In the last decade or so, our culture has maintained its decades-long obsession with weight, but added obsessions with health, fitness, wellness, anti-aging, and nutrition as well.
We started valuing bodies that were strong and lean over bodies that were thin and waif-like, introduced fitness as a mandatory hobby and lifestyle, and saw juice cleanses and “clean eating” posed as a solution to everything from aging to anxiety.
Focusing on your body used to be the domain of gym rats and health nuts, but now you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t been influenced by pop science on what to eat, how to exercise, and what supplements to take. More and more people in the Western world are investing time, money, and energy into changing the health, strength, youth, fitness, and weight of their bodies.
Isn’t It Good For Us?
You might think all these people focusing on their bodies is a great thing — after all, don’t we have an obesity epidemic happening right now? Wouldn’t be all be better off if we spent more time and energy focusing on our bodies?
First of all, many people only zero in on what’s wrong or bad about their bodies, and focusing on their bodies is actually a form of punishment and self-abuse.
Many people are “investing” time and attention into their body but never actually see any results, because they’re focused on picking apart the flaws only they can see, the weight they want to lose, the gym sessions they feel guilty about skipping, or the food they know they “shouldn’t” eat but can’t help themselves. This kind of body-focus can hardly be considered healthy or positive.
Negative self-talk and stress are particularly bad for your health, even if you’re focusing on supposedly “positive” health habits!
Then of course there are the gym rats who focus on their bodies and actually get to see the fruits of their labor. They lose the weight, they get stronger, they feel more energized, and they discover how empowering and amazing it is to eat healthy and find a type of exercise they love!
Many people in this category consider health and fitness a lifestyle, and see nothing wrong with the fact that they spend a huge percentage of their time working out, meal planning and prepping, thinking about food and exercise, checking their progress, or otherwise thinking about their bodies.
I personally know that when lifting heavy was my priority, it was like a full-time job (the workouts themselves plus getting enough protein and recovery), but I loved it and I loved the results, so I didn’t care. Looking back however, I can’t help but wondering at how I spent years arranging my entire life so it revolved around my workouts. Literally everything was based around them — socializing, vacations, hobbies, and everything else would be altered or dropped if they got in the way of my lifts. Why?
That’s really what I’m here to talk about: the cost of focusing on our bodies, and what focusing on our bodies keeps us from paying attention to.
The truth is that obsessively focusing on anything means we don’t have to focus on other stuff as much. So when huge chunks of our mental and emotional real estate are occupied by our workouts, nutrition, health, size, or shape, it crowds out other stuff — and that’s not an accident.
I’ve discovered that most people who are obsessively occupied by thoughts about their bodies (for better or worse) tend to be avoiding some deeply uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings or realizations.
Put another way, constantly thinking about your body is a way of staying distracted or protected from something you don’t want to (or don’t know how to) handle directly.
In my experience, that’s exactly why so many of us end up obsessed with our own bodies. After all, who has time to think about their toxic relationship with their mother when they’re busy thinking about cellulite and belly fat? Who has time to think about their habits of co-dependency or people-pleasing when their brain is occupied by thoughts of which foods to eat, and when?
Why Our Bodies?
Focusing on our bodies is a highly effective way of avoiding some of the more painful parts of being a human.
There is literally no end to how much time and energy we can spend on our bodies, whether that means tangible activities like meal planning and working out, emotional activities like resisting sweets or feeling guilty after eating too much, and mental activities like picking yourself apart in the mirror or browsing Pinterest for recipes or fitspo.
The limitlessness of this topic is exactly why it’s such a perfect way to stay habitually distracted from the painful stuff that lurks below the surface.
In a world where we often feel out of control, our bodies give us something tangible to control.
In a world that is often unkind and unaccepting, our bodies give us an area of self-improvement with the promise of finally “earning” the kindness and acceptance we crave.
In this way, our bodies often become ground zero for our pain — they become the carpet under which we sweep all manner of pain and discomfort, the scapegoat for our problems, and the focal point of our magical thinking. We think “when my body is different, then I’ll be happy,” and we double down on the amount of attention and stress we place on our bodies, in the hopes of finally solving the problem of our unhappiness.
Here’s the thing: we each have a Body Story. The Body Story is the one you tell to your personal trainer and your friends, about what you’re trying to fix, and why; the story you tell yourself about the significance of your body. The Body Story is usually a layered and complex story involving experiences with cultural and personal beauty standards, stories of “proof” that your problems can be traced back to your body, and an enormous amount of shame, fear, guilt, and pain attached to various body details.
