Series 14: For the Love of Good Change | Episode 03
Undoing The Shame of Our Body Image Struggles: Hillary McBride
What would our lives be like if we spent less time thinking and talking about the way we look? What If we stopped comparing our bodies and bemoaning our “flaws”? Researchers report 85–95% of women are extremely dissatisfied with their bodies. How can we change this for ourselves? How can we change the language we use about our bodies and create realistic and positive constructs for the next generation of women? Hillary McBride is a therapist and researcher who writes about these questions in her book Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are. According to Hillary, we inherit harmful stories about our bodies, and may pass them onto our daughters without even knowing it. Hillary points out other ways we come by this language: through systemic misinformation and misogyny that envelops us daily, pushing us toward an unattainable standard of beauty. This conversation has everything to do with dispelling our shame and celebrating our womanhood. It reminds us of the power of legacy and the freedom we gain by owning our stories and our worth. And at the end of those stories, we individually get to define what’s beautiful, accepted, and good.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, guys. Jen Hatmaker here, your host of For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show today. I’m really glad you’re here.
Right now we’re in the middle of a series called For the Love of Good Change, and I am loving it. You guys, as I’ve been on interviews with all of our guests in this series, I am trying to remember a time when my brain has just been buzzing so much. Just taking in so much good counsel and good leadership and wisdom and just helpful guidance. Not in the old traditional way of like “fix your dumb life,” but more it’s just a lot of self-compassion and awareness and these healthy, sort of integrated ways of living.
I’m actually not into “New Year, New You.” I don’t like that and I hope you don’t hear that in this particular series. I don’t think we’re supposed to change everything about ourselves in order to finally be happy. I don’t like that mindset at all. This is supposed to be sort of the opposite of that approach, this series. I think we can be mindful and look at changes that don’t overwhelm us or seem unattainable or make us feel guilty or invite comparison, but rather sort of gently lead us into these amazing people that we’re created to be, who we already are, frankly in relationships that we are in, and the life that we are living, and as it relates to today’s guest, in the bodies that we are living in.
Today we are going to hold space for what might be, for many of us, maybe a hard conversation. We are going to talk about how we see ourselves, specifically our bodies, and how that affects us, and also how it affects our daughters and our kids. I want you to stick with me. Don’t switch off here because this isn’t what you might be thinking. This is not “new year, lose 20 pounds” like every single commercial we are seeing right now. This is the most opposite conversation. I cannot wait for you to hear it.
I am telling you, you’re going to get to the end of this hour and be so happy that you listened to this conversation, that you stayed in this because it is so encouraging and so nurturing and nourishing because the truth is you are worthy of love, just like you are, right this minute. You—your whole self, your body, your brain, your soul—all of you is worthy to be loved by your partner, by your family, by your own self, by God. If that’s hard for you to admit, I completely get it. And so today, my guest and I are going to talk about what we can do to get our arms around this and truly embrace this idea.
My guest today is phenomenal, the very wonderful Hillary McBride. A lot of you know Hillary already. She’s a therapist. She’s a researcher, a speaker, a writer in Vancouver. She is incredibly gifted at helping people to grow and heal and really just come more fully into themselves and their relationships. She’s a registered clinical counselor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. She has this real compulsion to make psychology and academic research very accessible to us normal people. To that end, you can hear Hillary on two podcasts. She’s on two.
First, Hillary is the host of the CBC podcast Other People’s Problems, where she shares taped conversations with a few of her braves patients in her therapy practice with their obvious permission. And then she’s also the co-host of one of my absolute favorite podcast in the entire world, The Liturgists Podcast, which is this culture-shaping conversation around the most relevant topics facing people today. It’s just so good. Both of these are phenomenal podcasts and so worth your time. I was actually on The Liturgists Podcast just a while back. Loved every minute of it. Love those people. Love that community.
So here’s why I wanted to have Hillary on the show today. She’s written a very powerful book called Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves the Way We Are. Right? That’s it. This is not a gimmick. This is not a bait-and-switch, you guys. This is not a shame-filled book. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It’s the celebration of womanhood and the power of legacy. According to Hillary, we may inherit . . . we absolutely do inherit some really harmful messages about our bodies and then we can accidentally pass them onto our daughters without even knowing it. But they do not have to be the end-all, be-all of our existence. It is possible to change the way we see ourselves and raise daughters who can love themselves too.
