(Hint: it’s not what you think.)
Recently, while writing a particularly complex section of my book on Body Neutrality for Penguin Life, I had a realization about the four body image avatars that I wanted to share with you here.
Second of all, I’ve been completely transparent since publicly introducing the avatars earlier this year that the concept and language around them is evolving and will continue to evolve, to reflect my ever-deepening understanding of the most effective ways to help people access body neutrality.
So, what I discovered recently — and can’t stop thinking about — is the importance of what I’m calling the “hidden body image plan” and “hidden body image purpose” for each of the four avatars.
Essentially, a person’s body image issues develop to help them in some way; to solve a problem, protect them, or serve them in some capacity. The work I do with private and group clients is to help them figure out exactly how their body image issues are functioning (or trying to function)… aka: what the purpose of their body image thoughts, behaviors, or suffering is.
By figuring this out, we can immediately see what they would actually need to do in order to let those body image issues go, and move toward body neutrality.
Let’s take the example of a client who struggles to feel comfortable in her body as she gets older and saggier. We discover that she is extremely afraid of no longer being attractive to men, because she is single and afraid she will lose access to sex, intimacy, and partnership. It may be an oversimplification then, but we could say the purpose of her body image issues is to alert her to the danger she’s in, and motivate her to do anything in her power to look younger and more attractive.
In this example, my client’s hidden body image plan is to look hot enough to “earn” her access to what she needs and wants: sex, intimacy, and partnership.
Her body dissatisfaction functions as an alarm system and motivation to seek safety, her compulsive diet/exercise behaviors give her a feeling of control, her obsession with anti-aging products provides a sense of hope, and her constant body checking functions as a way of quelling anxiety and reassuring herself that she’s ok.
None of this is happening on a conscious level of course. She isn’t thinking to herself “I hate my sagging body today because it reminds me that I’m going to end up alone which terrifies me,” she’s just thinking “ugh my body is so disgusting.”
But by identifying the hidden plan and purpose of her body image suffering, it becomes clear that my client might never particularly like how she looks as she ages, but that it goes way deeper than just a preference for looking a certain way.
She might prefer her younger, tighter body, sure. But her body image issues are about terror: the fear that the only way she can get her intimate needs met is to look young and attractive.
Once we understand that, the path to body neutrality becomes illuminated. Why does she want to look different? So she can prove to herself that she is safe, that she will still be able to get her needs met, that she will still be able to access sex, intimacy, and partnership.
Next we might want to focus on a few different healing-path directions:
1. Normalizing this fear.
We live in an ageist sexist patriarchy that teaches women their value comes from their desirability, and that only young and conventionally attractive women are “worthy” of these things. That’s not true of course, but it’s totally normal to worry about this!
2. Rewriting the limiting belief that age is automatically a barrier for intimacy.
We consider where she learned it and what it shows us about her views of men, explore alternative ways to look at it, and poke holes by naming real-life examples to disprove it.
3. Unpack self objectification.
Start unpacking what it means about her self-image and self-worth that she thinks the only way someone would want to sleep with or love her was if she looked young and conventionally attractive.
4. Fear-facing and resilience building.
If she currently has lovers, she might challenge herself to talk to them about how she’s feeling, and ask to hear their thoughts on her aging body, desire, arousal, sex, and the future. If not she might challenge herself to put herself out there, letting people see her aging body in a sexual, intimate, or romantic context. This would undoubtedly encourage some emotional processing, skill-building, resilience-cultivating, and more!
5. Going after what she wants directly.
Wanna get laid? Find a partner? Cuddle with someone? Get tied up and spanked? Whatever it is she decided she most wants, she would have to start putting herself out there and going after it directly and assertively, instead of hoping that by being thin/attractive enough, it would just appear.
Does this make sense?
If so, can you apply it to yourself and your own body image, either now or in the past? Can you see how identifying the plan and purpose leads you toward a more useful direction for body image healing than, say, repeating mantras to yourself about how you’re beautiful just the way you are??
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