body were able to help protect you when you needed protecting! Ask yourself: what might your body image issues have developed to protect you from? What might they help you avoid, or help you cope with or tolerate? Do you still need that protection now?
You’ve assigned meaning to your body, and that meaning is just a make-believe story. Belly fat was never the issue, it was only what you’ve decided belly fat means about you as a person, about what you deserve in life, or about what kind of life you’ll be able to have as a result of it. Saggy boobs were never the issue, it’s only that you associated saggy boobs with something negative, like being rejected by potential sexual partners, or never being able to get your needs for intimacy met. What meaning have you assigned to your body’s “imperfections”? What meaning have you attached to “perfect bodies” and the people who seem to have them? What stories have you made about what specific foods, sizes, weights, shapes, or physical features? Can you poke holes in these stories, and show yourself that they’re make-believe?
Your body image issues are often about unmet emotional needs. Humans are wired to need attention, belonging, intimacy, love, connection, respect, and more. If you don’t feel like you can get your needs in any of these areas met for who you are inside as a person, it makes sense that you would try to get them met by using your body/appearance. If you don’t feel worthy of respect as a person, it makes sense to try to earn respect through disciplined control over your body. If you don’t feel worthy of intimacy and love, it makes sense to try to get intimacy and love by looking hot enough. What emotional needs are you trying to meet by looking the “right way”? What other ways might you go about getting those needs met that don’t have anything to do with your appearance?
You are not your appearance. Body image issues often comes down to a feeling that one’s worth is based on their appearance, which therefore creates an over-identification with that appearance. This is especially true for women, since we’re both implicitly and explicitly taught in our culture that we must look beautiful, perfect, sexy, hot, and desirable in order to be of value in the world, get our needs met, and for people to like, love, accept, choose, respect, or want us. But you are not your body or your appearance, so trying to “earn” your place this way will always fail. Anyone who likes, loves, accepts, chooses, respects, or wants you because of how you look doesn’t actually like, love, accept, choose, respect, or want you. Your worth is completely unrelated to your appearance, and who you are as a person is much deeper, more powerful, more fascinating, more compelling, more amazing, and more lovable than you could ever look. Have you identified with your appearance, or considered your appearance part of your worth and value to the world? If so, where did that come from, and how can you begin to poke holes in that belief?
6. You must face your fears. Being afraid is uncomfortable, and a lot of body image
issues are about fear. But fear has a way of getting bigger and bigger the more you avoid the thing that scares you. If you avoid situations that cause you body anxiety, those situations will become even more powerful and terrifying. Therefore you must identity what scares you, and start facing those fears. What are you afraid of? Wearing shorts or a tank top? Getting rejected? Being called fat? People not liking you? Your partner realizing you’re a hyman person instead of a perfect sex doll? Brainstorm all your fears, and then start taking baby steps to facing them, bit by bit. Do this enough and you will prove to yourself that there is nothing worth avoiding just because of how you look. Do this enough and you will start living the fabulously free, vibrant, and fulfilling life you’ve been thinking could only be on the other side of having a different body.
7. You must unlearn fatphobia and position yourself against diet culture. Not
This is, as I said, a woefully incomplete list, since this topic is massive and requires a whole book.
But I hope it encourages you to get curious and start exploring. After all, exploring with curiosity is an action you can take while trapped at home today.
Wishing you a day full of curiosity and self-exploration.
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