View MoreJen: Listen, this is just one of the most wonderful conversations I’ve been engaged in in a long time. Just my heart feels so full having finished it. I’m glad that you are here. I think it’s going to give you a lot of hope. I am so pleased to share my conversation with Hillary McBride.
Jen: Okay. Finally. Hillary, welcome to the For the Love Podcast.
Hillary: I’m so happy to be with you, Jen.
Jen: We were just saying, “Why is it taking so long? Why? I want an answer.” We have so much delightful crossover in our communities. And I’ve known about you and your work for so long and I just love it. I love you from afar and I’m so happy to talk to voice to voice.
Hillary: Oh, thank so much, Jen. Likewise. I feel the same way.
Jen: I really love what you’re putting out into the world right now, and I cannot think of a better conversation to put in front of my podcast community right now. I’ve told them a little bit about you and what you do, but I wonder in your own words if you could tell us a little bit more about your work, why do you do what you do, and why have you chosen to kind of sit in hard places with people and guide them through it?
Hillary: It’s the greatest honor. Truly it is the greatest honor because a lot of times our pain is something that we carry in such isolation. We feel like we have to tuck it away to be acceptable to the world, and that means that we continue feeling alone and like we’re broken and like we can never see ourselves as we truly are. I believe that community and relationship reflects back to us the truth about ourselves that sometimes we can’t see when we’re in dark spaces. I feel like there is this tremendous calling on my life, that I don’t take lightly, to go into the hard spaces to help undo people’s aloneness, to help us not carry so much shame about the pain that is actually just part of being human.
I’d like to say that that is purely altruistic. I don’t know if anything can be, but I feel alive when I do that, in part because I needed people to do that for me in my own life. For a long time, mental health issues were a big part of my identity. I was in and out of treatment for an eating disorder for well over a decade. And at various points, that included OCD and anxiety disorders and depression and suicidality. I had lots of people sit across from me who saw me as an illness, who saw me as a diagnostic label. Then I finally had this therapist, who we actually didn’t even talk about pathology for a long time. We just talked about what it meant to be human and kind of existentialism and suffering and pain.
I felt seen, and that was the thing that woke me up. It was like, “Oh, there’s more to me than just these labels that everyone has put on me. There’s more to me than just if my weight is what the doctors want it to be.” That made me come alive again. I get the pleasure now of sitting in spaces and helping people see themselves as more than just the suffering, but also knowing that they don’t have to make the suffering go away to be loved and to be seen and to be valued.
Jen: That is so gorgeous.
Hillary: Thank you.
Jen: Since this is a topic we could talk about for practically forever, I really love to just jump right into your book, Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image. I mean, I don’t have to tell you how much this matters right now and how deeply the community of women struggle here. I mean I literally hear this everyday. If I had to just boil down the amount of sorrow and conversation that I take in from my community, this is up at the top all the time.
In a nutshell, can you just tell us what’s the book about, why’d you decide to write it and make this a part of your clinical focus?
Hillary: I want to start by echoing that we could talk about it forever. Like, truly. This is one of my areas of academic specialties, so literally for like years I’ve been talking about this specific space. Truly this conversation could go on without end for a long time, but I’ll try and keep it brief.
In the post-recovery phase of my eating disorder and going back to grad school and starting my journey of becoming a therapist and academic, I was doing some work in researching body image. It seemed like there was so much that we understood about pathology. We understood about why do women hate their bodies. Why is it that this is happening and how does it get that way? We understand that now.
We’ve put a lot of research and energy into that, but we don’t understand what happens when women don’t hate their bodies. Like how does that happen? What’s going on there?
There’s actually some pretty terrifying statistics that show us that in North America, across the lifespan, the percentage of women who hate their bodies or extremely dissatisfied with their bodies is between 85 and 95%. Like truly a shocking number, which would say to us that if you don’t hate your body, you’re actually in the minority.
Jen: By far.
Hillary: By far, yeah. In that process, I thought, Oh, gosh. This can’t be this way forever. We got to do something about this. But what do we know about when women love their bodies and how do they get there?
I decided to research that in part because I’m really interested in changing the social discourse around women’s bodies, but also because I have a terrifying fear. It grips me so viscerally that I’ll have a daughter one day who hates her body the way that I hated mine. This is very personal, but also so theological and psychological and about this cultural landscape that we’re in.
In doing this research, I put the question out to recruit participants. So when we’re doing research, we recruit participants and we’re trying to do that in an ethical way. We’ll put these posters and put things out on the internet and said, “Do you love your body? Have you never had an eating disorder? Are you out there? I need to talk to you if you’re out there. Please.” I kept making this joke to my supervisor and to people that I would come across, like, “I don’t think I’m going to find anyone. They’re not out there.”
