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Self-Care Sunday with Allison: Healing Self-Objectification

A new series talking about topics and strategies for self-care through the lens of my personal experience–both the challenges and the triumphs and everything in between.

Self-Care Sunday with Allison: Healing Self-Objectification

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Welcome to Self-Care Sunday with me, Allison! It’s so nice to be able to meet with you all here. Self-Care Sunday began as a limited series for February and will now be ongoing every month. You can find me here each month, talking about topics and strategies for self-care through the lens of my personal experience–both the challenges and the triumphs and everything in between.

I believe there is immense value in sharing our victories and the battles that got us to that place. I hope that by talking openly about my life in these ways and the practices I’ve tried and tested, you might find some comfort, relief, and insight into your experience. If you want to connect with me, subscribe to my newsletter, where I share more about my journey and healing practices.

To that end, this month, I am talking about Self-Objectification, which is a new term I discovered as I’ve gone through a most recent flare-up of my lifelong struggle with disordered body image issues and intrusive thought patterns.

This might be triggering to some, so if it is, please take care before reading on.

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Noticing a shift in my own self-image

There was a moment a few weeks ago when I noticed a shift in the way that I was looking at myself in the mirror. Suddenly, it was like the dial on the noise inside my head got cranked up, and the things I was hearing were bordering on vicious.

The negative self-talk was back with a vengeance that, honestly, I thought I had healed and, for the most part, worked through a long time ago. I even wrote about my newfound body confidence for Today’s Parent after my last pregnancy. But what I thought was a thought pattern that no longer existed as part of my psyche had reared itself again in a way that I had never before experienced. The critical voice started picking apart every aspect of my body as I changed out of my pajamas, and it was all I could do to get myself dressed that morning without dissolving into a wash of self-loathing.

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It continued to get louder over the weeks that followed, so much so that it got to the point that I could barely pay attention to conversation when I was in a group or with my husband or kids. I thought maybe that it was due to the changing of hormones that comes with the early stages of perimenopause.

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That, or perhaps I was getting closer to my period and with the drop in progesterone, all the things were raging, and I just needed to hold on until the thoughts and the noise went back to being quiet. But they didn’t. As the weeks turned into months, it just started getting worse until the only relief I felt was when I went to sleep at night–and even then, sometimes, the thoughts would persist.

Using exercise to cope

I started to obsess about finding a new workout program that would fit my busy lifestyle, that wasn’t too high intensity so as not to disrupt my hormone balance, but that would yield the results I was after. Specifically, I had become fixated on the body I had during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

The look and the shape of this body that I was glamourizing were the result of several mitigating factors: My youngest son, not yet one year old, was waking up every day at 5:30 am during that time, and rather than have him wake the entire house up, I would take him for an hour-long walk every morning so that my husband could get the rest that he needed to deal with the shit storm that had become our office coffee and snack business.

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Then, I would come home, and because I wasn’t working, the only time I felt that I could claim for myself was to exercise, which had the added benefit of staving off the stress of living in the early stages of a global pandemic. So, five days a week, my husband took the kids for an hour so that I could lift weights and sweat out the stress and anxiety.

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But after that hour was up, the kids were back in my care, at which point–since it was COVID-19–the only thing I could do was take them for a long walk. Then, in the evenings, when my husband was done with his work day, I would take a brief walk to clear my head and get some quiet time before I started dinner and turned my attention back to creating some semblance of normalcy for my family.

I had fallen into a trap where I was obsessed with the idea of “getting my body back,” even though logically, I knew that I would never want to–nor could I– recreate the extenuating and extremely stressful circumstances and time spent exercising that had led to the look of that body.

Knowing I needed to pull myself out

Despite being thick in the fog of this mental hell I found myself in, I had the wherewithal to know that I needed to pull myself out, that I was stuck in the trappings of my mind and these thought pathways, and I needed to do a hard reset. I started by telling my husband every time I began to find myself scrolling the internet for workout programs, which is when he would gently remind me that this was not helpful for my wellbeing. When I was alone during the day and found that my mind started spinning, I would try to find a podcast or read an article about what I was experiencing.

This is when I found a book that came across my path in a way that could not have been any less than divine intervention. The title said it all: More Than A Body: Your Body Is An Instrument Not An Ornament, written by Lexie and Lindsay Kite, twins who had also completed their doctoral research in women’s body image, the result of which was this book.

