I am, as you read this, on a plane headed to Lisbon Portugal, where I’ll be spending at least the next 4 weeks.
As such, I’ve decided to share a recently written section from the book I’m writing (the working title is The New Self-Worth Paradigm: How to Break Free From Body Perfectionism and Stop Obsessing Over Your Flaws) on the relationship between body image, status, and happiness.
I’ve been writing every day to get this damn first draft finished– but sometimes I’m way too excited and can’t wait to get it into your hands.
So consider this a super exclusive sneak peek. 😉
A few years post-recovery from anorexia, a friend of mine, let’s call her Amelia, had finally gained enough weight to “look healthy.” (Her words.) She was working on learning to love her new “healthy-looking” body, but told me over coffee how much she desperately missed the hyper-thin body she occupied during her years of eating disorder.
Amelia told me that she had loved walking through the world knowing she had more self-control than all the other women, that she had something they all wanted. She loved the way her clothes hung off her emaciated frame because she knew the other women envied her discipline. Even though she was skin and bone, even though her husband was no longer attracted to her, she told me it felt the most powerful she has ever felt.
Amelia knew she had been sick, and that the eating disorder was fucking with her head, but she still felt enormous grief over the loss of that power and status. After assuring me she wouldn’t let her eating disorder control her again, she told me
“I just hate looking healthy– healthy is how you describe someone who doesn’t have the willpower to be super skinny. Healthy is an insult.”
Being thin had made Amelia feel successful, and special, which were feelings she didn’t experience much of in other areas of her life. Since her husband has a prestigious job in the army, they move around a lot so she can’t really have a job., and never found a hobby or passion. Amelia also finds it difficult to make friends due to the circumstances, and therefore feels pretty isolated and bored a lot.
Amelia loved her husband, but she wanted her own thing. Her eating disorder gave her a sense of purpose– something that was just hers; something she was good at. Other women often gushed about how thin she was, and asked for her secrets. She basked in the feeling that other people admired her, and even if it wasn’t perfect (she was still very lonely, and bored) it was something. Despite the fact that she is much healthier now, both physically and emotionally, she is still mourning the loss of that something.
Then there’s a woman we’ll call Melissa, who did private coaching with me to learn how to stop dieting and obsessing over her “trouble spots,” and to feel more accepting of her body.
Having been naturally thin and conventionally beautiful her whole life, Melissa is now in her early 40s, and suddenly panicking about getting older. She’s become fixated on certain “flaws” like the way her breasts sag, the crows feet around her eyes, her grey hairs, and a new jigglieness in her midsection that won’t go away.
We talked about what these flaws signaled to her, and she was quick to answer
“they make me look ugly and old.”
Melissa has a very all-American cheerleader/prom queen look, and even did some professional modeling in high school and college. She always took good care of her body, and liked the way it looked. She knew she was beautiful, and mostly enjoyed the attention, especially from men.
As Melissa has gotten older though, that attention has slowed down. She’s still beautiful, to be sure, but she no longer feels everyone’s eyes on her when she walked into a room.
I asked Melissa what it felt like to be visible, and for people to notice her, and she told me it made her feel important, and special. For decades, the thing she felt most confident about was the fact that she was attractive. It was her golden ticket through life.
Now she feels increasingly invisible and irrelevant, and is suffering over the loss of feeling special.
“I know this is how most normal people probably feel their whole lives. But I still hate it.”
The desire to feel special, to be different (or better) than others, is a very uncomfortable truth at the heart of many body image issues. We crave status, and women especially use our bodies and appearance to try to acquire that status, since status for women is all about being thin, beautiful, and desirable.
But why do we want status in the first place? What’s so great about being at the top of the food chain, metaphorically speaking?
Status is a stand-in for our deepest emotional needs. It represents the things we all need in order to thrive: acceptance, belonging, approval, attention, and respect. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do. We might want to feel deeply seen for who we are for example, but if we can’t get that, then being looked at because we’re pretty is a decent stand-in. We might want to feel engaged in meaningful work, but if we can’t get that, then being busy managing our weight is a decent stand-in.
The search for status is really the search to meet our emotional needs. Which means the search to lose weight, or improve the way we look, or “fix our flaws,” is also really about trying to get our emotional needs met.
Each person’s emotional needs, and the way they’re trying to use their body to get them met, will be a little different, but make no mistake: a person with body image issues is misguidedly trying to get their emotional needs met with their physical form.
This plan (unsurprisingly) tends to backfire, making us hate and resent our bodies. After all, using our bodies to fulfill an emotional need is automatically setting us up to fail, even if we “succeed” for a while.
Amelia had enjoyed the satisfaction of “winning,” but she had been trading in her health to do so, and eventually had to choose between status and her own well-being. In Melissa’s case, she thought she was getting what she wanted, but then discovered that her status and attention were disappearing as she got older.
It might feel like a good idea to seek acceptance and validation for how you look, but no matter how much you get, it’ll never be enough and it’ll never feel safe. It’s kind of like eating low calorie, dairy-free, fat-free, sugar-free ice cream instead of the real thing every time you have a craving. It might scratch the itch for a while, but eventually you’re gonna feel insatiable and resentful.
You deserve to eat real ice cream when you’re in the mood, and you deserve to get your real emotional needs met.
Start by recognizing which emotional needs you’ve been chasing by trying to fix or control or “improve” your body and appearance– in what ways that plan is succeeding and failing. Then figure out what you would need to do in order to really scratch the emotional itch. What is the full-fat ice cream version of what you’re searching for?
Figure that out, and go get it. I promise you that when your emotional needs are deeply met, your body image issues will simply fade away.