What was amazing, Jen—this almost never happens in research—I had an overwhelming response of people within the first 24 hours just jumping at the gates to try to participate in this study. I thought, Wait a second. This doesn’t fit the bill.
Jen: That’s interesting.
Hillary: The statistics tells that us most women hate their bodies, so what’s going on? Where are all these women coming from? What was interesting, and this kind of like a . . . It’s a subversive script, but the women were saying, “I’ve been desperate to find a place where I could talk about how okay I am with my body, But because of how much other women hate their bodies, if I tell the truth about my ability to love my body, then I get excluded from social conversations. I get told I’m not allowed because I don’t understand.” Some of these women are saying like, “I have been shut out from communities because people will say the thing that bonds us is our body hatred.”
Jen: Well, yeah.
Hillary: Right? Here’s this interesting paradox is that we see that the majority of women in North America are dissatisfied with their bodies, and the rates are rising. It’s becoming earlier and earlier that this takes place, and it’s growing later and later into the lifespan. And yet we have this growing community of women who have an alternative narrative, but don’t feel allowed to tell their stories. Because they’re not allowed to tell their stories, we don’t even understand how they got that way. Because hating our bodies has become such a central part of connecting to other women, right? Think about how many women are like, “Oh, you think your body’s bad? You should see my thighs, or you should see . . .”
Hillary: Right? “I’m going to cut myself down to make you feel better. In that way, we’re going to bond with each other and I’m going to feel better about myself because I made you feel better about yourself.” But the currency is body hatred.
Jen: It is. It’s an easy trope. I’m sitting here listening to you talk thinking, I have reached for this a hundred times. It’s easy. In my community online, which is almost entirely women, it’s an easy jab. It’s an easy punchline. It’s easy self-deprecation, however true, I feel like it is nonetheless. It creates community around the same ideas. It’s so easy and frankly, as you’re saying it, I’m trying to conjure up who I have seen offer a counter-narrative, and it’s small.
Hillary: That’s right.
Jen: It’s a small group.
Hillary: Yup. Yup. If you think about the dialogue and the discourse that we engage in as women, if I sat you down or not you necessarily. But if two women sat down and one woman said to the other woman, “I just love my body. I’m so proud of her. Look at all of the ways that I take care of myself,” like where does that conversation go? There are crickets. We don’t know how to have that conversation. But if a woman sat down with another woman and was like, “I can’t buy any clothes. I feel so crappy. I’m going on this Mexican vacation, and I can’t find a bathing suit,” we know exactly how to jump in with like, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean,” and the conversation carries itself.
It seems that there is this piece about body hatred that’s woven into the fabric of being a woman both as an individual and collectively, but it’s keeping us stuck in a discourse that doesn’t tell the full story, that there is more to who we are than just body hatred, than just our bodies being bad and kind of betraying us. I’m using heavy duty air quotes as I say that.
Hillary: All of this to say, in addition to my fear of having a daughter who would hate their body one day the way that I did, plus this idea that, Wow! There can be a different way, but we just don’t have enough information about it, I did my master’s research on this topic and looked at young women who loved their bodies as they are. Then I did a secondary piece of analysis where I asked their mothers, “What did you have to do with that?” I looked at it kind of intergenerational piece where I’m interviewing these two women, a mother and a daughter, an adult woman and her adult mother, and each of them talking about their own bodies to look at how messages are passed intergenerationally between mothers and daughters, and how there can be strength and courage and pain in those stories.
As part of feminist research, there are a bunch of different kinds of academic research. A lot of times, research sits in the ivory tower. It sits far away from the general population, and it’s written in language that is totally inaccessible. So, great—we have this great cure for this disease, but nobody can access it because it’s held within this hierarchy of knowers and not knowers. As a feminist academic, one of the things that I feel very strongly about is making research accessible to people that could change their lives, and so decided to write a book about this as a way of making kind of available to the average population who doesn’t want to read research articles written in academic journals. How do we change our relationships with our bodies?
I want to talk a little bit about that mother-daughter connection. It’s interesting. What you’ve discovered is that parents do plenty of things right. Even moms who have struggled with their own self-esteem and body image can still pass down healthy perspectives and behaviors to their daughters. It’s possible. Because I don’t want anyone to hear you talking right now and think, Oh, it’s too late. I hate my body too much. What am I going to do with this kid of mine? You’ve actually coined a term called “choosing the ladder” that I think is really helpful. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Hillary: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I’m just so glad that you brought this up because most of the things that we hear about parents are mother blaming.
