Pandemic restrictions are loosening, which is good news … right? But many people are experiencing a sense of panic or dread at the thought of resuming in-person socializing. And, no, it’s not because of the fear of catching COVID-19 (the people I’m hearing from are already vaccinated). It’s the fear of being seen head to toe in the flesh — especially with summer around the corner.
Whether someone’s gained weight and lost fitness during the pandemic, or “failed” to use that time to get in shape and lose weight, thoughts akin to, “I wish the pandemic would continue so I don’t have to see anyone,” are sadly frequent. While we should be welcoming the opportunity to connect with others in person, as we did in the Before Times, negative body image is raising its pernicious, ugly head.
A common reaction to these feelings is to try to “fix” the problem — the perceived problem being our bodies. But trying to solve bad body image by changing our bodies is putting energy in the wrong place. It’s kind of like trying to get from Point A to Point B by running on a giant hamster wheel forever. It’s making our bodies the scapegoat when the real problem is in our heads — and in society.
It’s an unfortunate fact: Negative body image, or body dissatisfaction, is so pervasive among women that it was coined “normative discontent” back in 1984. In the United States, as many as 84% of women exhibit body dissatisfaction, and this can lead to disordered eating, depression, social anxiety, shame, feelings of low self-worth and reduced quality of life.
But eradicating negative body image isn’t enough — you need to replace it with something positive. Body image research has shifted to focus on positive ways of living in the body, such as “embodiment.” Being embodied is not the same as having low levels of negative body image or having high levels of body satisfaction. Embodiment is the experience of feeling at home in our bodies.
Moving beyond body image
Body “image” implies an outside-in view, with a narrow focus on how we are seen. A focus on liking or being at peace with how we look — and not caring what other people might think about how we look — keeps the focus on how we look. It treats our bodies as objects and keeps us disconnected from them. Embodiment instead puts the focus on how we feel inside our own bodies and how we experience the world as we live in our bodies.
Positive embodiment includes body appreciation — having a generally favorable opinion of your body regardless of appearance — including appreciation for how our bodies function, including physical capabilities, creativity, our senses and the fact that our hearts beat for us all by themselves. It also includes body image flexibility — being able to experience unkind feelings, thoughts and beliefs about our bodies without letting them stop us from doing things that we truly value. For example, not letting the thought, “I don’t like how I look in a bathing suit,” stop you from taking a fun water aerobics class or going to the beach with your kids. Another example would be not letting how you feel about your body at the moment dictate whether or not you go out with friends.
What supports embodiment?
As we move through life, certain factors support — or detract from — our ability to feel positive embodiment. One is freedom to move and take up space, including freedom to engage in enjoyable physical activities. This could include women and people in larger bodies feeling that they can be active in public without rude or threatening comments.
Not surprisingly, freedom from violence or abuse is important for feeling at home in our bodies, as is freedom from prejudice, harassment and the feeling that we have to diet or otherwise alter our bodies. Exposure to social experiences that teach, support and model positive mental and physical self-care and encourage connection to our bodies as worthy is also important. So is having experiences that validate and encourage tuned-in, assertive and joyful responses to appetite and sexual desire.
Other factors: having a critical stance toward ideas about how we are “supposed to” look and behave, having empowering relationships, being a part of an equitable community, and knowing that our social power isn’t based on our appearance.
Assessing and cultivating embodiment
Here are some questions you can ask yourself that can help you explore your experiences of embodiment:
- What messages did you/do you get about food and your body? How does that make you feel?
- Have you experienced emotional or physical trauma?
- Have you engaged in weight loss dieting? At what age did you start?
- Have you experienced food insecurity?
- Do you engage in physical activity? What types? Do you enjoy it?
- Do you feel connected to your body?
There are many ways to cultivate embodiment. You can start connecting with your body and its desires, including honoring hunger and finding pleasure and satisfaction in food. Learning to trust your body’s natural hunger cues can help you trust more subtle signals, such as your intuition. You can set boundaries around food and body comments from friends and family. You can practice attuned self-care, including rest and solitude when needed, activity and stimulation when needed. Try asking yourself: How is my body doing today? How is my body feeling today? What sensations am I feeling in my body today?
Engaging in enjoyable forms of movement for reasons other than transforming your body — especially if you allow yourself to be in the present moment and actually feel your body — can also build embodiment. Activity that feels like play can be particularly powerful. Good thing summer’s coming!