Why Positive Body Image is the Wrong Goal

There is a proliferation (aka a f*ck ton) of articles, images, motivational quotes, and pop psychology support around how to have a positive body image, how to love your body right now, choosing beauty, and more. Great right?

At a glance, it looks like our society is moving in the right direction with celebrating women’s bodies, standing up against objectification and unrealistic standards, and choosing health over extremes.

Except what isn’t being addressed is how most of these “choices” and “celebrations” are still focusing on the image of woman, and positioning each woman’s relationship with her outward appearance as the thing that will give her what she wants in life.

The majority of support in mainstream media around women’s bodies is still completely based in choosing how you feel about how you look, and creating an identity for yourself that stems from outward projections and ideals.

So what does all that mean? It doesn’t matter how positive your body image is– the concept of body image itself is based solely on outward appearances and creating and shaping yourself from the outside in, rather than connecting to your body from the inside out.

Positive body image is the wrong goal.

Because as long as you seek outward-based validation, approval, or information to determine how you feel, your freedom and ability to express yourself will always be conditional on something outside of you.

As long as the focus is on body image rather than true embodiment, women will be barred from accessing their full potential, power, and self-expression.

This is something I understood intellectually for a long time, but still found myself devouring Women’s Health magazine for the secret to a perfect body, pinching at the skin on my hip bones, and more recently scrolling endlessly through Instagram feeds of super fit and flexible bodies.

Five years ago I was getting ready to graduate from university. I was up to my ears in books and articles about advertising and feminism, visual culture and communication, putting the finishing touches on my thesis, which centered around the exploitation of beauty in the advertising industry and how it keeps women from having the full experience of being human.

After years of in depth research, I had studied so much- I understood how advertising and visual culture affected us psychologically. I could give a presentation on the correlation between the industrial revolution and the rise of control of women’s bodies in our society in my sleep. I could point out exactly what was wrong with every single ad, commercial, and image of a woman.

And I still believed that if I could just lose 15 pounds, then I would finally be happy.

I hated myself for this. I hated myself for knowing better, and still secretly measuring my worth against what pop culture determined was beautiful and successful. And I hated how ashamed I felt for knowing better and playing along anyway.

This is what happens. You can research and learn and apply positive thinking until your head is going to explode from the effort and information. You’ve probably tried it.

And if you’re anything like me, you wonder why you can’t stay positive or move forward. Or, you may feel positive about your body and are taking actions toward what you want, but something still feels… muted. Off. Held back. Not moving fast enough.

We love the top down (head first), outside in (conditional) approach in our society. And I didn’t know any other way.

For the better part of my life, I longed for and quested for a body I could finally proud of. For years I would swing from wildly emotional to feeling completely hopeless and numb, miserable one day and deliriously happy the next. And I blamed my body for all of it.

For not being pretty enough or thin enough (in my head) for that guy. For betraying me and getting sick and not being able to push through the late nights and early mornings. For craving sweetness and having desires outside of the clean eating and exercise program I wrote out in my notebook.

Five years ago you could find me on any given night of the week, usually after a night of drinking, laying on the scratchy carpet of my apartment crying and yelling and viciously pinching and pulling at the fat on my body, wondering why I couldn’t just disappear. Why I couldn’t just have some goddamn willpower. Desperately desiring a different body.

Three years later, I more or less had a different body. Most of that fat had disappeared. My entire life looked different. I was teaching about 10 yoga and fitness classes per week, training in between, and most of my life revolved around physical activity. I was the closest I’ve ever been to looking like a woman in a magazine.

You know what else disappeared? My creativity. My sense of self-expression. My connection with sensuality. I could name every muscle in my body and tell you my body fat percentage progression over the past 6 months, but all of my spontaneity, all of my surges of energy that used to have me lost in a notebook or on a canvas for hours slowly started to disappear as well. I wasn’t manically miserable anymore. Nor was I wildly joyful. I was… fine.

I could make my body do whatever I wanted it to do, but in the process she became very quiet. I was so focused on reducing and shaping my outsides, that for awhile I didn’t even notice how much I was reducing my connection to my insides as well.

I finally started liking the way my body looked. Positive body image goal: Complete.

And? The way I went about creating that image (only focusing on the outside result) simultaneously dried up my libido, my creativity, my playfulness, and my fierceness. My whole life had turned around for the better, and I still felt like I was dying inside. Going through the motions. Quietly beginning to believe that nothing was ever really going to change.

Liking the way my body looked, hating the way my body looked, weighing 170 or 150 or 165 or 185 pounds- so much time and energy spent on the number that appeared on the scale.

What I didn’t realize for so long was that none of that mattered or made a true difference if I was tethering my worthiness to my image.

I’m not saying anything against positive body image. It’s a piece of the conversation for sure, and I love looking in the mirror and enjoying what I see. But when image becomes the sole focus, the only piece that is addressed, the entire world within your body, within your soul, that place where all your desires and pleasures live, ends up getting belittled and ignored.

Speaking to body image alone isn’t going to give you what you truly crave. Deep connection. Freedom to claim your desires. Full on self expression. The feeling of being at peace and at home within yourself.

These have nothing to do with how you look and everything to do with how you feel. What energy you are carrying around with you. The way you move throughout the world. The decisions you make, the conversations you have, the risks you take, the love you allow.

When I left my job as a fitness instructor, I threw my energy into traveling, creating my business, building community, and nurturing my soul. My body changed a lot. She grew softer. A little rounder. And as I began to honor her, she became a lot louder. Sending me intuitive hits and creative impulses. Letting me know which decisions were a yes or a no. Creating enormous amounts of pleasure and energy.

And the body I have now? She doesn’t look like a magazine. And I have never known a deeper love than the love between her and I. When I nurture her and listen to her, I feel good and look good. When I deny her and ignore her, old feelings of shame and despair begin to surface, and I am reminded that I have a choice to either connect with her or try and control her.

An image is simply a snapshot of a moment. A visual representation of what’s on the outside that is often curated and controlled.

A beautiful, vibrant body is created from the inside out. She is nurtured, nourished, and filled with wisdom. Her image is amazing because she feels amazing. And when your body feels amazing you have the power to create anything you desire.

Positive body image is only a small part of the equation. While feeling great about how you look is definitely important, if that’s the only thing you focus on you are missing out on a much deeper and richer experience of your body and your life. Feeling great about your body is a natural result of living from an embodied place.

I would love to know- what role does body image play in your life? How do you feel about your body today? What in this article stood out the most for you?