Hillary: If a kid is struggling with something, automatically our thought is, Mom is bad.
Hillary: What we forget about is is how mothers are often the gatekeepers of health. Mothers are the ones who are investing so much care and nurturance and attunement into children.
Choosing the ladder is really just this way of saying something that one of the participants in my study said, “I want my ceiling to be your floor. I want the extent of growth that I can get to to be the place that I launched you from so that you don’t have to do the work that I did to fight tooth and nail for my freedom, that I can stand in my freedom and propel you into your own freedom.” Part of that means acknowledging your mistakes. That’s a big part of changing the story.
I don’t actually believe that there’s a version of a perfect parent. I think that a good-enough parent, a parent who is giving everything that they can to their children, is a parent who notices their mistakes and takes responsibility for it. Because what you’re doing is you’re saying to your kids, “When you grow up, you’re going to make mistakes. Here is a model of how you take responsibility for that.” For all the parents who are listening, it’s okay that you hurt your kids. Every parents hurts their kids.
Hillary: I mean abuse is an exception, right? That’s something I want to distinguish from the normal parental mistakes that people make. But the idea is that there is no perfect parent. There is you being fully human in a way that supports your children to become adults who are fully human, which means saying, “Oops. I messed up and here’s how I take responsibility for that.” That’s one part of taking the ladder or kind of choosing the ladder. It’s saying like, “I’m going to give you this gift to model for you what it means to take responsibility for mistakes.” Part of that is acknowledging where you’re woundedness is as a parent.
One of the things that I saw in my research and in the study was that moms who had anxiety would go the extra mile to say to their kids, “So, you might have anxiety one day. If you do, that’s totally okay. Here’s what I want for you to do about it.” Instead of like, “I’m going to shove down all of my pain so that you think that I’m perfect and you have this experience of me as being impenetrable or whatever, that giving this model of a human and demonstrating vulnerability and authenticity and supporting them to reach out for help by saying, “Here’s how you ask for me and you can ask me. If you ever feel anxious,” to continue on with that example, “If you ever feel anxious, come talk to me and I’ll teach you how to breathe together and we’ll go get you therapy. If you need medication, we’ll get you medication. You never have to feel shame about asking for help for the ways that you struggle in life.”
In doing so, instead of pretending that there is no anxiety struggle, they supported their kids to have an open dialogue if that would come up. Because as I was saying at the beginning of this interview, so much of our pain we carry in isolation, and we wound ourselves even more because of the shame we carry for how we struggle. If we can undo the shame about our struggle, then we can get right on to healing our pain.
Jen: That’s great. I love it.
One of the most inspiring mother-daughter relationships that you highlight in the book is between Anne and her daughter Kelsey. You say that Anne grew up with a mother who just didn’t know how to equip her daughter with positive and tangible ways to love herself. But even though Anne was not given those tools and even though she actually did feel shame about her own body, she was able to not pass along that sort of toxic thinking along to her daughter. In fact, Kelsey—in a reversal—was actually able to help her mom, which is so hopeful and so beautiful.
Hillary: I know.
Jen: Could you talk about that just a little bit, about that relationship?
Hillary: Oh, I just love that story, these two beautiful, beautiful women. I truly mean that like inside and out. One of the things that her mother gave her, one of the things that Anne gave Kelsey was the freedom to think for herself. An incredible gift. Because that means that whatever comes your way as a human being, if you believe that you can trust your body and your instincts to know if that is true about you or not—even though the message coming at you is not helpful, but you can think for yourself—then you can see the lies in that message, instead of having to go along with that message to curate some sort of belonging.
Because for a lot of us, we experience this, like, “I have to be like you in order for you to approve of me.” What Kelsey knew is that she was unconditionally loved and that she was free to be herself, even if she was different than her parents.
One of the things in her story that’s really unique that I don’t actually talk about in the book or in the interviews is one of the times where Kelsey felt pressured to be a part of a sports team. She went to her parents and said, “I know you really want this for me. You’ve been really pushing for this, and you have made lots of sacrifices for me to be in this sport up until this point. But I don’t want this for me anymore. I think that you want this for me, but I don’t want this for me.”
Jen: That’s good.
