Dolls, while writing this column—on a soggy, dull day with my hair frizzing to its highest and my derriere falling to its lowest—a question was sent to Ask Eeee (arriving by email, but over the years, versions of the question have been tweeted, G-chatted, texted, FedExed, phoned, snailed, and probably papyrused), and the query began like this: “Dear E. Jean: I hate my body….”
I will solve this problem once and for all—or at least until the next “I hate my body” question arrives. Because when the history of twenty-first-century women is written, it will be impossible to ignore the fact that every one of us dislikes some part of our physical selves—our boobs are too floppy, our thighs are too jiggly. I’ve heard it all, girls.
J. Kevin Thompson, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, has studied body image for more than 25 years and says, “Everyone has an issue. Our society is obsessed with looks. If you don’t question your appearance, you are not normal.”
If you’re one of the “Normative Discontents” (you bitch about this and that thing on your body, do what you can about it, and move on), then my advice is for you. However, if something about your body causes you such mental mayhem that your life has skidded to a halt, you must see a psychologist specializing in body image.
So, fair warning given, darlings. We’re living in one of those action comedies where the heroines walk the brink between normal crazy and insane crazy. It’s a modern fact.
If you want to change the way you feel—scratch that, the way you think—about your body, my answer is not for the pantywaists. It involves destroying that image of yourself that you’ve been carrying around in that locket. It requires counterintuitive measures that will blow your hatches. Without further ado, here is….
The Intellectual’s Approach to Being Totally Down With Your Body
1. Realize everything you find intolerable about your body is in your head.
If you learn nothing else the rest of your natural life, learn this: If you change your perception of your body, your body will change.
I spoke with the emphatic Arie Winograd, LMFT, director of the Los Angeles Body Dysmorphic Disorder & Body Image Clinic, and he said, “If you ask any high-achieving, ambitious person, they will find something about their body they don’t like.” (FYI: The more severe form of body hatred known as body dysmorphic disorder comes from “defects in visual perception,” Winograd said. It causes huge psychic pain, has a high suicide rate, and affects both sexes equally.) Bottom line? If we could ignore our flaws, we’d be happy. But we can’t. So let’s move on to the next tip.
2. Get in touch with yourself.
In the 1950s, Professor Harry F. Harlow conducted experiments at the University of Wisconsin that stunned the scientific world. He put baby monkeys into cages and did not permit the poor little creatures any touching (holding, cuddling, etc.). He provided the babies with fake cloth mothers (soft) and wire mothers (rough), some who could provide milk. Even when the wire mothers were the only source of milk, the babies still preferred the more snuggle-friendly cloth mothers. The conclusion? We need to be touched to thrive.
Want to stop insane thoughts like My legs look like shit in these skinny jeans? Simply hie thyself to the hairdresser. You’ll not only look lovely, but all the shampooing, massaging, and stroking will soak your brain in oxytocin, the hormone responsible for social bonding and inspiring trust and satisfaction. Indeed, massage is so powerful, amputees who experience pain in their phantom limbs are soothed just watching someone else’s limb being massaged. According to a fascinating article in New Scientist (March 2008), Vilayanur Ramachandran, PhD, of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, has been working with combat veterans from Iraq. As reported in the magazine, he found that “massaging the skin helps relieve a painful sensation by restoring blood flow and activating sensory fibers that inhibit pain messages to the brain. By watching another person rubbing their hand, these amputees are apparently tapping in [to blocking the pain messages to the brain].”
If seeing a massage can block pain messages, imagine what a half hour on the masseuse table will do. You can also ask your boyfriend for a back rub, rock a baby, hold hands with a crone at the senior citizens center. Touch will help kill that raging fool in your head.
3. Make love, not war, with your body.
If you’re avoiding sex with your lover because you feel self-conscious about your body, stop. Sometimes the very thing you loathe will be the thing that cures you. If you’re single, tread cautiously—don’t have sex with a superficial jerk just to have sex. And, as long as we’re talking about self-awareness here, we all know that a bad hookup can put you off sex for a long time. So don’t be stupid; make sure you’re really smitten.
That said, the fact is, darling, merely kissing someone you have a crush on can blow open your pleasure centers, and when your pleasure centers are blown, you’ll stop worrying about the size of your posterior. Helen Fisher, PhD, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers, has said smooching lowers your stress and that the sloppier the kiss, the more the testosterone can pass from the fellow to you, and the more testosterone that is passed, the quicker your sex drive may be ignited.
Auntie Eeee doesn’t care if you’re the most self-effacing, DEFCON-1, “don’t touch me” girl, ever. A kiss with the right person can throw you into euphoria for years if you fall for him (or her) over and over. Your brain will hopefully fire with adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine (the high-energy pleasure soup), and when you go beyond kissing and make love, well….
According to a study conducted in 2007 by researchers from the University of Texas, having good sex may improve your body image. But you don’t need a “study” to tell you that. Duh. It’s a romp, for God’s sake. Another human being is crushing on you, telling you that he or she likes your ass, grabbing it, worshipping it, idolizing it, and so you can’t help but feel better about your ass! As it turns out, when I recently spoke with the good Dr. Thompson, aforementioned professor and coeditor of Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in Youth, he said that though “the research is not there,” and that he would “not go on record saying sex will help, even if people have the normal discontents,” he did agree that “anything that gets you to focus on internal feelings versus outward appearance is good” at helping you love your body. He also said that “the brain controls the emotional system. If you get one small part of your emotions to open up, the rest might follow.” Exactly.
Plus, your explosions will stoke your mood. The more sex you enjoy, the more the era of “I-hate-my-body-slap-my-wrists-with- a-nun’s-ruler” will be gone, baby, gone. And when the passion ebbs, as it always does, and you’re tired to death of your husband, try something new. Take him into the backseat. A make-out session, teenage style, will boost your endorphins. Note: If you don’t have a partner, I suggest you follow the advice of the supreme Mama Gena (mamagenas.com), the author of Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts: “Put the key into the ignition, turn yourself on, and take it down the highway. Later you can take on passengers.” Mama Gena’s theory is that if you know your own body, “you will stand in your own glory.”
This letter is from the E. Jean archive.