When Your Body Image Affects Your Anxiety

How many 40 year old women do you think have had the experience of living their entire lives without hating their bodies at some point? I don't know one person that I can think of that hasn't complained about her weight, hair, nose, thighs, etc. In fact, female body hatred is so prevalent and accepted that someone being okay with their "flaws" is absolutely revolutionary! Personally, I have managed to waste way too much time criticizing, examining and putting down various aspects of my physical appearance my entire life. The craziest thing about that is that the worse my anxiety was, the more stressed out I was, the harsher I was on myself and the more I noticed these faults. Thankfully, I have learned to separate my self esteem from my weight and hair (my areas of feeling self conscious) most of the time. Not all of the time and not perfectly. I continue to encounter this mentality in my personal and professional life as a therapist regularly. Recently, I overheard someone apologizing for eating so much at a party and being "bad". Someone else was talking about how "good" she was for following her very restrictive diet. Yet another person complained that she was so "unhealthy" because she has gained weight over the years. When pressed further about what makes her unhealthy she indicated that she was actually more active than ever and was more in tune with her body's fullness signal. I put the words bad, good and unhealthy in quotation marks because these have become the new code words for how to evaluate women's appearance. People are quick to advise ways to "improve" skin, lashes, wrinkles, hair and of course weight. In fact, the beauty industry in the USA and around the world capitalizes on fear of imperfection. Fear of aging, of gaining weight and of appearing less than ideal has women spending thousands of dollars per year for remedies. This fear can often translate into the anxiety that plagues so many women today.

In my practice I help people who are struggling with anxiety and perfectionism to manage their symptoms and give themselves a break. To help them realize that most of their expectations of themselves are self imposed. But it's different when it comes to women's appearance because the expectations are not self imposed, rather they are a result of the socialization they received as young girls to look pretty and to be valued by their appearance. These expectations continued to be reinforced through the images of women that are glorified on TV, in the movies and in magazines. Who are most leading ladies? White, conventionally pretty, thin, heavily made up and all signs of aging erased through the magic of makeup and photoshop. How often do you see fat women, women of color or women past a certain age portrayed as attractive and desirable? The message that only a certain type of woman is worthy is absorbed by both men and women who grow to believe that anything outside of this norm is unacceptable.

I'm sure that I'm not writing anything that hasn't already been written about. We all know about impossible standards of beauty and their effects on society at large. We are even becoming more aware about how these standards of beauty can lead to eating disorders. But have you thought about how hating your body affects you in a million little ways on a daily basis? How much is being made of the smaller but frequent times that body hatred is a part of your routine?

In my work with women, it is common for weight and appearance to become a recurring topic in session. How a bad hair day was at the root of a panic attack. How being the fattest one in the room caused anxiety and paranoia to skyrocket. How a blemish on a face leads to a crying fit. These are all real experiences and from the outside it may seem an over dramatic reaction. But let's return to the words good/bad. When you say you've been "good" about eating, skin care, hair care, etc. you are validating your worth by an action you took. In other words, you are less worthy (bad) if you overeat and more worthy (good) if you eat food types or amounts that you deem acceptable. You don't have worth because you are alive and are a human being, your worth is a result of the amount of calories you consumed, your dress size or your skin clarity. At this point, your weight and skin start to take on a greater importance than they need in your life. They define you. They are there to let you know if you are good or bad. You see yourself as your weight or skin, when you are truly so much more.

It is so hard to manage anxiety with all of the responsibilities that stress us out and the triggers that affect us daily. When you begin to doubt your abilities because of your appearance, you are adding an additional layer of self doubt that makes it so much harder to believe in yourself and your ability to solve the stresses that lead to your anxiety. Your anxiety finds new ways to make you feel like you will never be good enough and will never accomplish your goals. You will never be thin enough. You will never be pretty enough. You will never be young enough. You will never be enough.

Anxiety stems from a deep rooted belief that you are not "enough" to solve your problems or accomplish your goals. When the standard of beauty is impossible to attain, your anxiety will convince you to try everything you can to change. In the same way your anxiety convinced you that you need to be a perfect mom or a perfect employee, it will also convince you that you need to look perfect.

Can you challenge your anxiety? Can you ask your self, who decided that being old was imperfect or being fat was unacceptable? The tough thing about doing this is that you are not only standing up to your anxiety, you are standing up to society at large. You are making a statement when you accept yourself for who you are right now. It is revolutionary to say, "I am fat" as a statement of fact and not an insult. It is revolutionary to say, "I am old" without apologies and with pride. It is revolutionary to love the color of your skin when it isn't white and to find it perfect just the way it is.

Can we start a revolution? I am trying very hard, and I have joined thousands and millions of other women who are sick of wasting their precious time and energy worrying about their appearance because there are SO MANY legitimate things to worry about! If we all agree to stop apologizing for being "bad", we can actually realize how good we truly are.