Healing Body Image
Do you ever feel that other people have less body image issues than you? That other people are more comfortable with their bodies? I hate to burst your bubble, but Joyce and I have never met anyone who is at peace with their face and body, who completely accepts how they look or feel in their bodies. There was a nightclub singer/performer at one of our workshops who could have won any beauty contest. Her face and body were truly gorgeous. And she moved with such ease and grace that she appeared to be proud of her looks. You can imagine everyone’s surprise when she revealed the depth of her discomfort with her body. She actually felt she was ugly.
There is such a deep conditioning in almost all cultures worldwide. It is hard to escape the petty judgments of our outer appearance, all of which by the way are mere projections. If your parents, teachers, siblings or peers are unhappy with their own bodies, they may project their unhappiness onto you. And if they’re jealous of how you look, it could make their comments even worse. People see too often through the filter of their own body image. Especially as children, without developed filters of our own, we take in these negative comments as the truth about us.
My dad is a good example. Overweight most of his adult life, by the time he was 60 he had had two cardiac bypass surgeries. His doctor, concerned about his health, and my mother, afraid of losing him, both harped on him constantly to lose weight. His retirement years were spent living in a world where there were two kinds of people: overweight and underweight. It was sad and funny at the same time. My parents traveled periodically from their home in San Diego to visit us. Walking into our house, first there would be the welcome hugs. Then, without any other words being spoken, my dad would look me up and down and say in his distinctive Brooklyn accent, “Barry, you’ve gained!” or “Barry, you’ve lost!” Then he’d look at Joyce and say, “Joyce, you’ve lost!” He had more tact with Joyce than with me. With his young grandchildren he was usually safe with the “gained” category. They were growing after all. Because of his preoccupation with his own weight, he too often saw others through his filter of either gaining weight or losing weight.
A few years back, before I got good at spam filtering, my email inbox was filled with “penis enlargement” offers. As if a larger penis would allow a man to feel manlier. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. In our work with couples, penis size has never, I repeat, never been the issue. It’s not the size, it’s how it’s used, and with how much love, that’s important.
Sometimes, in our workshops, we break out into pairs or small groups to work on our body image issues. And remember, we’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have body image issues. We encourage every participant to be completely honest with their feelings about their bodies. And they do. The comments cover the complete range: fat, skinny, ugly, too tall, too short, features too big or too small, too little hair, too much hair, too many wrinkles, weakness, sickness, too little energy, you name it. Then, after all this is shared, a wonderful thing happens. Joyce and I ask those one, two or three other people in the group to point out the beauty they see in the person who just spoke. True, it is always easier to see beauty in someone else than it is to see it in yourself. Yet it helps, sometimes enormously, to be seen as beautiful, or loving, or just right, and the feature you dislike the most is often seen by others as the cornerstone of your beauty. The nose you think is too big (OK, that’s one of my body issues), others see as strong and distinctive. A man who was ashamed of his shortness, who felt more like a boy than a man, was seen as just as powerful as any other man in the workshop. It brought tears of relief to his eyes.
We have no idea how much we help each other by pointing out beauty. Joyce and I had the most wonderful training in Los Angeles from 1970-1972. We had two “appreciation teachers” at the time. One was Leo Buscaglia and the other was a young woman in her early twenties. They appreciated us and everyone else with passion and innocence. They saw so much beauty in Joyce and me, we had no choice but to absorb what they were seeing, and revision ourselves. It became extremely contagious. We began seeing beauty and love in everyone we met. Yes, it was the early 70’s in LA hippie central, but it became a spiritual practice we use to this day.
Joyce and I will be 64 this month. Rather than singing the old Beatles’ song, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” a more accurate song is, “Do you still find me attractive?” When I tell Joyce how beautiful she looks, that she has the body of a love goddess, that I feel so deeply attracted to her, and that I always look forward to making love to her, she shyly smiles and says in an enthusiastic voice, “Really?!” Even though it may be interpreted as a question, it’s actually not. She is wholeheartedly taking my appreciation into her very body and soul.
Likewise, it’s too easy for me to look into the mirror and notice proof of aging: skin sagging, belly growing, muscles diminishing, and OK, nose growing. It feels so good when Joyce tells me how good I look, and how attracted she is to me. She tells me I’m the most handsome man she has ever known. That feels good!