You might have multiple Body Stories, depending on your life experiences, and they’re not all overtly negative, but they do all place your body at the center of importance in your life. Some examples of Body Stories include:
- I’m too big to be sexy.
- I’m too skinny, I look like a boy.
- My boobs are too big/small/saggy/uneven.
- I hold my weight in my midsection so I look pregnant.
- My proportions are all wrong.
- Men like curvy/thin/athletic women.
- I look good right now, but I can’t relax my tight control over food/exercise or I’ll lose it.
- Cellulite is unsightly and gross.
- The best I ever looked was high school/after I go the flu/when I was doing Adderall.
You get the idea.
Many of these of these Body Stories are criticisms disguised as facts, which is why we can spend the rest of our lives chasing them; living and dying by them. The Body Story always assures us that there is right and a wrong way to have a body, and that if only we can fix all our flaws, we’ll finally be good enough and can bask in the glow of success, power, attention, approval, and love that are promised to people who look “perfect.”
In this way, some people spend their entire lives waiting for their lives to begin until after they fix their flaws, thinking they need to lose some weight and tone up before they apply for a new job, take up a new hobby, find a partner, or go on their dream trip. In this way, the seductive Body Story protects them from the fear of the unknown, and the fear of failing or succeeding at chasing their dreams. The Body Story provides a reasonable alibi for why they never had to take those risks.
Other people might be happy with how their body looks right now, but feel unable to relax or live their lives because they’re beholden to the highly controlled regimen of diet and exercise that helps them look this way. This kind of person believes that their worth comes directly from their body’s appearance, and it terrified of losing it.
In this kind of situation, the Body Story protects them from their deepest insecurities by providing a sense of superiority and worthiness. It whispers in their ear that amidst a sea of people struggling to get motivated to change their bodies, they alone were able to figure out how to look “perfect.” Never mind how tenuous this kind of worthiness is, and how they live in fear of people discovering their secretly hidden flaws.
The Body Story is very compelling. While it changes across subcultures and personal experiences, a person’s Body Story is nearly always intertwined with a hierarchy of body value, ranking some bodies as good and some as bad, and is typically riddled with fatphobia, racism, and sexist or heteronormative values.
The important thing to realize here is that underneath every single Body Story, there is a Real Story: the story that focusing on your body has been protecting you from, distracting you from, or helping you avoid. The Real Story story tends to be painful, terrifying, and deeply layered and complex.
There is something soothing about believing that the reason you don’t feel fulfilled is because you need to lose twenty pounds, or that you’ll finally be happy if you start doing yoga and drinking green juices. It’s much more painful to realize you’re unhappy because, for example, you’ve been doing everything you were “supposed” to do for so long that your life looks nothing like the life your heart yearns for. Or because you need to learn how to establish better boundaries with people. Or because your relationship doesn’t nourish you, and you’re lonely. Or because your career is heartbreakingly unfulfilling.
Do you see how dealing with one of the above stories might be so terrifying and painful that you’ve chosen instead to be distracted with the story about your body?
Unfortunately, no amount of fixing, changing, obsessing over, or focusing on your body will give you what you really want.
That’s because the Body Story (and all the magical thinking involved in it) is an illusion, a red herring, a distraction from the truth. Even if you were to achieve all your body goals, the finish line would simply move further away again. The only way to experience the freedom, joy, authenticity, confidence, and embodiment that you’ve been looking for is to face the Real Story directly, to confront the dark and difficult stuff the body story has been helping you avoid.
A Few Examples
Let’s look at a how a few Real Stories can be hidden underneath Body Stories.
I want to lose weight and slim down, because as a child I was big for my age and my mom (who has her own body/weight issues) put me on a diet and told me that nobody likes a fat girl, and then later on I got bullied for being “huge” so I spent decades dieting and doing cardio, but always feeling like a failure because I could never keep it up for long.
I have spent my entire life trying to be what my mom wanted me to be, and failing. I always felt like her love was conditional and I had to earn it by changing myself, so I learned early on that I am not inherently loveable. I’m so afraid that this might be true, and deeply ashamed that I wasn’t born good enough, but also I’m very angry at my mom for making me feel this way. I’ve spent my entire life trying to shrink myself physically and emotionally, to be small enough to be “good,” trying to be invisible and take up less space. I’m exhausted and resentful from the effort, I wish I had better boundaries with my mom, and I don’t even know who I would be if I let myself break free and step into my full space and power.
