“Body image issues” represents a massive umbrella category, which contains within it a vast array of pain points, fears, root causes, unmet needs, trigger sources, and routes for healing.
As a body image coach I obsess over these patterns.
I’m always searching for the most efficient containers and language to hold the important categories, individual issues, and root causes of body image issues. As such, I’ve found myself able to make some very quick educated guesses about body image in people I’ve never spoken to before, based only on a few tiny bits of data— which sometimes make new clients feel like I’m inside their heads.
And as much as I feel sometimes like I’m the only one able to see through The Matrix of body image issues, it’s not magic; it’s patterns. (Although really, what’s the difference?)
The truth is that I’ve been taking notes for years, re-writing and re-organizing my thoughts around the major themes, triggers, and topics which comprise the vast majority of body image issues for people, as well as the different ways a person’s life experience, innate psychology, and layers of privilege or oppression are likely to interact with them.
It would be no exaggeration to say that once or twice a month for nearly the last decade, I’ve written something that made me feel like I finally had body image issues “figured all out,” only to discover something new that needed to be considered and included in my conceptual map of body image issues.
What does body image have to do with beauty, for example? And the male gaze? Objectification? Sexism?
What does body image have to do with control— both the need to exert it, and the need to rebel against it? And where does that come from?
What does body image have to do with social safety, love, and belonging?
What about gender performance, roles, and expectations?
I hope you can see why my map has gotten so damn complex, and why I sincerely expect to be tinkering with it forever. That said, it’s high time I start sharing it with you!
People Who Have Gotten a Lot of Attention for How They Look:
People in this category were often conventionally cute kids, with lots of privilege across different categories (ie: perhaps they were white, able-bodied, thin, middle class or above, cis-gender, conventionally attractive, and/or gender normative).
They are likely to have experienced a ton of mirroring and warmth/friendliness from people who were drawn to them, and a lot of comments about and positive attention for their looks as they went through puberty and became adults (including constant sexual and romantic attention from men, which tends to come with sexual harassment, assault, coersion, and other trauma being linked to feeling “too visible”).
You might think that getting positive attention in this way would lead to confidence, but all this attention has a way of leading to an excruciating feeling of over-visibility and self-consciousness. These clients tend to report feeling that how they look and everything they do is being examined and noticed and evaluated, that they owe other people a positive experience no matter what it costs them, and a feeling that they aren’t allowed to have boundaries.
They also tend to feel that their worth, value, status, and relationships are all conditionally dependent upon looking “the right way.”
Being saturated in positive attention can be healthy and nourishing and make a person feel like they are wanted, noticed, and valued (especially as a child!), but it comes with a dark side. Positive comments on one’s appearance and hyper-visibility teach a person that she is exclusively being wanted, noticed, and valued for how she looks, and this message is often reinforced by her life experiences of men trying to trick or manipulate her into sleeping with him, women pretending to be her friend in order to gain status (or humiliate her), and traumas for which her appearance is blamed.
These types of attention-saturated clients are the most likely to report their biggest fears are:
Losing their looks (thanks to pregnancy, aging, weight gain, etc) and being completely abandoned by everyone.
Humiliation or everyone laughing at them.
Being taken advantage of/manipulated/played by someone who pretends to like or love them, but actually just wants to use them.
All of this together tends to lead to a massive complex around worthiness.
These clients tend to be drawn to the feeling of superiority in place of genuine confidence, and a sense that they need to look and be “perfect” or else they are worthless. They struggle with extreme anxiety and hatred toward their perceived “flaws,” because those flaws feel like a constant threat to their social safety. They tend to struggle mightily with speaking up, self-advocacy, authentic self-expression, and setting boundaries. They’re often worried that people are mad at them or don’t like them, and ruminate on past interactions in which they might have upset someone.
These folks often report living in fear that if they stop being attractive and desirable, they will have no value to anyone, and everyone will leave them. They feel like their job is to be exactly what someone else wants them to be (often boiled down to being the perfect feminine sex object for men to enjoy). This leads to feeling like their entire inner self, personality, wants, needs, feelings, and opinions are a problem— a burden on anyone who sees it, and something to apologize for by always striving to look even closer to the ideal.
What Body Image Work Looks Like For These Folks:
The work I tend to do with clients in this category focuses on fear-facing; learning to break the “rules” she learned about what makes a person (or woman) worthy of love, connection, respect, and belonging, and building the self-trust and reliance needed to feel safe in the world. She often has to go on a journey of self-exploration to figure out who she even is if she’s not trying to please others, and practice the skills of self-advocacy, authentic expression, boundaries, tolerating feelings of discomfort, and handling conflict.
Those Who Have Gotten a Lot of Negative Attention for How They Look
In this category we find people who live in very large bodies, who experience a kind of hyper-visibility in the form of constant judgment, unsolicited advice, concern trolling, bullying, and outrage when they put themselves out there in the world without apology. Often when the person is a fat woman, this comes with a flip side of fetisihization and dehumanizing sexual attention.
We also find folks with visible disabilities or differences that create gawking, bullying, pity, anger or disgust, and even fetishization in this category, including everything from vitiligo to being in a wheelchair to facial/bodily differences. It also includes people whose gender expression is visibly outside the cis-gender binary, including transgender folks (women especially) who are the targets of astronomically higher rates of violence than cis-gender folks.
