Body Love and Body Kindness, Feminism and Love, Healing Difficult Emotions, Overcoming Self-loathing and Anxiety

Our Hunger, Our Body Mythology, and the Weight We Carry

There is a common trope on TV and movies: There is some girl, and at the beginning of the story, she is portrayed as an “ugly duckling”. Perhaps she is the “wrong size”, “unfashionable”, she doesn’t do her hair and make up “right”.

The movie portrays her as being “ugly”[1] as compared to some implied standard, and in this state, she is lonely, unnoticed, unfulfilled, miserable.

And then suddenly a transformation happens. She loses weight. She learns how to dress. Someone teaches her how to use makeup and do her hair.

Suddenly, she is happy. Everyone loves her. All her problems, it seems, are solved. She is the beautiful, perfect, swan.[2] She is “saved”.

Our Body Mythology

Every culture has a mythology, sometimes many mythologies. A mythology tells the story about the problem of good and evil and our salvation. Mythologies often tell us who the good people are and who the lost people are and how we can go about claiming the happiness and belonging we all desire.

Culturally, we have created an elaborate Body Mythology of beauty and thinness, and our mythology goes something like this:

There is a beautiful world, heaven, and there is one path that leads to it: the path of beauty and thinness. And those who diet and lose weight find salvation, happiness, joy, and release from all kinds of suffering. Those who don’t are lost, miserable, unfulfilled, and loveless.

The Body Mythology is powerful, and through it we, especially women, develop the idea that if we have any problems, it is because we weigh too much or we are not beautiful enough.
Frank Dicksee The Mirror

Frank Dicksee, “The Mirror”

If boyfriends or partners leave us or we feel starved for love, we believe it is because we are not beautiful enough, not thin enough. Because beautiful, thin girls don’t have problems, the mythology tells us. They always feel fulfilled and happy. Everyone loves them. And strangers approach them on the street and give them bouquets of roses in celebration of their beauty and magic.[3]

So when we feel unloved, when we feel depressed, incompetent, vulnerable, we translate these feelings into “I feel fat. I feel ugly.” (I have written more about the ubiquity of feelings of unworthiness and ugliness, especially for women. You can read more about this here.)

Our mythology divides the world into have and have nots, masters and slaves, winners and losers, those deserving of dignity and those deserving of nothing. And of course, we have decided that the “thin and beautiful” are on the winning side of this equation and everyone else is on the other side.

And we spend thousands of hours and dollars and an exhausting amount of emotional energy trying to be thin and beautiful enough.

And it is never enough.

The Body Mythology Unmasked

One of the most shocking things about our Body mythology is that it is patently untrue, and we see evidence of this every day.

Someone can follow all the rules of the Body Mythology religiously and still suffer lovelessness, heartache and despair.

Princess Dianna’s tragedy was one of my first exposures to the absurdity of our Body Mythology. Here was this amazing woman, who seem to fulfill all of the rules of the Body Mythology, and yet she faced so much despair, lovelessness, and emotional abandonment. It eventually led to her tragic death.

Princess Di’s story is a story we see repeated every day, especially in tragic movie star relationships, in which the folks involved embody, paradoxically, both extreme ideals of beauty and extreme levels of despair and suffering.

John William Watterhouse I am half sick of shadows.jpg

John William Waterhouse, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows”

And on the flip side of this, there are so many people who do not seem to meet the standards of our elaborate Body Mythology and yet have beautiful, loving, enduring relationships.

In addition, because the Body Mythology is mostly aimed at women, it is important to note that there are women everywhere who clearly defy Body Mythology rules and live happy, healthy, fulfilled lives full of love and joy. Plus-sized models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday embody this. (You can read more about them here, here, here, and here.[4])

Our Body Mythology is clearly and radically untrue, and yet it has such a stranglehold on us.

Naomi Wolf captures the power of the Body Mythology well in her book The Beauty Myth when she writes, “More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret ‘underlife’ poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.”[5]

Hunger and Love

Perhaps one way to understand the unrelenting power of our Body Mythology has over us is to reflect on our hunger.

We come into the world without a stable sense of ourselves or of our identity. What we have is a deep hunger.

We hunger to be seen by others, to be recognized. We only achieve a stable sense of ourselves when other people see and honor us as we actually are: free and independent human beings, with the right and responsibility to define ourselves and our life through our choices in a way that extends this same recognition to others.