Whew! Can you see how, in this example, the person has been hiding from the painful truth for decades? This happens all the time, and it’s no wonder, since our culture is obsessed with outsourcing all our problems to our bodies. Even if this person finally succeeded at losing weight, she still would not have healed the underlying issue, and therefore would not experience the validation and worthiness she’s searching for.
The only way to get that would be by dealing with and healing her relationship to her mother, learning how to take up space with pride, asserting more of herself in the world instead of trying to be what people want, and giving herself permission to be “good enough” as she is — which is no easy feat, admittedly!
It might even take years of work with a therapist or dedicated self-study… but she’s already invested so many years of trying to fix her body, and that hasn’t worked, right? Why not try another way?
Let’s look at another example.
My boobs are saggy and gross and embarrassing, and I hate them so much it makes me feel so angry and ashamed when I look in the mirror or have sex, and I’m considering getting a boob job to fix them because I can’t stand them.
Due to some inappropriate early sexual experiences, I learned that my body existed for male pleasure, and that my value came from being able to titillate them and give them what they want. I’m obsessed with fixing my “flaws” because I feel like I owe men a perfect body, so I put a ton of energy into looking as perfect as possible through obsessively monitored diet and exercise. I can’t control my breasts though, and since they don’t fit the modern beauty standard, they feel like evidence that I’m imperfect, and therefore a failure. My identity is based on “what men want” and my self-worth is dependent on what they think of me, so I’ve never had much time or energy to to discover who I want to be.
Oof. Can you see how much more painful, scary, and complex the Real Story always is?
Can you also see how if the the person in the second example dealt with and healed her self-identity and self-worth issues directly, she would finally be free of the need to focus so intensely on her breasts? A person can spend years (or decades) focused on their Body Story, and get nowhere, because it serves only as a superficial distraction from the important stuff underneath.
Mind you, dealing with the Real Story isn’t easy. But learning to recognize and name it is a huge step in the right direction, because that immediately takes some of the power away from the body stuff.
What Happens Next?
After identifying what focusing on your body has been helping you avoid, you might require the support of a therapist or coach (or a ton of journaling and introspection) and a long slow process of healing and skill-building.
What skills are required to heal and face your inner demons? That depends. You might need to learn how to feel your feelings, identify behavioral patterns, establish boundaries, put your needs first, cultivate a stronger sense of self, diversify your self-worth, chase your desires, grieve for your irretrievable losses, process anger, assert yourself, ask for help, develop a stronger network of support, or any number of other important but undeveloped skills.
If any of this resonates with you, you might be wondering where to start. The good news is that by simply recognizing that you have a Body Story (and that it distracts and protects you from the painful stuff underneath) you’re already on your way!
If you’re interested in identifying and exploring what lurks below the surface, I recommend starting by identifying the thoughts and behaviors that keep you stuck in your body story.
In what ways do you give power and validation to the idea that your body is the most important part of your life, the bane of your existence, or the key to your happiness?
Some examples include criticizing your body in the mirror every time you see it, talking about feeling fat to your friends, spending stretches of time looking up “clean” recipes or diet plans, putting a lot of effort into getting ready with hair/makeup/clothes, weighing yourself frequently, having rigid rules about food or exercise, or otherwise spending time, effort, or attention on your body.
Every time you notice yourself doing one of these habits or behaviors, explore it by asking yourself:
- What don’t I want to think about right now?
- What don’t I want to feel right now?
- What might this [habit] by distracting me from?
- What might this [habit] be protecting me from?
- What might this [habit] be helping me avoiding knowing, feeling, or facing?
As you answer the questions, challenge yourself to dig deeper than is comfortable. For example, if you weigh yourself daily, you might be tempted to say “weighing myself distracts me from worrying about what I weigh today,” or if you spend a lot of time focused on meal planning and prep, you might want to say “focusing on what I eat helps me avoid eating junk food.”
Both of these explanations might be true, but they’re still pretty superficial. Dig deeper. What’s underneath? Maybe focusing on your weight helps protect you from needing to go after what you really want out of life, because you’ve been bargaining with yourself that you’ll only take those risks when you lose the weight. Or maybe focusing on food helps you avoid checking in with how your body feels. If so, why? What’s there that are you afraid to feel?
With time and practice, you can gain a far more important understanding of yourself, your needs, and what’s really standing in the way of you living the life you want to live, or feeling the way you want to feel.
A hint? It’s almost never your body.