By May Bleeker, written 16 March 2009, uploaded 3 Oct 2012
Your body has an exterior image. It consists of all your physical measurements and attributes. It is exact and particular to you. You could think of this as your exterior body image.
Your exterior body image is factual, measurable and inarguable. If you are six foot, you are six foot to everyone. Someone can’t come around and say you are not, because you will show them the tape measure.
But you also have a lot of ideas about your body. You have feelings and attitudes about your physical measurements and attributes.
You like them or you don’t like them. You wish you had less or more of something. You look at someone else and think you might have something missing, or something extra.
Not only do you have a lot of ideas about what you think your body looks like, you also have ideas about what you think other people think your body looks like.
On top of all of this, just to make it more complex, other people do, in fact, have ideas about your body. Individuals as well as groups. And they give you feedback. Even when you don’t ask.
Your exterior body image is straightforward. It is what it is.
Your interior body image is a bit more complicated. It has many layers. Some of them are deep.
Your interior body image is not factual or measurable. In fact, some people think they are fat when they are clearly very thin (anorexia). And some people think they are small when they are clearly very large (bigorexia or 'reverse anorexia' found amongst bodybuilders - yes, you get such a thing!).
People differ in their thinking about things. One person likes someone who is tall. Another person likes a small person. One group likes someone curvy, another group likes someone lean.
Even you might find your opinions changing, depending on where you are and who you are with for any length of time.
You’re on a plane trying to fold your legs into the tiny space and look across as the small person next to you, easily resting in the narrow seat. They have room to spare.
You curse your luck at having extra long legs.
A short while later, you are smilingly getting your luggage out of the rack while the same small person has to ask for assistance to get theirs.
You’re living with a family of tall people who make you feel like the odd one out for being small.
They tease and mock you and point out the things they can do that you cannot. They play only basketball in between doing long jump - things you are naturally not very good at - and everything in the house is built for tall people.
Standing on a chair to put away the plates, you end up feeling like the 'odd man out', or that taller is better.
You’re living with a family of tall people who make you feel special for being small.
They joke with you and compliment you and point out the things you can do that they cannot (like easily fitting into a plane seat, or not bumping your head in small spaces).
They play the piano and other instruments in between painting and gardening - things where height doesn't really matter - and you have a great time together.
Your small size is seen as part of your charm.
Standing on a chair while they pass you the plates, you end up feeling unique, and that smaller is wonderful.
Same external attribute, different inner outcome.
The interior body image is relative. It is relative to the people around you and the society you grew up in.
It is relative to what you believe about yourself. It has the potential to be flexible (as flexible as your mind can be) which is good, but like a house with the door open, it lets in outside influences.
Sometimes that can be the problem.
As long as your interior body image is dependent on exterior things you will always go up and down with the tide. Things will come in and go out. This season having a curvaceous rear is in – hooray, I feel great about my butt.
A few years from now an incredibly small person with no rear end to speak of will become well known and a skinny behind will be what everyone wants. Curses, every pair of jeans I try on doesn’t fit my shape and I feel less great about my butt.
But as I said before, your physical shape, size and attributes of your body are merely your exterior body image.
And as long as your interior body image is linked to exterior things you will be doomed to feel up or down, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, based on other people’s ideas of what is good and bad.
That is why I want to suggest something to you.
What if you unlinked your interior body image from your exterior body image? What if you made it your business to appreciate your body, and not someone else's business?
What if you decided to think nice things about your length, depth and breadth, regardless of the actual measurements. What would happen then?
What if you discarded other people’s ideas of beautiful and invented your own.
You might decide to appreciate the curve of your arm because you think its pretty, regardless of what anyone else would think about it.
You might decide to like your short short lashes and not bung them up with mascara, which doesn’t really make them look longer, just clumpier.
You might stop comparing your body to other people’s bodies to get an idea of how you look and just decide to love your feet for their balance and powerful kick, regardless of their length or breadth.
Like a collage of loving kindness you might start to put only good things into your mental body image.
You might start to consider the gifts your body gives you access to.
Like colour and light, fragrances and aromas, warmth and coolness, a breeze, fresh air, the warning that something is wrong, the ability to move, the pleasure of dancing, swimming, touching.
The gift of being able to get up and go fetch something you want. To eat. Drink. Sleep. The foundation for living.
When these are no longer freely available, due to illness, pain or other restrictions their value becomes apparent. When you cannot sleep, cannot walk, cannot dance, cannot read, cannot hear, taste, talk or smell. Or when physical pain constantly reminds you that breathing is a privilege, its easier to appreciate the gifts.
Somewhere in the world, someone does not have some of these gifts. And when you die, the experience is over.
Try it as an experiment. Try taking charge of your internal body image. Why not? Give it 30 days. What do you have to lose?
You might find that even with something missing on the outside, nothing is missing.
That what you are is beautiful, mysterious and lovable. Even when it doesn’t conform. (Who sets the standard? What standard?)
That every particular thing you are, just as you are right now, is just right.
If you enjoyed this article you may want to read the one about the metaphorical body image too. It’s about an interesting experience I had during which I discovered a different way to understand what the body stands for.
Return from Your Inner Body Image to Doorway to Self Esteem