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December 2, 2016

What’s Holding Your Body Image Captive?

What’s Holding Your Body Image Captive?

This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery or body image acceptance. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.

by Melinda Folse. Melinda is the author of Riding Through Thick and Thin, as well as best-selling The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses, along with articles and essays that explore the many metaphors to be found between working with horses and universal women’s issues, from body image to aging to confidence, authenticity, and connection. Visit her at, and connect with her via email, Facebook, Twitter.

Chances are, there has been a time (or for some of us, it’s a constant) in which you questioned your size, shape, body type, or physical attributes. Which is to say, most of us, at one time or another, think we’re either too fat, too skinny too tall, too short, too muscular, too…or whatever else you can think of. Even the list of what plagues us about our body image is enough to wear us out.

Now, I’m a more or less “normal” sized woman (whatever that means) who has struggled with this issue for most of my life. And, even though I’ve never technically been at either edge of the overweight/underweight spectrum, I can assure you I’ve been there mentally. Plenty of times. From adolescence up to last Tuesday, I’ve been easy prey to all kinds of things that made me think, believe, and feel like I was a size very different than what I now know (and old photos verify) to be true.

So what is it inside of us that drives this kind of body angst? Whether or not our self-criticism has even a pinkie toe, in reality, we have to wonder who sets the gold standard of what an ideal body should look like. And, because different periods in history have reflected very different body “ideals” (I would have been a hottie in Peter Paul Reubens’ day), that “ideal body” we tend to torture ourselves with is something of a moving target.

In her book, Radical Acceptance, author Tara Brach describes the feeling of futility and inertia familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with yo-yo weight: “I know I should be able to handle the problem,” Brach writes, “but no matter how hard I try, I can’t get where I need to go. Completely alone and shadowed by the fear of failure, I am trapped in my dilemma. Nothing else in the world exists but that.”

Yikes. While this “trance of unworthiness” Brach speaks of is no stranger to most of us, up until now I just didn’t know what to call it. What I do know for sure is that walking around feeling defined by my (real or imagined) shortcomings really does, as Brach says, “define and delimit our experience of life.”

Think about it. How many otherwise wonderful moments in your life have been tarnished by self-consciousness? (Raise your hand if you’ve ever avoided a swimming party — or, worse, gone and miserably watched everyone else have fun.) I remember watching the other girls at the boarding stable where I kept my horse with self-conscious envy. They rode their horses bareback, wearing tank tops and cut-off shorts, galloping in like Comanches, giggling, squealing, and playfully turning the water hoses on one another as they rinsed off their horses after a ride. Pure, unadulterated joy.

Longing to feel as free as they looked, I wondered what it would be like to not feel self-conscious about my body. The truth, I realize now, was that my perception was holding me hostage — and no amount of dieting or exercise or weight loss or miracle makeover could ever replace that negative self-concept with the carefree abandon I observed in my friends. The experience of that complete joy of riding and being with horses and one another could have been mine, if only I had been able to identify and break free of my captor.

Looking back now, I’m both amused and saddened at how my falling short of what I set as the “gold standard’ of worthiness kept me isolated from the joy that could have accompanied my experience of riding horses with my teenage friends in the summer sunshine. And in the years since, I see now how that budding adolescent awkwardness went on to blossom into body image anxieties responsible for robbing me of untold joy ever since.

Brach calls being entrapped by feelings of self-judgment, anxiety, restlessness, and dissatisfaction a “cage of our own making” — and usually, we’re not even aware we’re in it. Holding ourselves captive inside our own negative body image, we waste precious moments of joy we’ll never be able to get back. Ready to break free? I know I am.

“The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives,” Brach writes.

Far beyond just putting a big ol’ rose-colored, Pollyanna spin on it, this major step (and look out — it may be steeper than you think!) is all about learning how to feel what you’re feeling without resisting or judging or feeling compelled to fix it. We’re just looking right now, thank you. Seeing ourselves, maybe for the first time in our conscious lives, with a big, open, kind, and loving heart.

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