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*Warning: naughty language ahead!
I hear all the time from women who want to reject diet culture, but also want to be super thin.
As a body image coach, I’ve been working on clarifying my message and audience through a business mastermind program I’m currently in.
Last week, I had to do a whole bunch of writing about what “problem” my target audience has, and how they’ve already gone about trying to solve it—and I got super stuck.
I kept writing in circles and getting nowhere, because the truth is that while most of my audience are women who want to feel more confident in their skin, there are two completely different and seemingly conflicting schools of approach to acquiring that confidence.
I found that conflict to be fascinating—even though this exploration started from a marketing perspective, I quickly realized that this conflict is actually a major reason so many of my clients are struggling, and it needs to be addressed!
So, what’s the conflict?
Well, on the one hand, my clients want to completely reject the whole concept that a woman needs to be beautiful, thin, and desirable.
On the other hand, they want to feel beautiful, thin, and desirable.
I’ve noticed that a lot of my clients are feminists and activists at heart who believe that all bodies are beautiful, that Western beauty standards are unrealistic bullshit, and that women should do whatever the hell they want with their own bodies without feeling pressure to look a certain way.
But on the flip side of that, they also hold themselves to a super high standard, worrying about how they look and trying to ever-improve their desirability.
Trust me, I get it.
We want to be desirable because we want to belong, and our culture promises women that looking a certain way is the key to belonging. We want the status and privilege that comes with being thin and beautiful, because we live in a culture that tells us that status and privilege are the key to happiness. Unfortunately, since the pursuit of status and privilege often goes against our core values, we sometimes end up feeling guilty or hating ourselves for wanting it.
My clients tend to have examined and rejected the idea (at least consciously) that a woman’s worth is related to her appearance, and recognize that body image issues are often wrapped up in unfair and untrue gender roles and expectations.
My clients tend to be a bit angry about the state of our society and what it’s doing to women (not to mention people of color) and they want to rebel against the arbitrary beauty and body standards that have held them captive for so long.
The problem is that the idea of actually rebelling against these standards is fucking terrifying. These women recognize that they have a right to eat what and when they want, but can’t get over the fear of getting or staying “too big.”
These women have two separate and conflicting needs:
1. Belonging, acceptance, and connection
2. Living in alignment with their own personal values
Ugh. The tension between these two needs is excruciating.
I once had a client who was dying to cut her (very long, striking, super feminine) hair short. She talked about it all the time, but never pulled the trigger because she was too afraid she would look “ugly” or “like a boy.”
It’s not exactly that she was afraid of being judged for looking different, mind you. It was more that she didn’t want to trade the treatment her long hair offered her.
She wanted to experiment with a new look, and reject the hyper-feminine beauty standard she had grown up with in a house with four sisters, but she couldn’t get past the fear of losing the validation, praise, and acceptance that came from fitting that standard. Her hair was a genuine status symbol, something that earned her enormous privilege among both men and women, and she recognized that cutting it would at best shift her into a different (and far less celebrated) category like “cute,” or “plain.”
This is why body image is so much more complicated than just saying “who cares what people think of you?”
I have this conversation all the time, especially when my clients are health coaches, personal trainers, nutritionists, and naturopathic doctors who feel like imposters and want to better “walk their talk” when it comes to body positive values.
It’s so easy to say “self-love is a choice,” but that completely ignores the very different ways people treat us based on how we look, and the very normal desire for status and privilege.
Even tiny changes, like wearing your hair natural, or skipping mascara, can be an example of giving up status and privilege, and cause enormous emotional discomfort and fear. In a culture with such a concrete hierarchy, we’ve been taught that status and privilege are the only way to earn your connection, love, acceptance, and belonging.
You might know female beauty and body standards are bullshit made up by marketers, but you still want the approval and praise that comes from losing weight, dressing up, doing your makeup, shaving your legs, sucking in your belly, or otherwise making yourself look “feminine and desirable.”
This conflict makes you feel like garbage—you want other women to feel good enough no matter what they look like, and you don’t want to make anyone feel worse. But you hold yourself to a ridiculously high standard: you have to look perfect or else you suck.
Despite the fact that you know the rules for “how to be perfect” are bullshit, you’ve developed a super bossy inner critic to hold you accountable for every rule you break, and tell you everything you need to do to fix each one.
Does this resonate with you?
Do you want to reject all the unrealistic beauty/body standards that hurt so many women to prove a point and be a leader…but also deep down really want to meet those standards? (And, in fact, excel at them?)
I get it.
You want to be a revolutionary, but you also want to belong.
You want to be a rebel, but you also want people to like you.
That’s why it’s so important to meet yourself where you’re at, and embrace both desires without feeling bad or guilty about either.
It’s okay to want to be beautiful, and to also reject beauty standards. It’s okay to want to be high-status, and also to believe there should be no such thing as status in the first place. This conflict is normal, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer over it.
The first step to self-acceptance is accepting that you have this conflict in the first place. That’s why I teach my clients the following five magic words:
“…and that’s not a problem”
Add this simple little phrase to the end of literally any sentence about yourself, and notice the shift in energy around the topic at hand.
“I want to lose weight…and that’s not a problem.”
“I want to shave my head…and that’s not a problem.”
“I want to be considered more beautiful/sexy than other women…and that’s not a problem.”
Do you see how powerful these words can be, to strip away guilt and judgement from the stories we tell about ourselves? Only once you accept both sides of yourself can the real work of self-examination and self-love begin, and integration of your whole self become possible.
I’m not saying these desires don’t invite self-examination—only that accepting their truth is a nonnegotiable first step before any effective examination or integration can be done.
Far too often we fall into the trap of thinking we can only have one true narrative at any time. This is false—we are complex and ever-changing, and we can hold many different (even conflicting!) truths within us at once.
This practice is about recognizing that we are big enough to hold them all, we don’t have to “choose just one,” and none of them make us a failure or a bad person.