Many of us suffer emotional hunger that comes from something I call the Body Mythology.
There is a common trope on TV and movies: There is some girl, and at the beginning of the story, she is portrayed as an “ugly duckling”. Perhaps she is the “wrong size”, “unfashionable”, she doesn’t do her hair and make up “right”.
The movie portrays her as being “ugly” as compared to some implied standard. And in this state, she is lonely, unnoticed, unfulfilled, miserable.
And then suddenly a transformation happens. She loses weight. And, perhaps, she learns how to dress. Someone teaches her how to use makeup and do her hair.
Suddenly, she is happy, and, so the myth goes, everyone loves her. All her problems, it seems, are solved. She is the beautiful, perfect, swan. And she is “saved”.
Our Body Mythology
Every culture has a mythology, sometimes many mythologies. A mythology tells the story about the problem of good and evil and our salvation. Mythologies often tell us who the good people are and who the lost people are and how we can go about claiming the happiness and belonging we all desire.
Culturally, we have created an elaborate Body Mythology of beauty and thinness, and our mythology goes something like this.
There is a beautiful world, heaven. And there is one path that leads to it: the path of beauty and thinness. Those who diet and lose weight find salvation, happiness, joy, and release from all kinds of suffering. On the other hand, those who don’t are lost, miserable, unfulfilled, and loveless.
The Body Mythology is powerful. Through it we, especially women, develop the idea that if we have any problems, it is because we weigh too much or we are not beautiful enough.
Frank Dicksee, “The Mirror”
If boyfriends or partners leave us or we feel starved for love, we believe it is because we are not beautiful or thin enough. Because beautiful, thin girls don’t have problems, the mythology tells us. They always feel fulfilled, so the the story goes, and everyone loves them. Strangers approach them on the street and give them bouquets of roses in celebration of their beauty and magic.
So when we feel unloved, depressed, incompetent, or vulnerable, we translate these feelings into “I feel fat. I feel ugly.” (I have written more about the ubiquity of feelings of unworthiness and ugliness, especially for women. You can read more about this here.)
Our mythology divides the world into have and have nots, masters and slaves, winners and losers, those deserving of dignity and those deserving of nothing. And of course, we have decided that the “thin and beautiful” are on the winning side of this equation. And everyone else is on the other side.
And we spend thousands of hours and dollars and an exhausting amount of emotional energy trying to be thin and beautiful enough.
And it is never enough.
The Body Mythology Unmasked
One of the most shocking things about our Body mythology is that it is patently untrue. In fact, we see evidence of this every day.
Someone can follow all the rules of the Body Mythology religiously and still suffer lovelessness, heartache and despair.
Princess Dianna’s tragedy was one of my first exposures to the absurdity of our Body Mythology. Here was this amazing woman, who seem to fulfill all of the rules of the Body Mythology. And yet she suffered so much despair, lovelessness, and emotional abandonment. It eventually led to her tragic death.
Princess Di’s story is a story we see repeated every day. We see this especially in tragic movie star relationships, in which the folks involved embody, paradoxically, both extreme ideals of beauty and extreme levels of despair and suffering.
John William Waterhouse, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows”
And on the flip side of this, there are so many people who do not seem to meet the standards of our elaborate Body Mythology. And yet they have beautiful, loving, enduring relationships.
In addition, because the Body Mythology is mostly aimed at women, it is important to note that there are women everywhere who clearly defy Body Mythology rules and live happy, healthy, fulfilled lives full of love and joy. Plus-sized models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday embody this. (You can read more about them here, here, here, and here.)
Our Body Mythology is clearly and radically untrue. And yet it has such a stranglehold on us.
Naomi Wolf captures the power of the Body Mythology well in her book The Beauty Myth when she writes, “More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret ‘underlife’ poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.”
Hunger and Love
Perhaps one way to understand the unrelenting power of our Body Mythology has over us is to reflect on our hunger.
We come into the world without a stable sense of ourselves or of our identity. What we have is a deep hunger.
We hunger to be seen by others, to be recognized. And we only achieve a stable sense of ourselves when other people see and honor us as we actually are. We want them to see us as free and independent human beings, with the right and responsibility to define ourselves and our life through our choices. And we also need to extend this same recognition to others.
