The Weighting Game

Do you have the courage to feel?

A middle-aged woman attending one of my workshops was trying to convince me that she had no hope of attracting a man. She was a pioneer. She had lived through the sixties and fought for women's and civil rights. And here she sat, asking with genuine hopelessness, "Who wants a fat old lady?"

She was not fat. I would tell you if she was. She had a soft, round middle and long, lean legs. "It's not about the weight," I firmly contested. At first she was not convinced. But later on, she spoke with revelation. "I recently saw a picture of myself when I was at the beach in my twenties, and I thought, 'What a hottie! That was me, wearing that little bikini!' But you know," she concluded sadly, "I thought I was fat then, too."

Think about it: How many women do you know who don't either think they are fat, or hate some part of their bodies?

Now some of you may know one, and others may know more, but I, a thirtysomething New Yorker, don't know any. Not one. I mean after decades, decades of feminism and female empowerment, women seem unwilling to reclaim their power in this area of self-hatred that manifests itself towards the body.

We have known for years that we live in a patriarchal society that inspires women to organize themselves around being attractive and accommodating to men. Despite our "knowledge" that the societal standard of beauty creates pressure to conform and pain when we cannot, many of us still accept society's definitions of beauty and dutifully try to adhere. I'm not talking about a healthy motivation to look and feel good and attractive. I am talking about the ways we objectify ourselves, such as measuring our entire value in a waist or bra size, or letting a slightly higher-than-desired number on a scale ruin our day. So, I ask, how long do we wait to lose that weight (that will finally make us feel good . . . right?) before we give up the game? Why, when we have made so many advances, are so many of us still, to varying degrees, enslaved to 'the cultural eye'?

Okay, so it has been going on for centuries. Is it the old "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" theory? This probably has something to do with it, but I do not believe it is the sole reason. We women learn fast. Our capacity for change is built into our bodies.

Yes, the cultural programming is pervasive and persuasive. And how about vanity? Western culture promotes vanity in both men and women, with its insistence that success lies in appearances rather than substance. This is also a piece of the equation. However, most of the men I know who are not thrilled with their appearance don't collapse into self-hate with the same frequency or vengeance that the women I know do.

There may be many reasons, but the unexplored portion of the body image dilemma that I bring to this article has to do with feelings, and shame. I believe deep down we want to unleash ourselves from our status as sex objects, but we are scared of the power and who we will find if we take that leap.

Culturally, the vulnerable and irrational feelings that are triggered in all of us such as grief, anger, lust and fear, do not fit into the successful image. Our denial of raw or painful feelings, and our feelings about these feelings (i.e., shame), are the glue that keeps us bound to our self-hate. Hating our physical bodies is a safer alternative to feeling our real, irrational feelings or our shame about having those feelings and how worthless we feel for having them. The clincher is that while we are defending ourselves in this way, we also block our openness to pleasure. Since we feel with our bodies and not our minds, often times we will hate the areas of our bodies where these feelings arise, or the parts of our body that represent what we are trying to avoid. For example, many feelings originate in the middle of our bodies -- our stomachs --a body part that many women want to change. Of course, through the play The Vagina Monologues we have learned how as a culture women have been trained to avoid their vaginas, the seat of our sexual power and pleasure. One woman in my workshop who was very cut off from and judgmental of the tender, nurturing parts of herself that she had been taught to repress in order to be taken seriously, hated her breasts.

However, when a woman begins to pay attention to and examine her self-hatred, she will begin to notice an underlying rhythm to it, that on the days she feels the worst about herself often have more to do with what is going on inside than on the outside. For example, when our periods come around and we feel bloated, and all of our emotions are close to the surface because our hormones make it easier for them to be, that is a time when the hatred for our bodies runs rampant. There is little to no awe in our bodies' capacity to create, no celebration of our increased ability to feel: only loathing.

We must begin to change this body/self-hating dynamic within ourselves, slowly and tenderly. First we make a commitment to not hate our bodies, recognizing our covert alliance with patriarchy when we do. Then we need to see our self-hating habits as a signal and stop indulging them. We must courageously allow ourselves to heed the signal, move through the shame about our true feelings and find the space both inside and with others to feel them. This process takes time, energy, and support, and it is a large part of my work with women in my workshops and private practice. Most importantly, we must unite in sisterhood to support each other in loving every part of ourselves. I believe this is the next wave of feminism, and is truly feminine.