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As soon as I began reading the introduction, fireworks of recognition and feeling seen and understood were firing off in my head. I had finally found someone and something who could articulate what I was going through. The term, as they define it, is called self-objectification, which, as they explain it, is the process by which we split our internal selves and begin to view ourselves from the outside rather than living from the inside out.

It’s that moment that most women, and many men, experience in our younger years when, at some point, someone says something about their appearance, and they realize that they are something to be looked at. They–we– start to erroneously think that our value in the world is tied to what we look like, how big or small we are, how conventionally beautiful or not we are deemed, and everything unfolds from there.

Where it all started

I can recall when I stopped living from the inside out: I was a child, around 7 or 8, maybe younger, and my parents’ friends started commenting on “how beautiful” I was and debated which of my parents I looked like most. I remember looking at myself in the mirror after those comments, trying to see what they were discussing.

From there, when I was 13, I developed acne, got braces, did not have big boobs or the flat stomach that was all the 90s rage, and I didn’t yet know what to do with my thick, curly and frizzy hair (that I had also accidentally dyed orange with Henna rinse). I began to experience the other side of self-objectification when my worst thoughts about my appearance were confirmed by the insulting and cruel comments of my peers, the inciting point of what would become my decades-long battle with wanting and always needing to be thinner, prettier, and just more of “something” that I felt I was not.

two young girls looking at themselves in the mirror iStock

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Eventually, the braces were gone, and my skin cleared up. My hair returned to its natural shade, and I learned to blow dry it to smooth the frizz. I grew up to become more conventionally attractive by mainstream ideals. But it didn’t matter how I looked on the outside because as I began to read this book, I realized that I had never healed that 13-year-old girl.

And that every time someone commented on my appearance, talking about my hair, my body, my face–especially during that Covid time when I was constantly praised for how “fit” I looked–even though the words were meant as compliments, it landed within me as “You are good now because you look good.” But what if that changed? The internalized messages I received were that, just as with that younger version of myself, my value and worthiness of praise or ridicule were intrinsically tied to my appearance being a certain way.

Realizing this as I read through each chapter of More Than A Body–that I had been tying my worth and whether or not I was safe in the world to my outward appearance–was a shocking revelation. It hit me like a bomb as I understood how truly gut-wrenchingly sad it was to know that the young girl I once was had wasted so much precious time and mental energy on an ideal and an unattainable, ever-moving target.

It made me sad, but then it made me angry. Angry for my 13-year-old self and furious for my current 40-year-old self that through the insidious, misogynistic, and harmful messaging of the past century and beyond, we have been taught to view ourselves as bodies and faces to be admired or hated, or something of both.

Then, the true healing began for the first time ever

Although I am very new to this aspect of my self-care journey, I already have found more comfort and peace about my body in an authentic way than before when I mistakenly tied my body acceptance with having the body image that adhered to social norms.

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Here is what I have taken away from my reading of More Than A Body as my guide, as well as a compelling conversation between Dan Harris and journalist Virginia Sole-Smith. This conversation was eye-opening, talking about anti-fat bias and toxic diet culture, and how the emphasis on body, and particularly certain body types, in the media has damaged so many of us, and what we can do to begin to heal and counteract that message:

  • It’s not about being positive (or negative) about your body. All bodies are good, regardless of their size or shape. That’s a starting point.
  • You cannot tell the health or wellbeing of a person by the way their body looks. The two most challenging points in my adult life when I was at my thinnest (and praised the most) were when my life was also at its most stressful.
  • It is crucial that we all, as a society, start moving away from talking about other people’s bodies and appearance, especially our children. I can’t tell you how many times I have to catch myself around my friends’ daughters when my conditioning compels me to want to tell them how pretty they are or how beautiful they look. I’m not saying we can never compliment anyone again on their appearance. But try bringing your awareness to how often you compliment someone about their appearance. Just pay attention to it. And see if sometimes, rather than saying something kind about how a person looks, tell them something you love about them that comes from their character, way of being of service in the world, sense of humour, or loving heart.
  • Intention is everything. Eating and moving our bodies is truly a privilege. Starting to bring a sense of awareness to what your intention is when choosing a food or a means of exercise is a game changer. Ask yourself: Am I choosing this food or this movement because it feels good and uplifting? Or am I choosing this because I feel like I have to, either as punishment or out of rigid austerity?
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While in the throes of accepting that I had a lot of self-healing to do, I spoke to my mom about how I was feeling about my body and what toxic thoughts and patterns had returned, patterns she was all too familiar with from her own life, as well as from my youth. I could see the pain in her eyes that I felt as well: Here I was, at 40 years old, and I was still worrying about how flat my stomach was after all I had achieved and overcome.

