We Shall Overcome: The Problem With the Body-Love Therapeutic Narrative

When I was 11, I decided I had a crush on Robby B., whom I now suspect I targeted because he was neither popular nor an outcast and therefore might consent to “go with” me. In the style of the age, I asked my best friend to tell him during recess that I liked him. His response, as reported by my courier: She’s too smart for me. I felt a pang of embarrassment, then shrugged it off and returned to my game of foursquare. He was right, after all; in fact, my embarrassment was due less to the rejection and more to the feeling of having been exposed for being so eager to have a boyfriend of any sort that I’d deign Robby B.—who wasn’t even an Advanced Reader!—worthy of my attention.

I reported the exchange to my mother, who did her best to assume a nonchalant tone as she asked, “How did that make you feel?” “I don’t care” was my exact response, I believe—and except for that slice of embarrassment, it was true. Yet I could see the concern in her eyes; I could feel her holding her breath, waiting for me to break down over the shackles of my smart-girl label.

When I think of it now, I wonder if she was having an anticipatory reaction to the spate of research coming out at the time about how girls’ self-esteem plummeted in junior high. Her Free to be You and Me rearing method had held strong until then—but what if come seventh grade I was just going to wind up playing dumb to get boys to like me? The exchange showed me something that would soon become a given fact of primary education and adolescent development: As a girl, I was expected to have wobbly self-esteem. I can’t help but wonder if the anticipation of girls’ self-loathing and intentionally delayed intellectual growth became a part of the story to the point where girls intuited that this was inevitable. I never did dumb myself down (I quickly learned that playing dumb only ensured dumb admirers), but in adherence to another surge of tsk-tsk headlines, I dropped math and science classes as quickly as I could. They weren’t my interests—you will note I am now a writer, not a biochemist—but I wonder if my insistence upon dropping math in particular, which I excelled at and in which I would later earn a higher SAT score than I did in language, was actually a reverberation of this expectation, not an organic occurrence.

I’ve been thinking about this sixth-grade exchange lately, in relation to the expectation that women don’t like the way they look. When I was on the Today show last week talking about my mirror abstinence, despite me never mentioning feeling bad about how I looked—and in fact twice clarifying that my reason for avoiding the mirror was not poor self-esteem—most of the round-table chat was spent talking about exactly that. “We are so self-loathing,” said Dr. Nancy Snyderman. “There is a way to look at yourself with self-compassion in the mirror,” said Allure editor Linda Wells. “People who look in the mirror are looking at their imperfections,” said host Savannah Guthrie.

Not that I can blame them for leaping to a conclusion my experiment didn’t lay the ground for, and not only because women’s self-loathing makes a catchier sound byte than Hegelian dialectics. For how else are we to talk of women and our inwardly directed gaze? In particular, how are we to talk of a woman saying she intentionally did something involving her appearance and came out ahead without associating it with self-esteem? The narrative of body image—with its triumphant tale of overcoming obstacles such as self-loathing, mass media, and the collateral damage of girlhood—is inscribed upon us, particularly among consumers of women’s media, to the point where we forget other bodily narratives may exist. 

You know the narrative I’m talking about: prepubescent girl with well-adjusted bodily esteem meets world; world (or mother, or father, or media machine, or ballet teacher or school bully or thoughtless grandmother) implies she’s too fat/gangly/bulb-nosed/narrow-featured to be considered beautiful; girl embarks on rampage of self-hatred, which may manifest itself in perfectionist attitudes toward appearance, disordered eating, psychological dependence on makeup, or just your good old-fashioned preoccupation with beauty; girl comes to terms with her appearance and goes back to a place of well-adjusted bodily esteem. Perhaps the story doesn’t begin at a place of innocence; perhaps the story allows for more ambiguity and gray areas than this neat arc. But the template is there, and if you’ve spent any amount of time consuming women’s media—magazinestalk showsblogs—you’ve seen it.

In her book Cold Intimacies, sociologist Eva Illouz terms this general arc the “therapeutic narrative.” Illouz posits that between Sigmund Freud’s influence on public and private life and the popularity of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’ve come to articulate our life stories in terms of a therapeutic narrative: a tale of overcoming anguish in order to reach a place of self-understanding and, ideally, self-actualization. Because of Freud, we take for granted that our early childhood has vast repercussions in adult life, and that only by giving serious consideration to our family drama can we reach a sufficient degree of psychological health. And because of the peculiarly American “bootstraps” ethos outlining that all you need to do to succeed is really put your mind to it, the idea of self-actualization as the pinnacle of psychological health holds vast appeal.

We see the therapeutic narrative at work all the time. Witness this week’s New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, which contains no fewer than three therapeutic narratives; witness women’s magazines (need I spell out O-p-r-a-h?). Hell, witness Top Chef, which regularly shapes participants’ growth as a part of the season’s story arc. And, if you’re anything like me, witness the way you might frame your own tale; without intending to, I’ve framed my life as a series of psychological before-and-afters. Before leaving a terribly unhappy relationship seven years ago; after finally finding relief from depression. If you asked for my life story it would be less the born-in-Arizona variety and more a chart of my psychological well-being.

