Our bodies are proof in the material world that we exist. The trick is to actually be in our bodies. This can be difficult in light of the abuses we often face while growing up and as adult women. An important defense against assault is to “go somewhere else,” to dissociate.
The overt violence against women in the world also sends a chilling message. In spite of these barriers, women demonstrate great strengths, along with the willingness to grow, change, and find their place in the world.
Women sometimes turn against themselves by striving for impossible beauty standards, often at heavy costs. Body image is a concern and demands a vigilance in constructing an image the world finds acceptable. The term “body image” suggests a picture one projects to please oneself or others. It is the crack in the mirror, the split between two selves: the outer and the inner. The outer is the overseer, responsible for observing the inner self.
I feel as if a small camera was planted on my body,
recording for posterity a child bent over a scraped
knee, a child pushing her food around her plate,
a child leaning over her mother’s chair as her
mother did magic things with cotton and lace.
(Wasted, Hornbacher, p. 13)
The False Self
This split creates a true self and a “false self.” In psychology, the “false self” (Winnicut, 1969) is what only could be tolerated by the parents. It is the drive to please; later, it is what society insists upon. The drive for perfection is the consequence. In The Secret Language of Eating Disorders, author Peggy Claude-Pierre points out that the issue is not the pursuit of thinness but the underlying drive to achieve standards of perfection.
The inner self is the critical voice, the one that monitors the progress of perfection. The author identifies this as the negative mind, which ultimately wants the person to die, perhaps to thwart off the disappointment of not being able to save others, to help others have a better life.
We say “Beauty is only skin deep,” yet one is harshly judged or pitied if a certain standard of “pretty” is not maintained. As women have made gains in basic human rights, models have become thinner. There is zero tolerance for fat. Superstars now have better developed biceps and muscle tone, while maintaining minimum weight. They serve as the inspiration for all women. Little girls learn this very young; many are dieting by the age of nine.
Women often use food as a form of comfort, a way to soothe. Food is nourishment, the mother; it fills us up. In When Food is Love, Geneen Roth shares her personal struggle of how she used food and others to fill her emotional self. In her workshops, she helps women uncover situations in which food is a substitute for feeling their lives. Roth explores the ways women hurt themselves through addiction and compulsive eating. Her goal is to help restore or develop self-esteem through finding of one’s self—beyond self-image.
Each of these writers calls attention to the relationship between the loss of self and a distorted body image. In Fat as a Feminist Issue (Orbach, 1978), the author stresses that weight loss is a good thing rather than a punishment, and food is not an enemy. Body acceptance and learning to accept and like oneself are inextricably connected.
How is it then women who do not have real weight issues also have a poor sense of self-worth? How can we restore ourselves so that our inner and outer selves are one? What guides can we use to enhance and develop a love for ourselves?
Christine Caldwell (Getting Our Bodies Back, 1996) outlines a recovery program of four stages in The Moving Cycle, an experience the author calls “coming home.” Stage One is the cycle of awareness, a process of acknowledging feelings in the body as well as stored up emotions. The second stage is “owning,” breaking through denial and telling the truth. This is the act of taking responsibility, separating out childhood hurts. It is the practice of feeling sensations and developing boundaries that provide personal safety.
The third stage is acceptance, which “involves breathing into whatever feelings emerge, allowing our bodies to completely move what they feel, and practicing a nonjudgmental, loving attitude” toward ourselves while making a commitment to love our body more than anything that may interfere with our recovery.
The last phase is action. This means “relating to the world in the same awake, responsible, accepting way that we relate to ourselves.” We then put into action the “newly discovered sensations and expressions … in walking, talking, and relating to others.”
In Conversations with the Goddesses: Revealing the Divine Power Within You, author Agapi Stassinopoulos suggests that identification with goddess types can help enhance self-awareness and self-esteem. She portrays stories with which the reader can identify and understand herself more fully. Aphrodite, the sensual lover of charm and beauty, can be restored when we view ourselves through her eyes. Allowing ourselves to be loved can awaken the “Aphrodite within” as we recognize our own power.
Another goddess Stassinopoulos portrays as being in each of us is Artemis, the queen of the wilderness. She awakens the inner self and its connection to nature, with its serenity as well as its wild side. She is compassionate, nurturing, yet also vindictive and destructive, independent and adventurous.
The archetype Hera represents partnership. She connects with partners who are not threatened by her power. She manages business and personal business for herself and her family. Hera was manifest in Abigail Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams, who wrote letters of protest against slavery long before the Abolitionist movement. She had strong convictions and expressed them. The Hera in every woman is awakened when she does not settle for less than she is worthy of in relationship but rather waits until she can benefit from the respect of true partnership.
Mother and daughter doddesses Demeter and Persephone stay bonded, in spite of Hades, who steals Persephone. While the mother in us is nurturing, she is also tenacious in defending her daughter, or the daughter in ourselves. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey are cited in Stassinopoulos’s book as models of maternal care and determination. The mother-daughter bond is the basis of all life—reciprocal giving and sharing—and sometimes we must find a way to mother ourselves.
Whatever tools we choose to develop a better body image, this task cannot be accomplished without uncovering the connections between the outer and inner self. One must feel one’s body, inside and out, moving from there toward acceptance of one’s body type. This may mean keeping the mirrors in one’s home at a minimum to halt the constant perusal. Drawing on goddess types helps us develop inside imagery that soothes and calms when we are threatened by what the culture deems as beauty. Loving oneself is an inside job. Making a commitment to block negative forces with positive, embracing practices offers more self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Caldwell, C. 1996. Getting Our Bodies Back. Boston: Shambala.
Claude-Pierre, P. 1999. The Secret Language of Eating Disorders. New York: Vintage Books.
Hornbacher, M. 1998. Wasted. New York: Harper.
Maine, M. 2000. Body Wars. Calif.: Gurze.
Orbach, S. 1978. Fat Is a Feminist Issue. New York: Berkeley.
Roth, G. 1992. When Food Is Love. New York: Plume.
Stassinopoulos, A. 1999. Conversations with the Goddesses. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
Winnicott. D.W. 1969. “The Use of an Object.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50:700, p. 716.