Monday, April 2, 2012

Series: Self Esteem Sneak Attacks (Part 4)

There are some attacks on our body image and self-esteem that are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them.  They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up.  Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us. The series begins here on 3/28/12.
Today's Sneak Attack: The Insult by Proxy
We've all been in a situation where someone (whether a friend or someone in the media) mocks the weight of someone thinner than you.  The inevitable thought that pops up for me is, "if they think so badly of that person, what must they think about ME?"
We've also all shared the experience of someone complaining about a body feature you share, or tells a joke where the butt of the joke shares attributes with you.
Most of us have also had that moment where we're hanging out with friends or at a party and get trapped in an "uglier than thou" contest, where each person tries to outdo the other in trash talking some part of their body that they find unacceptable.
A lot of our learning comes from imitating others.  This starts in infancy with something called "gaze following," where a baby looks in the same direction as adults to learn how to discern what is important.  It's an essential element of language acquisition. 
Another important element of learning is called "modeling," which says that we learn a lot about how to act, dress, think and speak by observing how others do so.  This means that when the people around us think badly of themselves and their bodies, we experience an intense, hard-wired, instinctive urge to imitate them.
The good news is that instincts can be overcome by conscious thought and practice.  When we feel that tell-tale sense of doubt that means we want to conform to other peoples' poor body image, it is important to intervene.  Try one or all of these affirmations:
I don't have to own someone else's problems with their body
I can feel sorry for someone who thinks so badly about themselves.
My body is all right, and so is their's.  They just don't know it.
This person is trained to think that way about themselves.  I don't have to follow.
They're wrong about me and my body.
My body is fine the way it is. 
I can sympathize with their pain without making it mine.
If you can, remove yourself from the company or influence of the person who is creating negativity for you.  You don't have to make a big deal about it, but you get to decide what threats to your own self-esteem you can handle.  I have days where I have to say, "I am feeling tired and emotionally vulnerable; I can't be around this person without it affecting me negatively." On other days it doesn't bother me.  I have to do what's best for me, and avoid what negativity I can on vulnerable days.  I have to set that boundary for myself.
There is a philosophical analogy known as "Plato's Cave" that applies here.  Imagine a group of people who live their entire lives chained inside a cave, facing a blank wall.  They only see vague shadows and develop theories of what things look like and are based on the shadows (their only perception of reality).  One day a prisoner escapes the cave and goes out into the world.  He suddenly learns that things are not made of shadows and there is an entire reality unperceived by those in the cave.
One version has the prisoner return to the cave and try to explain what he has seen to the other prisoners.  They, of course, dismiss him as delusional. After all, they've known nothing but shadows all their lives; of course that's all there is. 
We spend our entire lives immersed in a culture of body dissatisfaction that medicalizes differences in how we're made and treats us as diseases.  Those who have never been introduced to body acceptance concepts are still in the cave.  They have an entirely different view of the world to the point where they may not even be able to understand what you're saying.   
From this perspective, you can understand and empathize with them.  Of course they think badly of their body; that's how it's done and it's all they've ever known.  You, however, know differently.  They may see you as a radical (or even delusional) because you are breaking away into a new paradigm, but that doesn't make them right.  It makes them not in posession of all the facts. 
The fact is that despite our instinctive urges to conform to society's body and fat hatred, we have the cognitive ability to override those instincts. We can choose to reject people with body issues as models for our own thoughts and behaviors.  We can choose to not own other peoples' dissatisfaction and be only accountable to ourselves. 
Your body, your choice.

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