This is why babies love to interact with their parents and to elicit smiles from them. In this loving exchange, the babies gain recognition from their parents, and this begins to give them a stable sense that they are independent from, yet intimately connected with, their parents through bonds of love.

It is also the reason why young adults exert their independence from their parents and demand to be taken seriously. In achieving recognition from their parents at this stage in their lives, adolescents further achieve their stable sense of self.

And it is also the reason we hunger for loving and vulnerable relationships so deeply. For it is in these relationships that we show up powerfully as ourselves, and our friends and partners say, directly and indirectly, “I see you and honor you. You matter.”

This reflects Hegel’s notion that “True union, or love proper, exists only between living things who are alike in power and thus in one another’s eyes living beings from every point of view; in no respect is either dead for the other.”[6]

Women With Waterjugs Frank Dicksee

Women With Waterjugs”, Frank Dicksee

 

Our ultimate hunger and our deepest desire is love. We cannot achieve a stable sense of ourselves without regularly filling this hunger. Hegel says as much when he says that self-consciousness is desire.[7] And, indeed, this hunger never entirely goes away, just as our physical hunger never does.

On the flip side, if people do not recognize us, if they believe instead that the purpose of our existence is merely to meet their needs or do their bidding or be what they tell us to be, it is hard for us to gain a stable, productive sense of ourselves.

We see this clearly in examples of slavery in which human beings are never recognized as having freedom and independent selfhood. They often fail to develop abilities to think independently, to assert themselves, and to develop habits and actions of mature independence. Since they are never recognized as having the ability to do so, it is hard for them to recognize themselves as having the ability to do so.

We also see it in situations in life in which people are not technically slaves but in which their personhood is never affirmed. This would be the case with children whose parents never consistently recognize their freedom and honor their humanity through relationships of love and respect. Children in these situations struggle to find themselves and construct a stable identity that allows them to thrive as human beings.

It is also the case in which we are in friendships or partnerships in which people use us solely to fill their own needs for dominance, control, and security.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci William Waterhouse

“La Bell Dame Sans Merci”, John William Watterhouse

It is important to note that when people fail to recognize our independent personhood, they treat us, instead, as a slave or tool. And perhaps we often submit to this slave status because we believe, consciously or unconsciously, that it brings us love or safety or consistency

But this slave status can never satisfy our hunger for love and recognition. Because of this, it becomes an unbearable emotional weight: the weight of relentless, unfulfilled hunger.

The Body Mythology and Our Perpetual Hunger

And this is the weight we carry with our Body Mythology.

Many women and men internalize the message of the Body Mythology early on (it is culturally ubiquitous), and for many years, it is the only way we know how to gain recognition and a sense of self: “If I am thin enough and beautiful enough, people will eventually see me”, we think.

But soon we learn, whether we realize it or not, that we will never gain the love and recognition we hunger for from our mythology, for it tells us that we deserve recognition and love only if we are “beautiful enough” and “thin enough”, and this is not recognition of who we are: free people who have the right and responsibility to create our own lives, according to moral standards we discover ourselves to be true, not that someone forces upon us.[8]

And the Body Mythology actually turns out to be a lie for reasons we have previously discussed and because one can never be too thin or beautiful enough. Consider how cultural beauty standards vary wildly and are often contradictory. And even if they were homogeneous, NO ONE can ever meet a standard 24/7 all the years of his or her life.

This means, which we actually know deep down, that our worth as a person cannot reside in meeting some idea of beauty or thinness. The Body Mythology always requires us to chase our worth and never allows us to catch it.

It turns us into slaves whose only existence is to obey the Body Mythology, and we come to realize painfully (as all slaves do) that one can never earn one’s freedom by being a good enough slave.

One of the most insightful passages about the psychological weight of slavery comes from a very odd and sometimes difficult to understand book, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel suggests that when enter into a master and slave relationship (as we do when we fail to achieve relationships of mutual recognition) we initially lose our identity to that person (or mythology) we become a slave to. Our identity becomes wrapped up, not in our own independent projects, but in making things for the master and carrying out his wishes. [9]

We could correlate this to the way that women (and anyone else) enslaved by the Body Mythology lose their own identity and projects and become consumed with trying to follow the Body Mythology. Their own sense of self becomes smaller and smaller, and their identity is swallowed up in the mythology.

