A Tale To Transform Body Image
Warning: What you are about to read is the sort of writing that happens when you cross a former preschool teacher, radio storyteller with a psychotherapist specializing in food and body image issues.
Let’s put down the academic articles for a moment and tell a story instead. If you have ever felt uncomfortable about the appearance of your body, this may even offer a little comfort food for thought.
Before we cuddle up for the story I want to invite you to imagine the human body as a universe within universes. Bodies can contain the life we experience in the moment, the influence of our ancestors and the world around us. We also have an internal voice that speaks to all worlds. Many of my clients experience an interesting phenomenon called a fat attack. Seemingly, out of the blue they find themselves “feeling fat”. When we unwind that experience, we link a “fat feeling” (fat is not a feeling) with what concerns arise if it wasn’t about fat at all.
I suggest body image dissatisfaction can intimately help us connect and navigate through life. We can learn to stretch our levels of acceptance past social convention as we come to gradually befriend and allow the parts of ourselves we call ‘outcast’ and close off from conscious experience.
Amazingly aware or not, embarrassment can rush flushing waves through us. Shock, stress or tragedy can leave us with a heavy gut or upset stomach. Surprise can jolt us. Anxiety can cause us to tighten breath, and sadness can literally cause ache. Without awareness we can release gooey love chemicals like oxytocin to bond us more deeply or glucocorticoids to prepare us to fight or fly from danger that may not even exist. The body we read this with has evolved from those who’ve survived since the beginning of time. We are hardwired and finely tuned to self preserve, eat, connect, separate and procreate, sleep and move at varied levels depending on millions of variables.
This “fat feeling” or obsession on an “imperfection” can often be uncovered as a scapegoat. Learning to stretch our acceptance of scapegoats combined with discovery into real issues can often unwind into greater contentment. We can ultimately gain better whole health and support to nourish deeper hungers for more; security, self-worth, support, acceptance, harmony, assertiveness, trust, stress relief, connection and purpose.
Now, I pat the pillow next to me and invite you to a story about a girl, a goat and how fat (and other body dysmorphia) can act as metaphor in grand attempt to safely distract us from a less conscious experience. Scapegoats can disappear softly into the psyche and show up in unexpected places.
Long ago, in a little village there lived a beautiful little girl who had a beautiful little goat.
The little girl and the goat were friends without thinking much about it.
Every morning she brought the goat her left-over porridge and cream with raisins. The raisins were the goat’s favorite and he followed her quite naturally during her daily tasks.
When she picked berries, the little goat nibbled nearby brush. When she gathered the eggs, little goat played with the chickens to make them scurry. This made the little girl giggle and the goat was glad.
Then one day the girl and the goat went for a walk to the village square on an errand. People began to gather around some venders who were arguing quite loudly. This made the girl uncomfortable, as she was a very sensitive sort who thrived in harmony; but she was somehow drawn in at the same time.
The baker was red faced and pointing angrily at the book vendor, “He’s taken my bread!” The book vendor defended his honor with vigor that “it’s the fruit vendor!” instead. The tension escalated as the girl and the goat joined the growing crowd to watch until the Grand Chancellor arrived to take control to create order from the chaos before it ended in fisticuffs. With loud beaming bravado the Chancellor offered “I have a magical solution to all our troubles if only there was a goat. Does anyone here have a goat? We need a goat to save this town!”
The girl thought this odd at first, but wanted very much to end the suffering around her so she raised her hand and said in a very small voice, “I have a goat”. The woman in front of her in the crowd called forth louder pointing to the girl “she has a goat that will help us all!” The Grand Chancellor called the girl forth proudly, “This girl will save our town!” The girl was excited and felt joy to do what she believed to be the right thing by helping others. She could perhaps belong here and she felt admired and it was like floating on a cloud. The townspeople cheered her choice.
Her tremble of excitement turned to a rock in her stomach as the Chancellor spoke her friend’s fate. “The magic remedy for your disputes is very simple. Each one of you must place a circle of this rope around the goat’s neck as you speak and release your problem onto him. When all of you have safely deposited your problems around this goat’s neck, we will banish the goat from the village along with all your problems that will attach to him and he will take all of your troubles far away.
