People come in all shapes and sizes, but our culture tends to only value bodies that fit a very limited mold. Almost everyone has had the painful experience of feeling like their body doesn’t measure up. Almost everyone is somewhere along a journey of coming to terms with the unique way their body looks and works. As a therapist, you can play an important role in helping your clients on this journey.
Healing body image is often a part of my work as a sex therapist and a couples therapist. There are all sorts of ways that negative body image can hurt a relationship. If you don’t love your body, it will be hard to be comfortable being naked in front of another person, or being touched in certain places, or being in certain positions. If you’re always worrying that your appearance is turning your partner off, how can you relax into an experience of pleasure? The self-consciousness and negative self-talk might block your arousal or make it difficult to experience an orgasm. Body shame can get in the way of having a conversation with your partner about it. In this way, building body love and body acceptance is often the first step to more satisfying sexual experiences with a partner.
The way you feel about your body will naturally shape your way of experiencing the world in a fundamental way, in all spheres, not just sex. For that reason, I believe that helping your clients build a better relationship with their body is one of the most meaningful projects you can take on as a therapist.
If healing negative body image is a part of your treatment plan, where can you start? Often, I ask people to talk with me about what they love about their body. It’s quite revealing how often I hear that they can’t think of anything. When that happens, I shift the focus to function, not aesthetics.
From the perspective of function, it’s hard not to see how incredible your body is. Think of the zillions of magical and automatic functions it does every single second! If your client can take a moment to appreciate the wonder of all the work their body does every moment, that can be a seed that sprouts into a more nurturing, grateful, appreciative relationship with their body.
When a client expresses hatred for their body, I might say:
- “Your body is absolutely beautiful just exactly as it is. You don’t have to change it in order to love it or find it beautiful.”
- “This is a belief system, you know. Other cultures view this differently than ours”.
- “I’ve never known anyone to change anything about themselves by hating themselves into it.”
That last one is important if you have a client who is trying to motivate a lifestyle change while also struggling with negative body image–a difficult balancing act, and one that they will likely benefit from your support. In that vein, I advise you to be very cautious about body compliments that might come across as judgments. The urge to compliment a client who has been struggling with body hatred is understandable, but it is important to choose compliments carefully, in order to avoid falling into the same body-negative tropes that are hurting your client and us all. For instance, if a client said to me, “Do you notice I lost weight? I think I’m looking a little better,” I would respond with “I’ve always thought you are beautiful, and you know, I’m the wrong person to ask about weight loss because I just don’t see people that way.”
If you want to learn more about body positivity, or are searching for something on the topic for your client to watch, I recommend the film “Embrace.” It’s an excellent recent documentary and a real education in body acceptance and body politics.