Did you know that you can have specific body image for each specific body part?
We can perceive each body part individually when we look in the mirror, right? And we get specific messages from society about each body part, too.
Which means that most of us form individual “body-part-image” for each of our own body parts— based on what we think each part looks like, and what we think each part should look like.
I think we need to talk about that.
Think about how many specific messages we receive from marketing, media, social media, etc, about every single part of our faces and bodies.
Don’t believe me? Try this little exercise. What jumps to mind for each of the following body parts?
Hands. Fingernails. Feet. Ankles. Calves. Thighs. Booty. Skin. Body hair. Vulva. Anus. Public hair. Hips. Belly. Breasts. Shoulders. Arms. Neck. Jaw. Hair. Nose. Eyes. Eyelashes. Eyebrows. Cheekbones. Lips. Teeth.
Do you have an immediate idea of what this body part “should” look like on a woman, as well as thoughts or feelings about how your own personal body part measure up to that standard?
I know I do.
I know that a woman’s anus is supposed to be perfectly round, cute, hairless, clean, and a dazzling pearly pink. I know that a woman’s lips are supposed to be pillowy, wide, deeply pigmented, and effortlessly sensual. I know that a woman’s eyes are supposed to be big, bright, medium-to-wide-set, thickly fringed with lashes, and completely free of puffiness or wrinkles.
I could go on.
Every single female body part has individual “ideals,” and we often absorb and internalize these ideals without even realizing it. Those ideals affect how we view each of our own individual body parts, and also encourages us to dissect ourselves, chopping our body parts up into “good” and “bad,” based on which ones fit the standard, and which ones deviate.
To make things more complicated, the “ideal” for each part often varies from source to source, leading to conflicting messages. I mean, should my boobs be big and round like a porn star, or should they be small and unobtrusive like a fashion model?? Ahhh!! There are so many ways to fuck this up!!
Ok, but seriously.
Lately I’ve noticed that many women don’t identify with having “body image issues,” because their body image issues aren’t about their weight or overall body shape.
But having body image issues about individual parts or features can be just as damaging and draining.
Let’s take my friend Erin as an example. Erin actually really loves her body– she’s fit and strong and confident. But she has tons of shame about the way her genitals look. She told me that she has never let anyone look at her “down there,” because she’s so sure her lady-parts are ugly!
When I asked why she thought her vulva was ugly, she responded that it doesn’t look the way women do in porn. (Important note: Like fashion magazines, porn is NOT an accurate representation of what most vulvas look like, or should look like. Rawr.)
Erin has negative vulva-image. It might sound silly, but this is a body image issue.
Like all body image issues, the problem is not her vulva though. The problem is how Erin feels about her vulva. It wasn’t until I helped Erin label the problem as a “body image issue” that she was able to start doing the deep digging required to heal her relationship with her genitals. From there, she was able to practice self-compassion and self-acceptance, and take her sex life to wonderful new heights. (Yay!!)
Another example is the face. Many women have deeply painful body image issues about their faces.
Personally I used to feel like my bare face was unfit to be seen by people; that I had to hide it and fix it with makeup in order to look “presentable.” In college I even had a friend whose mom told us that we should never show our partners what our faces really look like (ie: without makeup) until after we’ve been married a full year.
For many of us, there is one or two particular facial features that we deem as ugly, not good enough, embarrassing, or unworthy of love.
The face is a part of the body– which means that these are “body image issues” too.
And of course (since body image is never about the body) you can be sure that the problem is NOT your stubby eyelashes, your thin lips, your double chin, or your crows feet.
The problem is how you feel about the offending feature– what message have you internalized about what crow’s feet mean, for example? What’s the significance of a double chin, in your mind? Why are these such undesirable labels for you?
Plus, not all body image issues are limited to visual ideals!
What about sweat and body odor, for example? We consider it normal to stress about pit stains and try to always smell like powdered flowers, but why? What messages have we internalized about how women are “supposed” to smell, and how does that affect the way we live in our own bodies?
Or, what about gas and bloating? Gassiness is totally normal, but many of us (umm…guilty!) allow the cultural standards of what is “ladylike,” acceptable, or desirable to keep us from passing gas or letting our bloated bellies hang out when we need to!
The list goes on and on.
What every example has in common is that we alter our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors based on an internalized message about what women are “supposed” to look like, smell like, do, or be.
This forces us to constantly monitor ourselves, instead of just relaxing and letting things be. It forces us to live in shame and fear that something about our authentic self (belly fat, wrinkles, legs, smile, body hair, gas, etc) must be unworthy of love, acceptance, approval, or belonging.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with wearing makeup, or deodorant, or getting botox, or anything else– we each deserve to make those decisions for ourselves without judgement.
But I ask that we start examining areas in which the internalized messages about what women are “supposed” to look like/smell like/do/be, are costing us our freedom to be our full, authentic, expansive selves.