I wanted to share with you a portion of a research paper I wrote for a graduate program. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes us seek beauty, and how unfulfilling I find the general conversation around looks and beauty and the wanting that comes when you’re ready to change.
So here are a few of the thoughts I put in the paper. I already have follow up thoughts that I’m sure will show up on the blog eventually, but until then, tell me what you think. What comes up for you when we think about imagining the body?
Business is good if you’re selling women on the achievement of beauty. Women in the US spend an average of $7 billion per year on beauty products (makeup, skincare, and hair care), as well as an average of $12 billion on voluntary cosmetic surgeries. On top of that, the “obesity industry,” comprised of commercial weight loss programs, bariatric surgeries, and weight loss drugs, is close to $315 billion, or 3% of the US economy. And those numbers may only go up: Almost half of American children between 1st – 3rd grade want to be thinner and half of 9 – 10-year-old girls are dieting.
For women on the other side of the sale, beauty is starting to feel hollow. For all the time, money, and attention being put into the pursuit of beauty, there is painfully little pleasure in the achievement. What’s even more painful is the realization that for many women, beauty doesn’t have anything to do with their own self-regard.
In order to be beautiful, women must be found beautiful.
In spite of all this, we still gravitate towards beauty, even as we try to redefine it. As Jung said, “only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.” What awaits us when we’re outside of the current beauty paradigm is more beauty, a deeper, more heartfelt quality that pulls us outside of ourselves, calls us into ourselves, and yields a deeper, richer life. For beauty to come alive and infuse our lives, we must find a new relationship with it. Rather than allowing it to be imposed by an outside audience and used as a measuring stick, beauty can be the spark that inspires us to reevaluate our perceptions of self and our ideas about how we fit into the world.
With eating psychology clients, I talk about the impact of thoughts and beliefs on digestion, nutrient assimilation, and calorie burning potential. We discuss the fact that the human stress response is designed to react to any real or imagined stress, that our mental state when we eat can literally change the nutritional value of our food.
One of the most powerful ideas we explore is the statement “We imagine the body.” What happens when a woman regards her body as ugly, fat, stupid, a burden that never looks the way it’s supposed to? If a woman regards herself as a collection of imperfections that need to be fixed, she will reach for products that solve those issues. Throwing money and time at solutions is a perfectly legitimate response to this paradigm.
In contrast, what happens if the woman regards her body as strong, powerful, athletic, a capable partner that carries her through life? How would such a woman feed herself, move her body, relate to loved ones, choose hobbies?
The point isn’t to suggest one paradigm is better than the other; the point is to notice the reaction in the body to these contrasting statements. If a woman makes no other changes to her life, these thoughts and images can change her relationship to food, movement, embodiment, relationships, visibility, and more.
Self-image is important, but of equal importance is how we interact with the image. On one hand, millions of women suffer from low self-esteem and warped body image. If a client comes to be with body image issues, I always ask how she sees herself. Very commonly, the woman will describe a creature absolutely separate from the person I see in front of me. But the reason I ask is because my perception of this client doesn’t matter; she cannot interact with the reality I observe. She can only interact with her image.
If negative body image gets to the point of a Body Dysmorphic Disorder diagnosis, the treatment is a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, or a retraining of these negative thought patterns. BDD is regarded as a mental illness that has no cure, only a treatment, and it often emerges along with other mental illnesses like OCD, anxiety, depression, etc.
For the vast majority of women, however, who would not fall into a clinical diagnosis, the social treatment from well-meaning friends and family (and even online gurus) is very often a beauty benediction. When a woman starts to complain about the size of her thighs, or how her breasts sag, or how different she looks, we are quick to step in with a “You are BEAUTIFUL!” “Real women have curves!” “Men like a little something to grab onto!” You’ve heard them before.
This may seem like a kind effort to be inclusive, and I certainly believe that these statements have a place, but for the most part I think they miss the point. For women who feel on the outside, forcing them to accept the beauty benediction is a rejection of their lived experience.
If there is a concept of beauty that people either achieve or don’t, we ignore reality when we ignore ugliness.
… consider Mirror Therapy, a common treatment for amputees and stroke patients. For amputees, this treatment helps reduce the amount of or need for painkillers, and for stroke patients, it helps restore proprioception in damaged limbs.
The treatment is relatively simple: say the patient’s left hand is paralyzed after a stroke, and the patient’s brain doesn’t get any feedback from the damaged limb. If the patient tries to make a fist, the brain can’t tell whether it happened or not. The patient must rebuild the neural network between the left hand and the brain. To do this, a mirror is placed on a table, reflecting the right hand and blocking the left. Next the patient focuses on the mirror image as they make a fist with the right hand, and uses the reflected image to convince the brain that movement is possible with the left hand. The patient tricks the brain into thinking the movement happened with the damaged limb! Or, in the cast of an amputated limb, the patient can convince the brain that the movement happened without pain. Simple, but incredibly effective.
The most interesting part of this mirror therapy is that the patient is instructed to create an image of themselves essentially as whole and complete. The patient does not need to observe a missing limb and cover the abyss of what is and what should be with hollow reassurances of “That’s ok! I’m beautiful!” The prescribed treatment is to first trick their brain into a concept of wholeness and then manufacture observations that back it up.
The amputee uses imagery and observations to sharpen a concept – the concept of himself as a whole being, in connection and communication with the nerve endings from his missing limb. In a whole body, the brain can be in constant communication with all parts. There is no part of the body separate from the mind. The brain and the body can integrate and have a joint experience.
A woman with negative body image or body dysmorphia also uses observation to sharpen a concept, but the concept is one of perfection, not wholeness. She uses observations to reinforce that her body is different from the ideal, and she draws the conclusion that her body is shameful and wrong. In therapy, she is instructed to reject her self-image and relate only to reality, which widens the gap between observation and concept.
Image can reinforce a separation; image can make whole.
If the goal was not perfection, but rather completeness or even simply relationship, would some sort of creative trickery like Mirror Therapy be useful for negative body image? Could relating to an image the way mirror therapy prescribes allow a woman to create a new self-concept of a whole and complete being?
If this resonates with you and you want to work a little deeper with emotional eating issues, check out the Beyond Emotional Eating online course beginning in May! We will take eight weeks to work practically with food and how you eat as well as addressing some of the deeper needs that have you reaching for food. Join us!