This is why babies love to interact with their parents and to elicit smiles from them. In this loving exchange, the babies gain recognition from their parents. And this begins to give them a stable sense that they are independent from, yet intimately connected with, their parents through bonds of love.
It is also the reason why young adults exert their independence from their parents and demand to be taken seriously. In achieving recognition from their parents at this stage in their lives, adolescents further achieve their stable sense of self.
And it is also the reason we hunger for loving and vulnerable relationships so deeply. For it is in these relationships that we show up powerfully as ourselves. And our friends and partners say, directly and indirectly, “I see you and honor you. You matter.”
This reflects Hegel’s notion that “True union, or love proper, exists only between living things who are alike in power and thus in one another’s eyes living beings from every point of view. [I]n no respect is either dead for the other.”
Women With Waterjugs”, Frank Dicksee
Our ultimate hunger and our deepest desire is love. We cannot achieve a stable sense of ourselves without regularly filling this hunger. Hegel says as much when he says that self-consciousness is desire. And, indeed, this hunger never entirely goes away, just as our physical hunger never does.
On the flip side, if people do not recognize us, it causes problems. If they believe instead that the purpose of our existence is merely to meet their needs or do their bidding or be what they tell us to be, it is hard for us to gain a stable, productive sense of ourselves.
We see this clearly in examples of slavery in which human beings are never recognized as having freedom and independent self-hood. They often fail to develop abilities to think independently, to assert themselves, and to develop habits and actions of mature independence. Since they are never recognized as having the ability to do so, it is hard for them to recognize themselves as having the ability to do so.
We also see it in situations in life in which people are not technically slaves but in which their personhood is never affirmed. This would be the case with children whose parents never consistently recognize their freedom and honor their humanity through relationships of love and respect. Children in these situations struggle to find themselves and construct a stable identity that allows them to thrive as human beings.
It is also the case in which we are in friendships or partnerships in which people use us solely to fill their own needs for dominance, control, and security.
“La Bell Dame Sans Merci”, John William Watterhouse
It is important to note that when people fail to recognize our independent personhood, they treat us, instead, as a slave or tool. And perhaps we often submit to this slave status because we believe, consciously or unconsciously, that it brings us love or safety or consistency
But this slave status can never satisfy our hunger for love and recognition. Because of this, it becomes an unbearable emotional weight: the weight of relentless, unfulfilled hunger.
The Body Mythology and Our Perpetual Hunger
And this is the weight we carry with our Body Mythology.
Many women and men internalize the message of the Body Mythology early on. (After all, it is culturally ubiquitous). And for many years, it is the only way we know how to gain recognition and a sense of self. “If I am thin enough and beautiful enough, people will eventually see me”, we think.
But soon we learn, whether we realize it or not, that we will never gain the love and recognition we hunger for from our mythology. For it tells us that we deserve recognition and love only if we are “beautiful enough” and “thin enough”. And this is not recognition of who we are. We are free people who have the right and responsibility to create our own lives, according to moral standards we discover ourselves to be true, not that someone forces upon us.
And the Body Mythology actually turns out to be a lie for reasons we have previously discussed. It is also a lie because one can never be too thin or beautiful enough. Consider how cultural beauty standards vary wildly and are often contradictory. And even if they were homogeneous, NO ONE can ever meet a standard 24/7 all the years of his or her life.
This means, which we actually know deep down, that our worth as a person cannot reside in meeting some idea of beauty or thinness. The Body Mythology always requires us to chase our worth and never allows us to catch it.
It turns us into slaves whose only existence is to obey the Body Mythology. And we come to realize painfully (as all slaves do) that one can never earn one’s freedom by being a good enough slave.
One of the most insightful passages about the psychological weight of slavery comes from a very odd and sometimes difficult to understand book, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel suggests that when enter into a master and slave relationship we initially lose our identity. Our identity becomes wrapped up, not in our own independent projects, but in making things for the master and carrying out his wishes. 
We could correlate this to the way that women (and anyone else) enslaved by the Body Mythology lose their own identity and projects. They become consumed with trying to follow the Body Mythology. Their own sense of self becomes smaller and smaller, and their identity is swallowed up in the mythology.
