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Embodying Mercy: Body Hatred & Attachment

I hate having nothing to wear. And yet, I loathe shopping, and I have low confidence in my ability to choose clothing that’s in style. Given my choice, I would probably wear unbuttoned plaid shirts over tank tops, flare jeans, and Converse shoes every day (I am deeply confused, though, about whether we are supposed to be wearing flare jeans right now; can someone explain?). So, StitchFix has been a dream come true for me: someone else picks out clothing that’s in style and sends it to me, and everything matches everything else!

I had to ask for a different size in pants on my last StitchFix order; though my shape will never go back to what it was, I am now back to my pre-pregnancy size in jeans. Part of me was excited about this. Another part of me was devastated that I still cared. Even after carrying, birthing, and breastfeeding a child with this amazing body, even after celebrating as my body crawled out from under the shadow of a chronic illness, even after two years of thanking my body for her tireless service one disrupted night of sleep after another, I find I still care about something as meaningless as the size of my jeans or the number on the scale. It’s disheartening that my journey of embodiment and self-compassion still hasn’t carried me beyond this.

Is there any way out of the tyranny of body objectification, body hatred, and body terrorism?

For some of us, our body hatred was handed to us as a divine ordinance; we were instructed to hate our flesh, to condemn our physical urges and appetites, to separate our good spirits from our bad bodies as the path to conquering sin and attaining righteousness. For some of us, we were taught body hatred by the ways our classmates spoke about our bodies, the ways people oppressed our bodies or used our bodies for their own pleasure, or the ways we saw family members treat their bodies that looked like ours. For others, we’ve simply absorbed body hatred by osmosis, from thousands of advertisements, digitally altered images, covert messages, and overt criticism.

There is inherent trauma in lacking safety in your own body; the body terrorism directed at female bodies, bodies of color, and trans bodies are brutal examples. But the internalized body hatred we all experience means that each of us knows a little bit about how unsafe it feels to live in a body.

If I hate my body, I’m not safe with myself; I will have to live tense and hypervigilant against barbs of self-hatred in thought or action that could come at any moment. If I hate my body, I won’t want to see my body, feel my body, care for my body, or experience life through my body; I will cut myself off from a deep source of wisdom, pleasure, and connection with the world. If I hate my body, I won’t listen to what she has to tell me, value the sensations and messages she sends me, or lovingly care for her vulnerabilities and needs; I won’t satisfy her hunger or honor her fullness. If I hate my body, I will call her “it” to further the distance between us, and I will disparage her, punish her, hide her, make jokes at her expense, or even let others hurt her and feel I deserve the pain.

Ultimately, if I hate my body, I will find it easier to hate the bodies of others; I will raise my child to hate her body, and to allow the hatred of other bodies.

As an attachment-based therapist, the lens through which I see the world is one of connection and safety. Experiences and people that are safe allow connection, which leads to integration, growth, and wholeness; experiences and people that are not safe cause disconnection, which leads to disintegration, shame, and trauma.

Body hatred is an attachment issue. When body hatred comes from the world around us, body hatred causes us to shrink back, become self-protective, turn against others, and spend our precious internal resources on survival. When body hatred comes from ourselves, we endure a painful splitting, turning against our own selves; we become harmful caregivers of ourselves. Our relationship with ourselves becomes neglectful and dismissing, inconsistent and riddled with anxiety, or rejecting and even downright abusive.

We become insecurely attached within our own bodies.

At the heart of insecure attachment is an inability to trust that our needs will be seen, valued, and met. How often do you keep pushing yourself when you’re exhausted? How often do you deny your hunger because you don’t think you should need to eat? How often do you fail to voice your intimacy needs with your partner, to tell them what feels good and what really doesn’t? What about all the health screenings and doctor appointments you avoid, the medicine you take to mask symptoms so you can just keep going without addressing the real problem, or the aching shoulder you take to the gym anyways? What about the gut feelings of danger you ignore to keep from offending someone? Let’s also remember the thirst you completely miss until the headache sets in, the birthday cake you skip because you don’t think you deserve it, the junk food you eat when you didn’t build time to cook into your schedule, the longing to be in nature you set aside to try to catch up on emails, the desire to slow down and cuddle with someone you love that gets squelched because there are errands to run.

Do you see what I’m talking about? Our insecure caregiving of our own bodies is so tightly woven into our daily lives that most of the time, we don’t even see it. Our bodies are communicating with us loudly, desperately, and we have forgotten how to listen. Would we treat our children this way? No, of course not! Then why is it acceptable to treat ourselves this way? What does this teach our children?

The goal here is to cause awareness, not shame. I get it. Sometimes, there’s no time to cook because of soccer practice, the piano recital, and school night bedtimes. Sometimes, the reasons we can’t slow down and go out in nature are systemic and not under our personal control. And just this past week, I had to work when I was sick because I had no sick leave and there were bills to pay. But (just like human-to-human relationships) the problem is not the ruptures in our relationship with our bodies; the problem is when it becomes a pattern, when there is rupture upon rupture and never a repair.

So how do we create security within our own bodies?

It will take a whole lot more than the body positive movement. The opposite of body hatred is not having a positive body image; focusing on what we think or feel about our appearance misses the point entirely. The way our bodies look on the outside matters about as much as the wrapping paper around a precious gift: if we only care about the wrapping paper, we will miss out on the gift. Your body is the most faithful and loving companion you will ever have. When is the last time you bothered to have negative thoughts about the shape of a faithful and loving friend’s nose?

What I am advocating for here is not “body positivity” but an attachment-based model of self-care, where we dwell in loving attunement with our bodies’ needs and meet them without judgment. Secure attachment always generates more security; our safety within ourselves will flow outward in acts of creating safety for the oppressed and marginalized bodies of others. When I live with embodied mindfulness—when I don’t just have a body, but live through a body, when I feel safe saying I am my body—I produce tremendous amounts of self-compassion. And the river of self-compassion flows into the ocean of kindness, justice, and mercy for the world.

Picture this: If others are their bodies as I am my body, then love will look like fierce justice and tender mercy for all the hungry bodies, the imprisoned bodies, the disabled bodies, the abused bodies, the bodies who experience discrimination or harmful legislation, the bodies who suffer violence, and the bodies who make us uncomfortable by how they smell, look, dress, or move. Justice and mercy will be decisive physical acts rather than theories, political ideals, sentiments, feelings, or theological concepts.

Here is how we start:

Cultivate gratitude for all your body does for you. Shift your language; stop calling your body “it” and start using a personal pronoun. Meet one need today that you would otherwise push aside. And teach your children, through your words and deeds, that bodies matter.

Resources to Explore:

The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

The Wisdom of Your Body by Hillary L. McBride


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