May :||: Truth or Dare
May 6, 2016
A Tale of Two Sisters: Hygieia and Panacea
May 18, 2016

Good Question: Books about Body Image

A friend texted a few weeks ago, “My niece and I were talking about books and body image today. Do you have any books on this topic you would recommend?”

What an EXCELLENT topic. And of course I have book recommendations.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment and talk through how to use some of these resources. These books and videos are great for identifying patterns. That’s where they shine. You may get some insight into why you’re seeking a different body, why you’re rejecting yours, and perhaps you’ll get some advice about how to start interacting with these patterns.

But books will not give you positive body image. If you could think your way to better body image and more self-confidence, I’m sure you’d have done so by now.

The path to better body image is to have positive embodied experience. You must find something that makes you at least neutral, at best glad, to have a body in the first place.

So read these books, by all means. I recommend them wholeheartedly. But the body work is separate from the mental work.

“… happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy….

“This need for a reason is similar in another specifically human phenomenon — laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g., you have to tell him a joke. In no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself, to laugh. Doing so would be the same as urging people posed in front of a camera to say ‘cheese,’ only to find that in the finished photographs their faces are frozen in artificial smiles.”

– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Looking for a reason to enjoy your body is not the same as needing to justify enjoying your body. Loving your body is your birthright, and all you or your body has to do is show up. You don’t have to lose weight, wear makeup, dress a certain way, exercise a certain amount. Use these books and ideas as the tools they are.

All that said, here are some books I’ve found helpful when it comes to identifying patterns with food, beauty, and body image:

Notes on the Need for Beauty by J. Ruth Gendler

Basically this is the book I wish I’d written. It’s a beautiful meditation on why we seek beauty in the first place; to quote James Hillman, beauty is the way, “in which the gods touch our senses, reach the heart and attract us into life.” Gendler explores how different cultures express beauty, what it means when we choose jewelry, clothing, what happens when we look into mirrors and gaze at ourselves, and takes a stand for the power and value that comes from seeking beauty. It also explores other “forbidden” qualities, like ugliness, rebellion, courage, perfection, and more.

Listen to this:

On some level we know we are each a piece of the divine, we are a small part of this great beauty. And yet in the world of women, there can be so much pain around our looks. The unwillingness to accept one’s beauty, the insistence that certain flaws keep us out of the land of the beautiful, is a constant affirmation of not being enough, sufficient, whole in oneself. It’s not like saying, “I’m not good at soccer.” It’s more like saying, “I don’t belong,” “I am not worthy.”

By continuing to exclude ourselves, we misunderstand the nature and purpose of beauty. It is not a judgment or evaluation one person confers on another. Others can always change their minds. The courage to be beautiful is the courage to be alive, the courage to be filled with beauty.

The whole books reads like this. It’s so affirming, so lovely. You’ll look at yourself, your adornments, and beauty in the world differently.

Dietland by Sarai Walker

This is a fictional (albeit SCARILY realistic) story about a woman extricating herself from diet culture. Plum Kettle begins as a chronic dieter, a woman who believes her salvation lies in bariatric surgery, which she has scheduled and for which she is dieting for the last time. Meanwhile, she’s the advice columnist for a teen girls’ magazine, where she counsels girls in the hollow way we’ve become accustomed to: “You’re normal!” “You’re beautiful!” etc.

But then Plum meets a community of women who have all decided to live life on their own terms, rejecting diet culture. The story continues with Plum beginning to claim herself, and finding out the deeper societal costs of doing so.

I like this book because it puts in harsh relief the real violence of the media machine and how it targets women and body image. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss the advertisement and the sexual harassment as all separate issues, but in this book you really see how chronically violent is is towards women. And I also appreciate that the book doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is a cost to “imperfection” in our culture. It’s true, and it’s something we should name.

Appetites by Caroline Knapp

I think I’ve written about this book before, but if you are using food to medicate yourself, and especially if you are a young woman, this is an incredibly insightful memoir about anorexia, desire, perfection, control, and appetite.

Obsessive relationships with men; compulsive shopping and debt; life-defining preoccupation with appearances; “isms” of all kinds — all of these are about emptiness, about misdirected attempts to fill internal voids, and all of them tend to spring from the same dark pool of feeling: a suspicion among many women that hungers themselves are somehow invalid or wrong, that indulgences must be earned and paid for, that the satisfaction of appetites often comes with a bill. Eat too much, want too much, act too sexual or too ambitious or too hungry, and the invoice will arrive, often delivered with an angry hiss of self-recrimination: You’re a pig, a sloth, you suck. Desire versus deprivation, indulgence versus constraint, nurturance versus self-abnegation; these are the constants on this stage, the lead players in a particularly female drama.

This, of course, is a profoundly human stage — the clash between the desire to satisfy appetites and the fear that they may overwhelm us, control us, lead us astray is as old as the story of Adam and Eve — but the female journey across it can be experienced and expressed in particularly painful and confounding ways, women being the gender born and raised on the notion that the female appetite is limited and curtailed to being with, that female hungers should be reined in, permitted satisfaction in on the most circumscribed, socially sanctioned ways.


If you could think your way to positive body image, you would have done so by now. I know it. You’re smart.

What can you do with this knowledge of your patterns? How can you collect an experience of your body that is enjoyable, pleasurable, positive?

There are a lot of options, but the most important thing, especially if you’re a newbie, is that you constantly check in with yourself no matter the activity. Am I enjoying this? How does this feel? What would I like to do next? What appeals to me? Where is my attention going?

The first couple times it’s going to feel awkward and weird, like you’re bad at pleasure. You’re not bad at pleasure. Keep asking the questions. Let answers bubble up. You don’t have to explain yourself. Not everyone in the world would need to agree with you. Keep checking in.

But here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Take a book and read in the sunshine.
  • Read in the bath
  • Get naked and do some housework (I know it sounds weird, but you kind of lose yourself in mindless activity, and before you know it you’ve had a neutral experience with your naked self!)
  • Get a massage
  • Dance
  • Go for a walk
  • Take your shoes off and let your toesies feel grass
  • Move your body (imagine that all exercise burns a billion calories. What would you choose to do?)
  • Take yourself on a date
  • Take yourself on an artist’s date
  • Hug someone you like
  • Lay on a hammock
  • Listen to a comedy album and laugh your face off
  • Wear your favorite article of clothing or jewelry (or, if you’re like me, wear ALL your favorites)
  • Hang out with some furry animals
  • Hold a baby
  • Buy yourself flowers
  • Get some good quality pictures of yourself, you beautiful thing

Any more to add to this list? Any other books that have helped you with your exploration of positive body image?

Tell me!


Do you have a question I could answer on the blog? Send me an email at hello [at] kfoleywellness [dot] com!