Could Poor Body Image Be a Cover-Up for the Real Issue?
Ever wonder why it is that you can wake up feeling good about your appearance, but by the end of the day feel certain that you weigh 400 pounds, have thighs the size of mature redwoods, or a waist the circumference of a hot air balloon? Sometimes it doesn’t even take all day for the shift in mindset—it can seem to happen in an instant.
But there is usually a precipitating event, even if you are unaware of it. Perhaps it was that conversation with your mother-in-law about her upcoming visit (stress!!) or that bad review you got at work (frustration and stress!!). On the other hand, maybe you feel exhausted and unappreciated, and it is this low-grade malaise that prompts self-critical thoughts about your body.
As you can see, the underlying issue or precipitating event may have nothing to do with size and shape. But this doesn’t stop us from feeling “fat” as a result.
Why is this? For one, we may have difficulty identifying feelings other than “fat.” Our culture does a real number on women, by urging us to express dissatisfaction with every aspect of our appearance, while dismissing our legitimate discontent about other areas of our lives (particularly those related to motherhood or family). Because of this mixed message (Yes, you’re entitled to feel angry at your thighs! No, you’re not entitled to feel angry about the monotony of motherhood!), we may not be comfortable identifying and articulating our dissatisfaction. And we may not have a lot of practice.
Or perhaps we have harbored displeasure with our bodies for so long that we see them as the root of all problems. “Of course I’m unhappy—I weigh too much,” becomes our ongoing script, the explanation for the state of our life. Body dissatisfaction serves as a hook onto which all of our free-floating negative emotions attach.
Though destructive, this narrative may be rooted in an attempt at self-preservation. Our psyches tend to steer us toward things we can tolerate, and away from those which are messy, overwhelming, or threatening. But even if body-hatred is relatively tolerable or familiar, it certainly isn’t pleasant.
Next time you find yourself stewing in vitriol about some imperfect aspect of your body, pause and take stock: What else are you feeling? Could there be more going on?
To help you get started, here are three techniques to try:
- Write down (without censoring yourself) all the thoughts and feelings that flood your mind. In all likelihood, you’ll find yourself staring at a litany of complaints about your body or how much you’ve eaten. But don’t stop there. Once you’ve penned those thoughts—we’ll call them the Designated Distractors—you’ll have space to discover any other issues that need to be acknowledged. If you find yourself at a loss (in other words, if nothing comes to you), then you might need some anchor words. Start by writing the word relationships, and then free associate about the people in your life and how you feel about them. You might also try this with the areas of work/career, motherhood, or self-care.
- Make a timeline to help you chart the days or hours that preceded your body disparagement.What were the external events that transpired? And what was your internal, emotional experience? This type of visual mapping can help you detect patterns and understand what’s behind your critical inner monologue, whether it’s a distinct, obvious event, an ongoing emotional state, or a series of small, cumulative frustrations that gather strength like a wave.
- If you don’t find that looking in the rear-view mirror is fruitful, then try the opposite approach: make a list of future events that might be impacting your body image. Could an upcoming event—a reunion with old friends, for example—be causing you angst? It’s easy to worry about weight and appearance when reuniting with people we haven’t seen for many years, but often there are nebulous anxieties lurking underneath: Will they still like me? Will I fit in? Will I have anything interesting or funny to say? Am I as successful as so-and-so? Once you’ve identified any nerve-wracking upcoming events, repeat step number 1 (write down the Designated Distractors, and then continue to write about any underlying concerns) to get a sense of what is bothering you.
As you do this work, you may not find any hidden nuggets of painful truth—sometimes poor body image is truly about how we think we look. But there might be some ossified treasures that can help you better understand your personal story, and help you dismantle the negative body image that you’ve carried around so long.
That would certainly lighten your load, even if the scale stayed the same.
Image by ktabor330 via Flickr’s Creative Commons.
What do you think? Is your negative body image about something other than what you look or how much you weigh?