Hillary: Her mom said, “Absolutely. You are free to say no to this, and thank you for telling us. I’m so sorry you felt the pressure.” Again, there is the kind of owning . . . Not necessarily a mistake, but owning her role or the pressure she put on her and saying, “When you give me that feedback, Kelsey, when you tell me that something isn’t working, I can hold that and not silence you to manage my discomfort and not make you comply with my expectations so that I feel okay about myself.” There really was this beautiful freedom for her to think for herself and for her to act and use her voice.
Like, voice is a really important construct when we think about feminist psychology and women’s ability to know what they know, to honor what they know, and to actually speak it out loud to the people that they love. In the relationship between Anne and Kelsey, Kelsey never had to lose her voice to create belonging with her mother.
Jen: What a wonderful example. I really appreciate all this dialed in work that you do between moms and daughters. That’s just so many of us. We are both daughters and mothers.
I also like how in the book you talk about how a woman’s relationship with her body can mirror the kind of love and acceptance she has of her partner. I appreciate that angle too. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. It’s really a great way to understand how we can learn to have compassion for ourselves.
Hillary: If you think about the thing that so many . . . I hear so many women say. I mean I was leading a women’s retreat this weekend and I heard women say over and over and over again, “I would never judge you the way that I judge me.” That we can somehow can see the goodness and the beauty and the Imago Dei in the other, but somehow we’ve come up with all of these reasons why we are exempt from that very thing for ourselves. There’s that piece of it, which is like what would happen if I could see myself the way that I see others? If we do not walk through the world judging every other woman’s body, then why do we do that to ourselves?
Jen: That’s a great question.
Hillary: But perhaps the curiosity then is too is if we do walk through the world judging other women’s bodies and say, “Oh, she shouldn’t be in that bikini,” or like, “Oh, some women just shouldn’t wear certain kinds of clothes,” how do we ever expect to feel safe within ourselves? We are just practicing judgment that is going to fuel back into our self-discourse. Truly there has to be this parallel process where we treat ourselves like we treat others. It’s my favorite spin on The Golden Rule.
Jen: Yes, that’s exactly.
Hillary: I must love myself like I love you.
Jen: That’s good.
Hillary: A lot of times we flip it the other way and we say like, “Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you,” but there is a beautiful thing if we reverse that. If they’re both equal, then all of the goodness that I believe for others, all of the healing that I fight for and the redemption and the advocacy and the justice and the compassion that I fight for for others, where did I get the story that I am not deserving of that as well?
Jen: So great. That’s really good leadership.
Hillary: There’s that little piece of it, but then the other thing is that we often talk about our bodies as an “it.” This is where we get into kind of theories of embodiment. The idea is that we have created this mind-body divide that does not exist. The neuroscientific evidence about the connection between our brains and our bodies is overwhelming and compelling in the undoing of this mind-body split that so many of us have espoused. We think of our bodies as an object. Our bodies are an “it” that either does or doesn’t do what we want it to do, instead of thinking about our bodies as “us.”
There is the profound political implication if we start saying things like, “I am my body,” because it means that everything that anyone has ever done to our body, they have also done to us. That means feeling the pain of racism and feeling the pain of homophobia and feeling the pain of violence against our bodies or the way that we have been traumatized because of how other people have used or misused our bodies.
Saying, “I am my body,” means feeling the pain that our bodies carry. But it also comes with this beautiful gift of realizing that our bodies are good and that we are good and that all of the things that we have said about the other parts of us that are not body, like mind or spirit, are actually applicable to the body too.
Sometimes when I’m leading women’s retreats or doing embodiment workshops or body image workshops, I ask the question, what’s your relationship to yourself? Women will say, “You know, compassionate or complicated or in process or I’m learning or it’s more loving than it used to be.” Then I ask the question, what’s your relationship to your body? Women will say like, “hatred or shame or disgust.”
It’s so sad for me that we answer those questions differently. Where did you learn that the goodness and the love that we can find in how we talk and think to ourselves and how we believe about ourselves can’t also be applied to all of us? So when we think about talking to our bodies, one of the kind of thinking about our bodies and applying love and acceptance to our bodies, I like to sometimes think about that as moving the body from an object to a subject. This comes through in lots of the philosophers who studied embodiment for decades past. French philosophers, all sorts of continental philosophers who’ve said, “We can no longer treat the body like an object, because then we are cutting ourselves off from the fullness of life and from the complexity and the goodness of the self.” So we move from object to subject.