These people often report craving approval, kindness, warmth, connection, and belonging with others, and spend a lot of time fantasizing about the easy life they could have if they lived in a more privileged and “socially acceptable” body.
They often deal with a lot of resentment and anger toward their bodies (or God, or the world) for costing them the life they desire, and are often drawn to obsessively control certain aspects of their body, such as food or exercise, as a way of trying to apologize for or “earn” the ability to get their emotional needs met.
What Body Image Work Looks Like For These Folks:
The work I tend to do with these clients often starts by validating their feelings, processing existential rage as needed, and moving through some grief work to process the heartbreak and injustice of being treated badly and struggling to get their needs met. Often we have to do some work to turn the resentment they’ve been aiming toward their bodies outward where it belongs: at the systems of oppression and privilege that created the perception of them being less worthy, and at the people who have mistreated them.
Yes, this often means my clients in fat bodies become strident fat acceptance activists because fuck fatphobia, my gender diverse clients step into righteous pride for existing (and find people who affirm the validity and importance of their existence), and my clients with disabilites learn to identify, call out, and rail against ablism when it happens. Anything to help them stop holding themselves (or their bodies) accountable for the fucked up system of cruelty and bias that hurts them.
We also tend to spend a lot of time identifying exactly what emotional needs have gone unmet— which “tanks” are empty— and striving to get those tanks filled directly using creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, a fuck-ton of courage, and pure audacity if need be. (Note that this often includes the need for sex, touch, intimacy, romance, and partnership!
Those Who Don’t Get Enough Attention:
Folks in this category are much more likely to have experienced some form of neglect in childhood, or an inadequate amount of mirroring and positive attention growing up, so they feel a deep-down ache, often described to me as a “big hole” or feeling of emptiness; a bone-deep feeling of neediness for love, approval, and attention which they often internalize as proof that they are fundamentally “unworthy” of getting those things.
Some clients who fit this archetype experienced a deficit in positive attention and mirroring despite having an enormous amount of bodily privilege, due to the early loss of a parent, abuse or neglect, or because a caretaker was struggling with addiction, mental illness, poverty, or abuse themselves. Others experienced a deficit of visibility and attention due to systems of oppression, because something about them forced them to exist in the bottom of a socially constructed hierarchy, leading to a life of erasure, marginalization, discrimination, and/or rejection. (For example, a person with a disability who lacked accessibility to daily life activities, or a woman whose body and face was far enough from conventional beauty ideals that she was generally ignored.)
Unfortunately a lot of girls and women in this category have experienced abuse in the form of someone giving them attention and then holding it over them, as in “you should feel grateful I’m even talking to/dating/sleeping with you, because nobody else will ever want you.”
A lot of women in their thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties report that they were once in the highly-visible category, and experience a shift into this not-enough-attention category due to aging as a death of sorts; the death of their youth, their sexuality, their beauty, their value to the world, and their ability to get their needs met.
These clients tend to feel invisible, left out, lonely, and hurt. They sometimes like who they are as people and can’t figure out why they struggle so much to get what they want and need from other people, but more often they report feeling disgusted with themselves, unworthy, undeserving, and unlovable because a lifetime of erasure and rejection has convinced them that there must just be something wrong with them.
These clients are the most likely to tell me that appearances are the most important thing in life, and to feel like it’s a rock-solid fact that the only way they’d be able to get their emotional needs for connection, intimacy, love, sex, and/or belonging met would be to look different.
They often feel a desperate desire to be visible and chosen, even sometimes wishing to be catcalled or harassed as an extension of wishing to be seen as sexual beings.
Interestingly, these folks tend to be the most likely to believe in and police the objectification of women, believing whole-heartedly that a woman’s value comes from their appearance, and that conventionally attractive women are fundamentally better than everyone else.
What Body Image Work Looks Like For These Folks:
The work I do with these clients is often centered around dismantling the ideology that conventional beauty makes a person more worthy of connection, attention, love, sex, and belonging, and processing the rage and heartbreak of feeling invisible. (Again, the goal is always to shift those negative feelings away from their body, and outward where it belongs: aimed at the systems of oppression which erases people like them, and the people who enforce those systems.)
We often do grief work around the “easy” vibrant life they imagine conventionally attractive people have, and work to humanize those people and take them off a pedestal. We also often have to distinguish between wanting to be attractive, and wanting to be desired by a partner, and work to get all their emotional needs met directly (as in the last category).
Whew! That’s all I have time to go into today, but I’m very curious how this lands, and if one (or more!) category around visibility and attention resonates with you!
By the way, I’m currently putting together a handful of small coaching groups on body image to begin sometime around the end of February or early March, and I’ll be screening every single person with a phone call before they sign up to hear more about their body image issues and life experiences.
That way I can use my understanding of these body image root causes, life experiences, and patterns to make sure the groups are all compatible.
Small group coaching is done in groups of three to five people, and includes one private session, three months of weekly group sessions with me on zoom, plus a handful of exclusive material for body image healing, all for $1500 (payment plans available!).
This is the most affordable way to work with me, and I only open up groups a few times per year. If you’re interested in small group coaching fill out a coaching application here.
Lemme know what you thought about the three different ways attention & visibility can play a role in body image either way.
Is this kind of body image root cause breakdown useful to you? Do you want more?
Sending so much love,