Body image, sadly, is a major problem for many women.* Somewhere in our conditioning we became convinced of a few very damaging ideas: that there is only one ideal of beauty, that it is acceptable for others to judge us based on the way we look, and that no matter what our bodies look like, it will never be good enough. Weight, breast size and visible signs of aging can cause even the most enlightened woman to engage in self-loathing. It becomes more complicated when you factor in the effects of traumatic experiences, like sexual assault. I have personally wasted entire years of my life stressing out about being fat instead of relishing the many opportunities for joy I had right in front of me. Younger generations of women seem to have adopted a slightly healthier way of inhabiting their bodies, just as my generation has done a slightly better job than our mothers did. However, the problem is far from resolved. There is still so much to unpack here … why do we think the way we look defines who we are? What lies underneath the idea that being fat is unacceptable (because regardless of what people say, it’s not about health)? Why does fat make people so uncomfortable? How can we reclaim our bodies, and change the judgements so we can feel worthy again?
One of my closest friends shared an article with me last week that addresses some of these questions. The author, Carmen Maria Machado, explores her experiences as a fat woman and eventually recognizes her power to take space. She renegotiates her body image so she can reclaim her right to express herself. The article is brilliant (“The Trash Heap Has Spoken”, the link is at the bottom of my post). The transformation she undergoes inspired me to continue thinking about reframing my own body image. This concept of reframing has come up quite a bit for me over the past couple of years. One way to reframe is through language. A mentor once had me do an exercise in which I carried a notebook for one day and wrote down every negative thought I had about myself. I stopped after only a few hours because her point had already been made. The way I talked to myself was absurd – I would never say such mean things to a stranger, let alone someone I love. This negative self-talk is extremely powerful. In one of my favorite massage books, “Hands of Light”, Barbara Ann Brennan explains that negative thoughts create thought forms that are observable energetic realities that exist in our energy field. In other words, they stick to us and hang around in our auras. These negative thought forms “are created, built and maintained by their owners through habitual thoughts … and gain energy by attracting similar thoughts from other people”, according to Brennan. If we continually judge ourselves about something, our actions and feelings will follow those judgements. Soon enough the people around us will pick up on our actions and start to agree with us, reflecting this energy back to us, and thus confirming the reality about ourselves that we have created through our own negative thoughts. She makes a very good case for reframing the way we talk to ourselves!
Another way of reframing is through images. (Mom, if you are reading, you can stop here) In the past year, I have started taking sexy photos of myself and sending them to my boyfriend. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my body when I started doing it, but I thought it would be a therapeutic exercise for me. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? At first, the only way for me to look at the photos objectively without having a negative knee jerk reaction was to look at them as if it were a woman I didn’t know rather than myself. The woman in the photos didn’t look half as unattractive as the woman in my mind. Now I have gotten to the point that it’s fun to take sexy photos and I am almost comfortable with what I see in them, knowing the woman in the photo is me. When I told the same friend who sent me the article that I had been doing this, she said she had been doing the same… except that she didn’t bother sending them to her husband anymore, that she just took the photos for herself. Ha! This is 2.0.
A distorted body image can stop us from fully inhabiting our space in the world. Mindfully working on making peace with our body image can help us to reclaim our sense of belonging. These concepts can figure prominently in the massage experience, as I will elaborate on in next week’s post.
* I am speaking mostly about white middle class women, although the pressures of conforming to the current ideal have already crossed socioeconomic, racial and even gender lines.