The most vivid example of this, I think, is Pro-Ana (Pro-Anorexia) communities online, which overtly praise and pursue the path of anorexia and regularly celebrate images of skeletal, gaunt, wasting girls and women.[10]  On these sites, anorexia is often personified as a goddess, Ana, and a common meme is one praising Ana with the phrase, “I love you to the bones.”

John Everett Millais Ophelia.jpg

“Ophelia”, John Everett Millais

It should be noted that anorexia is the #1 killer of teenage girls.[11]

This is reminiscent of what Hegel writes of those entering into the status of servitude, “They put an end to themselves, and are done away with as extremes wanting to be for themselves, or to have an existence of their own.”[12]

Out of Slavery

I have always been fascinated with stories of slaves who rebelled and ran away from their masters. For a slave to run away and risk freedom was an incredibly vulnerable and risky enterprise—one that would most certainly result, if the slave was captured again, in beatings and even death. I always wonder, “How does one decide that it is worth enduring incredible vulnerability and pain in order to become free?”

In stories about slaves that fight for their freedom, it seems like there is always a moment in which the slave realizes that she[13] is more than her conditions. She sees the dignity and honor in her work. Hope kindles in her breast. She sees herself reflected back in the beatings and sufferings of her fellow slaves, and she realizes, “That is me. I suffer, too. We should not have to suffer.”

The work and suffering and perseverance of the slave become an externalization, or a mirror, of her freedom and dignity as human being, and she says to herself, “Look at what I create. Look at what I suffer. I am free and deserve recognition for my freedom.” Hegel echoes this idea when he writes that through working on things the slave “Becomes conscious of who he truly is.”[14]

And while Hegel doesn’t say this explicitly, I think it is partly in the suffering and hope[15] the slave sees in his work and that of other slaves that he finds himself.

The Lady of Shallott John William Waterhouse

“The Lady of Shalott”, by James William Waterhouse

The Weight We Carry

And perhaps this moment of internal recognition is the key to escaping the slavery of our Body Mythology.

We are culturally obsessed with physical weight and all of its ostensible dangers, but it turns out that the  most painful and dangerous weight of all is the emotional weight of feeling unrecognized and unlovable, and this is a weight we never lose as long as we are enslaved to the Body Mythology.

The Body Mythology tells us that if we feed our hunger, we will gain weight, and we will become horrible, unlovable people. The real truth is that the more we buy into the Body Mythology, the more we fail to feed our emotional hunger, and the heavier our emotional weight becomes, and it is unbearable.

We do all manner of things to lose this emotional weight. We binge ourselves into bulimia. Or starve ourselves into anorexia. Or control ourselves and our food purity into orthorexia. Or drive ourselves into the ground through workaholism and perfectionism. Or lose ourselves in addictions to numb the pain. Or control others as a proxy for controlling our lurking fear and despair. Or lose ourselves in pleasing others to try to get love.

And all the while we are sill so hungry for love, and we feel like we will never be rid of our hunger and the emotional weight we carry.

And perhaps admitting and recognizing how much we suffer from the Body Mythology and how much we still maintain hope (and see ourselves in this hope) is the moment we find our freedom.

It seems that only way that we lose this weight is to feed our hunger.

We suffer because we were not meant to be slaves—to the Body Mythology or anything else.

We were not meant to live a life in which we only have the right to be loved and respected if we meet some arbitrary standard of beauty or thinness (or some other standard). These are completely useless yardsticks for measuring a human life.

We hope because there is, indeed, another way to live.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we gave up our Body Mythology, fed our emotional hunger, and released our emotional weight.

Please take a minute to imagine with me.

Imagine how we would feel if we realized we are completely deserving and capable of love and recognition right now.

Imagine the emotional and physical energy we would have if we broke the shackles of the Body Mythology.

Imagine the ways we could reclaim our identity and construct our identity creatively if we no longer drove ourselves to fulfill the dictates of the Body Mythology.

Poem of the Soul.png

“Poem of the Soul”, by Louis Janmot

Imagine how freely our emotions could flow and how our bodies would rejoice if we finally understood that the Body Mythology is just that: a myth. And we don’t have to believe it anymore.

We escape our slavery when we realize that love and recognition are not something we must earn but something that is ours right now, and that it starts with us extending this recognition and love to ourselves.[16]

*****

If you found this post helpful, please consider sharing it on social media.

