The Layers of Body Image

Laurel: It's summer! Time to be totally inundated with body image stuff of all flavors, am I right?? Do you all experience this more in the summer, or is it just me?

I also notice that I have a lot of clients bringing these issues into sessions as their primary focus - the weather warms up and more triggers get put out into their various circles! So I think just having an all-around discussion of how this both affects us and our work with clients can be super helpful.

Rozlyn: I definitely see more attention given to body image and body talk as it gets warmer and people are out and about or on vacation. And on social media too, the amount of products or routines being pushed to achieve that "summer body", to change your physical appearance so you can be "ready" for the season. Body image is such a wide-reaching topic, I feel like everyone has either struggled with it themselves, seen others in their life do so, or noticed how much of their online intake is focused around it.

Stephanie: Yes, the summer is particularly troublesome since typically more of our bodies are on display. For me personally it's been a lifelong battle trying not to constantly hate and hide my body. I learned it early, as most of us did. I often heard my mom and other women in my life criticize their own bodies and attempt to hide their perceived "imperfections". Just the other day my 74 year old mom was wearing a 3/4 length shirt in 100 degree weather. When I asked her why she didn't wear something with shorter sleeves, she said "oh no, my arms look terrible, I would never!". It's occurred to me many times that we will often sacrifice comfort to cover a "flaw". Many of my clients report similar messages throughout their lives. It feels to me like it's a constant battle to allow yourself to feel ok with your body. Like we are somehow better women if we feel like crap about the way we look.

L: RIGHT! Oh I'm so glad you mentioned that part. It's like there is this inherent idea that for many people socialized as women, we have been taught to equate self-deprecation, sacrifice, and suffering with femininity or womanhood. And I'm sure that extends beyond the gender binary as well because the feminine is present everywhere, but so much of my own definition of being a woman in this world is tangled up with my body image - especially the spoken and unspoken requirements to always be dissatisfied, trying to change, adjust, hide, enhance, or feel shame about some part of my body. Like I'm not "doing it right" if I feel either positively or even neutral about my body. It has taken up so much of my time and energy over the years that it's honestly sometimes work to even recognize when it's happening!

R: What I've personally experienced is the feeling that it isn't okay for me to feel bad about my body or uncomfortable in certain situations because of today's accepted standards of body shape and how I fit into that. People expect me to do the things that they want to do but feel like they can't because of body image and our societal discourse around it and if they just looked different then it would be okay- "you're skinny, you'll have fun". And while I know situations like that don't have anything to do with me and are the projection of others, it still has led into this feeling of "performance", like I will always be observed (with or without judgement) by others based on my body and that because of that I always have to consider what others will see or think. That feeling of being constantly judged, observed, and having expectations placed upon you- whether from social media, yourself, your family, etc.- is a huge weight and I think an overarching experience in this topic.

S: It occurs to me that the three of us are at such different points in our lives, but are all feeling pressures and expectations related to our physical appearance. I imagine we all understand that these unrealistic standards were messaged to us starting at a very young age. I've been personally doing work to accept my body for at least the last 15 years, and as I become more aware of the influences, I recognize that it is so ingrained I have to address it in layers that go deeper and deeper with each new awareness. I recently read The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor (absolutely recommend!!) and became aware of the lack of safety I have felt as a result of reactions to my body as a young person. Being a teenager in the 80's meant that when men thought you were attractive, your body was open for unwanted touching and comments. And even though that was incredibly uncomfortable, at the time it was so much the norm that I became really good at ignoring or finding a way to laugh it off. That lack of safety has created an incongruence between desire to feel good about my body and need to hide myself for protection. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I hear many women my age (55) say that they often feel more invisible as they age. Aging is a whole other level of body image to tackle and I often hear clients comment very negatively about how their bodies are aging. They report increased levels of symptoms of anxiety, depression and low self worth, to just name a few.

L: Hmmm yes, both such good points. If I approach this from a place of pure curiosity (because I could easily come from another standpoint of just feeling anger about all of it!), I do think it's interesting that all of us have such varied experiences - in this conversation, we all have different body types and come from different generations - but still none of us have been able to escape this. It's just totally pervasive and insidious. Although of course we have to be mindful not to minimize lived experience and take it seriously, I do think that can help us to normalize these issues when clients bring them into session. I hear so much of the "but it could be worse, I'm not__" or "I'm probably just making a big deal out of nothing". I'm putting on my trauma-lens glasses now, but it seems like so much of this could be a trauma response.

