If you go exploring body image for long enough, you’ll eventually run into some existential themes.
Why? Because one of the unmet needs that leads a person to develop body image issues is a sense of existential place and meaning.
Most people require a sense of meaning in order to thrive — and by meaning I simply mean a connection to something bigger, something significant to us. Meaning means there is a connection between our lives, and something that matters to us.
The thing we connect to in order to feel meaning can be God, nature, source energy, or the Universe of course. But it can also be activism, work, hobbies, sports, art, music, or relationships. Many people find raising a family to be meaningful, and many others find meaning in the small moments of life: watching a sunrise, petting their cat, taking a yoga class, cooking a dinner. You could find meaning in daily chores, daily joys, or even daily acts of suffering! All that defines meaning is that it makes your life, actions, or identity feel connected to something of greater significance — of deeper value — to them.
Let me back it up for a moment and talk about my own journey with meaning and body image.
When I was a teenager and into my twenties, I identified myself (and my value as a person) by how I looked. I had internalized the idea that my job on earth was, as a woman, to be as attractive as possible for other people to look at.
When people complimented me on how I looked, I felt successful. That feeling is what I used to call “confidence.”
This makes sense because I was working really hard to look good, and I liked having my hard work appreciated. I spent hours every day trying to present myself in the most desirable possible way. I practiced watching myself in the mirror, so I knew exactly how I looked when I talked, smiled, laughed, and moved. I sucked in my belly constantly, and a chunk of my brain was constantly dedicated to body-monitoring, whether I was at school or hanging out with my friends or even just eating dinner with my family.
This whole performance felt like an obligation, a responsibility I had to the people (especially men) who had to look at me, to be as attractive as possible in every moment. It felt like a debt I owed everyone, simply for having a “girl body.”
Being desirable was, in short, my big contribution to the world — the only way I felt I could “make the world a better place.”
The interesting thing is that while I approached “being attractive” as a full-time job, I didn’t feel particularly oppressed by it. I honestly believed that all women were constantly doing this, that it was our responsibility to make ourselves maximally attractive to look at at all times. I felt like I just happened to… understand the rules of the game.
I even found it empowering, despite the fact that my own self-image was almost entirely based on the male gaze. It gave me a sense of purpose, and meaning. I had a job to do here on earth, and I was more or less crushing it.
Is any of this a wonder? Every single women’s magazine was constantly telling me this, with Cosmo and others teaching me how to fix my flaws, dress for my body type, laugh at men’s jokes even if they’re not funny, and otherwise trick a man into liking me by pretending to be what he wanted.
The message was loud and clear: your job here on earth is to get men to notice and like you, and that requires changing, hiding, or manipulating pretty much everything about yourself.
Eventually this whole subconscious thing started to become more conscious, and I got pissed off. I couldn’t have been born to give others a positive experience of looking at me! If that was true, then why am I also funny, creative, and passionate? It occurred to me at a certain point that this sense of purpose I felt wasn’t empowering, it was oppressive.
Despite that realization, it still took me the better part of a decade after that to actually break free from the feeling that I owed people something appealing to look at.
Wanna know a yucky secret from a former self-objectifier?
I felt like by following all the rules of what men wanted, I was doing them a service and giving them hope. I knew how to protect men from who I really was, and just give them the inspirational #dreamgirl version of myself instead. I pretended to be laid-back and cool, despite the flood of needs and emotions I was constantly wading through. I presented myself as hypersexual, despite the fact that I never orgasmed with a partner and could barely feel anything during sex because I was too busy posing and trying to look hot.
I knew how to make men feel special. And writing this honestly kind of makes me want to throw up, but the truth is I wasn’t good at much else, and I took pride in it.
I had plenty of potential, but it wasn’t being used and I didn’t know how to organize myself around anything else. Being desirable and attractive was a skill set I had been honing for over a decade, and I couldn’t imagine who I would be if I gave that up.
Luckily for me, as I slowly challenged all the “rules” I had set for myself about who I needed to be, I discovered a plethora of other parts of myself that felt more important. In time I stopped taking even a single drop of meaning from what men thought of me, and replaced it all with the meaning I got from connecting to my community, my work, my writing, my relationships, the universe, and the impact I felt called to leave on the world.
All of this is to say that everyone is searching for some kind of meaning in our lives, and a lot of times our bodies and appearance get mistakenly wrapped up in that search.
I’ve had clients whose entire lives were consumed with thoughts about food, fat, weight, and exercise in an effort to lose weight, for whom the search for thinness seems to be awkwardly fulfilling their need for meaning and purpose.
Other clients feel like they suck at most things, but have always been praised for their thinness, willpower, discipline, or looks, and at some point maintaining their appearance starts to a duty, an activity to keep them occupied, and offer their days a sense of direction and purpose.
One client, a stay at home mom in NYC, told me that since she didn’t contribute to the family income, she felt like she owed her husband a spectacularly sexy wife, that “keeping it tight for him” was essentially her job.
Here’s the deal: we all want to know that we are contributing something of value to the world, and that our lives are not pointless or meaningless.
For me, obsessing over how I looked gave me a sense of higher meaning as I moved through the world; it made me feel like I knew what I was here for, and that I was doing a good job. It fulfilled a deep emotional need to understand my role on earth, and to give me a sense of what I should do day to day, moment to moment.
Being a human can feel incredibly out of control and terrifying, and a lot of us struggle to tap into an authentic sense of meaning, purpose, or contribution. Obsessively monitoring how many calories you eat, or how much you weigh, or how you look, can give you a sense of power over the chaos, an identity, an activity, a purpose, an occupation, and a sense of direction.
What’s your relationship to body image and purpose? Is there a connection between them?
Sending you a big hug,