Today we’re going to talk about the role emotions play in the formation, continuation, and exacerbation of body image issues.
The very short story is this:
Body image issues can function as a powerful tool for distracting from, suppressing, and controlling your emotions.
Being obsessed with food, weight, exercise, or how you look can give you something to focus on other than how you feel, which is a welcome distraction for many folks, because so few of us learned to regulate, tolerate, and process our emotions in a healthy way as kids.
It might suck to think about calories, food, weight, or how you look all day, but sometimes that’s preferable to thinking about how sad you are, how lonely you feel, or how resentful you are of the people in your life who aren’t meeting your needs.
Obsessing over and attempting to control your body and appearance also offers many opportunities to suppress and push down your emotions completely.
Dieting has a numbing effect on your emotions, as does binging. We call it “emotional eating” for a reason—because it’s normal (and at least moderately effective in the short-term) to occasionally turn to food to help us manage Big Uncomfortable Feelings.
Pushing our bodies to exercise a lot can also have a numbing effect on our emotions. It’s hard to tune into your feelings when you’re constantly training yourself to tune them out in order to push your body harder, faster, further, or more often. Learning to override and push past your feelings is considered a “good thing” in sports and fitness culture, which makes it the perfect pairing for someone who wants to feel less of their feelings on a regular basis.
None of this is conscious, of course.
People avoid or suppress their feelings for any number of reasons, but the most basic is that they learned their feelings were dangerous, bad, shameful, invalid, or a problem. Sometimes their feelings were just too painful or uncomfortable, or chronically dysregulated because of trauma, or an insecure attachment figure. Sometimes their feelings were explicitly shamed, until they had to hide them even from themselves. (Think: sexual desire, anger, grief, or anything labeled as “not nice.”)
Whatever brings someone to a place where they don’t have the skill, energy, capacity, or inclination to feel all their Big Uncomfortable Feelings, I hope you can see what a powerful, clever, and helpful coping mechanism it is for this person to turn to body obsession and control in order to dial down the volume on their feelings.
Did you know that dieting and over-exercising can suppress libedo and sexual desire? Did you know it’s nearly impossible to feel the full depth of your feelings when you’re hungry, or exhausted, or breathing shallowly due to holding in your belly?
This is all done unconsciously. This is all survival, and an attempt to just get by.
Controlling your body can easily become a way of controlling your emotions, containing them, shrinking them down, and making them more manageable. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when you’ve learned that your feelings are unacceptable, dangerous, shameful, or wrong.
It goes a lot deeper than just food and exercise control, too. Many of the habits we fall into in order to control our appearance have a numbing effect; a way of removing ourselves from the experience of being in our bodies.
Body checking, constant anxiety about how we look, and a great deal of beauty routines can all distract us from being with ourselves. Picking yourself apart in the mirror, doing hair and makeup, and obsessing over “flaws” like cellulite, acne, body hair, pores, or frizz can all offer you somewhat of a numbing ritual, or feeling of control.
For many people, it feels much safer to be a person this way:
Numb. Distracted. In control.
This is actually a very common reason people with eating disorders and disordered eating originally turn to food restriction and/or binging—because controlling their bodies helps control and numb their emotions, making it feel safer to live in their bodies.
After all, think about how many kids (especially girls) learned that our feelings were a shameful burden on others; that our desires, needs, opinions, and feelings were “too much” for the people around us to handle?
Is it any wonder we might jump at the chance to control or suppress our too-muchness through food, exercise, beauty rituals, or obsessive thoughts about how we look?
Personally I used fitness and nutrition to try to tame my “unforgivably unruly” inner self.
I wanted to overcome the pesky obstacles of my own impulses and cravings. The ideal I held in my mind was more robot than human, someone who functioned on logic alone, and was never swayed by emotion or desire. I wanted to be forged of iron and will, a specimen of discipline and control.
Fitness offered me a way to get there.
Why did I hold such a ridiculous ideal for myself, you might ask? All the usual. Internalized misogyny. Thin supremacy. Beauty culture.
But more than that, it was because I felt so utterly out of control inside. I saw myself as far too emotional, too sensitive, too fucked up and messy. Other people had their shit together, it seemed, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to belong, and be normal. And I knew I needed to finally “control myself” for that to happen.
I didn’t want to be the kind of person who cried uncontrollably at commercials, and made questionable sexual decisions on impulse. I wanted to become the kind of person who woke up at 6am and went for a run; the kind of person who was fully self-sufficient and in control. The kind of person who never took a rest day; the kind of person who meal-prepped for the whole week and then ate it out of tupperware.
I was constantly failing my own ideal of course. I wanted to sleep in. I wanted queer sex, and more emotional support from my partner. I wanted cookies and pasta and beer.
I turned to body control in an effort to become someone else entirely, to control my uncontrolled inner self into someone I deemed acceptable and lovable. I sucked in my belly, and wore high heels, and got laser hair removal, and wore sticky mascara. I counted macros and lifted heavy and did cardio on an empty stomach.
I did what I thought I needed to do in order to become the person I wanted to be.
The only thing is, that person wasn’t me. It was never going to be me. And the only thing I accomplished was to make me feel worse about myself, because I was constantly failing.
This is another aspect of using body obsession and control to try to control and suppress your internal self: it gives you an endless supply of things to beat yourself up for. Which is very convenient if you’ve decided to make the project of your whole life about becoming Someone Else.
And if we’re being completely honest, that’s exactly what this is about. Controlling, suppressing, and avoiding your emotions is always a self-rejection. It’s always an attempt to become someone you’re not. Which is both why it always fails, and why self-acceptance on a deep emotional and existential scale is such a hugely undeniable part of the body image healing process for so many.
PS If you’re looking to build a more trusting, tolerant, and healthy relationship with your feelings, my 10 week self-study program Make Friends With Your Feelings might be what you’re looking for.