Body Image: What Is It Good For?

Melissa Fabello recently asked her followers on Twitter what kind of book is lacking in the literature on body image that we might want to see written and published. My response is too long to fit in 140 characters, and so I will identify here what is I think is needed.

First up would be what we need to stop doing when we talk body image:

  1. No more just swapping out the “ism’s”: Big strong fit healthy girls just swaps out fattism with ableism and healthism.
  2. Body positivity and body love are terms that cannot be defined: if several centuries’ worth of poets, scholars and authors can’t nail down “love” then let's leave the ephemeral out of the body and our experience of it.
  3. Loving one’s body is additionally profoundly perplexing to those with chronic illness of any kind.
  4. Positivity and love assign a “should” to sensory input and interpretation: the curse of the normative on those deviating from the norm in any way.

What is body image? It’s equivalent to pain.

If I ask you to grab your left ear lobe right now between your thumb and fore finger I doubt many of you would need a mirror to do it (my apologies to those of you who may have chronic conditions that actually make that gesture difficult or impossible). The ability to know where your body is in three-dimensional space without having to use your eyes to confirm where your earlobe might be is called proprioception.

I talked a bit about proprioception in the blog post Body Checking: Safety Behaviors in Recovery. Like all our senses, proprioception develops in our very early years. A baby finds his toes fascinating not merely because they are fascinating, but because his brain is developing proprioception by using other sensory inputs: sight, touch, taste, pressure, equillibrioception etc.

Our bodies can change so rapidly in the teenage years that proprioception can lag a bit behind. Teenaged males who have grown very rapidly in height may experience some clumsiness, not because they are inattentive, but because their sense of themselves in three-dimensional space hasn’t yet updated to include a longer arm or higher center of gravity. 1

Our senses, roughly speaking, involve signals from the peripheral nervous system that are interpreted by the central nervous system. However, that interpretation is not equivalent to a computer deciphering a code. Our brains are social organs and we have to make meaning of our interpretation of various peripheral nervous system inputs and we use the world around us to do so.

Minus the meaning, body image is proprioception and pain is nociception. However both then get dollops of sociocultural meaning slathered on them as a way for us to make sense of the sensations.

“Mommy, my arm really hurts.”
“No it doesn’t dear, it was just a tiny bump. You’ll be fine.”

And with that exchange, the experience of nociception for the child now has emotional and cognitive meaning beyond just the perception of the arm hurting. And don’t be too hard on “Mommy” there, because we are all blithely denying each other’s senses and experiences all the time.

I cannot see the color green you see with my visual perception. I cannot feel your pain with my nociception. I cannot sense your body in three-dimensional space with my proprioception.

The book on body image that needs to be written is one that speaks about proprioception and its value as one of our senses. Human beings are remarkably adaptable. There are individuals who can lose their sense of proprioception and they then turn to using visual cues—looking at their feet first in order to move them forward.

Any sense you have of your body that includes an adjective is placing a sociocultural judgment on, and an emotional relevance to, the sensory function of proprioception. The real value of body image, in its biological sense, is the speed and accuracy with which we can co-ordinate the motion of our bodies through space.

There are plenty of books on how to manage pain: the emotional salience of pain is distinct from the sense of pain itself. Therefore meta-cognitive and mindfulness based exercises can help you perceive your pain in the absence of the distress and kindling created by emotion, thereby changing your experience of the pain itself. I speak of these concepts in the blog post: Pain III: Anxiety, Therapy & Dismissive Doctors.

The book that needs to be written on body image is how to practice extricating the amazing sense of proprioception from countless judgmental, denialist, fattist, healthist, ableist and cruel sociocultural fabrications on how you are and are not allowed to experience that sense. I have even picked out the title:

“How to Manage Body Image–extricating your internal critic and emotional distress from the wondrous sense of your self in three-dimensional space.”

Anyone care to write it?

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1. Goble DJ, Lewis CA, Hurvitz EA, Brown SH. Development of upper limb proprioceptive accuracy in children and adolescents. Human movement science. 2005 Apr 30;24(2):155-70.