Key to the therapeutic narrative are four things: 1) a once-whole, once-healthy self that was damaged by 2) a negative incident or pattern that incites a protective formula, which 3) leads to suffering—but luckily we have 4) self-awareness, the key to returning to one’s natural state of pure psychological health through a full understanding of one’s “damage.” Enter the inordinate focus on women’s bodies and its adherence to the therapeutic narrative: the once-innocent girl, the incident of damage, the bodily self-loathing, and, by the time the tale is told, self-acceptance. Certainly our bodies have been the focus of improvement for centuries, but only recently have we created the concept of body acceptance. By the time GenXers became cultural movers and shakers, we’d turned The Beauty Myth into a best-seller and become fluent in terms like body image and self-love. In other words, we’d identified that there was an enormous problem with women’s relationships to our bodies, we’d begun to articulate our resultant suffering, and we’d begun to inch toward self-awareness in order to overcome that suffering. We’ve turned our relationship with our bodies into a therapeutic narrative. Is it any surprise that the term “body image” was coined by a pupil of Freud?

These body-acceptance therapeutic narratives end happily, though, and we all want to feel good about our bodies, so what’s the issue here? Problematizing something essentially human—cognizance of our own bodies—and framing it as something that we must overcome leaves little room for a woman’s relationship with her body or appearance that doesn’t fit into this construct. That is, at the same time that the therapeutic narrative of the body gives us language we can use to relate to others, it also defines the language we’re expected to use. In seeking to liberate ourselves from bodily self-loathing, we inadvertently strengthen the template we impress our stories upon. We make the story as rigid as the iron maiden of beauty that we’re trying to wriggle our way out of. Our intent may be exactly the opposite; we may cry out about the therapeutic narrative of body hatred in order to decry the forces that brought it to bloom in the first place. Yet it’s because those forces are real and omnipresent that the narrative begins to circumscribe women’s experiences to the point where we may not be able to see outside of it.

Yet we’re hungry for counter-narratives. Witness the pull of Cat Marnell, whose work at xoJane drew attention in part because she acknowledged her presumably untreated patterns of disordered eating while openly engaging in those patterns. (More famously, the same is true of her relationship with drugs.) As a commenter here pointed out, “I see tons of ‘I recovered from my [eating disorder] and I’m doing pretty well now’ material, not so much ‘I still struggle with my eating disorder, I realize it’s a problem and I know why I have it but this is what happens.’ I’m kind of in that place myself so it’s nice to hear it from someone else.” Now, eating disorders aren’t the same as bodily dissatisfaction, but as uncomfortable as I found Marnell’s work at xoJane, there was something compelling about watching someone who appeared generally self-aware write about the urge to stay thin without lapsing into either a body-appreciation therapeutic narrative or its flipside, the weight-loss narrative—which appears different on its face from tales of self-acceptance, but which ends up in the same place, our heroine beaming with satisfaction at having overcome her struggle.

Weight-loss narratives—and the $60.9 billion industry it’s attached to—illuminate an aspect of body-acceptance narratives that doesn’t quite jibe with my overall theory here. The general therapeutic narrative as defined by Illouz has distinct market motives, specifically the creation of an entire population in need of therapeutically assisted self-actualization. (I’ve met more than one “personal creativity counselor” in my years as a New Yorker, if that says anything.) Yet I’m having trouble thinking of large-scale market motives for the body-acceptance therapeutic narrative. The closest, perhaps, is the oft-remarked-upon hypocrisy of women’s magazines that tout “love your body” cover lines next to “banish muffin top” features, but I’m not so cynical as to believe that most editors are creating a self-love market to parallel magazines’ self-improvement ethos, though the two do exist in tandem. But as for people directly making a living from this variety of narrative, not only is the number not so high that we must be wary of murky motives, but I’m fairly sure that any one of them would happily switch up their careers if it meant that all women everywhere were suddenly alleviated of body angst. Body image writers, wellness counselors, self-love coaches, and body-acceptance advocates of all stripes don’t generally strike me as a cynical, unaware bunch eager to make a buck. I don’t doubt their sincerity, skill, or necessity for a minute, and nothing I’m saying here is meant to dismiss the work of people devoting their professional and personal energies to self-acceptance—many of whom I’m proud to consider friends and colleagues whose work I promote whenever I have the chance, because I believe their work makes the world a better place for women. For don’t mistake me: Yes, I think there’s a problem in the way most women see themselves. No, I don’t think the imposition of the therapeutic narrative is the only reason many women feel negatively about their appearance. So, yes: I see the need for this strain of therapeutic narrative, and for the niche market that has sprung up as a result of its identification. I have my own narrative, after all, and even as I see how I’ve historically presented my own story to dovetail with the therapeutic template, I also know my story isn’t wholly fashioned from a disingenuous need to adhere to a narrative arc. There was a time when I saw no problem with my body; I do have specific points of “damage” that continue to surprise me with their raw ferocity upon recollection; I have suffered from that damage. And in some ways, I have healed from it.

Yet that just might be the point. If identification precedes the ability to solve a problem, the inverse can be true of creating a problem: Once we identify an issue of concern, we may see it everywhere, even where it exists only as a whisper, or not at all. As much as we do a disservice to girls and women—and, more recently, boys and men—if we pretend we’re not living in the midst of a very real body-image crisis, we also do them a disservice if we hold our breath every time the topic of our corporeal selves is broached. If we’re going to find a way out of the mess that has 40 percent of women reporting unhappiness with their bodies, we must identify a narrative for the other 60 percent. That is, we need to find a language for that 60 percent—the majority—to voice their relationship with their bodies in a way that isn’t seen as being “all that” or a tale of triumph, but rather a small, normal story of inhabiting a human body.

Or maybe yet another narrative, with its retrod peaks and valleys, isn’t the answer here. Perhaps the answer is to lift the expectation of a narrative from our lives, without seeking to punish those who find it useful to frame their experience. Perhaps the answer lies not in any story, but in a series of experiences that needn’t be neatly chronicled, or chronicled at all. Perhaps all that matters is that the experiences are lived. Whether they should be woven into a narrative, then, is up to you.