Why I’m Against Positive Body Imagery.

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Recently there’s been a strong and growing critique of negative body image practices and beliefs in online discourse (aka “bodyshaming” or simply “body negative”).

To contrast negative body image issues, there’s been the rise of the positive body image movement (“body positive” for short).

A quick google search of body positive yields results like:

“Learning to Love Your Unique Body”
“Love the skin you’re in.”

There’s bodypositive.com which has this tagline: “Body Positive: Boosting body image at any weight,” and describes itself as a site that, “…explores taking up occupancy inside your own skin, rather than living above the chin until your thin.”

These are simply representative examples of a much wider phenomenon, but they do give a good flavor of the overall movement. There’s body positive yoga, body positive social media sites—the list goes on and on.

While there’s much to appreciate in the body positive movement, I believe there’s something well intentioned but nevertheless flawed underlying it. The flaw has nothing to do with the various fights normally associated with body positive versus body negative debate. My argument is that the problem with body positive is the excessively egoic frame of reference it automatically brings with it.

In short, the problem is that one has a body image at all, not whether that body image is positive or negative. Just look at the phrase “body image.” A body is not an image. An image is a mental construct while a body is a physical reality. Superimposing an image onto the body (whether positive or negative) is a way of creating a film, a barrier between the mind and body. In a word, it’s dualistic. Whether it’s “positively” dualistic or “negatively” dualistic is less important (I maintain) than the fact that both are dualistic at their core.

The clues to this intrinsic body-mind split in positive body movements are in phrases like:

“Learning to love the body you’re in”
“Taking up occupancy inside your skin”
“Boosting body image”

Here’s the problem. We do not have bodies. We are bodies.

In that seemingly slight word change is an entire world of different human identity and experience. It’s not simply a semantic point. The language points to a person’s fundamental self-identity and experience. In the former, individuals actually do experience themselves as separated inner selves having bodies. In the latter case, they do not experience having a body, they experience themselves existing as a conscious bodily being.

In the first case one is a mind that has a body. In the latter one is a bodymind.

Once a person realizes the latter reality, they no longer “have” a body nor do they have “body images.” Hence they do not need to worry about whether their body images are positive or negative, since body images aren’t arising in their experience in the first place. My view is that living from a state of being, a bodymind has far more impact than even the best and well-intentioned positive body-image movements because no matter how well-intentioned and relatively helpful they may be, positive body image movements reinforce the notion that one is separate from one’s body.

Positive body imagery reinforces egoic identity; it reinforces the split between the body and the mind.

Consider that a statement like “taking up occupancy inside your skin” defines “you” as something other than your bodily existence. The subject of that statement, the “you,” must be some incorporeal (i.e. non-bodily) reality “inside” your skin. This you is incorporeal because inside our skin physically of course is simply more physical biological reality: viscera, blood, organs, muscle, tissue, bone, etc.

So the “inside” in “inside your skin” is not literally physically inside. It’s a feeling of being inside. It’s a feeling of being an isolated self trapped inside a body (i.e., the ego). That non-bodily self then is inside the skin, which makes the skin and actually the whole body “outside” of one’s locus of selfhood. The body is “over there,” is other, is an object that one can therefore “have.” Treating the body as other is rooted in dissociation. There‘s a rupture at the core of one’s integrated being.

The result is we have a self that’s inside (figuratively, not literally) and a body that’s outside. There’s a gap that’s been created between one’s self sense and one’s body and the only way to bridge that gap is to create a “body image,” i.e., a mental representation of one’s body in the mind. It’s that mental construct of the body image that tries to cross the chasm between the self and the body.

Body positive movements want to create a positive body image bridge. Body negative practices do so through constructing a negative bridge. Please notice however both are building bridges to the body through mental representations. They only differ on how that bridge should look.

Body positive movements, for example, often teach individuals to practice kind (or compassionate) self-talk about their body. Again this is a well-intentioned practice but it has the effect of solidifying a view of the self as a thinking subject separate from the body which then has to think about the body (albeit in a kind, positive way). If, on the other hand, we experience ourselves as bodily beings we don’t think about our bodies; we think and feel through, and with, our bodily being. In this case the body does not function as an object to our ego but rather as the medium of our incarnate human experience.

This point is a subtle but extremely important one.

Body positive movements don’t want people (especially women) to be objectified and reduced to a very superficial form of their existence. They don’t want humans being defined only as their physical appearance. Understandably so.

But only the ego has an image of the body. The fight over body negative versus body positive imagery is a fight taking place entirely on the terrain of the ego and therefore on inherently distorted and distorting terrain. That is to say it is a debate entirely within the bounds of an underdeveloped form of human identity and experience. As far as I can tell this point seems to be missing just about everyone in this debate.

In saying I’m anti-positive body imagery I’m not therefore indicating I’m pro-negative body imagery. I’m anti-body imagery altogether. If the only choice is between body positive or body negative, then obviously body positive is the better choice. The choice however between body positive or body negative is a false binary. Body positive is profoundly limited and limiting. It may be, for some, a necessary first step (though this is an arguable point I think), but in the medium to long term it is definitely not in the deepest interests of a being to identify as body positive.

My argument is that we can actually come to an entirely different form of human identity where we don’t have any images of the body because we are the body. In this way, one’s identity is not as a separated self “inside” the body looking “out” on it, but rather simply as an integrated conscious bodily being.

