What happens when you look in the mirror? What thoughts do you have? What happens when you try on those jeans you have not had on since last summer, and they don’t fit anymore? Suppose you lose a dress size. Do you feel pride? When you see someone “prettier”, younger, “sexier” what happens inside your heart? I can tell you what used to happen for me. A sinking feeling. A desire to disappear. Another person had the power to impact my self worth in that moment. I was not what one is supposed to be as a woman: “thin” and “sexy”. In fact, ideally, the “thinnest” and “sexiest” woman in the room.
My grandmother died recently, at the age of 98. She had an amazing life; she taught special education, raised three kids, and showed me how to be a feminist without even knowing the word. And yet, she still told me before she died that the only thing she could never quite master was getting back to a size 12. She dieted my whole life, counted every calorie, envied those who lost weight. Dreamed of making an entrance at the next party to the envy of her friends. Taught my mom and aunt to do the same. And, of course, I learned too.
I have been an eating disorders therapist for over twenty five years, and women’s relationships with their bodies are something I think about all day, every day. It occurred to me early on in my career, however, that whether or not a woman had an eating disorder, she very likely had a negative view of her physical body. Whether or not she had suffered sexual assault, child abuse or other trauma, bullying, or praise for her looks, for all the women I knew, body dissatisfaction was de rigueur. Even if they look the way they are “supposed” to, they cannot rest on those laurels. And heaven help you should you actually go into the world in a bigger body. A client of mine, perhaps a size 20, told me recently about a time standing in line at the grocery store, buying ice cream. A woman came into the line behind her and told my client she could lose twenty pounds in six months if she just switched to frozen yogurt. The implicit message is clear: first, my client needs to lose weight and second, surely this is one of her goals (how could it not be?). The woman was either trying to help, or making clear that she was more successful in the battle to be thinnest. She had won this bout, and my client left feeling ashamed and diminished.
Most of the body image literature teaches us to consider redefining the whole concept of beauty. The goal has become to see the beauty in your body right now, “imperfections” and all, and to expand your definitions of what “beauty” really means. It still keeps beauty in the forefront of importance. I’d like us to go a step further. Consider this: what if the most important quality about your body has nothing to do with how it looks at all? Suppose the most important thing about it is its strength, health and ability to feel the world in which you live? Suppose how it looks is simply something to play with when the mood hits you. What if makeup and clothing were just for fun? Simply ways to decorate your “home”?
I believe things would change a great deal if women were able to see their bodies as their homes, not as billboards. How different it might be to make decisions about food for good health versus food for weight loss! Imagine feeling no competition with the women in your life in terms of “beauty” or aging? What if we could just be allies? Seems to me there might be some big changes if women were to focus on things other than their appearance. As Naomi Wolf reminds us, “A shamed population is a tractable one.”
The following is a series of invitations adapted from Lexie Kite PhD & Lindsay Kite PhD from their wonderful online blog “Beauty Redefined”. Consider taking one or two of these steps for yourself:
· RECOGNIZE the many messages directed toward women about beauty, and how many of our thoughts and actions revolve around appearance. Consider a media fast! How do you feel when you lessen/eliminate those messages from your life?
· REFLECT on what impact narrow beauty ideals have had on your life and take inventory of the time, money and energy you dedicate to appearance concerns. Has it brought you joy and delight? Or something else? How has it impacted your relationships with other women?
· REDEFINE beauty and health for yourself in more empowering ways by consciously focusing on how you feel and what your body can do. Set fitness and activity goals and skip the weight and appearance goals! Consider appearance as something for play and joy, not worth and value.
· RESIST harmful messages by speaking up about media and talking to friends and family about more than their outward beauty. “No diet talk” is a great rule to live by!
· RISE with RESILIENCE by responding to shame-inducing disruptions in ways which validate your mental, social, spiritual, and physical power, rather than distracting, hiding, or fixing yourself to cope with difficult experiences.
I feel extraordinary gratitude toward my body now. She has survived eating disorders, shaming messages from my culture (and from me) of every kind, and weight gains and losses in the thousands of pounds over my lifetime. And yet here she stands, moving me through the world, trying to tell me what she needs, always doing her very best. Shame still can hijack me now and again, especially as my body ages. But now, much more often than not, I immediately offer an apology when I hear that shaming voice. I know it is just afraid I will not “measure up.” And each time I do so, I can let a little more of the damage go.
I hope you too can reclaim your body as your home, and live there with peace and gratitude. When this shame is healed for women, oh, the things we can do together!