What Do I Say When…I Feel Negatively About My Body or Weight?

~You can never be too rich or too thin~
Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor

Although I admit that I am sometimes skeptical (or at times, even envious) of those with more money than they seem to know how to spend, I know that our culture has learned a lot in the past few decades about how being "too thin" comes at a cost. At the same time, there is abundant research concerning the physical and social risks of weight gain and almost constant exposure to ads for "magic" diets that will "melt the pounds away." This constant barrage of conflicting information is not only confusing but impacts our ability to have a healthy perspective about our bodies. Not only are both men and women feeling "fat-shamed," they can also be "thin-shamed" into thinking that the "ideal" body is always attainable, yet also somehow remains just out of reach.

For example, the feminine "ideal" throughout the ages has varied widely:

  • In the 1890's, the most-desired figure for women was a full bust, wasp-waist, (achieved by the use of a stiff, whalebone corset one had to be ceremoniously strapped into), and a large, rounded derriere.
  • By the 1920's, the "It Girl," Clara Bow, was said to have the "most boyish figure on earth." Women used undergarments to drastically minimize their breasts and hips.
  • Marilyn Monroe, another "feminine ideal," wore a size twelve to fourteen (now seen in many circles as "plus-sized") and was revered for her "curves."
  • Kate Moss, fashion and figure icon of the 1990s has been quoted as saying the reason for her 5'7", 105lb frame was that she "didn't have time to eat."

Is it any wonder that the ever-elusive "feminine ideal" seems much like a shape-shifting superhero: frequently coveted, but never captured.

Consequently, the changes in our bodies that can occur (e.g., food intake, medical conditions, genetics, activity, hormonal fluctuations, mood and age) are constantly scrutinized and exploited by those with their own agendas as a means to reach Body Image Nirvana.

Even though there is much to be learned about healthy nutrition and the reasonable, healthy approach to eating and exercise, our heads and hearts often have different perspectives on the matter. We know that "fat isn't a feeling," but when clothes that used to fit are way too snug now, or we limit social activities because we fear our bodies "don't fit in," all of the smarts in the world won't make the pain go away.

So, what is Body Shaming? Body Shaming is between our ears: It is the critical, negative messages we send ourselves about some aspects of our physical appearance. We can also not only criticize ourselves: "I can't leave the house in THAT shirt! I'm way too heavy." We can also criticize others: "Why is she wearing THAT? She's so thin, she looks like a lamppost!" Some of us cover with humor, but most of us suffer in silence.

Given the brutal consequences of Body Shaming (lowered self-esteem, isolation, self-injurious behavior, sometimes dangerous alterations in eating habits), why don't we choose to do something else? We don't do "something else" because it's hard to fight these messages that appear from the pages of fashion magazines, or even from those we love. What we can do, however, is to begin to send ourselves different messages. Create our OWN Body Ideal.

~If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred~
Walt Whitman

Here are some ideas:

  • FIND YOUR OWN ROLE MODELS: Who do you consider YOUR role models? Speaking of models, most models in most fashion magazines have bodies that are WAY OUSTIDE THE NORM of the average man and woman's height and weight. Are your role models only working in fashion? Let me name just a few of whom I consider to be the most interesting and amazing people in the world right now: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Goodall, Layshia Clarendon, Carl June, Ta-Nahisi Coates, and there are so many more. You may disagree with this list or wish to (I hope!) add your own names to it. The point is this: Do ANY of these people obsess about what others are going to think of their bodies each day? They may, but I think their primary focus is what they, individuals of different races, ages and gender orientations, DO with their bodies. Their bodies transport them through the day. Their individuality, mind, body and spirt, moves them through their day with purpose and meaning. We can choose to find our own purpose and begin to see our bodies in a new light.
  • FIND WHAT YOU LIKE ABOUT YOUR BODY: Then tell it so. Do you like your eyes, your smile, your hands, your ankles? Maybe you like the power you feel when you carry your large-bottomed self around campus! Embrace it. Thank that part of you for being a part of you. Then go and do something good for yourself. That will translate into doing good for others.
  • FIGURE OUT WHAT'S UNDERNEATH: Change is hard. Aging and loss are sometimes overwhelming. Feelings of shame and inadequacy are often learned in childhood. Those early years can be tough. School can be tough. Most parents and teachers mean well, but childhood bullying or an authority figure's impossible standards can leave scars that last a lifetime. It may be time to heal yours.
  • MAKE HEALTHY LIVING A JOURNEY: You may never be able to lose ten pounds, but we can all start to live a bit heathier by taking one step at a time. Explore new foods. Browse the Health Plus website for new ideas. Walk a different path. Appreciate that we have a finite time on this planet. Then move around and discover what it has to offer. That means less screen time and eyes up and open.
  • STOP COMPARING: I admit this is a hard one. We all have our own individual gifts and life mission. There are things I will never be able to achieve. I will never look like a beauty queen. My basic plan is to have enough grooming skills to not scare animals and small children, and enjoy nurturing my relationship with my husband. Have you ever gone to the beach, terrified that everyone there is scrutinizing you? Never fear. 99% of them are too busy scrutinizing themselves and their OWN perceived flaws to notice. I love this quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Comparison is the Thief of Joy." He lived by this philosophy, after becoming permanently paralyzed at age thirty-nine. He became the 32nd President of the United States, in the midst of his fourth term when he died.

It is a sign of strength to seek professional help if feelings of sadness, anxiety, or body-shaming thoughts persist. Sometimes, we need a listening ear and need someone to help develop a plan for self-compassion.

At Work/Life Connections-EAP, we are here to listen. Call us if there is any way we can help. Make an appointment at 615-936-1327. We're here for you.

Janet McCutchen, Licensed Professional Counselor
Clinical Counselor