The gaze of other people can cause insufferable pressure

Why are so many unhappy women obsessed with their own bodies?

Female patients use their bodies as a canvas on which to express their distress
June 16, 2018

 "Female patients can use their bodies as a canvas on which to express their distress"

I started putting on weight during my second analysis seven years ago. At first this felt like progress—I wasn’t trying to be perfect anymore. I was beginning to be happier in my skin, not worried about how I appeared in the anyway creepy male gaze. 

I thought I was accepting my femininity and allowing myself to be softer in a literal as well as a psychological sense. Then my analyst asked if my eating felt “out of control.” Oh, here we go, I thought. He is a man, as are all three doctors who have felt free to advise me to lose weight. I should stress that I wasn’t ever fat in a “pass this to the fat, blonde lady over there,” kind of way. Just podgy.

Unhappy women so often seem to be obsessed with their bodies. Female patients use their bodies as a canvas on which to express their distress. An early patient of mine lifted her t-shirt mid-session to show me an appalling map of scars, scratches and an open wound.

It is shocking to hear about the endless diets and the absurd rules for appearing attractive to horrible men, the cutting and biting and the enthusiastic self-mutilation via ostensibly beautifying surgery and treatments. Addiction to “enhancing” surgical procedures is, of course, an addiction to self-harm.

The thinking is that women’s bodies equal mother, so women take their mother issues out on their own bodies and men take their mother issues out on women’s bodies. Though an over-simplification, it explains why female bodies are subject to so much negative and positive attention.

Another patient who self-harms speaks to her mother regularly by telephone—it took us a year to work out that she does it during (!) or immediately after these calls. Years in, she is much better and lately reported an irritated conversation with her Mum. “Instead of internalising it I actually snapped at her and told her I had to go because I was late for work.” Yes!

The same patient grew up with a father who “had an eye for the ladies” and “was a ladies’ man,” that is, wanting to have sex with some but denigrating those that did not meet his unconsciously imposed standards for attractiveness and sexual availability (ie his daughters). It is unsettling to realise that men who claim they love women usually just mean they see women in a certain age range as potential sex toilets.

That’s not to say that men don’t self-harm, but the endless nightmare of men’s use and abuse of women’s bodies is a problem on a far bigger scale. 

Psychoanalyst David Morgan: “In an uncaring neo-liberal, Matrix-like world where the humanity of the world is reduced to cheap labour and commodified, the hatred of the lack of maternal function in a cruel commodity-driven world is taken out on women as the unwitting containers for the lack of containment that the world as bad container fails to provide.” 

So women, the perceived carers, are attacked for the uncaring failings of the modern (and probably ancient) world.

When I make baklava and go back for a second (oh, let’s face it, fourth) portion, am I self-harming, self-caring, enjoying my food or not giving a shit? (Filo pastry brushed with butter, crushed nuts with cinnamon and sugar, layered, baked for 15 minutes then soaked in honey, orange juice, rosewater syrup—easy).

I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.