The crowd cheered as heavy rings of rope grew around the goat’s neck. As the townsfolk continued they began to feel hatred for the goat as if he was the original problem. They felt oddly united in their disdain and it strengthened from subtle comments into a hateful intensity over time. One woman spit on the goat blaming the goat for all the fighting and trouble they ever felt. The little girl watched in horror as her dear friend was painfully ridiculed.
From a deep quiet place within her she whispered “No” but it only showed on the inside. The weighty hatred and righteous vigor was pulsating all around her and the chaos frightened her. “Goats are gross and selfish creatures!” one woman yelled to her daughter “Don’t touch it they eat trash!” “He’s the devil!” cried another. The girl tried desperately to hide the goat but could not get close to him with all the madness around her.
The goat could hardly hold its head up as the shame from every burden in the village mixed with the pressure to hold up its head made him feel like giving up. The people began to feel energized and ordered with relief as they banished the goat pushing him roughly out of town.
The girl felt tears trickle down her soft cheek. There was still a tight feeling in her throat but she was not quite sure how to form words inside or how to help them come out. The girl walked home feeling dazed and sad. She found herself questioning her actions over and over again. Finally her tears passed into a deep sleep that lasted for what felt like forever. She dreamed of her friend. She awoke knowing a strong need to reunite with her friend who had been outcast by the village; even if she was the only one in the world who knew his true worth.
When the girl woke, she packed a jar of creamed porridge (with extra raisins) and headed out to search for her friend. It took many turns on the road out of the village but she finally found him in the desert, exhausted and unable to eat even his favorite treat. He missed the girl so much in his delirious state that he had a hard time remembering who she was. The scent of the porridge and crème along with her familiar touch started to bring him back home to himself. As his lips nibbled the chewy raisins he began to eat again with more gusto.
The girl fed him slowly at first, waiting until he had enough to restore his energy. She pet him tenderly removing each ring of rope. She told him a truth about each burden that was never his to carry in the first place. She thanked him deeply for being her friend. She promised to protect him better in the future. Soon his chipper (chicken-chasing) self returned and the friends reunited in a joy greater than ever before.
Back in the village, the townsfolk enjoyed some temporary relief from banishing the goat, but without healing their original problems the same patterns persisted. It wasn’t long before conflicts returned to the marketplace and the homes as cases like that of the missing bread were never actually solved.
The girl and the goat returned to their home and as they went walking, an angry villager accused the goat of bringing back the trouble to the village. A meeting was held and a war on goats was declared.
But by this time, the girl grew to be a woman and was no longer a quiet little girl. As a woman, her voice was empowered by her knowing and compassion for goats and she learned to talk back wisely and creatively to those who would blame goats. One by one she spoke with the towns people and explained how the danger of blaming goats was that real problems would persist for eternity until they began to ask a truly magical question that the Chancellor never posed.
“What would this problem really be about if we couldn’t blame a goat?” and that is how the real issues began to mend.
It took a lot of time, much persistence and plenty of patience (and awareness, and kindness, and cookies, and curiosity, and support, and better mistake making) but eventually the townspeople learned how to solve real problems so that everyone could live in better health and harmony together. Now that took a lot of courage and it all started with one girl who befriended a scapegoat.
I tell this multi faceted story hoping to cement the connection between body dissatisfaction as barometer of deeper distress going on that we may not feel ready or able to deal with yet on our own. By asking “What would this really be about if it wasn’t about our fat or body dissatisfaction?” we open a potential pathway to feed real hungers and befriend our own little outcast scapegoats.
I find it is the most sensitive, bright, creative and even unconventional thinkers who are afflicted with body image and eating issues. The great news is that these unique qualities can be very powerful when refocused with greater awareness and more empowered voices. People who overcome eating and body related issues not only learn to heal themselves; they can inspire the healing of a sick society that continues to struggle with the parts of its greater self we label outcast instead of friend.