Today I want to tell you a story.
When I was in the sixth grade, the group of girls I was friends with decided they didn’t want me to sit with them at lunch anymore, and I felt like I was going to die.
Human beings are biologically wired for connection. Due to the way we evolved (our only chance of survival required staying included in our community), we’re wired with a deep and powerful urge to feel accepted, valued, and like we belong.
The flip side of this urge is, of course, deep and powerful pain, shame, and fear around rejection and abandonment; the kind of pain that feels life-or-death.
When Jillian C. pulled me aside and told me that all my friends had gotten together to decide I couldn’t sit at their lunch table anymore, I was devastated. I went home in tears, threw myself onto my bunk bed, and sobbed for hours.
I vividly remember thinking the physical pain of it would kill me. I didn’t know it then, but this pre-teen drama had set off some of my primal survival alarm bells, and it was excruciating.
I know many of you have similar stories — moments in your life that you can recall no matter how long ago they happened, because the feeling of rejection and abandonment is so intense.
We feel immense pain and stress at the thought of not belonging, being kicked out, or otherwise losing our place in society — and this is where body image can get really tricky.
Many of us try to secure a safe place in society by looking the right way. But since that plan is unrealistic and unsustainable, a lot of folks end up hating their bodies because it feels like their body is standing in the way of what they want most: a feeling of belonging and social safety. (PS if this is you I recommend exploring The Outsider body image avatar!)
This is why mainstream body image advice that tells you to “stop caring what other people think” is lazy and irresponsible. Belonging is a basic human need, so we’re unlikely to stop caring what people think of us unless we feel securely attached to at least a handful of people and places where we belong.
Unfortunately, plenty of people go their entire lives feeling like they don’t belong anywhere — and this makes them especially susceptible to body image issues.
Have you ever noticed the desire to express yourself in a way that is similar to the people you want to be accepted by and liked by? We often do this unconsciously — we try to subtly match the people we want to belong with; to subtly send the signal “I belong here with you!”
It’s why I ask what the “vibe” of an event will be before I decide on my outfit. I don’t want to be the only one in jeans if everyone is in cocktail dresses, but I also don’t want to be in a cocktail dress when everyone else is in jeans! I’ll ultimately make my outfit my own, but I want to know the parameters of what will come off as “not belonging” in that space.
The desire to signal belonging often gets tangled up with body image, because at some point in your life you undoubtedly learned that there was something about the way you look that was different; that didn’t match the folks you wanted to connect with; that signaled to others you don’t belong with them.
And that part of you got coded as bad and dangerous.
Maybe all your friends were skinny as a kid, and you were chubby — so you learned to feel insecure about your weight.
Your weight would have set off a little “belonging alarm bell” in your brain, shouting: Mayday, mayday! You don’t belong here! Better lose weight before they notice and kick you out — or maybe they already noticed and they’re thinking about it right now and judging you! Ahhhh this is bad!!
This can happen with anything — body shape, size, height, hair, face, or the specific makeup of any particular body part or feature. Maybe your nose was bigger than everyone else’s, or you were the only one with curly hair, or you were the first one to get boobs. You get the picture.
We tend to become insecure about the parts of ourselves that seem to say “I don’t belong here,” particularly when we don’t feel a secure sense of belonging somewhere.
Think about your biggest body insecurities. At some point, the thing you hate most about your body signaled to you that you were “different” or “not the right kind of person,” right?
I hope you see why these kinds of body image issues can feel so life-or-death, even if you rationally understand that it’s not a big deal and nobody actually cares about your cellulite or belly rolls.
Hating our “imperfections” tends to be about hating what we perceive as setting us apart, broadcasting our un-belonging, or costing us the connections we crave. Likewise, the body parts we end up loving are often the ones that are considered desirable by mainstream culture, because they signal that we do belong, that we’re good, and that we’re worthy of connection.
In this way, many folks start to chop their bodies up in their minds, dividing everything into categories of “good” and “bad,” based on which direction they perceive it moving them: toward belonging, or away from it. We start to build entire narratives around which individual body parts or characteristics make us worthy of connection and belonging (and therefore should be maintained and shown off), and which ones must be hidden, altered, or “overcome.”
So what’s the solution? Two fold!
The first thing is to actually find the people and places that offer you a sense of genuine belonging, so that you have more resilience when in the face of not fitting in. (Easier said than done of course, because this requires the courage to stop hiding and show up in the world as your whole weird self, because only authenticity can attract the people and places where you genuinely belong.)
The second thing is to be extremely intentional about what you expose yourself to.
Stop following people who make you feel insecure, and fill your feed with folks who look like you, or at least those who make you feel included and accepted.
Consider consuming less media overall, especially the kind that makes you compare yourself.
Stop hanging out with friends who make you feel bad about yourself, and cultivate the relationships where you feel seen and liked.
Who and what we’re exposed to has a powerful impact on whether or not we experience a feeling of belonging, so use it to your advantage.
If you follow a lot of posed and edited high-glam and high-femme influencers in the wellness/fitness/beauty/fashion realm for example, you’re sort of telling your brain that these are the people you need to belong with; this is your community.
This leads to self-criticism because you don’t stack up to their standard of glossy perfection; you start to imagine all those people getting together and easily connecting with each other, while simultaneously excluding and rejecting you.
And even though you might never have met them, you get a bit of the feeling I had in the sixth grade — that they don’t want you to sit with them at lunch anymore. It’s excruciating.
So what happens? You turn on yourself and your body. You spend your life trying to make yourself worthy of them. But the truth is… you were always worthy. Those just weren’t your people.