Welcome to this edition of our Featured therapist BlogSpot where UKCP Reg Psychotherapist and RHCP Founding Director Jenny Collard discusses how a preoccupation with scoring ones’ ‘Body Image’ against a fabricated criterion of aesthetic ideals misses the sheer beauty of just how incredible the human body is. Jenny shares a personal and touching tale as well as offering insights of therapeutic practice.
Four years ago, I gave birth to a gorgeous little boy who like all first-borns changed my world completely. Within days the cards of well wishes started arriving, and as i proudly arranged them along with the flowers one stood out from the sea of pale blue ‘new baby’ messages. The card was from a fellow therapist friend (who obviously understands my sense of humour) and it simply read “Shit! You’ve Made A Person!”. I still smile now 4 years on recalling the joy at reading it, and I take my hat off to the person who thought to design it.
It’s funny how you can be quite well aware of how babies are made, that it takes 9 months for a human pregnancy to reach full-term and know that the pain of childbirth is apparently unlike anything else you will ever experience, yet simultaneously feel completely shocked by the miracle of it all when it happens to you. Well at least that was my experience, and hence “Shit! You’ve Made A Person” just totally captured those early days for me.
So why am I even writing about this? it was 4 years ago after all. Well, like most mothers I’m not ‘over’ my child birthing experiences. Not due to the trauma of it all (that’s another story!) but rather the experience of growing and birthing a life into this world I have to say is truly the most incredible experience I have ever had. I will not lie, incredible does not mean enjoyable! Enjoy pregnancy I did not, but the fact that the body, or rather my body could do that – just wow! But not only did childbirth bring me the loves of my life it also enabled me to feel differently towards my body for the first time, shifting from self-criticism towards overwhelming gratitude.
Like many young women and men, I spent a great part of my teens and twenties with an excessive preoccupation with my perceived bodily short-comings. Little did I realise just how far off the mark I was to be judging my body against some fabricated criterion of aesthetic ideals whilst missing the sheer beauty of just how incredible the human body is. Like seriously, what has happened to our society that we have become so accustom to an epidemic of self-confidence, body image and eating issues that it is almost ‘normal’ to dislike aspects (if not all) of your body.
In therapy, I frequently meet clients who quite literally hate themselves for the way that they look, the way they eat, the way their perception of themselves falls short of their comparisons to others. ‘Hate’ really is a strong word, but that is literally what I see, beautiful, talented, incredible humans hating themselves! Sadly, one of the key things I’ve come to know as a therapist is that reassurance does nothing to alter negative views of oneself, rather the self-hating internal voice will undermine praise quickly and simply with a self-talk statement such as “well they would say that”, and bam! back to self-hating we go. So, if reassurance doesn’t work, what does? How can we support one another, ourselves, or our loved ones to return to an appreciation of our bodies and away from this impossible obsession with our appearance? Well, I advocate for us to get in touch with a sense of what our body does for us beyond attract a mate, or a load of ‘likes’ on social media! Having my children (I have two now) brought me the most fundamental shift in my thinking about my body, an amazement and gratitude that prior to children I didn’t think was possible. But of course, not everyone experiences pregnancy and childbirth, and nor should we wait for such an experience to jolt us from our twisted sense of importance of the visual form.
Sometimes, I’ll ask clients to try an exercise which on first hearing sounds a little odd or even a little patronising to hardened ‘self-haters’. But it is a powerful intervention that has never failed to create some shift in the way the body is seen. The task is simply to ‘write a letter to your body’. Now just imagine that for a moment, what would it actually say? I wrote one once, it made me cry. I cried with anger at first, then disappointment, then guilt, and finally gratitude. I have witnessed the letters (and tears) of many others, similar in nature but as different as you could ever imagine in the details. The incredible thing is that most, if not all of those letters end with some variant of the same line:
“I’m Sorry and Thank You”