There are many, many people who use this kind of language, but think about if the body is the subject, if the body is a being, why don’t I engender some sort of relational language to this being, like “she”? Instead of talking about my body like an “it,” what happens if I talk about my body like a “she”? What if I talk about my body like a “we”? Like, I am in connection with myself. It means it’s harder to ignore the messages that our bodies are telling us—
Jen: That’s good.
Hillary: Because we would never say to another she or they or he or them, “I can’t believe you wore that and how that skin hangs over the front of your jeans.” Most of us would never say that.
Jen: Of course.
Hillary: When we think about our body as a her or a she—this living, breathing being—it sometimes is easier to start to relate in a loving and kind way because we’re borrowing from the way that we relate to others and just applying it to ourselves.
Jen: Even as you’re saying that, I feel that internal switch. You’re right. It is a mental . . . That’s bit of a mental exercise.
Hillary: It’s true.
Jen: Which I can see how if I were to regularly practice using those pronouns and that sort of language, I think that sort of thinking could lead my feelings. I think my feelings might follow. That is really a profound idea.
Jen: Body image is just . . . It’s such a tough nut to crack. I love that you’re spending your energy on this and this is your academic space because it’s so complicated. The underlying causes are so complicated. This for me, and I know this is also true for a lot of women, food is this wonderful mechanism to numb, and it is. It does deliver on the front end.
Jen: It does what I want it to do when I want it to do that. I’m not sure why so many of us reach for that. Maybe we don’t know how to feel hard things or we were never taught how or no one ever showed us how to hold complicated emotions and move through them in healthy ways.
I wonder if just for a moment you could talk a little bit about emotional regulation. When we’re feeling so overwhelmed that all we want to do is numb ourselves, and food is such an easy reach there and it just delivers quickly, it’s an automatic, what can we do to move through that in a different way, in a healthy way, in an integrated way?
Hillary: Truly, Jen, it’s again another thing we could spend a whole lifetime talking through. It is a complex system of emotions and social programming and behavioral reinforcement. It’s a socially acceptable way to manage distress.
Hillary: It’s going to be a lot more socially acceptable to eat something at the end of the day than it is to use intravenous drugs, truly.
Jen: Great point.
Hillary: It functions in the exact same way in our brain.
Hillary: Our body evolved at a time and in such a way that we would get this reward from high-sugar, high-fat foods. We get a dopamine release and often serotonin as well into our bloodstream, into our body, to say, “You’re doing a good thing!” Just like anything that releases that much dopamine and that much serotonin, it’s going to be easy to go back over and over and over again because it feels so good for our whole system.
Before I say anything else, what I want to say is there are many worst ways to manage distress, truly. There are many, many, many worse ways.
But the reason why we harp on this one so much is because it is situated in a context where we are steeped in diet culture and we have a very specific body ideal that has been reinforced through media over and over and over again. Basically a disappearing female body, except for the parts that are highly sexualized, then those are allowed to be big and not disappear.
Jen: Great point.
Hillary: The woman’s body must disappear, except for the parts that are created into sexual objects for the pleasure of others.
So when we look at food and managing emotions by using food, part of the reason why there’s so much shame is because women have often been told that their body at any size, except for the smallest and most invisible size, is bad. If we’re doing anything else to manage distress like taking a bath, it feels so good, going for a brisk walk, going for a run, but those don’t have the same kind of effects on our body that our society has constructed as being shameful or damaging. We don’t beat ourselves up about doing those things because they exist—the bath, the run, the walk—those exist in a framework we are told that those are good.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: Before I even talk about emotional regulation and doing something else instead, we have to remember that this is . . . We live in a very toxic society, which has constructed a very unhealthy, unattainable ideal for the female body. Anything different than the ideal is considered shameful and bad.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: I want kind of pierce that lie right away. If you need to eat because that is the safest way for you to manage distress, because you have been emotionally abused, because you were neglected, there is no shame in that. There is no shame in that.
The second thing I’ll say is that if you find that you don’t know how to do anything else, or you’re numbing out or binge-eating is taking over and you’re feeling like it’s out of control and you’re not making the choice—it’s choosing for you, this kind of repetitive behavior—then it’s a great ideal to start becoming mindful. That’s often the best place where we start.
I remember early on in eating disorder treatments. Before anyone in my treatment program said, “Okay. We need you to make changes to your behavior,” all they said was, “We just want you to notice and become aware of what’s happening, because so often the things that we do to emotionally regulate involve a kind of numbing out and dissociation. We lose awareness and we are not making the choices.” To become aware of what’s happening, to notice it as its happening is often the first step. It’s often the first place to start.
