What is the point of having a body?
Seriously, I’m really asking.
Because something I see happen a lot is that people think body image encompasses only whether you think your body is attractive, or unattractive. If someone has “body image issues,” we typically assume she either feels fat, or ugly, or both.
But sometimes body image issues don’t have anything to do with beauty, or even weight.
My client Ellie, for example, came to me because she felt numb. Numb sexually, numb emotionally, just numb.
We spent weeks exploring her relationship to her own sensations, and discovered an extraordinary fear of emotional pain. It seemed that somewhere along the line, Ellie had internalized the idea that emotional pain was bad and dangerous (some kinds more than others), and that feeling it was a personal failure.
Apparently, somewhere in Ellie’s unconscious was the belief that a woman was supposed to feel happy and good, all the time.
You might be wondering what this has to do with body image.
Let’s remember that emotions are physiological- we feel them physically, in our bodies.
The pain of rejection isn’t all that different from the pain of stubbing your toe, when it comes to how your body experiences it.
Ellie experienced a feeling of shame and personal failure, every time she felt something other than “happy,” because she had an image in her mind of what “good girls” felt. She unfavorably compared herself to this good, happy, ideal every time she felt anything else– like hurt, angry, sad, jealous, or guilty.
So, you know, pretty much all the time.
Then we dug into sexual pleasure. If a woman is supposed to be unfailingly happy, after all, is she also supposed to be fully embodied and pleasure-oriented?
Ummm no. Sexual desire, physiological turn-on, and the enjoyment of sex itself had all been terrifying prospects with complex histories for Ellie.
Why? Because, as we soon discovered, it wasn’t that women were supposed to just be happy. It’s that they were supposed to be polite.
As in… not actually happy in a fulfilled and embodied way, but happy in a well-mannered, ladylike, deferential way.
And, according to Ellie, this kind of women didn’t enjoy sex.
Maybe they enjoyed it in a polite way, but it would surely be a calm, restrained, and dutiful bliss. Never the salacious joys of outright carnal rapture.
Again, here, we had tapped into a comparison Ellie had unconsciously been making; the restrained and well-mannered kind of sexual experience, versus her own.
Since the body doesn’t know or care about what it’s “supposed to” feel– her body had betrayed her on this one pretty often, confirming again and again that there was something wrong or bad about her.
Naturally, when faced with the beginnings of impolite carnal rapture in her own body, Ellie would get terrified of what that meant, feel like she was doing something terribly wrong, and panic. Those feelings would come to a screeching halt, along with any other feelings they brought with them.
In this way, living in her own body was a constant danger, and Ellie ended up feeling numb all the time.
This is a really interesting (and not uncommon) case study on body image.
Ellie held an idea of what a “good body” would be and feel like, and that idea kept her from being able to fully inhabit her own, which is exactly what happens with body image issues.
That “good body” wasn’t about sex appeal, prettiness, or weight though.
The “good body,” according to Ellie, was one which felt calm, pleasant, well-mannered, and controlled. The “good body” was supposed to send her sensations of mild and stable niceness, so that she could live her life logically and politely.
But instead she had a human body. A human female body, no less.
When Ellie’s human female body went through it’s totally natural cycles of high and low, she was ashamed. When it experienced totally natural emotions like anger and sadness and jealousy in response to the situations of life, she was ashamed. When it took her to the depths of despair or the height of sexual exaltation, she was ashamed. Because in her mind, that’s not what bodies are supposed to do. That’s not what living in a body was supposed to feel like.
Ellie suffered because she was constantly failing at a standard which she herself invented, having internalized thousands of little messages along the way.
She didn’t want to lose her “bad” belly fat, but she wanted to lose her “bad” emotions.
She didn’t want a boob job, but she wanted a mood job.
These are body image issues.
What role do you think your body plays in your life? What is it’s purpose or function here on Earth? What is a body supposed to feel like, or do?
In what ways does your experience of having a body deviate from what you think a body should feel like, be like, look like, and do?
Your answer to all those questions can help shape a more complete idea of your “body image.”
If you’re like most women, you likely have some unconscious beliefs and comparisons in there that make you feel ashamed, make you feel like a failure, make you feel isolated and alone, or make you feel existentially wrong.
These, my dear women, are body image issues, and we need to start treating them as such.
Living in a human body is a fascinating, complex, and messy experience. There is really no “right” way to do it.
So why then do we allow our entire lives to become consumed with the conviction that we’re messing it up?
Food for thought.
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