I recently DMed with someone who was feeling very confused about my official stance on what we need in order to heal body image issues.
On the one hand, she wrote, I seem to believe that it’s important for a person to get really clear on what they feel and want and need.
It’s all this “me-focused work” as she put it, to establish boundaries, let go of responsibility for other people’s feelings, advocate for our own needs, and tune inward to what we’re experiencing rather than thinking about how other people are experiencing us.
I agreed. Yes, there is a huge need for many people struggling with body image to restore a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and connection to self.
But on the other hand, she went on… a lot of my work is also geared toward establishing strong connections with other people, through practicing vulnerability, communicating with others, and finding the right community within which to share our truths. She called this “others-focused work.”
I agreed again. Community and connection are vital.
“But don’t these two things contradict each other??” She asked, clearly feeling confused about how you can do all the “me-focused work” while also trying to cultivate strong and intimate relationships with others.
This is a fair question, because most of us have learned that in order to cultivate connections with others we have to put their needs and wants and feelings first; that there is an inherent self-sacrifice required to gain connection with others.
I fundamentally disagree with that.
Body image issues and insecurities are often extremely “others-focused,” or more specifically, we focus on ourselves only from the perspective of an outsider, which over time diminishes our feelings of autonomy, agency, authenticity, and self-trust.
It’s almost like we learn to control our appearance in order to fend off danger, punishment, or negative consequences, and so we are constantly tuning into and performing what we think we “should” do and be and look like, based on what other people like, want, or expect… instead of who we actually are, and what we want.
We are used to connection without autonomy or agency, and breaking this habit is hard AF.
On the flip side however, we think of the stereotypically fully-autonomous woman, who is single, childless, independent, and kind of a stone cold bitch. We imagine that the only way to fully become our authentic selves we must be lone wolves, trading connection for freedom.
This is wrong too.
True connection with others requires enormous amounts of vulnerability, authenticity, and surrender. You can’t be trying to make someone else like you and approve of you, and also genuinely connect with them. Trying to be what someone else wants automatically excludes you from true intimacy.
And true freedom, learning to be our full, true selves without apology, requires finding spaces within which that self is accepted, loved, and encouraged.
We cannot and will not step into authentic self-acceptance if we think that will cost us what little connection we already have. (Think: we will not give up the quest to lose weight if we think we are unlovable in our current bodies.)
This is why healing body image requires both– more autonomy AND more connection.
We need to feel like we’re safe to be who we are and look how we look. We need to be in touch with what we desire, need, and feel, and feel safe to express those things knowing we will still be welcomed and loved. We need to feel that we are worthy as we are, and don’t need modification.
That said, we can’t do all that in a vaccuum.
A lot of that personal healing must be done in relationship. I hear a lot of “you have to love yourself before anyone can love you” nonsense out there, but I don’t see it that way.
Sometimes we need the safety of someone else seeing us, loving us, listening to us, and trying to understand us, to help us take down our armor and let ourselves become vulnerable and access our truth in the first place.
We need safe people and groups and communities within which we can bravely and consistently expose our wounds, and have them say “I see you, and I hurt for you, and I don’t think any less of you,” in order to heal. We need to hear the stories of others, and see the courage and vulnerability of others, in order to heal. We need places to practice the skills of connection, vulnerability, intimacy, and authenticity, and places to fortify and ground us during moments of shame and rejection.
We need access to true connection with others, no doubt about it, but that cannot exist without access to ourselves. And we also need access to ourselves, which is nearly impossible to gain without access to true connection with others.
This is the weave of it, the back and forth of it, and the reason I created a group coaching program for body image healing, instead of a self-study program.
I create the safe space for my private clients. I am often the first or only person who sees them, hears them, loves them, and doesn’t run away or reject them as they open up and practice vulnerability.
But in my group, it’s different.
In my group they all get to hear each other’s stories, compassionately witness each other’s breakdowns, and celebrate each other’s breakthroughs. In my group they share a language and get to practice skills with each other before they feel ready to practice them out in the real world.
In order to heal past body image issues, we need more self-understanding and autonomy, and we need more intimacy and connection.
If you need help understanding how those two factors are interwoven, or struggle with either, enrollment for the fall 2019 session of Authentic Body Confidence will be open for the next week or so. (This twenty week group coaching program is the best way to work with me on body image issues, and this is the last time I’ll be running it this year.)
Nearly 100 womxn have gone through this program and come out on the other side feeling more confident, autonomous, worthy, and free to be themselves, on top of feeling more connected, supported, and like they know where they truly belong.