Beyond Body Image

This thing we call female body-image - the relationship which women have to our own bodies - is, without doubt, in need of urgent attention. I know from my own deep exploration of the subject, that as a woman, I am unable to really separate my own sense of self from the cultural narrative which tells me, everywhere I go and everywhere I look, that my value to society, my capacity to be loved, and my inherent worth are all tied, intrinsically, to my desirability to men. Whether I subscribe to it or not, that narrative is part of me, and it’s hard to disentangle my identity from the collective doctrine in which I exist.

The issue is so vast and complex, it seems impossible at times to even imagine a world in which women were regarded as whole. Anything which seeks, truthfully, to dismantle that paradigm, I believe is valid and important. There are myriad ways to bring about change.

Right now, there are countless ‘body positive’ accounts on Instagram, posting pictures of stomach rolls and lumpy skin and so-called ‘undesirable’ bodies, alongside vulnerable testaments to the great inner work these women are doing to learn to embrace and love the way they look. In particular, there is a current trend of side by side comparison images, usually of a body which looks ‘Instagram worthy’ beside an unflattering image of the same body, accompanied by captions on how both are equally beautiful, valuable, and so on. Since this is an inversion of “progress” pictures which typically show a woman getting smaller, fitter, and celebrating the ‘improvement’ of her body, I get that it’s a kind of rebellion from that movement and therefore, progress.

But when I look at these images, all I really experience is more of a hyperfocus on what-women-look-like. Side by side images exacerbate a focus on comparison, whether or not the caption compels us to withhold prejudice. I understand that an unavoidable component of healing this wound in our psychology is to acknowledge that it exists. To face, examine, and talk about this aspect of our culture. To extract it from a place in which it has embedded itself into our consciousness, pretending to be normal, and to call it out as the insidious, malignant and categorically abnormal dysfunction that it is. Part of the process is seeing our bodies, for once, as not being wrong. To be able to look at ourselves and, whether or not we see beauty, to at least not feel repulsion.

But in a way, this seems only to funnel our attention even more into a collective gaze, not through our own eyes, but back at our bodies from the outside. The captions underneath these images are often powerful. Raw. Intelligent and courageous examinations of our cultural conditioning. Vulnerable accounts of personal suffering and resurgence. Yet we’re mesmerized by looking at bodies, and the same captions under images which don’t prominently feature female flesh don’t attract a fraction of the attention.

What I wish I could see more of, are women’s Instagram accounts and women’s blogs, articles and Facebook pages through which I can actually experience a woman’s world. Accounts which, instead of looking back at ourselves in a perpetual loop of self-examination, look out through female eyes and fortify the female gaze. Which relate to the world through the nuanced heart of a woman and begin to put our perspective on the map. That move, I suppose, beyond the healing phase of body-image-repair, and into the creative expression of female wholeness. Which demonstrate what women would be thinking about, and doing, and creating, if we were free of our obsession with what we look like. To stop trying to change how we feel about our bodies, and start focusing on how we feel about other things. To start embodying a woman who rejects the entire discussion. To get on with the business of living.

The problem with body shame and obsession, is that it drains the energy from every other aspect of our lives, creating a tragic kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which we actually forfeit substance and character to an all-consuming quest to look acceptable. This creates even more reliance on being desired, since it’s practically all we have left.

But the same thing can happen in reverse. When we begin to redirect our energy back into ourselves, to feed our intellect, our creativity, relationships and contributions, we’re too busy being who we are in the world to constantly monitor the imagined perceptions of others. And as we begin to inhabit ourselves again, re-establishing our own, tactile relationship to life, the fact of our bodies not resembling marketing images simply ceases to hold such importance. That we may even begin to appear more beautiful to ourselves is a welcome bonus, but somehow holds less weight.

I don’t believe the healing phase can, or should, be bypassed. But there comes a point when I wonder whether we might benefit from feeding it less energy. To focus instead on crowding it out with an indelible appetite for life.