In sum, the problem with positive body imagery movements is that they are rooted in the split between the ego (mind) and the body. That split is concretely expressed as the body being treated as an object and the ego relating to the body through the medium of an image. Whether that image is positive or negative is in my mind actually quite secondary. Relatively speaking, sure body positive is superior than body negative, but neither deals with the more fundamental issue: the split between ego and body.

It’s that prior split of ego and body that needs to be healed.


Author: Chris Dierkes 

Apprentice Editor:  Kendra Hackett / Editor: Travis May

Photo:  Flickr/Jen Rachid


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About Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes is a soul interpreter, combining his training in energy healing, intuitive work, pastoral care, and spiritual guidance in ways to nurture and accompany the healing and growth of souls. He acts as a translator between a person and their soul, translating the communication of their soul into the language of the everyday world so that they may come to understand the language of their soul themselves. He lives in Vancouver, BC with his wife Chloe and baby daughter Sage. Connect with Chris on his website.


2 Responses to “Why I’m Against Positive Body Imagery.”

  1. alannafero says:

    While I admire this writer a great deal and encourage him to keep reflecting and keep publishing, I really could not disagree more with this piece, the central tenet of which is that "I do not have a body; I am a body." Nope, not by the longest shot.

    I am a soul – actually I am a hybrid of spirit and soul, but I'll keep it simple for this short response.

    Each lifetime, my soul chooses a recylable casing of water, skin, bone and organs for me to get around in and learn through. Some of my best learning is done by focusing my attention on being in my body (the stuff of the embodiment folks), and some of me best learning is done when I leave my body in stasis and allow my soul to travel where only the nonphysical can go (the stuff of my Transcendental Meditation and Lightworker peeps).

    I am a soul. I temporarily have use of a body. With this full faith and knowing, the body wars pitting shapes and worldviews and various diets and juice fasts against one another have nothing to do with me. Sure, they show up in my feed; I might even read one or two. But they float on through, never taking up residence… not in this body I have nor in the mind which is both within and without it, and certainly not in the soul that I Am.


    • Hi Alanna,

      Thanks for the comment. I wasn't in this piece bringing forward a specifically spiritual point of view. I was simply relating from within the experience of healthy bodymind existence. But since you brought up a spiritual argument, then let's engage on that level because (in my view) you offer a very flawed understanding of what the spiritual traditions are actually saying.

      In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for example we have the teaching of the three bodies: gross, subtle, and causal. To say that your soul "travels" is of course to use a spatial referent. You need a body for a spatial referent. You refer to that as nonphysical which is technically not incorrect but not really as helpful as saying what it is: subtle embodiment. A soul body. Hence even in that state you are a bodily being. Simply in that case a subtle bodily being. That's the basis for all NDEs, astral traveling, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeying, etc. They aren't disembodied states. They are subtly embodied states. One does not have a body in those experiences one exists bodily. Just a different kind of body than the physical one.

      Same goes with formless meditative states of entering into the groundless ground of being. That is an embodied experience. A causally (or very subtly) embodied one. You are bodily in thats state. The "you" in that case being spirit. The body being the spirit/presence/causal body. The soul and spirit being then the conscious expressions whose manifestations are bodily. subtle body for soul and very subtle (or causal) body for spirit.

      One further point is that these traditions make clear that each of the other two bodies (subtle, causal) have correlates to the physical body. I.e. Certain locations of the physical body correlate or channel aspects of the other bodies (and their correlative states and identities).

      Like for example we have a gross, physical heart on the left side of the chest. We also have a subtle heart in the middle of our chest, which lights up or burns when a person say falls in love or falls into ecstatic devotion. Icons of Christians saints always show their hearts in the center of their chests correctly, since they are referring to the subtle heart. And the causal heart has a correlate in the right side of the chest, perfectly described by Ramana Maharshi for example.

      My argument would be then that rather than referring to ourselves as being one or another of self, soul, or spirit we identify as all of them simultaneously. All three identities and all three corresponding bodies that is, since those are just two sides of each other.

      That is the path of Incarnation. As opposed to the kind of view you are offering and which I don't advocate. Yes of course the physical body and its corresponding self-sense is mortal. And I do believe aspects of us exist beyond the dissolution of that gross body reality.

      But in an Incarnational view one would not refer to the gross body as a "recyclable casing of water for me to get around in" or "temporarily having use of a body". The gross body is not objectified in an Incarnational spiritual path. All of the soul and spiritual elements and realizations are still available but they are not expressed through such an objectified and therefore disconnected sense of the gross bodily reality.

      In fact, the Tibetan tradition would go so far as to say that enlightenment is only possible as an incarnate human. Because only such a being (according to that teaching) has access to all three bodies and therefore the entire sweep of existence, from the gross to the most subtle. In that view, the gross body is a precious incarnation, not something one is "in". That's the view I support.

      Again this article is not based on that larger view, though it is fully compatible with it. The argument I made in this piece is more narrowly focused on what it is to have a healthy integrated sense on the gross dimension. Without that healthy foundation, then a spiritual path will inevitably lead to various forms of spiritual bypassing. Some more, some less, but all of them to one degree or another. I believe an Incarnational (or triply embodied) view is the only spiritual way that does not base itself in bypassing. No one needs however to accept that more spiritual overlay to get value from this piece.

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