Body image and verbal abuse

One of the biggest obstacles to losing weight is a negative body image. Thinking – and feeling – badly about your own body discourages exercise and encourages escapist eating. It blocks the kinds of positive body images and ideals that inspire us to live differently and appreciate our physical form and enjoy healthy activities.

As a kid I had no thoughts about body weight or body image until about the age of ten.

At that point my father started mocking and ridiculing me, using body image as a theme of attack. I phrase it that way because I don’t know if I was in fact overweight at the time, but more importantly because verbal abuse is about power and control regardless of the theme.

Usually people say they were bullied or harassed “for being overweight” or “about my body”, but this gives too much credit to the perpetrator and implicitly blames the victim. Abusers don’t need any real or significant reason to attack others. The cause of the abuse is entirely in the perpetrator, not the victim.

Abuse is not “about” or “because of” the victim.

Why verbal abuse hurts

I’ve spent every day of my life since then feeling self-conscious of my body-image and how I might appear to others.

Why? Because my father’s ridicule and mockery taught me that my appearance was worthy of ridicule and mockery; and if he could see it, surely everyone else could see it too?

His words were couched as an over-the-top reaction to what he was seeing. I couldn’t see it, but his reaction was so extreme that I began to doubt my own perception and to worry what others might be thinking.

Worse still, expressing himself in such gleeful ridicule implied that these aspects of my appearance overshadowed any other qualities or value I might have. Even if someone does appear ridiculous to you, your reaction is naturally tempered by other factors: Love and care, respect, appreciation for their other qualities, natural human decency, or at the very least a concern that you yourself might look bad for indulging in mockery of another human being.

That’s why verbal abuse is potentially so hurtful. Shaming, humiliating, or degrading another human being in private or in public is an expression of power, worthiness, and standing within the relationship and beyond it.

For children this kind of abuse can be formative. It can set expectations for how others will treat them into the future, and how they can expect to be treated by the abuser going forward.

Abuse is not a reaction

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. In theory that may be true. But words are how we communicate our perceptions to others and to ourselves. It is very difficult for children to critically examine the words of a parent and loved-one who consistently uses words to undermine, sow doubt, intimidate and bully.

If words will never hurt me, why does our society have criminal and civil laws against hate-speech, defamation, and threats of violence? Words can cause harm, and the harm can last well after broken bones have healed.

To heal from formative experiences of verbal abuse it is important to recognise that abuse is not a reaction, even if it is presented as a reaction.

Verbal abuse comes from the abuser, and is designed to intimidate, undermine, and destabilise others. Whether fully conscious of it or not, the abuser is motivated by an inner need to feel in control, and one way of feeling in control is to elicit negative reactions from others.

It might be hard to imagine, but certain types of abuser will completely feign their emotional response. They want it to seem as if your appearance or behaviour has caused them to react. They want you to feel that their overreaction is proportional to a defect in you. They want to shame and humiliate you, and leave you focused on your own supposed defects and faults.

Reclaiming your self-image

Honestly it’s a little saddening to realise that my self-image was so significantly distorted by something that was never about me in the first place.

Even when I have been squarely in my healthy BMI range there’s just been something “off” about my appearance that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Now I know why. There was never anything wrong with my appearance to begin with, I just assumed there was some truth to the mockery and ridicule heaped on me by my father as a child.

Ever since, I’ve been looking for something that wasn’t there, keeping an eye out for whatever it was that elicited such a humiliating reaction in the first place.

And while I did gain (and lose) weight through my teenage years, by that stage my negative body image was entrenched with accompanying reluctance to exercise and escapism in overeating.

The good news is that attributing the blame where it belongs – squarely on the abuser – frees us to start afresh and consider the kind of body image and ideal that feels good to us, without the shadow of a nebulous fault or defect that we can’t seem to shake.

What we intrinsically want is a body that feels open, strong, relaxed, and free. That’s what a good physique communicates to us: an open posture, a relaxed and easy attitude, strength and freedom of movement and an overarching self-confidence.

What many of us seek through physical goals are the underlying feelings and attitudes and qualities of spirit that those pleasing body images embody and proclaim.

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