Body image distortions

I named my first TEDx talk
The Case for Radical Vanity.

In it, I outlined a proposal for why women should rebel against the culturally accepted idea that good girls should be humble and modest, and instead push the pendulum all the way in the opposite direction and embrace the liberation of loving, adoring, and admiring the absolute fuck out of oneself.

I called for women to embrace “radical vanity,” which is a dramatic reclamation of self-adoration, in an effort to reset and rebalance the excessively negative self-image so many women have, especially when it comes to how they look.

While I now recognize that healing body image is far more complex than just choosing to think and feel positively about oneself, I stand by the message because healing body image requires recognizing and rebelling against social norms.

I also stand by it because it makes clear that our self-image and body-image are just stories we’ve made up in our own minds about ourselves, and have repeated over and over until they feel factual.

For most women, the messages we receive about beauty and body “ideals” combined with the desire to shrink away from anything that makes us look conceited, full of ourselves, or (thanks to victim blaming and unwanted attention) god forbid like we were “asking for it,” leads to us creating a ridiculously blown-out-of-proportion negative view of how we look.

Think about how many times you’ve told a friend she looked beautiful only to be met with that tight half-smile thing that you know means she absolutely does not believe you? Or worse yet, she starts to correct you, insisting that she actually looks fat and terrible?

And how many times have you experienced this from the inside, thinking your partner is crazy for finding your attractive, or your friend is lying when she says you look thin, or you feel paranoid that everyone is secretly judging you for looking like shit even though they all swear you look great?

It might seem like a really obvious thing to say, but how you see yourself is different than how other people see you, and vice versa.

If our eyes and brains all saw everything the same without the influence of thoughts and feelings and hormones and social conditioning, then it would be possible for someone’s body image to be objective and factual.

But they don’t, so it isn’t.

Our eyes and brains are all constantly making up stories that make sense out of everything we think and feel and experience and believe, and that story affects the way our brains put together what we actually see.

Imagine if you had a traumatic experience involving the color blue when you were a child, and now the color blue– you hate blue houses, blue clothes, blue everything. Your experience would influence your interpretation of the color, and make the color blue look ugly to you.

We do this with our bodies all the time, taking negative experiences, feelings, thoughts, and stories about ourselves, and turning them into how we actually see our bodies.

It’s worth mentioning here that the more you practice telling a specific story to your brain about how you look, the more true it will seem. Practice makes perfect and all. 🙂

Which means if you spend a few minutes a day picking yourself apart in the mirror, zooming in on your “flaws,” pinching or grabbing your flesh in disgust, imagining how you would look with surgery or weight loss, or otherwise teaching your brain to see you as a disgusting and horrible monster… your brain is going to start interpreting what it sees to reflect the story you’re telling.

Many of my clients look to others like relatively thin or medium sized, attractive women. But when they look at themselves, they see the disgusting fun-house mirror, monster version of themselves.

Body image is, in this way, often a powerful illusion– a complete distortion of reality.

The good news here is that once you recognize your body image for the distortion it is, you can stop putting so much stock in it’s truth. You can also use the same tools that helped you create this monster-version of yourself to create a new, neutral, or even positive distortion.

Hence my call for radical vanity.

I figured, if we’re already going to spend decades creating brain distortions about how we look, we might as well get a little more creative.

Granted this can be a tricky cycle to hack, because for most of my clients, looking in the mirror and seeing the distortion leads to thinking and feeling negativity, which then reinforces the negative distortion, and so on. It doesn’t work to try to just stop feeling negative feelings, and learning to stop thinking negative thoughts takes a lot of time and practice.

This is why I ask my clients to refocus their negativity where it belongs: outward, not inward.

  • It fucking sucks that we live in a world that thinks the most important things a woman can be is attractive and thin, and that shames those who fit the standard AND those who don’t.

  • It sucks that we live in a world where so many women are sexually harassed, assaulted, raped, and invalidated, so that they learn to feel unsafe and fear their bodies.

  • It sucks that the beauty industry makes billions of dollars a year off our insecurities, and the diet and fitness industries are committed to spreading and maintaining fatphobia and self-hatred.

  • It sucks that our culture is still rampant with racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

  • It sucks that in a world that is fighting tooth and nail to shame fat people, that so many people are dying of eating disorders, and yet there is practically zero outrage about being too thin.

  • It sucks that women are so bombarded by sexualized, objectified, and digitally “perfected” images that we experience a constant feeling of not being good enough.

Personally I’m fucking angry about these things, and more. Often the first step for my clients is to let themselves get angry too– which is where redirecting all that negativity comes in.

If you’ve been picking yourself apart and beating yourself up in the mirror, you’re already angry.

But maybe you, like a lot of my clients, have bought into the “good girl” myths that anger is unbecoming, that gratitude and happiness are “better” than anger, that you shouldn’t burden people with your feelings, or that hating yourself is more noble than being vain.

Or maybe you’ve felt disempowered your entire life, and feel the need to control something, so you turn to food and your body. Or maybe you’ve just been following the rules in the hopes that when you finally “look better,” you’ll be rewarded by feeling better.

The truth is that when it comes to healing your body image, your inner good girl is pretty useless.

Healing body image requires breaking the rules, challenging social norms, and starting a fucking revolution– we need your inner rebel for this shit.

We need you to get angry, not at yourself or your body, but at the systems of oppression and abuse and manipulation that have made you feel this way.

Let’s interrupt the distortion by turning all that negativity where it belongs

<3
Jessi

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