Embodied Counseling logo
violet-blue-backgrround 2

Body Image Guilt: The Reason You Feel Bad About Feeling Bad

“I know I’m not supposed to feel this way, but I can’t seem to help it.”

In our post-body-positive culture, many of my clients struggle not only with poor body image but also with guilt and shame for having negative thoughts about their bodies.

As Mikala Jamison writes, “[This is] the millennial body image curse: We are disappointed in ourselves for not being thin but are also disappointed in ourselves for wanting to be thin.”

For decades, people, especially women, have been expected to pursue thinness actively. However, recent social expectations are even more complex, requiring us to perform the pursuit of thinness while also signaling body acceptance.

Yes, you read that right: you should constantly monitor and police your body, treating it like a chronic fixer-upper while projecting ease, confidence, and a sense of being above such superficial concerns.

If that feels impossible, that’s because it is.

How Did We Get Here?

While the mainstreaming of body liberation, autonomy, positivity, and neutrality has increased their reach, these concepts have also been diluted. They have morphed from radical paradigms created out of systemic oppression to catchy, commoditized Instagram or TikTok buzzwords, untethered from their social justice roots.

If this was a satirical Reductress article, the headline would probably read something like “I don’t know why I can’t just love myself,” woman says while being inundated with thousands of images of bodies via social media every day and being subjected to the advertising efforts of an industry (to be clear, the diet industry) that is worth $90 billion dollars.

Shame, which motivates us to stay silent, supports the internalization of systemic issues. The messaging becomes “I just need to try harder” (to love myself, change myself, or both), rather than questioning external systems and forces. This shifts the burden of responsibility to individual shortcomings.

Additionally, this messaging sounds a hell of a lot like a slightly repackaged version of dieting’s mission statement: “You’re wrong, and you can be right with enough effort. If you can’t meet the cultural beauty standard, you’re not trying hard enough.”

It’s no wonder many of us feel caught between opposing forces. Many of my clients often say, “I wish I could just turn my brain off.”

A magazine might publish articles on “how to practice body acceptance” and “how to get the perfect summer body” in the same issue. The whiplash from such contradictions is even more intense on TikTok or Instagram, where content challenging the beauty standard and content conforming to it appear just seconds apart, faster than our brains can process.

How Do I Navigate Body Image Guilt?

When helping clients navigate body image distress and guilt, I’ve found a few consistently helpful entry points:

  • Understand that something is happening that is bigger than you: I encourage my clients to begin to identify the cultural and systemic forces that inform and shape their internal experience. Sometimes it’s hard to see the water we’re swimming in, and it can be helpful to have a skilled provider help you notice these things. As long as we see this as a solely individual problem, we will continue to look for solely individual fixes or solutions.
  • Begin to put language to your experience (Defusion): Language gives us the power to identify an experience and take something from a jumble of uncomfy emotions and sensations to a narrative about what is happening. This allows us to start to name our experience as it is happening, which allows us to be more mindful and less overpowered by painful emotions or automatic responses. Call body image guilt what it is.
  • See if you can find self-understanding: Our feelings and beliefs make sense in context. By offering ourselves validation, we can reduce internal conflict and build curiosity, which increases the likelihood of having a different experience in the future. Often, when my clients are expressing something about themselves they dislike, I ask them, “Does it make sense to you why you feel this way?” If the answer is no, it may be helpful to spend a little more time on entry point 1.
  • Get clear on what matters to you: Often, when we are responding automatically, we are using fear as a guide. Many of my clients cite compassion, empathy, integrity, respect, etc. as values of high-importance to them, and feel a big disconnect between these values and the beliefs they hold about their bodies. Clarifying what’s important to you, and beginning to create a vision of what it would be like to act in accordance with these values, can reduce feelings of powerlessness and dissatisfaction.

Reflection Questions for Managing Body Image Guilt:

  • How would you describe your relationship with your body? Can you describe it outside of your relationship with your appearance?
  • Does your relationship with your body mirror other dynamics in your life? Do you feel the need to apologize, overcompensate, or be on guard in other relationships?
  • Who (people, groups, or systems) determines which bodies are acceptable and valuable? Who taught you what to think about your body?
  • What might you have to give up or let go of to have a more peaceful relationship with your body? What might you lose? What might you gain?
  • What comes to mind when you imagine a rich and full life for yourself? How does your current relationship with your body get in the way of this?

Additional Resources:

Share the Article:
More to Read: