Pass any magazine rack and you’ll be bombarded by hundreds of images of men, women, and babies that share one thing in common: they aren’t real. These “photos” have been stretched, airbrushed, retouched, and sometimes even combined with others (a nose from one picture, a chin from another, breasts from yet another) to match an industry ideal. Yet most of us don’t look like that, never have and never will. In a society that values youth and a very narrow definition of good looks over just about everything (except possibly money, and money and image are inexorably linked), we’ve lost the race before we even began.
And that leads to loss of self-esteem and, in some cases, contributes to a sense of self-loathing so acute that people destroy themselves with extreme diets and weight-loss pills, compulsive and unending plastic surgery, and punitive exercise regimes. And, of course, suffer depression and anxiety.
But the impossibility of living up to an artificial social ideal is just the tip of the iceberg of our detachment from our bodies. A child learns about her body from interactions with the environment. This includes everything from the way in which she is touched and held to her freedom to explore the terrain and objects around her. If she is held appropriately, encouraged verbally, and given room to move and play freely while supervised, her experiences will stimulate her body and brain to develop optimally. As the various stages of cognitive and movement functions click into place, she will gain a sense of self-esteem, competence, and autonomy over her body and her emotions. She will have a true “body image.”
Any form of trauma will hamper this delicate process to some degree. This includes everything from being yelled at or criticized to being confined indoors because it’s too dangerous to go out to play or being forced to sit rigidly in chairs for long periods at school. Trauma and abuse can lead to diminished bodily awareness. In some cases, the loss of awareness of parts or all of the body is so extreme, it becomes a form of dissociation.
Without awareness, movement is hampered; without free movement, safety, self-esteem, and competence are compromised. If you don’t have a clear connection to your body or accurate idea of how much space you take up, you are far more prone to injury and to self-destructive behavior.
Sexual abuse is especially pernicious in causing dissociation from the body, distorted body image, and related disorders. And it is surprisingly prevalent. According to an August 2000 report from the American Psychological Association, “There is evidence that as many as 34 percent of American women, and 20 percent of men, experienced some form of sexual abuse as children (usually by a family member or family friend).”
Sexual abuse gives the survivor the message that her only worth is in her body, at the same time taking away her comfort, ease, and control in relation to it. Sexual abuse, and the bodily shame and fear of loss of control it engenders, is a common factor in anorexia and bulimia. It has also been linked to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a form of severe body image distortion.
Thus, trauma becomes imprinted in the body, leading to physical illness, low self-esteem, distorted body image, and dysfunctional somatic patterns, all of which perpetuate both depression and anxiety.
(extracted from) Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill