Bodies and Identity: Body Image and Understanding Ourselves

Illustrations of three dancersWhat did you first think of when you saw that an article titled “Bodies and Identity” was posted on a mental health care blog? Likely, words such as “anorexia,” “bulimia,” and “compulsive eating” ran through your head. An article about bodies and body image is often assumed to be about negative body image. We’re so used to talking about bodies as problems that need to be overcome, addressed, or “worked on” that a direct relationship between bodies and negative body image is almost a reflex. But what does “body image” really mean? In what way does how we see our bodies impact how we see ourselves? And how does our identity impact how we see our bodies?

Watching a baby interact with his or her body is a great way to remember all of the different ways people can relate to their bodies. With rapt attention, a baby will stare at a hand, looking at how it moves, sucking on it to see what it feels like. Babies spend a lot of time figuring out where their bodies end and where their parents’ bodies begin. It strikes me that in our cultural obsession with our bodies in relationship to others and the media as adults, we’re still trying to determine where the boundary between ourselves and others lies.

In her book, Bodies, psychotherapist Susie Orbach (2009) remarks on how the relationship between body and self in Western culture has changed over time. Before industrialization, our bodies were used to make things. Working class bodies allowed farmers to plant, tend, and harvest their crops; craftsmen used their bodies to manipulate wood, metal, stone, and fabric to create the objects needed to survive. The body image that is upheld as ideal today—thin, tan and muscular—was the result of the daily physical labor of the working class and the poor. Today this visual aesthetic plasters the covers of magazines, television, and the internet, but it carries a different meaning. A body that is lean, tan, and muscular shows that a person has the resources, time, and privilege to work on their body. Bodies are no longer used to make things; instead we are encouraged to make our bodies, as “Our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself” (Orbach, 2009 p. 8).

These days our bodies often act as a vehicle to share things about our identities with other people. The color of our skin, the shape of our features, our hair and eye color, the way we dress, how we carry ourselves, and even the jewelry we wear often act as a way to tell others about our race, ethnicity, cultural background, age, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, and our personal values. Some of these aspects we have control over, and others we don’t. Because it’s so entrenched in our lives we often forget that the visual body that we share with others is carefully crafted through the choices we make.

This brief discussion of the connections between identities and bodies only begins to touch on some of the deeper issues that people experience while navigating this intersection. For example, the way that women’s bodies have been sexualized or desexualized depending on race, class, and culture marks women as objects and impacts how women see themselves and the world around them. This objectification is perpetuated by sexism, and continues to control the lives of both men and women by creating unrealistic expectations and a hierarchical power dynamic kept in check by popular media.

More and more objectification is also beginning to be applied to men’s bodies. The meaning of “body image” is shifted from a personal understanding and relationship with our bodies, to a terrible dilemma filled with shame and guilt. But what if our relationship with our bodies focused on being in them instead of how we look in them? What if we were able to be more aware of how our bodies felt and less aware of how others perceived them?

Our bodies shape our identity, and our identity is intricately linked with the body that we were born into. Exploring these connections can open up new areas of understanding and integration as we struggle to navigate intersecting identities in a polarized world.

References:
Orbach, S. (2009). Bodies. New York: Picador.

© Copyright 2011 by Damon Constantinides. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Anna

    Anna

    September 15th, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    I had been plagued by really poor self esteem and low body image for practically my whole life. I always wanted to be what I am not. But then it is like I had an epiphany one day. What about the people who could not do the things that I do? Why not try to turn some of that negative into someting more positive? And be thankful for the body I have been given and the things that that body can do? I know that may sound hokey but onnce I got to that point I got over all of that silly stuff of caring about weight, appearance etc and just got to being grateful for being able to live and to move! Freeing!

  • Constance Lopez

    Constance Lopez

    September 15th, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    Your body can say so much about what kind of person you are. Sometimes these things are good like seeing a lean woman and thinking: “That woman takes care of herself”, sometimes they say something bad like when you see an overweight man and think, “This man isn’t worried about his appearance and doesn’t take care of himself”. Our bodies always tell a story but it isn’t always an accurate one.

    I think body language also says a lot about a person even more so than their bodies. Seeing someone with perfect posture, you know shoulders back, head up standing tall the whole shabang, makes you think that this person is confident and secure. So their is many ways that your choices can be projected by your body.

  • n henry

    n henry

    September 15th, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    very important to be conscious of your body-but don’t let others views and opinions control your life! That’s my mantra in life and I think it is very reasonable. you see,it is almost a given that you are concerned about your body in this day and age. you’re only helping yourself if you don’t let others’ views bring you down!

  • Brock

    Brock

    September 16th, 2011 at 4:01 AM

    How we perceive our body often gives a good clue about self esteem. This is true for most people. And d reason for this is the unnecessary importance given to one’s body.

    But honestly, if you’re letting your body bring down your self esteem, then how do you expect others to look beyond your body?

  • Peach

    Peach

    September 16th, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    I can very much relate to this because I am one of those women who goes around comparing myself to the other women in the room and wondering how I size up next to them. Can you imagine just how horrible my self esteem is because of years of doing that? I would not want to wish it on anyone.

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