But even as the pain of this truth hovered in the air between us, I knew that this time, this issue was coming up for me to heal it thoroughly, completely, and for good. I knew I had the ability and strength now that I didn’t have at 13 and would do it for that part of me and every part that came after. I knew that I had to go through this experience now, not to torture me (although it certainly felt like it) but so that I could once and for all come out the other side of this gauntlet and be able to step into my power as a woman, as a mother, and not allow this body image toxicity to be perpetuated one day longer–not within me, and if I could help it, not within others in my life and my community.

I realize that this might be an ambitious goal—perhaps even lofty. But I am committed to healing this within myself, step by step, day by day, once and for all so that I can be on the other side of it and say to the women and men around me: Follow me this way. That other way? We’re done with that. 

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I had a really deep sleep that night after I spoke to my mom and woke up the following day as if waking from a nightmare. I felt lighter, easier somehow. I was on the path toward what they call “body image resilience” in More Than A Body. I had only taken a few steps but was on the path. This is the antidote to self-objectification.

Body image resilience is something we gain when we learn to be more vigilant about the images and content we allow into our atmosphere when we learn to rewire our internal and external dialogue around bodies as a daily, consistent practice, and when we know that we can have a “bad body day” if we look at a picture we don’t like, or see a new wrinkle in the mirror, but have the wherewithal to not fall into the pit of self-objectification.

Or at least, if we do, climb out of it. Body image resilience is the practice of learning to say to that internal voice, “I’m not going there, not right now, not today.” And even if it only works 10% of the time, that’s 10% better than before.

Practices that helped along the way

These three practices were immensely helpful to me on the rawest days of learning to heal my relationship with my body image. I encourage you to try them at any point if this resonates with you.

Yin Yoga with Affirmations for Body Healing

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This wonderful yoga practice is about healing–of any kind. It makes you feel like you’re being held when you need it most.

Meditation for New Beginnings

This is a meditation about fresh energy. Perhaps it is an opportunity to let go of what no longer serves you and step into a new phase.

Therapeutic Writing Prompts

These writing prompts are ones that I keep coming back to during this phase of my healing journey. I recommend therapeutic writing to physically release what you need to let go of or gain insight into.

Light a candle, grab a notebook, take three deep breaths, and get quiet. Ask yourself the following questions, or write them down, and then answer them on the page:

  • “What does my body need right now?”
  • “How has my body served me faithfully in my life?”
  • “How can I serve my body in return?”

Preparing for the seasons to come

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As we move towards spring and summer, I don’t think it’s any surprise that this issue has come up for me. Now is the season when we start being bombarded by harmful messaging like “Get your body summer ready,” or we start quietly becoming anxious about what type of bathing suit to buy that won’t make us feel self-conscious, at best, or spiral into shame, at worst.

My hope and wish for everyone reading this, no matter what your age or experience or body, is that you can start to shift, even a little bit, into this awareness that our bodies truly are our sacred vessels for this life. They are why we can hold our children, hug our parents and friends, and love our spouses. They were never meant to consume this much of our mental, emotional, and physical energy. The pendulum has swung so far that we don’t even realize how much we have spent our lives focusing on wanting to look at a way that is likely impossible or at least unsustainable.

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What if we focused that same amount of energy on listening to how our bodies feel instead? I mean really listening and following that guidance. Would you ignore your body telling you that you have to pee? No, or at least not for very long. I believe it’s the same concept with moving, eating, resting–all of it. It’s about returning to the body’s wisdom, learning to listen to it, and treating it as sovereign over anything external. It’s about living from the inside out, like a child who runs, swims, and plays on the beach because that feels good rather than how it looks.

I look forward to connecting again next month! If you want to write me to chat about your own experience, I would love to hear from you at allison.mcdonald.ace@gmail.com

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Until then, keep well!

Allison

For self-care and authentic life moments, follow me on socials here.

Sign up for my newsletter here.

Author:

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Allison McDonald Ace is a YA Certified Yin & 200 HR Vinyasa & Hatha Yoga instructor, published author and expressive writing workshop facilitator. She is passionate about turning her own healing practices and experiences into offerings to help others on their journey.

For more resources or to connect with me, please check out my website at allisonmcdonaldace.com.

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