You might also enjoy these posts:

What To Do When You Hate Your Body

Why Your Body is Beautiful Right Now, No Matter What

Body-Anxiety and Body-Shame: The Epidemic and the Escape

[1] I really dislike these movie tropes and stereotypes, and so I am putting the descriptor “ugly”, and other descriptors like it, in air quotes for reasons that will hopefully become clearer as the post goes on.

[2] There are certainly stories where a male figure undergoes this transformation, but in my experience, most of these ugly duckling to beauty queen stories involve a female protagonist.

[3] This was the basic premise of a commercial I saw a few years ago.

[4] It is important to note that both Graham and Holliday, while defying the Body Mythology in some ways, also conform to it in other ways (this is probably inevitable if one is a fashion model, which both are). So, I do not mean to suggest that either model is a perfect example of defying the Body Mythology. Rather, I suggest that these two women are somewhere on the continuum of Body Mythology defiance.

[5] Naomi Wolf. The Beauty Myth. Harper Perennial. 2002, pg. 10

[6] Hegel. “Love”, T.M. Knox, trans. (1970). ttps://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/love/index.htm

[7] Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit. V.A. Miller, trans. Oxford University Press, 1977., § 174

[8] I am not denying here that there are universal, moral standards. Rather, I am suggesting here that when standards are forced on us and we are never allowed to figure out if they are true or not ourselves, we cannot fully own or understand their truth. The truth of them will not belong to us.

[9] Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit, § 188-190

[10] I don’t want to promote such sites, but you can read secondary literature about the Pro-Ana movement here and here.)

[11] Naomi Wolf. The Beauty Myth, pg. 5

[12] Ibid, §188

[13] Of course there are male slaves that fight for their freedom. But since I am focusing a great deal on women in this essay and because I am a woman, I will use the pronoun her. Much love to my male readers, too. You’re awesome.

[14] Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit, §195

[15] In slave narratives, there is often a moment in which a slave takes pride in her beautiful work and realizes that she does the work, not because the master forced her to, but because it is a reflection of her spirit and dignity. I read these as moments of hope.

[16] In case you worry that unconditional love like this is an excuse for bad behavior, you might like this post.

18 thoughts on “Our Hunger, Our Body Mythology, and the Weight We Carry”

  1. There is so much food for thought (ha ha) here, Shelley. I loved your selection of pre-raphaelite paintings. There are so many layers of interpretation in these now I am an adult, but I remember being entranced by them as a teenager. Now I love all the rendering of textures, but they are conditioning us too. I will talk to my daughters about this mythology. We have many a good dinner table chat based on your posts!

    1. Haha, Ali! I like that pun. It gives me so much joy to know that you discuss these things with your girls. I think I have mentioned that I often write things I wish I had known when I was a teenager, hoping they will reach folks like me when I was younger. So, you are helping my dream to come true!

  2. I truly love how in depth your posts are with descriptions and examples of various types. I agree and have absolute resonance with your thought process. Beauty is such a purely inner expression and our body so much becomes what judgments we feed it with.

    1. P, thank you so much for noticing all my descriptions and examples. I work really hard to try to find good ones that fit with the material. I am so glad they work for you. And I love your last line about our body becoming the judgements we feed it. I 100% agree.

        1. I deeply appreciate this post, P, because I do really put a lot of thought into them. Thank you so much! (I also hope it is okay if I call you P. I am still learning your name and trying to make sure I spell it right. It is a lovely name!)

    2. Haha, Ali! I like that pun. It gives me so much joy to know that you discuss these things with your girls. I think I have mentioned that I often write things I wish I had known when I was a teenager, hoping they will reach folks like me when I was younger. So, you are helping my dream to come true!

  3. If I had not read your bio, I would still know that you are a scholar by your writing. I love that your posts are well written and in depth. This one, in particular, is just what is needed in the world today. I think you are an important writer on this topic. Thank you!

    1. These are such kind, kind compliments, Friend! This is an incredibly important topic to me, so I am so grateful that you feel like they are well-written and in-depth and that you believe they are needed. And thank you for your kind words on my being a scholar :). I work to strike a balance between being scholarly and also appealing to anyone who struggles with these same issues.

    1. I completely agree, M.B. I think things are starting to change a little bit, but it is way too slow. Media has tremendous pressure on us, so it has got to get with the program! (haha–unintended pun)

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