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The Emotional Immune System

Working with women across the weight spectrum has taught me that you can be any size and hate your body, and you can be any size and accept your body.  You can also be any size and be vulnerable to the assumptions made by the public about you based on your body's appearance.

How does it affect us to be moving around in this "soup" of cultural stereotypes?  This one is fat, she must be out of control; that one is a waif, she must be zoned out; that one is a tight little package, she must have it together.  The stereotypes are like toxins.   What determines how they will affect you is the state of your emotional immune system:  The defenses you have in place to keep that toxic stuff outside.

Working in a women's psychiatric hospital taught me that what you do with food can't be read from your body.  There was a 60ish-lb. bulimic woman who reported bingeing on 20,000 calories a day, and a 500-plus-lb. woman who was about to die of starvation who had essentially been fasting for 9 months.  Still, when those women stepped outside nearly everyone who saw them assumed that the emaciated woman was restricting and the fat woman was binging.

These assumptions are like the projections of a film onto you as the screen.  It can get pretty tiresome to be fat and have the "Gawd, She Must Have No Will Power and Hate Herself" movie projected onto you, but it is also tiresome to be conventionally beautiful and be hit with the "Ohmygod, She Must Think She is Totally Perfect, I Hate Her" movie. 

The projections vary by body size and appearance, as well as gender, ethnicity, class, age, and so forth.  There is usually something painful to us about being projected upon, especially when the assumptions are negative, far from the truth, or we feel powerless to influence them.  This makes them more "toxic."

There are certain situations that are particularly difficult because the perceiver has very little information about you except what they can see, and their own associations to that sight.  Job interviews, blind dates, singles bars, walking down the street - all of these are times when you are most vulnerable to being only  a screen for someone else's associations.

But most of the time there is a considerable amount you can do to "show up" through the projection rather than being a passive movie screen.  Think about someone who has struck you as particularly socially successful who is not that conventionally attractive.  What forms their appeal? They are not being passive screens for the "That Must be a Lonely, Plain Gal/Guy" movie. Somehow they seem "vaccinated" against the forces that select for Barbie and Ken.

The challenge for all of us is to find ways to "show up" through the projection as our real, unique selves.  These are some skills that constitute the effective defense by your emotional immune system:

  • Know yourself - in fact, be full of yourself
  • Know the projections - learn to recognize the enemy
  • Clean up the internalized versions of those projections
  • Feel entitled to show up
  • Bond with other people who support your identity
  • Be an activist - do things that make you feel empowered
  • Be compassionate with your vulnerable side - it hurts to be projected upon

The metaphor of the emotional immune system illuminates the importance of the things you believe about your body and yourself.  How does the physiological immune system defend you from toxins?  (Please forgive the gross oversimplification, but:)  It compares the thing coming from the outside to what is on the inside already, to determine if this is a foreign invader.  If there's no match, it fires up the armies.  But what if there is a match? It is more likely to allow the thing from the outside to pass the boundary and do its work on the inside.  

If the thing being projected upon you is something you worry is true about you, if you have internalized those oppressive stereotypes ("I am a fat lazy out-of-control loser"), then it passes by your boundaries and confirms your worst fears.  It wounds you deeply.  On the other hand, if you have done the work of  thinking critically about the culture and how oppressive it can be to different groups of people, and you have looked inside to your own attitudes and challenged yourself to tell the truth about yourself to yourself, then the thing being projected upon you is less likely to be a match.  It may still bruise you, but maybe it won't give you a terminal illness. Instead, you may think, that guy/gal really has a problem with (fat/old/Asian/disabled/gay/etc.) people. It was your bad luck to cross their path today, but their bigotry does not make you bad.

The metaphor of the emotional immune system also illuminates the fact that no matter how much internal "cleaning up" we do, we will be vulnerable to the external toxins.  We still have to do the work of cleaning up the culture.  But we need to try to stay as strong as possible for that task, so the internal tasks are quite important too.  The emotional work and the activism enhance each other.  Change your mind, change your culture, and let your body be.

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Body Positive: Change Your Mind, Change Your Culture, and Let Your Body Be

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Last updated: March 05, 2011.