handsome swimmerMany men and women I work with are afraid not to be thin, muscular or both. You too?

How did we become so critical of our bodies? Years’ ago, body image was much more relaxed. Look at videos from the 70’s and 80’s: we didn’t have such perfect bodies, white teeth or defined abs: we were attractive and yet not perfect. Not model-looking. And even models from that era weren’t so perfect (I know because I was a model in the early 80’s and it really wasn’t such a big deal).

Today, porn stars, popular singers and almost any celebrity has an amazing body. And we look at their photos and think: “What’s wrong with me? I guess I’m lazy or lack self-discipline. Oh well, I give up. Let’s have some more Oreos.”

You might think the word “fascism” is a bit extreme. From Wikipedia: “fascist movements share certain common features, including the veneration of the state and a devotion to a strong leader. Fascism views political violence and war as a means to achieve national rejuvenation and asserts that stronger nations have the right to expand their territory by displacing weaker nations.”

Let’s apply this to how we see our bodies: we share certain common features (including veneration of the perfect body image and devotion to celebrities who “lead” us to see what is “right”). We view personal war and violence to our own bodies as a means to achieve personal rejuvenation. We assert that stronger, healthier-looking bodies have the right to displace (and replace) weaker, less perfect-looking bodies.

Sadly, we are often so extremist in how harshly and rigidly we view our poor, innocent bodies that the word “fascism” may fit.

Plastic surgery and less drastic forms of body altering are heavily promoted in the media. Injecting Botox (a poison) into your body is considered perfectly normal. We don’t seem to care what the doctor injects into us, as long as we get fewer wrinkles.

One form that Body Fascism takes is called Body Dysmorphia. If you’re suffering from Body Dysmorphia, you’re preoccupied with an imagined or trivial defect in your appearance and it REALLY bothers you.

My clients with Body Dysmorphia wish that they could change some aspect(s) of their physical appearance, even though other people find them to be attractive. A typical way that they handle this? For women, it’s often to obsess on getting slimmer. For men, it’s often to become addicted to becoming more muscular.

Unfortunately, these strategies don’t work, because you never actually achieve your goal. You can’t, because your problem is in your head, not your body. No matter how much you change your appearance, it’s never good enough.

The way out? To address and work with your own form of Body Fascism and your distorted ideas about your body.

If you only focus on changing your body – and not your mind – you’re doomed to eventual despair. Plastic surgery, botox, extreme diets and bodybuilding: this stuff is temporary. It doesn’t last.

The only thing that really lasts – and is likely to improve as you age – is your mental health.

One of the best books I’ve ever read that addressed body fascism is “Good in Bed” by Jennifer Weiner. Her quasi-fictional heroine struggles with her (presumed) overweight body and finally, through many trials and tribulations, realizes that there are much more important things to focus on than the shape of your thighs or extra flesh at your waist. I highly recommend the book (plus, it’s a funny, easy read).

I’d like to close with a quote from one of my sheroes – Maya Rupert – writer, activist and policy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She addresses body fascism for women but I think it’s equally apropos for men:

“Female beauty is not a zero-sum game, a scarce commodity, or something only some of us are allowed to have. We have to think ourselves beautiful – not prettier than or less pretty. We have to believe that female beauty is limitless, and love our bodies for our own sake.”

Amen, Sister.