I was struck recently by the idea that so many people define “body confidence” as the state of being attracted to their own bodies.
It came from a conversation with a client, in which she told me she’d feel confident and love her body if only she “felt more attractive.” Her husband seems to find her very sexy, and her friends and sisters all seem to think she’s beautiful, so we dug into what exactly it would mean to “feel more attractive.”
After bouncing it around for a while, she said “I would look in the mirror and be like damn she’s hot, the way I do with other women sometimes.”
It’s worth mentioning here that this particular client identifies as bi-curious. She’s married and has only been with men, but has occasionally throughout her life felt an intense mixup of jealousy and attraction toward women. (That old “do I want to be her, or be with her?” question, often seen among non-straight folks exploring their feelings.)
Anyway, this is relevant because after she defined what “feeling attractive” would be like, I reflected that it sounded a lot like she was defining confidence as “being attracted to herself.”
This is a very interesting concept, because isn’t the defining quality of being attracted to someone the urge to get closer, the desire to close the gap between you? And doesn’t that require there to be a gap in the first place? When you see someone you’re incredibly attracted to, there’s a magnetic urge to get closer, be around them, talk to them, touch them, possess them.
As Esther Perel says in her book Mating in Captivity:
“Eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other.”
So can we actually be attracted to ourselves? There’s no space, nothing to possess, and no gap to close when we look at ourselves. There’s no magnetic urge to get closer, and (for most people) no erotic charge.
Deciding you’re unattractive because you don’t feel erotically attracted to yourself strikes me as completely backwards. It’s a bit like trying to tickle yourself, and then deciding you’re just not ticklish when it doesn’t work. A magnet can’t be attracted to itself.
That said, my client’s definition of confidence is actually really common, among women especially. After all, so many of us have been taught to see ourselves as sexual objects, existing for the pleasure and satisfaction of those looking at us. Is it really surprising that we might come to imagine the height of confidence being about lusting after ourselves?
I started thinking more deeply about what it means to “feel attractive,” and I remembered how in my mid twenties I would sometimes look in the mirror and think “damn I look good.” This was back when I was suuuper lean, and it always happened when my clothes, hair, and makeup were done in a sexy femme way to go out.
At the time I would have said “I feel hot,” or “I feel confident in my appearance.” But that’s not exactly true.
Looking back I can say that what I was actually experiencing in those moments was a combination of recognizing that I looked very close to the beauty ideals set out for me, and taking pleasure in the meaning and significance I knew people would place on my appearance by looking that way. I knew people would automatically think I was more important, more impressive, and more deserving of kindness, belonging, acceptance, attention, and respect. I knew women would notice me, men would desire me, and people would generally accept me.
That felt good. That’s what I called “confidence.”
I was also so used to thinking of myself from a hypothetical third party perspective, so used to objectifying myself and spectatoring (imagining myself from the outside instead of experiencing myself from the inside), that sometimes looking that way didturn me on.
It turned me on to know other people would be turned on by me; it made me “feel sexy” to imagine other people thinking I was sexy.
This is what happens when we teach women to think of themselves from the perspectives of people looking at them, instead of from their own perspective. How I felt about myself was constantly changing based on what I thought other people would think/feel about me.
On a “bad” face or body day I would get upset and “feel ugly” and insecure, while on a “good” face or body day I “felt hot” and confident.
The pleasure I took in those moments wasn’t my own, though. I wasn’t attracted to myself, I was just excited by the idea that other people would be attracted to me, and excited by what being attractive to others meant.
For the record, I no longer experience these swings. I don’t have days where I “feel attractive” like that anymore. I can still recognize when I’m presenting myself in a way that’s closer or further from societal beauty ideals, but I feel pretty neutrally about both. There’s not a lot of pleasure or pride on a “closer to ideals” day, and there’s almost zero displeasure or insecurity on a “further from ideals” day.
What I do feel sometimes is an extraordinary amount of sexiness, a sort of juicy embodied “feeling myself” which has nothing to do with how I look or what other people think of me, and everything to do with my own first-person erotic experiences. When I first met my current boyfriend for example, I felt suuuper sexy, as though everything inside my body had melted and turned to sex.
But perhaps it would be more accurate to say I felt sexual than sexy, because none of that had a single thing to do with my appearance.
So what is body confidence then, if not feeling attractive, finding yourself attractive, or taking pleasure in the idea that other people will find you attractive?
This is where body neutrality comes in, teaching us to disconnect our identities from our appearance altogether, and experience ourselves from the inside. From that lens, true confidence is about feeling seen, valued, respected, and loved for who we are on the inside, recognizing that how we look on the outside doesn’t mean a single damn thing about us, and stayed tuned into our own first-person experience.
Body neutrality may be the best long-term framework and approach for healing body image issues, but for many people (like my client) there is still a strong desire to love how they look and a feeling that confidence comes down to “feeling attractive.”
This is why a lot of my work with clients begins by helping them question and challenge what it means to “feel attractive” in the first place, and re-define the “goal” of body image work.
You don’t have to lust after your body to accept and embrace it. You don’t have to turn yourself on to treat yourself with kindness and respect. You don’t have to “feel attractive” to feel confident.
How have you been defining confidence, and the goal of body-image healing? Does it revolve around feeling attracted to yourself, or thinking about whether other people will feel attracted to you? If so, what might it look like to re-define your goals in a way that’s both realistic for you, and puts your internal experience back on center stage?
Body neutrality for the win, ya’ll. 😉