What do you believe, in your core, about the nature of existence?
By that I mean:
Why do you believe you are here?
Why do you believe any of us are here?
Why do bad things happen to good people, and what’s the point of having consciousness?
What makes a person worthy of love and belonging?
These questions have fascinated (and haunted) me for as long as I can remember, but I meet people all the time who have never stopped to ask or answer them.
I’m asking them now because body image isn’t just about the body. If you dig below the surface of the body story, you’ll find pain and fear: the tangible human fear of being rejected or abandoned, and the pain of feeling unworthy of love or belonging.
But if you keep digging, you’ll eventually find a powerful current of existential suffering
A friend who is sober once called this existential suffering “a feeling of having been abandoned by God.” I sometimes call it a feeling of existential wrongness, as if your very existence on earth was a meaningless mistake. Some people mistakenly call it depression, or anxiety.
One of my favorite playwrights says:
“You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”
Existential suffering sometimes feels like a deep unease with how things are, of life and death, and the random acts of kindness and evil in between. Sometimes it looks like rage, about the multitudes of injustice in the world, or been overwhelmed by the sense of being utterly alone and without purpose. Sometimes it’s like peering into a terrifying abyss that you must avoid at all costs.
To cope with this unease, some of us binge eat, or diet, or become perfectionists, or people-please, or pick apart every so-called “flaw” on our bodies. Some of us gamble, or shop, or drink, or get high. Some of us become unable to sit in stillness, choosing instead to stay constantly busy. Some of us armor ourselves with anger and violence, or wall off our grief from ourselves to become utterly numb.
I believe most body image issues will eventually come down to questions of existence, because they rest upon a foundation of existential suffering-
which is not to say you have to believe in woo-woo spiritual stuff to overcome body image issues. Not by a long shot!
But think about what you say to yourself when you are criticizing your body, or beating yourself up for something.
The angle we tend to use when absorbed in our own imperfections is that of “should.”
I shouldn’t have eaten that.
My legs are too fat. (Aka they should be thinner.)
My breasts are too saggy. (Aka they should be perkier.)
Superficially, we can say these statements reflect the cultural messages we’ve absorbed about what we should and shouldn’t look like, do, or be.
But you and I both know it goes deeper than that.
Your husband and your best friend and your family and me and everyone in your book club can all tell you that your legs are FINE, your breasts are FINE, you are FINE, but still the message circulates around your mind: I shouldn’t do/be/look like this.
That’s because the urge to say how things should and shouldn’t be is one of existential nature. It’s a deeply ingrained habit to constantly make decisions about “how things should be.”
This mental habit is what causes our suffering, not our bodies.
We suffer because we are constantly trying to control things which were never in our control.
So… what do you believe about the nature of existence? Should it be different than it is? How does it feel to think that way? How would it feel if everything actually was exactly as it should be?
Bear in mind, there are no answers to the big questions of existence. None that we can ever prove as right or wrong, anyway. We are literally making this up; we can never really know the answers.
Why not choose answers that set us free to be our most gloriously open, expansive, authentic selves, then? Why not choose answers that free us from existential suffering?
Personally, my answers to the questions of the nature of existence have taken me decades to embrace, but can now be summed up by Elia Kazan’s quote:
“I am not a cosmic orphan. I have no reason to be timid.”
My body image and my “spiritual” (read: existential) beliefs are hopelessly entangled.
I could go on and on about my beliefs, but frankly they don’t matter all that much, and they probably wouldn’t even make that much sense, because they are deeply and personally mine. They are the result of my habitually facing, examining, and answering the questions of my own existential pain and fear in a way that sets me free from suffering.
I am bone-deep convinced of my own worthiness (and therefore that my body doesn’t need to be fixed, changed, or controlled) because of what I choose to believe about the nature of the universe.
How about for you?
Have you ever asked these existential questions before?
How do your beliefs impact your body image?
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