The most vivid example of this, I think, is Pro-Ana (Pro-Anorexia) communities online, which overtly praise and pursue the path of anorexia. Such communities celebrate images of skeletal, gaunt, wasting girls and women. On these sites, anorexia is often personified as a goddess, Ana, and a common meme is one praising Ana with the phrase, “I love you to the bones.”
“Ophelia”, John Everett Millais
It should be noted that anorexia is the #1 killer of teenage girls.
This is reminiscent of what Hegel writes of those entering into the status of servitude, “They put an end to themselves, and are done away with as extremes wanting to be for themselves, or to have an existence of their own.”
Out of Slavery
I have always been fascinated with stories of slaves who rebelled and ran away from their masters. For a slave to run away and risk freedom was an incredibly vulnerable and risky enterprise. Such an enterprise would most certainly result, if the slave was captured again, in beatings and even death. I always wonder, “How does one decide that it is worth enduring incredible vulnerability and pain in order to become free?”
In stories about slaves that fight for their freedom, it seems like there is always a moment in which the slave realizes that she is more than her condition. She sees the dignity and honor in her work. Hope kindles in her breast. She sees herself reflected back in the beatings and sufferings of her fellow slaves. And she realizes, “That is me. I suffer, too. We should not have to suffer.”
The work, suffering, and perseverance of the slave become an externalization, or a mirror, of her freedom and dignity as human being. She says to herself, “Look at what I create. Look at what I suffer. I am free and deserve recognition for my freedom.” Hegel echoes this idea when he writes that through working on things the slave “Becomes conscious of who he truly is.”
And while Hegel doesn’t say this explicitly, I think it is partly in the suffering and hope the slave sees in his work and that of other slaves that he finds himself.
“The Lady of Shalott”, by James William Waterhouse
The Weight We Carry
And perhaps this moment of internal recognition is the key to escaping the slavery of our Body Mythology.
We are culturally obsessed with physical weight and all of its ostensible dangers. But it turns out that the most painful and dangerous weight of all is the emotional weight of feeling unrecognized and unlovable. And this is a weight we never lose as long as we are enslaved to the Body Mythology.
The Body Mythology tells us that if we feed our hunger, we will gain weight. And it tell us that we will become horrible, unlovable people. The real truth is that the more we buy into the Body Mythology, the more we fail to feed our emotional hunger. And the heavier our emotional weight becomes until is unbearable.
We do all manner of things to lose this emotional weight. We binge ourselves into bulimia. Or starve ourselves into anorexia. Or control ourselves into orthorexia. We drive ourselves into the ground through workaholism and perfectionism. Or lose ourselves in addictions to numb the pain. We control others as a proxy for controlling our lurking fear and despair. Or lose ourselves in pleasing others to try to get love.
And all the while we are still so hungry for love. We feel like we will never be rid of our hunger and the emotional weight we carry.
And perhaps admitting and recognizing how much we suffer from the Body Mythology and how much we still maintain hope (and see ourselves in this hope) is the moment we find our freedom.
It seems that only way that we lose this weight is to feed our hunger.
We suffer because we were not meant to be slaves—to the Body Mythology or anything else.
And we were not meant to live a life in which we only have the right to be loved and respected if we meet some arbitrary standard of beauty or thinness (or some other standard). These are completely useless yardsticks for measuring a human life.
We hope because there is, indeed, another way to live.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we gave up our Body Mythology, fed our emotional hunger, and released our emotional weight.
Please take a minute to imagine with me.
Imagine how we would feel if we realized we are completely deserving and capable of love and recognition right now.
And imagine the emotional and physical energy we would have if we broke the shackles of the Body Mythology.
Imagine the ways we could reclaim our identity and construct our identity creatively if we no longer drove ourselves to fulfill the dictates of the Body Mythology.
“Poem of the Soul”, by Louis Janmot
And imagine how freely our emotions could flow and how our bodies would rejoice if we finally understood that the Body Mythology is just that: a myth. And we don’t have to believe it anymore.
We escape our slavery when we realize that love and recognition are not something we must earn but something that is ours right now, and that it starts with us extending this recognition and love to ourselves.
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