Body Image Basics

I’d like to go back to basics today.

Sometimes I get questions like this: “I have a friend who is struggling with body image or body dysmorphia, and I’d like to point them in the direction of helpful resources, where should I start?”

Unfortunately, the book I’d like to recommend (mine) hasn’t been published yet, and there is no “one right book” on body image out there yet. Why? Because body image issues don’t discriminate, and the obstacles facing people of different sizes, shapes, abilities, and genders vary dramatically when it comes to body image.

For example, a thin gay man probably won’t connect deeply to the books written by fat black women about body confidence, because their life experiences, and the standards to which they are compared and judged, are so different. And fat black women might not get much from reading books by thin, white, conventionally attractive women talking about recovering from eating disorders and discovering self-love.

The topic of body image is vast and complex.

So where do we start?

First and foremost, I want to remind you that in my work, we start by recognizing that body image isn’t about your body. You can watch my TEDx talk “Body Image: Not Just About Your Body” to learn more if you haven’t seen it yet, but the premise I take into my body image coaching calls is that body image issues are always only the tip of the iceberg.

What’s underneath the water is often much messier, darker, and scarier, and the truth is that most of us never learned the skills to deal with that kind of thing. Focusing on controlling the shape and size of your body might be helping someone avoid or repress their feelings, or give them a false sense of control in an out-of-control world, or give them a tangible and seemingly “easy” place to focus all their pain, grief, anger, and shame.

Many people use their bodies to try to earn upward social mobility and status, or to get emotional needs met which seem impossible to get met otherwise, like the human need for intimacy, belonging, safety, respect, or love. Sometimes body image issues are tied up with a person’s relationship to their gender or sexuality, and sometimes they’re tied up with feeling too needy or intense.

As I said, it’s complicated.

One thing I know to be true is that if you stay stuck in the belief that the real problem is your body, and you just need to look different in order to like yourself, there is nowhere to go, and no work to be done.

You must acknowledge that there is deeper stuff going on, and that the real issue isn’t how you look (it’s your relationship to how you look, which is informed by a vast web of beliefs, expectations, interpretations, and stories) in order to do body image healing. 

The simplest place to start when exploring body image issues is to recognize that most of us have come to hate or obsess over the ways in which our bodies diverge from the cultural “ideal,” and the standards for what is ideal cannot be separated from systems of sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and more.

For example, the body “ideal” is different for men and women, since our culture fetishizes specific gender presentations, which is to say we think “women should look like women” and “men should look like men.” We’re given to believe that only very masculine-presenting men are attractive and worthy, and only feminine-presenting women are the same. (As you can imagine, this means that non-binary and transgender individuals have some huge and complex body image hurdles to leap.)

No matter what the details are though, the first big hurdle we have to overcome when talking about body image is always the assumption that body confidence comes from conforming more closely to the cultural ideal.

If you cling to that belief, again, there is nowhere to go, and nothing to be done. You must simply always chase the ideal, and suffer the consequences for every way in which you “fail” to conform, or for every way in which you diverge from the standard.

From this place, there is no body acceptance, confidence, or love to be had. It would be impossible. Even for people who fit the social standard pretty closely, there is an awareness of tiny flaws, a feeling of imposter-ness, and/or a fear of losing their special “status” as they age.

So this is another premise in my work: body image issues cannot be overcome by conforming to the social standard or idea, or by fitting in better.

Which is really to say that overcoming body image issues cannot come from external sources, like people’s acceptance or approval of you, kindness, desire, or respect.

It’s normal to want those things of course, and it’s important that we each find places to get them. But we live in a world where people have deep internalized biases and treat each other differently based on how they look, so if you expect your self worth and confidence to come from getting positive feedback from others, you are fucked, because the only way to accomplish that would be to change your body to get closer to the standard and constantly try to fix your flaws.

That’s where a lot of people are stuck when it comes to body image. It’s human nature to want to belong, to feel good when we get positive reinforcement, and to enjoy it when other people respect and treat us kindly. Of course.

But wanting those things, and basing your entire self-worth and confidence on whether or not you look “good enough” to get them, are very different. 

If you’re a fat woman, you may believe that life would be better if you lost weight– and you’re probably right. People who are judgmental dicks to you right now might suddenly become kind and warm. But all that proves is that people in our fatphobic culture are fatphobic dicks though, not that you would actually became more worthy of kindness or warmth if you lost weight.

You’re exactly the same amount of worthy of love, acceptance, kindness, safety, intimacy, success, and happiness no matter what shape or size your body is. Losing weight, or otherwise getting closer to the cultural “ideal” doesn’t change your worthiness one iota.

But since we live in a culture that acts as if it does– that rewards you for getting closer to the cultural ideal with tons of positive attention, praise, compliments, warmth, and respect– it can be hard as fuck to recognize this.

This is why I believe overcoming body image issues is an act of fucking anarchy.

You literally have to acknowledge that our society is set up with certain rules for who is worthy of what kind of treatment, and then also acknowledge that:

1. Those rules are completely made up lies.
2. Your worth doesn’t change based on how people who believe those lies treat you.
3. If you want to build a strong sense of confidence and self-worth no matter how you look, you’ll need to reject every single one of those made lies about who is worthy of what.

This takes a lot of work, no doubt, since it requires reprogramming everything we’ve ever learned, and doing a deep-dive through our unconscious beliefs.

But as far as I know, it’s the only way to actually break free.

Plenty of people feel “more confident” when they lose weight, because they enjoy the boost in positive reinforcement and status. To me though, that’s not the same thing as genuine confidence, because it’s so obviously conditional and often leads to imposter syndrome, feeling objectified like folks are only interested in how they look, or anxiety and fear about gaining back the weight.

So. Body image is complex.

Some folks feel deeply supported by books on anti-diet culture and body positivity. Some come to me to work on exploring specific stories, releasing the meaning they’ve attached to certain body shapes, sizes, and functions, in search of body neutrality. Some need to reconnect to a body that’s numb, or learn how to advocate and set boundaries for themselves, or work to forgive a body they perceive as having betrayed them.

Everyone’s body image journey is unique.

But one way or another, overcoming body image issues is best approached with a subversive spirit, because it requires a restructuring of how we see ourselves in the world, a rewriting of who we believe is worthy of respect, happiness, and belonging, and a reclaiming of self-worth.

Yours in rebellion,

<3
Jessi

PS If you need help, and want help sorting through and healing your own body image issues, this is what I do. Feel free to apply for private coaching with me here. 

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