R: I agree that it's super interesting seeing how different our three experiences are in this topic. But despite these differences, this is still something that all of us are affected negatively by- and I think that may be a key takeaway, for me at least. My family and friends, and your all's clients, may be experiencing something totally different from myself or from you or different from the people in their own life regarding body image, but that internal, emotional weight caused by this topic is, like you said Laurel, pervasive and carries through despite the differences in personal experience. Even if you think others have it worse or can't possibly understand what you're experiencing or where you're coming from, every one of us knows what it feels like to be affected by this- there's huge potential for connection between people there. And the point you made about aging being its own subsect of this topic Steph is absolutely something I've witnessed in my older family members- I've seen family members focus for *years* on getting back down to X weight or counteracting these wrinkles or covering up those body parts. I always viewed it as simply not wanting to get older, not wanting to have to change your lifestyle with age, and I didn't understand that it was so connected to the body image conversation until fairly recently to be honest.

L: And I think that's SO important though Roz, because in order to make any changes in this we have to have the awareness of what's actually going on. I mean, it's helpful to know about all of these components individually, but I think as we tie them all together into one big web we can take a real look at the bigger picture of what we're dealing with - and that's when we can start pulling up the roots instead of just the little weeds.

S: I love the idea of "pulling up the roots" and as I think of that statement I have to believe that even having this conversation is starting that process. I often hear younger parents conscious of the way they compliment their children so that they talk about something other than physical appearance. I've noticed many parents of teens work hard to not criticize clothing or food choices. Personally I have been working hard to challenge my automatic responses of self criticism. I practice this by noticing the automatic negative statement (or even just an ugh as I look in the mirror) and then find something positive or even just neutral to bring awareness to. I will also challenge clients, friends and family to at least have some awareness of how negatively they feel about their bodies and how that is affecting their lives.

R: Yess that's a great analogy- I think it adds an image to the idea of this being a topic with such widespread, layered impact. And having these conversations IS so needed and helpful, because sharing our own experiences, feelings, and practices can be one of the most impactful things we can do in working to break down these constructs. I love the practice you have Steph, of not beating yourself up for having a self-critical or negative thought but instead just letting it come and then rerouting it into something you feel good, or neutral, about. It can be really overwhelming when trying to tackle a new challenge, but an effective change doesn't have to be dramatic or drastic- I think it's important to remember that anywhere you decide to start is still a start. Whether that's changing the compliments you give to your children, or talking with your friends to bring more awareness to how social body talk makes them feel, or setting a goal to first feel neutral with your body- all of these are legit steps with the same goal in the long run.

L: Yep. I talk with clients - and myself - a lot about just starting really small, because this whole mess is so deeply rooted and also the air we breathe. If we don't give ourselves grace to start with a few small practices, we'll just get overwhelmed and go into shutdown mode. And that is how change is made, to Roz's point. I totally get wanting to feel better now, but I always tell myself that I've had 30+ years to learn this narrative so it's going to take at least that many moments, if not a lot more, to unlearn it.

So, we pull up the roots by building an understanding of where all of this is coming from, while also practicing small moments in our day to day that challenge those roots. And some days will be pretty easy - maybe one day it's super quick and simple to re-route that thought - and other days it feel like the hardest thing you could ask yourself to do. Because it's also not linear. It's ever-changing. And so we have to give ourselves the grace to start small, but also for it to be really hard sometimes. That doesn't mean we're not pulling those weeds up, even on our tough days.

R: Absolutely, and really that may be the most important thing in all of this Laurel- give yourself that grace in all aspects of this topic. You don't have to tackle the whole thing at once- break it down into those individual moments of opportunity, take it one step at a time.

L: It's a journey for sure! I think just noticing our own experience with curiosity and non-judgment is a good place to start, and sometimes just sitting in awareness can be enough for a while, hence our theme really focusing this time around on building that awareness! And of course, caring for ourselves and our bodies while we work on that step - because that is a truly revolutionary act in the face of all the ways we've been told to punish ourselves all this time.

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