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I’ve always wanted to be perfect.
Even when it was sagely pointed out to me that perfection is an illusion, I have persisted. Maybe, I believed, if I could at least get within spitting distance of perfect, the voice in my head would quiet down.
You know the one: the voice that sounds like you but couldn’t possibly be—it’s so mean and heartless! I would never speak to anyone that way.
The main thing my voice loves to focus on is my body. I remember the days when it was new, when it started making little suggestions and “harmless” observations. Testing the waters to see what I would allow. One of the first things it told me in its eight-year-old whisper after a neighbor compared me to a “Mac Truck” was that it was pretty clear I was bigger than all the rest of the kids my age. My mom used to say I was “just big boned,” a phrase that was meant kindly, but which reduced me to ashes.
Maybe, the voice said, if I sucked in my stomach, no one would notice the enormous rest of me. I duly began a sucking-in-my-stomach campaign and went after it with a passion I reserved for little else. A few decades later, I would connect that decision with IBS and chronic back issues both so severe they required major surgery.
What did I expect? We can’t constantly hold negative energy in one area of our bodies for so long and not develop some kind of pathology.
I was learning, at this very young age, how to monitor my body. I am not alone. The majority of women (and more and more men) in Western culture develop some system for body monitoring so that they can be deemed “acceptable” to society. It seeps into every aspect of our lives, splitting us in two—the person we are and the person we imagine other people see.
We slip in and out of these identities in a constant bid to avoid shame: the shame of being too fat or too thin, the shame of having “bad” skin or hair, shame about our age, our height, our cellulite, our stretch marks, and our body hair, our “bad” nails, our butts and breasts that are too big, too small, too flat, our bumpy noses, our lips that are too thin. Even our eyebrows and eyelashes are subject to shameful assessment and must be wrangled with powders, mascaras, creams, gels, tattooing, microblading, and expensive serums to make them longer, fuller, and darker.
We are left with two choices when it comes to managing ourselves as objects that are seen by others: we can either hide our “flaws” or “fix” them. Both options require the kind of attention that takes away from everything else we do, either by compelling us to spend money (that we could be spending on more meaningful items, experiences, or wealth building) or by convincing us we can’t participate in life and instead must hide ourselves away until we lose that 10 lbs., our skin clears up, we find that perfect outfit, and on and on.
When I think about the time, money, and mental resources I have wasted throughout my life to manage this shame, I feel a different kind of shame. How could I act this way? How could I, an intelligent, independent, educated, “empowered” woman, buy into the idea that how I look determines my worth. What the hell is wrong with me?
As it turns out, maybe nothing is wrong with me (and there’s probably nothing wrong with you either). And furthermore, that voice I think of as mine might not be mine at all.
What powerful force is it that I, and so many other people, are responding to? There are a lot of different ways to define it, but I’ll call it Crazy Consumer Culture. We live in a time and place where we are trained from infancy to consume. When we consume, someone else profits. Some of this is okay. If a farmer grows food that I require to stay alive and I buy it, and she then is able to buy the things she needs to support her family, that is a healthy and mutually productive arrangement.
If however, someone sells me the idea that my aging face is ugly and they have something to “fix” it, and I buy their thing, I also buy into the idea that I am less-than, that I am broken, and that my evaluation of myself is less important than someone else’s. The person that then profits from this is complicit in taking away my power for their own gain, a soul crushing exchange that hurts both buyer and seller.
There is so much of this happening that we become numb and blind to it. It is an abiding undercurrent in our society. Everywhere we go, even in the privacy of our own homes with the advent first of radio and television and now online media, we are bombarded by messages telling us how much better we could be if we just had different colored hair, smelled differently, aged differently, ate differently, thought differently…if we were just different.
That is the voice in our heads. It’s not us. It’s an outside voice meant to exploit us that we have internalized to the point that we understand these to be our own thoughts and belief systems. In other words, if I put you on a dessert island and this messaging was completely absent from your experience, it wouldn’t even occur to you that you are “fat,” aging badly, that your hair was too thin, or that you shouldn’t go swimming because your body is so gross. Sounds like heaven, right?
So what do we do about it? How do we—the hapless, suggestible, fragile, normal human beings that we are—deal with the terrible pressure we feel to be smaller, younger, prettier?
Here are some things that have had an impact on me:
1. Watch the process
Start to pay attention to when you observe yourself as if you were an outside onlooker. Don’t judge yourself, just take note. Notice how you bounce back and forth between the observer and the observed. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and you might be shocked by just how often this is happening. Each time it happens, wonder to yourself, how does this make me feel? Does it drain your energy, dampen your mood, or change your priorities for the day? That is Crazy Consumer Culture calling the shots, and it’s not doing you any favors.
2. Try a media cleanse
To truly clear out all the toxic input we get from our environment, we need to unplug. In More Than a Body (an absolutely essential book that changed my life) author Lexi Kite recommends what she calls “Intermittent Media Fasting.” Choose a period of time from a day to a week or longer where you eliminate all media consumption. This allows us to tune back into our real inner voice, the one that actually belongs to us. You’ll be shocked by how influenced you are in the midst of the constant onslaught of media, even if you believe (like me) that you are a critical and intentional consumer. It is literally transformative to hear your own voice without the chaos of both overt and covert advertising.
3. Focus on doing
When we self objectify, we are no longer experiencing our lives directly, but second hand, as one who is being observed. We can snap ourselves back into the first person by stating (aloud if need be) what we are doing rather than getting wrapped up on how we appear when doing it. It’s like magic! Let’s say I’m riding my bike and I’m suddenly assaulted by The Voice, who tells me I look terrible in these bike pants, everyone out here is in better shape than me, and my sweaty body is a sure sign of what bad shape I’m in. I can notice that and then say, simply, I am riding my bike. I am feeling the wind in my hair. I am smelling new cut grass. I am using my muscles and it feels good. This is a game changer—I’m really excited for you to try it!
4. Work with a therapist
Of course, I’m a therapist, so I usually recommend working with a therapist! A lot of people might not imagine this is therapy-worthy stuff. They think, it’s just my body image, I can deal with it on my own, right? Maybe, but having someone to listen to you process your complex feelings about your body and guide in self-compassion and understanding is invaluable. My own therapist has heard plenty on this subject from me.
I won’t lie, I still struggle. I still experience myself bouncing in and out of self-objectification, too often tuned into that nagging, cruel voice which compares me to others and always finds me coming up short. But there are ways to quiet it down, that, if they become a dedicated practice, can change our inner dialogue over time. Even finding a few moments free of that voice is well worth the effort because being free of the voice really means…being free!
I encourage you to push back against the blatant exploitation we are all subjected to for the sake of your mental health, and as a way to truly begin to empower yourself. With that voice on “silent,” who knows what you might be capable of in this big, old wonderful world.