Body image. If you've got a body, you've got some ideas about what it looks like, what's wrong with it, and how it could be better, should be better, must be better. I hope you can find some things you like, too, but, sadly, I often find that my clients struggle to identify the things they like about themselves and their bodies. We spend 60 billion dollars a year trying to lose weight. We spend 12 billion dollars on plastic surgery. Twenty million women and ten million men struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder) at some point in their lives. Body composition is what we typically thing of when we think of body image. We also think of young girls and magazines and Photoshop. We ask girls and women to love their bodies despite an onslaught of messages telling us not to. Marketing sells us a body ideal we can never achieve, Dove tries to get us to appreciate what we've got, but if we can't there are an abundance of diets and exercise options sell us promises they can't deliver, and, for the affluent, when diets and exercise fail, there's surgery.
When I worked in a school, I dreaded trying to talk about body image. How can anyone compete with this message of be-perfect-or-be-out? My students often confirmed for me that there really wasn't anything I could say to convince them it would be ok to feel ok about themselves just as they were. The message is too strong, the dream of perfection and the attendant goodies of life that are promised to the few worthy, perfect bodies, is too seductive. Besides, the diet they were on, they were doing with their mom, so it had to be ok.
So, the complexity of the message deepens because it comes not only from moneyed interests, but also from our communities and families. Mothers pass a self-loathing-based body image down. Women and girls share it with each other in bathrooms, bedrooms, and dressing rooms across the country as we exclaim, "Ugh! I hate my _______!" We all know the correct response is, "Oh, no! You're fine! Look at my _______! I need to change _____!" It is a bonding ritual whereby we instill in each other shame for our bodies. We can list a hundred different ways we wish we were different, but when I ask girls and women to list what they like about themselves (bodily and internally), I'm often met with blank stares. "I don't know. That's a hard question." I never let them off the hook. At my insistence, they struggle to come up with three things they like about themselves. (I then supplement the list!) In my journey as a therapist, I am struck by how much our social connections are based on self-criticism, judgement, and beliefs about unworthiness. Low self-worth is mistaken for humility.
I've since talked a lot, read a lot, and listened a lot to thoughts and ideas about body image. I've reflected upon my own. I come back to the mother who is on a diet. There is little discourse about body image and adults, yet it is we adult women who have the greatest capacity to change our own body image and change the message we send to our daughters. I want to devote the next few blog posts to body image. I'll write about what body image is, how we get it, and what we can do to change it for ourselves and for our children.
Oh, and if you still want to learn how to get a bikini body,
Be gentle with yourself.
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...