From Body Loathing to Bodylove
“Yes, I do think I’m attractive,” she says confidently into the microphone. “Other people might not agree but this is me, and I like how I look.”
There’s a round of applause as the talk-show host moves on through the audience.
From the stage I look carefully at the woman who has just spoken. She’s quite plain-some might even say homely. Her large jaw and broad hips stand out as she faces the camera. She isn’t young or tall, like the professional models seated near me. She doesn’t have the kind of face that smiles from magazine covers. Yet she’s just told millions of viewers that she considers herself attractive.
I silently applaud her healthy self-image, while my thoughts turn to a client I saw the day before. Susan is a young teacher who examines her face with a magnifying mirror, frets over every flaw, and thinks she’ll never marry because she isn’t pretty enough. She also has a recurring dream that on her wedding day the groom will lift the veil from her face and turn away in disgust. Her nightmare is like a fairy tale in reverse.
A plain-looking woman declares herself attractive on national television because she views her body with loving eyes, while Susan suffers shame and doubt over imperfections that are only imagined. “I always try hard to do my best,” she explains. “Then, when I look in the mirror, I feel like I’ve failed because I don’t look as good as I should.” Susan’s problem isn’t the reflection in the mirror; it’s the image she sees in her mind’s eye. Although her looks are lovely, her thoughts about her body are not.
Perhaps you know someone like Susan, or maybe you identify with her yourself. Does the state of your face often dictate the state of your mood? Do you feel too heavy to really enjoy a meal? Does your body seem like an obstacle to be overcome? If so, you owe it to yourself to explore a new relationship with it. After all, you opened this book for a reason. What you’ll find here is a group of simple exercises to help you gain conÞdence in your appearance and in yourself. As a psychologist I’ve worked with many people like Susan who are unhappy with their lives and, especially, with their looks. I feel their pain as I hear their problems-with weight, age, or sexuality. I watch as these conflicts drain their energy and spill over into their relationships at home and at work. Their struggles are personal and difficult, but not really so unusual. These same problems were expressed again and again by the women I interviewed for this book. I’m sure you experience them, too. We all do in one form or another. In fact, when Eleanor Roosevelt was asked if she had any regrets about her life, she replied, “Just one-I wish I’d been prettier.” That is certainly Susan’s wish, and it may be yours as well.
This book grew out of my deep concern about women-about how we are seen and how we see ourselves. Our preoccupation with appearance goes much deeper than the outer image. It’s a basic part of who we are, and it affects the choices we make and the goals we pursue. For beauty is not only a personal and psychological issue, but a social one as well. In this era of personal freedom, are we any freer to accept the natural bodies we inherited at birth? Are we any happier with our chronic diets than the women who laced themselves into an hourglass figure a century ago? More than ever, it seems we are constricted by beauty standards that are not very liberating.
I don’t think we were born wanting to suffer and sacrifice in order to look attractive. Yet we continue to remodel our flesh, much as our grandmothers did, to fit the popular beauty ideal-tweezing, squeezing, dieting, coloring, covering, and uncovering our ßesh in order to feel lovely and lovable. Maybe these efforts would be worth it, if we also felt better about ourselves in the end. But often that just isn’t the case. “No matter how hard I work at it, I can’t seem to get the right look,” Susan complains.
One woman in two is dieting much of her life; two out of three have mixed feelings or become depressed when they see their nude body in the mirror. Many girls as young as eight are already afraid of becoming too fat. A friend tells me she is considering a face-lift, while another confides that she spends a small fortune on cosmetics. These women, along with Susan, share a similar problem: body loathing.
Body loathing is a feeling of preoccupation and dissatisfaction with appearance. It creates anxiety about body parts. It causes guilt and shame over flaws that are real or imagined. It arouses self-consciousness and envy. In one form or another, it’s familiar to most women. Body loathing surfaces in many ways. For example, Lynn feels tense each morning as she faces the mirror, while Martha views each new wrinkle as a frightening enemy. These women suffer from body loathing, while they long for bodylove.
What Is Bodylove?
Bodylove is a mixture of emotions, attitudes, and actions that allow you to enjoy the way your body looks and the way it feels. Bodylove enhances self-confidence and heightens physical pleasure. Like other loving relationships, it involves caring and concern. There is a joy in personal contact, as well as tolerance of flaws. There is a unity that overcomes the separateness between mind and body. We all have the potential to love our bodies. As with any loving relationship, it takes work to realize that potential.
You can work on bodylove in many ways, as we’ll see in the chapters ahead. Three steps are essential, however. The first is paying attention to physical needs. If you listen with respect instead of mistrust-to pain, pleasure, hunger, fatigue-your body will tell you how to nurture it. The second step is appreciation of the pleasures your body can inherently provide-aesthetic, athletic, sensory, and sexual. Finally, there is acceptance. By accepting your ßaws and limitations, you’ll be freer to enjoy the lovely parts of yourself; to experience what is and to stop longing for what isn’t. Bodylove doesn’t mean creating a perfect body; rather, it means living happily in an imperfect one. After all, an imperfect body is the only one you’ll ever have.
Although Susan is quite attractive, bodylove eludes her. When she first described her problems to me she sounded very much like a character in a novel who admits that: “The only time I ever think I’m beautiful is when some man is staring into my face in broad daylight and telling me I’m beautiful. And then as soon as he turns away for a minute I think he’s changed his mind. And if he doesn’t turn away or change his mind, I start thinking he’s one of those idiots with no taste.”1 In the same way, Susan’s self-esteem could be built up or broken down by a single glance. Looking good doesn’t solve the problem of feeling bad about your looks; it doesn’t give you bodylove that lasts.
Experts and advertisements are forever telling you to firm up your thighs, restyle your hair, revamp your nose, remodel your clothes-in order to look better. Maybe it’s time to reconsider their messages. Time to rediscover the sense of joy that you felt about your body as a child. Consider all the time, effort, and money you’ve spent over the years to make over your appearance. Why not balance these efforts with a different kind of beauty routine-one that nurtures your ego and pampers your pride?
This is not an anti-beauty book. It doesn’t criticize you for wanting and trying to look your best. I’m not advising you to throw away your makeup or forget about your appearance. After all, we do live in a world where appearance counts. Good looks are a real source of women’s social power and can be useful in a variety of situations. However, while beauty may make an important first impression, it does not determine the lasting impressions that are most important in the long run.
There’s a difference, however, between pursuing beauty joyfully and pursuing it desperately. Looking attractive is part of the game of living. But playing with your image should feel like fun, not like a contest in which you always wind up on the losing side. For some people like Susan the body has become a battleground. They speak of fighting fat, defeating age, or feeling trapped and frightened. They sound like victims under siege, and they are. Body loathing wounds both mind and body. You can end the costly battle with your body by investing in a new vision of yourself. Bodylove is a powerful tool that can help you get on with other parts of your life.
Reprinted with permission from Bodylove
By Rita Freedman, Ph.D.