Then what we need to be able to do is perhaps pause and ask ourselves before we reach for the thing that maybe we’re not actually really hungry for but it just tastes good, or we don’t know how to be present and still when we’re watching a movie or sitting down and so we need something to distract us and it’s kind of like a stimulation behavior to create some sort of distraction from the present moment, then before you reach for the thing, I might ask you to notice, What is is that I’m feeling right now? Just simply kind of interrupting the automatic process of like mindlessly reaching for the bag of chips or whatever it is. And then maybe noticing like, Oh, interesting. Every time I reach for the chocolate bar, every time I’m eating three, four, five servings of food when I’m actually not hungry anymore, when I slow down and ask myself, there’s a sadness or a loneliness that’s there.
You might collect some data about specific kinds of things that pop up before you reach for food that you’re not actually hungry for.
Then what I might be kind of suggesting or urging you towards is exploring your stories growing up about that feeling. What were you told anytime you were sad? Sometimes people were told when they’re sad growing up like, “Don’t be sad. It’s weak.” Or, “Don’t be afraid,” especially in evangelical context.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: “Perfect love drives out fear. If you’re afraid, it means that you’re not trusting God, so you can’t be afraid.” The message we learned is if we feel fear, we have to shove it down in order to be acceptable to our tribe.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: When we shove it down, we never actually learn how to feel it. There’s a fear about fear, of being shameful, about not being good enough. Guess what happens?
20 years down the road you feel fear. Well, you have no other strategies besides doing anything you can to try and make it go away.
It might be looking back and asking yourself, “What were the stories that I heard about this emotion?” One of the things that it’s really important to acknowledge about emotion is that it’s a socially and relationally-learned process. It’s not an intellectual skill to feel emotion. It’s actually something you learn in connection with another person.
The same parts of our brain that hold the relational capacities also hold the affective or kind of sensing into reading about ourselves, knowing where we’re at and reading our own body cues parts. We learn through relationship with another person how to feel. You can’t actually read a book and learn how to feel. You can’t just decide I’m going to name this. It actually takes having relational permission and guidance for someone to say to you, “Okay. This is what you do next and this is what you do next. I’m going to stay with you until it’s dissipated.”
Jen: That’s good.
Hillary: Emotional regulation is just our fancy academic or theoretical word for saying that we know what we’re feeling and we know what to do with what we’re feeling or not feeling in a way that helps us navigate social situations, relational environments, work environments, kind of our life’s desires in a way that’s supportive for us to be well and whole. That can mean knowing when we’re feeling low energy, low emotions—kind of a down feeling, if you will—how to bring that back up. If we’re feeling too much or we’re feeling anxious or distressed, knowing how to recognize that and what to do about it to bring it back down.
Jen: It’s funny to hear you talk about it because it sounds simple and even in some ways obvious. Slow down and check your feelings. I think the thing is that, alone, is work that most of us would rather avoid because it’s just easier to default to the thing. Again, like you said, food could be one thing. Well, that could be any number of things. But that is a bit of work, to be mindful, to say, “I’m going to pay attention. I’m going to start cataloging what I’m noticing,” and yet it really is a path forward.
I mean, this isn’t necessarily work that is so hard and out of reach that the average person cannot engage it. This is doable.
Hillary: It’s totally doable. In fact, I might say that it’s necessary for us to be whole and to move forward as a society and as a culture because the research that we’re having now . . . The research that’s now coming out about psychopathology or mental health issues is that most mental health issues are primarily emotional regulation disorders. That there is an inability to know what to do when we’re feeling big emotions or not enough emotions or we’re not expressing them in ways that are supportive for us or for other people. If we could think of one thing that you could do to help yourself, truly it would be to learn how to feel feelings.
The research about emotional regulation shows us that a kid’s ability to emotionally regulate is more predictive of their academic success than IQ.
Jen: That’s interesting.
Hillary: Even when that’s controlled for socioeconomic status, we know that regardless of where you come from, what your brain’s level of ability is cognitively, if you can emotionally regulate, you will be much more successful in school, regardless of what your IQ is.
Jen: Wow. Of course, I mean looping back around to the top of the show, this is indeed something we can model and pass on to our kids.
Jen: Just knowing these are tools that we can put in our own hands, in the hands of our kids to be incredibly predictive of their future, it’s big stuff here.
Hillary: Huge stuff.
