“Positive Body Image”: What do I know?

A few weeks ago, on twitter, I came across this list of 20 Things that People with a Positive Body Image Know.  I can’t see any links to research that this list might be based on, so I don’t know if the statements are evidenced anywhere or if it’s based on the opinions and experiences of its creator.  While I don’t object to most of the individual statements on the list, the list as whole (and especially its title), initially made me feel defensive and quite angry. I was annoyed by the suggestion that I could ‘know’ my way out of my body image problems and experienced the list as a bit of an implicit criticism, as if my body image problems are the result of a lack of the right kind of “knowledge”.

“Of course I know rationally that my body is fine”, I grumbled to myself.  I do know that my body is fit and strong and that I’m fortunate to be healthy at this time in my life, but that rational knowledge has nothing at all to do with my body dismorphia and eating disorder.  I can’t really tell you why one day I look in the mirror and see a body that I find acceptable and the next day see something horrific that causes a panic attack, but although my feelings aren’t rational, this is not to say they don’t have their root in real lived experience and certain truths.

Here’s something I do know – sorry if you’ve heard this before because I do go on about it a bit –  until I was about 9 years old I didn’t really have any sense of a split between something I thought of as “me” and something I thought of as “my body”.   When I was 9, I began to develop breasts and immediately started to be sexually harassed and abused.   At this point in my life, I gained a new kind of knowledge – my body was a problem.   I started to dis-identify with it, to see it as something separate from who I was.  By the time I was 14 I’d learned to experience my body as a site of suffering.  I think there were several factors that lead to my developing an eating disorder, but high among them was a strong desire to get rid of my secondary sex characteristics, especially my breasts. As I mentioned in an earlier post one of my nicknames at school was “fucking massive tits”.  Even now, 20 years later, my terror of gaining weight is largely a terror of my breasts getting any bigger.  What I tried to do, like a lot of people do in abusive situations, was try to manage the situation through individual action – in this case, dieting.  I couldn’t stop boys and men harassing me, so I tried to get rid of the body that seemed to be triggering the harassment.

It wasn’t until I got to university and started to read feminist theory that I started to understand what had happened to me and put it into a context, that my body image problems had little to do with what I knew, but with things that had happened to me, but by then I was already 10 years into my body problems and although it helped a lot, no matter what new knowledge I gained, it didn’t really change the deeply ingrained thought patterns, or schemas.

I think my response to the list has its source in my objection to the implication that problems with body image are the result of a lack of knowledge, rather than an understandable response to living in a misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, gender-policing, fat-phobic, not to mention, status-obsessed, bullying and stressed-out world.  The list shows an implicit awareness that all is not right with the world, but its solution seems to be to try and to replace the “bad” knowledge with the “good” knowledge, and rise about all of that.

Although the list is obviously intended to be helpful, its existence hints at a problem I see a lot of in discourse around body image, this idea that somehow the individual can know their way out of the problem that people who love their bodies are sort more enlightened than those who don’t and that those who don’t should be striving for this enlightenment.  There is a danger here in conceptualising body image problems, though I know this isn’t the intention, as a kind of personal failing rather than a response to structural problems.

Crossposted to Bearing the Weight