Understanding and Working Through Body Image Insecurity
My therapy practice often gives me glimpses into trends going on in our collective emotional health. Around the time of the 2020 election, I heard the words "impending sense of doom" numerous times from different clients. On weeks where the sun doesn't come out for days on end in Chicago, many of my clients need to process feelings of fatigue and disconnection from life. These collective energies are often reflected in my own feelings as well as what I hear from my friends and family.
Over the past few weeks, I've noticed one particularly arduous trend in our collective emotional health: body image insecurity is at an ALL TIME HIGH like I've never seen it before.
It makes a lot of sense- the pandemic has disrupted many of our usual exercise and food habits. Many of us aren't moving our bodies outside of our homes nearly as much. If you're working from home, you may find that it's easier to mindlessly snack all day because your entire kitchen is 3 feet from your "office". There have been many compounding stressors over the past year, and stress often causes changes in weight.
So, very very very understandably, many people's bodies have changed over the past year. I'm honestly baffled by anybody who hasn't seen at least some body size change, such as weight gain, since March 2020. We don't need to pathologize this!!! You are surviving massive life crises that you were never prepared for. That is GOING to have an impact on your body. Your body is meant to be flexible- it's meant to expand and contract and tense and relax all in adaptation to different life situations.
In addition to the past year setting the stage for actual body changes, the usual factors that contribute to body insecurity and bolster diet culture have been ramped WAY up. More time at home and less social connection has meant more time consuming media for many people. This includes social media, which I think we all know is brimming with unhelpful body comparisons, toxic ideas about "the ideal" body type, and the laughable notion that somehow thinness equals happiness. More boredom can also mean more time to ruminate in your head about your insecurities and flaws. Plus, we're doing less activities like spending time outside, going to the gym or yoga classes, putting on clothes/makeup that make us feel cute to go to an event. Regardless of how these things actually affect how your body looks, these are activities that help many people to feel confident, and they're just a lot more sparse right now.
Digging Underneath Body Image
One thing I know for sure is that wanting to be thinner is never just about wanting to be thinner. We have to ask ourselves what it's actually about. I find that there's always a very valid unmet need underneath it all.
To find what that unmet need is for you, ask yourself this question: If your body looked exactly how you want it to look, what would that give you? Here are a few common answers:
Confidence - If my body looks how I want it to look, I can live confidently and carefree. I won't have to doubt myself or my worth.
Power - I want to know that I'm the most attractive and desired person in every room I walk into. If my body looks how I want it to look, I won't have to worry about feeling powerless, overlooked, disrespected, or inferior.
Validation - If my body looks how I want it to look, I will never have to doubt if I'm loved, desired, or cared for. Love/romantic/sexual connections will come my way easily and I will never have to fear rejection.
Control - So much in life is overwhelming and outside of my control. If I at least have complete control over my body and how it looks, then life will feel more manageable and predictable.
Life Satisfaction - I want joy and life satisfaction to come easily to me. If my body looks how I want it to look, I will get greater joy out of going to the beach, going to parties, traveling, etc.
Self-Connection - If my body looks how I want it to look, I will get to enjoy self love and embrace my unique, authentic self. I want to feel happily connected to and proud of my body.
Belonging - I want to feel a sense of belonging and being accepted in social settings and in the world. If my body looks how I want it to look, I will never have to feel that I'm on the margins, that my presence isn't wanted, or that I stick out in a negative way.
All of the above desires are normal, healthy, and valid. They're all things that we need in order to feel well and vibrant in our lives. The lie diet culture sells us is that getting your body to look a certain way is how you're going to fulfill these needs. Once you identify which particular lies you've been buying into, you can work towards healing your relationship with you body and filling your needs in more meaningful and lasting ways.
Looking at the list above, see if you can pinpoint one or two of the strongest motivators underneath your longing for your body to look a certain way (or you might have other motivators not listed here). This is where you need to process what's really going on and what that unmet need is telling you. Below are some starting ideas to begin that exploration:
Confidence - What self-limiting beliefs are getting in the way of my confidence? How can I live with confidence and embrace my self-worth today? How can I move/exercise and nourish my body with food in a way that helps me to feel confident? What people/structures around me tear down my confidence and how can I remove them from my life or advocate for change?
Power - How can I own my personal, intrinsic power today? How can I advocate to uproot power imbalances in society that contribute to an unhealthy relationship with power? How can I move/exercise and nourish my body with food in a way that helps me to feel strong and empowered?
Validation - What led me to believe that I need other people's approval or validation? How can I give validation and love to myself rather than only seeking externally? How can I take care of my body so that it feels loved and cherished?
Control - How can I sit with and have compassion for my anxiety and overwhelm? What small, gentle practices or activities help me to feel grounded enough to accept uncertainty? What self-limiting beliefs get in the way of my autonomy? What people/structures in my life exert too much control over me and how can I remove them or advocate for change?
Life Satisfaction - How can I find joy and contentment in this moment right now? What made me believe that happiness is in the future rather than in the present moment? How can my relationship with my body be one that embraces joy and pleasure?
Self-Connection - How can I cultivate love and gratitude for my body right now? How can I move/exercise and nourish my body with food in a way that fosters a loving connection to my body?
Belonging - What self-limiting beliefs do I have about belonging? How can I work towards accepting myself and belonging to myself? What has society taught me about who belongs and who doesn't and how can I uproot that?
These reflections are all jumping off points that, over time and with repetitive mindful awareness, can shift your relationship with your body. Particularly if your unmet needs are rooted in trauma or relational wounding, you may benefit from the support of therapy to facilitate deeper processing and healing.