Working on healing your relationship with your body is challenging if you’re constantly facing a negative body image.
For example, if you’re consistently concerned about what others think of your body, you’re also likely to feel shameful about your body or that it doesn’t measure up. And that’s not your fault, given our cultural fascination with the thin, young, white beauty ideal for women’s bodies.
Body Image vs. Embodiment
As a culture, we toss around the term “body image” somewhat lightly. According to Elizabeth Scott, LCSW and co-founder of The Body Positive, body image is a narrow view that relates only to imagery, how other people see you or how you see yourself.
Embodiment is a more holistic view of how you physically and emotionally feel in your body.
This bigger picture view includes more about how you experience life, like how past traumas or social injustices that you’ve suffered may affect your ability to create a positive body image.
Traumatic experiences and social injustice affect body image
I’d like to introduce you to the work of world-renowned clinical psychologist and female embodiment researcher, Dr. Niva Piran. In her words,
"Body journeys allow for a connection with a range of embodied experiences and the uncovering of social experiences that enhance or disrupt our embodiment. They validate and problematize often silenced experiences and mobilize girls and women to take on paths that enhance their embodiment and their well-being."
Dr. Piran developed the innovative Developmental Theory of Embodiment, which describes how both protective and harmful cultural ideologies influence women’s and girls' views of their bodies.
During her career as a feminist researcher, Dr. Piran conducted many interviews and over 2000 qualitative surveys with women and girls about their “body stories”. Think of body stories as behind the scenes of your body image.
Through this research, she was able to see embodiment as a spectrum. A positive connection with the body is at one end, and a disrupted connection at the other; she used this as an alternative to talking about body image.
Embodiment can be seen as a spectrum, influenced by many cultural factors
Dr. Piran’s research found that there are multiple cultural influences that affect a woman’s or girl’s ability to find embodiment. For example, when you can find comfort in your body and inhabit your body with ease as you move through life, this has a positive effect on your ability to be embodied.
You can feel relaxed and more in touch with your passions and desires, such as hunger, satiety, sexuality, and life’s purpose.
Being able to have space for self-care is a key part of this process, as is being able to self regulate emotional and physical needs. Most importantly, you need to feel like you have a voice to speak up for setting boundaries around or negotiate for those needs.
Here’s a real-life example. A client and I were working on healing her relationship with food. She was struggling with binge eating, especially in the evening.
After a few sessions, she mentioned that she was anxious and stressed about finances and trying to make ends meet. She was feeling undervalued at her job as an admin assistant for a wellness company that charged clients a sizeable amount of money for their 5-day program, yet her hourly wage was barely enough to cover basic living expenses.
I asked her, hypothetically, if her role didn’t exist, how would that affect the company’s success? Given that she was the direct contact person for all the guests, ensuring their enjoyment of the program, her role was essential. And she was fantastic in her role, frequently getting positive feedback from other staff and, most importantly, the guests.
This is a clear example of a woman in an influential role trying to live with a significant wage gap. Her financial stress caused her to limit her food intake during the day to just what was offered at work in order to save money. Naturally, she was ravenous by the time she got home.
The social injustice of not getting paid what she was worth in her position was affecting her ability to find embodiment - to support her self care, to get her basic needs met.
Together we came up with a strategy for her to ask for a raise, based on the competitive salaries other companies were offering for positions similar to hers. Feeling more empowered, she was able to negotiate for a higher wage and set boundaries around her work schedule to allow more time for self-care.
Today, even in the 21st century, we see multiple examples of societal silencing of injustices to women and girls - sexual violence, the gender wage gap, and limited role models of women in positions of power.
In her recent podcast episode on Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue, Dr. Piran describes the various theories about different challenges of embodiment that girls and women face, including the desire for thinness.
She explains, “if as a culture we look at the thin beauty ideal as the only reason behind why eating disorders (and dieting in general) occur, then we are silencing all the complexities related to all the social challenges that women and girls face.” Complexities such as trauma and oppression equally contribute to embodiment disruption, which leads to negative body image and disordered eating.
As a culture, we need to do better!
As a culture, we need to strive for providing social conditions that offer greater equity in society for women and girls (and increasingly trans folx). It’s simply not good enough to just tell femmes to love their bodies or improve their body image.
As a culture, we need to increase awareness of the challenges women and girls face that disrupt their embodiment - in health care, education, parenting, and institutions of power, etc. When you define embodiment, you’re really defining the entire feminist movement.
If this idea lights your curiosity fire and you'd like to learn more about Niva's Developmental Theory of Embodiment, her book, "Journeys of Embodiment, Intersection of Body and Culture." is a terrific resource.
How does this all relate to your body story?
Your ability to practice embodiment (and feel safe doing so) is an essential part of your human experience, and it directly affects your body image. Likewise, being able to create a positive body image directly affects your relationship with food.
To dive deeper into how cultural beliefs impact your ability to be in your body, just as it is today, download the free Get Nourished Guide. Better still? Schedule a free 20-minute discovery and let's dig deeper together!