Why Body Image is Still SO HARD for Us

I’m about halfway through leading the sixth round of Self Care 101.  Watching my client’s experience is making me reflect on the power of this habit transformation and empowerment journey.

Leading amazing women through a deep self care change has been challenging, joyful and has also completely surprised me.  When I first started these programs,  I thought self care would lead to better self esteem.  That’s how it had been helping me, and I hadn’t taken time to reflect deeper on this connection.

Watching my clients’ experiences shows me that while increased self care does help us feel better about ourselves,  it also opens the door to trusting intuition and leading from a more powerful place inside.  Humbly, I’ve discovered that self care leads to taking on more leadership roles, or perhaps, is even a form of leadership in and of itself.  

I’ve also seen that the most common block to growing in self care and leadership are our blocked emotions.  In particular, repressing angergrief, and sexuality creates gigantic blocks around our own self care.  So many clients have shown me that it’s rarely about just the eating issue or the sleeping issue or the overwork issue — it’s about the fear of surrendering to the powerlessness that arises when we confront hugely important emotions that we are told are not ok to feel.

Another gigantic piece of this puzzle is our poor body image as Western women.  I’ve written a little bit on this topic, but I want to open the conversation up further, and think I am finally ready. Sharing about  this part of my journey  means digging into my own pain, ignorance and shadows.  It’s hugely liberating, but it also takes a lot of courage.   

I was overweight as a child. My parents divorced when I was 5 years old, and I began eating emotionally to comfort myself.  Food became the way I could numb the deep feelings of fear and anger inside of me that came from  watching my family break apart.  Food became the way I could take care of myself, which worked, except when it didn’t.  Numbing myself ensured that my life didn’t hurt, but it also wasn’t a satisfying way to live.

As we know, growing up overweight in this culture is difficult.  I learned early that my worth as a woman was dependent on how I looked to the outside world.  Smaller was better, and I was definitely not small.  My shame about my body was intense, and I couldn’t imagine ever being thought of as attractive.  It also never occurred to myself that I could learn to think of myself as attractive, either.

I could write a book about the ups and downs of gaining and losing weight and how this made me feel.  Yet I’m not sure it would be the most interesting book, because a lot of us already know the story, right?  It’s boring, because nothing ever happens.  My weight goes up, I get depressed.  It goes down and I celebrate.  Then it goes back up again and I’m depressed.  I remained trapped in the cycle of powerlessness.

(If you really want to make a breakthrough around emotional eating and the dieting cycle, I highly recommend Geneen Roth’s incredible books on the subject.)

There’s this persistent belief–in myself and in my clients–that if we can just muster up enough willpower, we will finally be able to “get it together” and go to the gym, eat healthfully, etc.  Usually, there was a time in our past when we were able to do this, and we judge ourselves for not being able to get back there, to that imaginary place in the past.    

Then there are those strange times when when everything is falling apart–you’re in the middle of a  bad break-up, or there’s a death, or you’re dealing with other grief–and we lose weight without really trying.  We are rewarded by compliments from the people around us, and we feel an odd sense of power.  We are powerful because we are seen as “healthy” or “attractive.”  It’s odd, because we don’t actually feel healthy or powerful.

(The Dear Sugars have an excellent podcast all about body image that addresses this topic.)

When my dad got sick two years ago, I lost 30 pounds.  I honestly don’t know why.  I was eating Ayurvedically and still adjusting after a major break-up, but it was one of those times when the weight just fell off my body.  Despite eating a good amount of fat and protein, I stopped getting my period for almost a year.  My face looked skeletal to me and none of my clothes fit.  

People told me all the time how good I looked, and I liked that.  Who wouldn’t?  Outside approval is one of the main forms of currency for women.  Still, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t feel powerful.  I felt like all of my womanhood was wasting away, and like I had to keep that a secret.

Then, after my life stabilized, I gained back 15 pounds.  People didn’t compliment me as much, and my new clothes stopped fitting so well.   I felt less powerful, but also more grounded.   A part of me wanted to lose that weight again, so I could be hollow and feel that inflated sense of ego power from the outside.

But no.  No, no, no.  I didn’t really want that.  Instead, I wanted to understand why this felt so important.  I can skirt around the issue and say, “Well I should just love myself and accept my body,” but I know I must move through the deeper issues if I want an authentic breakthrough.  As I keep learning, the way out is through.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  And while I don’t have conclusive theories about why we struggle with so much inner turmoil around the way our bodies look, I have a couple of ideas.

The first idea centers around objectification. We’ve been objectified for a very long time in female history.  For a long time, and still in many cultures, women were bought and sold like property.  Because of this, we have also learned to objectify ourselves.  

For Western women mostly, we seem completely emancipated–on the surface.  Yet I think our collective feelings of poor body image  are left over from the patriarchal culture, and this  lives secretly in our own self-perception.  Consumerist culture understands this and uses unrealistic, often dangerously thin images of women to tame our power and keep us buying things to cover up the powerlessness of feeling like the object rather than the subject of our own lives.

(Charlotte Kasl gets into this beautifully in her amazing book Women, Sex and Addiction.)

I also think we are afraid of feeling our own power.  If we feel our own power, then we have to cry over everything we’ve lost and rage over all that’s been taken away and admit that it’s so hard to know ourselves as authentic sexual beings.  We have to sift through and make some big changes in the life we’ve constructed — a life centered around not feeling these feelings.  

I’m currently doing some of this work myself and it is HARD.  I totally understand why someone wouldn’t want to do this, especially without adequate support.

Yet I watch my clients do this all the time, and I have so much admiration for them as they bravely confront self-destructive patterns and make room for true power to flow into their lives. It’s amazing to watch, and it encourages me to keep putting one foot in front of the other on my own journey.

If we stop trying for the perfect future body–which doesn’t exist–  we gain the responsibility to make our today as great as possible.  

I ask myself if my life were exactly like this forever, could I find a way to make it a happy life, still?  And if I gave up the immense attention and energy I still put into wanting to stay thin or get thinner, what could I channel that energy into?  I always think about how many languages I would have learned by now if I hadn’t spent so much emotional angst on how my pants were fitting too tightly.  This is a big practice for me these days.  

(Virgie Torvil has some amazing things to say on this subject on the ever-wonderful Call Your Girlfriend podcast.)

I feel like this conversation is more of a beginning than an ending.  It’s so important to me to hear your thoughts on this, lovely readers.  So I’ll close with some questions, and the invitation for you to reflect on your own relationship with your body these days.  Please let me know what insights arise for you.  They are important for all of us.

  • Regarding your body image, what have you healed, and what do you still hope to heal?
  • Is it getting easier or harder to talk about your body image in a way that makes sense with how you want to be seen as a woman?
  • If you stopped putting emotional energy into worrying about how your body looks, what could you do with that energy?

And perhaps for you, it’s not about your body image.  If so, is there another way you are objectifying yourself and feeling powerless about how you are viewed from the outside?