How to Heal from Self-Objectification
By Tara Rullo, LCSW
“Being objectified is a way of life for many women, and it can feel like a constant battle to be seen as a whole person.” – Roxane Gay
According to research conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), approximately 30 million people in the United States will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives. These disorders are often rooted in a distorted perception of one’s body and an unhealthy fixation on physical appearance. Additionally, self-harm behaviors are often used as a coping mechanism for individuals struggling with emotional distress exacerbated by negative self-image, body-shame and feelings of worthlessness.
These statistics highlight the need for increased awareness around self-objectification and its effects on mental health. It’s important to recognize that self-objectification is not a personal failing or weakness, but rather a result of damaging cultural messaging and inappropriate societal pressures to value physical appearance above all else.
Before we begin to understand self-objectification, let’s get clear on the concept of objectification. Objectification is the phenomenon of being viewed as an object evaluated on physical appearance alone. In order to truly understand how it feels to be objectified, it can be helpful to think back to a time before you were objectified. For many people, especially women, this may be difficult to do, but if you can, try to access what it felt like to simply “be” without thinking about how other people are perceiving your appearance. Another approach is to watch young children at play. In the un-objectified child, you’ll see a freedom of expression and the ease of being in the moment.
Objectification comes in different packages, such as media images portraying unrealistic and unrepresentative beauty standards; the marketing of products designed to change your body shape, hair, skin or features; friends or family who comment on your body or share what they are doing to change their own bodies; diet-culture; sexual harassment and sexual assault to name a few. Whatever the form objectification takes, it has the disastrous effect of driving a wedge into our natural state of being and creating a separate judging self which weighs and measures, continually checking on how we are faring as an object. Thus, we begin to self-objectify.
Self-objectification reduces us to pieces; we become a collection of flawed body parts (pores, eye-lashes, thighs, side-boob) rather than a whole person. We start placing our appearance over other attributes such as our personality, skills, abilities and interests. Some people end up believing that if they don’t look good enough they shouldn’t even leave the house. All of their other wonderful qualities such as kindness, ability to connect and have fun, interests etc… become so diminished that they don’t even count.
The onset of self-objectification often occurs so early in our lives that we have no awareness of precisely when or how it began. Often, by the time we realize what is happening, we have been at it for many years, and it has sadly become the norm. For this reason, I invite you to have a great deal of compassion for yourself as you begin to heal from self-objectification.
If you are ready to begin healing from self-objectification here are some places to start:
1. Instead of focusing on how your body looks, focus on how it feels to be in your body. Exercise, dance, yoga and being in nature are some ways to connect with your body. Massage, reiki and somatic therapy can often be supportive. Even something simple like taking a walk, cuddling, petting your dog or cat, or soaking in a warm bath can help you feel embodied. The important thing is to keep looking until you can find out what feels good to you. Then…repeat!
2. Spend time with people who don’t over value appearance. Try to seek out relationships with people who intentionally avoid self-objectification, diet-culture and judging themselves and others based on looks. You may need to step-away from or limit interactions with those who don’t appreciate you for the fullness and wonder of your entire being.
3. Remember that most beauty standards are created by companies which capitalize off of low-self esteem. The beauty and self-improvement industry has the sole objective of making you believe that you are unworthy of happiness unless you change yourself in some way. This is a lie that prevents you from spending your time, money and energy in areas that actually create lasting happiness such as cultivating caring relationships, developing your skills and talents, and creating an accepting and compassionate relationship with yourself.
4. Differentiate self-care from self-improvement. True self-care can be defined as an activity that nurtures who you are today, while self-improvement stems from the notion that something is wrong with you and needs to be improved upon. While the desire to improve oneself is natural, if the foundation of true self-care is not in place, self-improvement attempts may be thwarted by self-judgment and criticism. It’s worth it to learn to care for yourself as you are right at this moment! You deserve it!
Healing from self-objectification is possible. If you are struggling on your own, seek professional help. A therapist can help create a safe space for exploring your particular history and help you reconnect with the wondrous and expansive experience of being you, just as you are. If you are ready to reach out for help, connect with us here.