Jen: Right now, it’s the beginning of a new year. You know kind of how this goes in mainstream culture. This is time when a lot of people tune their attention toward improvement or wellness or health or all the things that we sort of want out of this next sort of page, this next chapter. It’s a weird time for a lot of us because, of course, just one minute ago, it’s all these happy warm Christmas commercials filled with families and cinnamon rolls, right? Then it’s this like messaging whiplash because the cinnamon rolls are gone. It’s kale. It’s guilt. Every other commercial is weight loss. Every other one. It is a gym or it is a pill. It’s this idea like, “Okay. We’ll have you 20 pounds lighter by Valentine’s Day.” I mean those messages are everywhere. They’re literally in every channel.
Hillary: I know.
Jen: That goes back to what you were saying is this really is the air that we’re breathing. It really is the culture that we have been raised in and sort of it’s been normalized for us. How would you suggest that we begin the challenging work, frankly, of shutting out so many of these toxic messages that are aimed at us with great effect? I mean this is a billion-dollar industry we’re talking about here, so it’s no joke. How do we learn to care for our bodies because we do want to care for our bodies. It’s our body. It’s our “she.” It’s our “her.”
Hillary: Yes, that’s right. That’s correct.
Jen: But not in a punishing a way, but more like as a gift. More like as a partner. Like a cherished member of who we are.
Hillary: Oh, I just love hearing you talk about it that way. I’m so hopeful that even just hearing this conversation might inspire the beginnings, the sparks of some compassion and some cherishing of the bodies for those who are listening.
The first thing that I think about is the importance of media literacy. We know from research that even in a world where we are inundated with toxic messages, that it is possible to be compassionate and loving of your body at any size. One of the keys is media literacy. It’s the ability to look at images and to see through the lies. To be able to see that there is an agenda here, that there is a capitalist structure at place where people are making money off of us hating our bodies as women.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: It’s important that we identify that that’s happening. There are even really powerful documentaries. The work of a woman named Jean Kilbourne and a documentary called Killing Us Softly, where she looks at the images that are manipulated so that the people who are in the images that we are comparing ourselves to, that they don’t even look like that. Because the images have been manipulated so much that the people themselves, who the image is capturing, it doesn’t even resemble their original form.
Jen: It’s just craziness.
Hillary: It is absolute insanity, and yet we’re looking at those things and feeling badly about ourselves. Literally no person looks like that, not even the person who the image was taken of.
So being able to see the media and understand the sociopolitical context where there is an agenda, there is a capitalist and patriarchal agenda where women are kept hating their bodies as a tool for oppression.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: It’s a way to make money.
Jen: We’re laughing, but it is true.
Hillary: It’s true. Absolutely it’s true. And depending on how far along the feminist spectrum you go, some people will even articulate like, “This is the greatest strategy to keep women subservient because if they hate their bodies, then they are not engaging in political action.”
I think one of my favorite questions to ask people is, “What would you have energy for if you spent less time hating your body, manipulating your appearance, focusing on what your body is or isn’t doing and trying to make it different? What would you do with all of your brain power if you were not obsessing about meal planning and calorie counting and shaming yourself?” There is a revolution in order here.
Hillary: There is a whole army of people who have the capacity intellectually from a heart center place, spiritually, to engage in acts of justice and ending oppression of marginalized people groups, but we’re sitting at home fussing about how our bat wings or how the skin on the top of our jeans is looking and obsessing about what kind of products we can buy to make our body look different. Truly there is a political piece to this I believe.
So the first is media literacy. The second I would say is that we need self-compassion, that we need to say that our body is okay at any size. Because as soon as we . . . I think you can believe that and start acting like it, or you could act like it and then you’ll believe it later. Those things are connected, our actions and our beliefs. Because they’re so interconnected, we can do one and it will affect the other.
But as soon as we have this kind of contingent self-worth where we say like, “If this, then I’ll be okay,” we are setting ourselves up for a whole lifetime of feeling like we have to chase something to earn our enoughness.
Jen: That’s right.
Hillary: It’ll just switch out. It’ll be, “If I weigh this much or if I didn’t have this many wrinkles or if my body looked that way,” and the target will keep moving and moving and moving. We will always feel like we are waiting to change something to be okay. I think what we say is that in the new year, instead of caring about the weight that we’ve gained, we say, “My New Year’s resolution is to be kind to myself now. Not to wait until my body is different, not to wait until XYZ has happened to be happy with myself, but to say, ‘I am completely enough and lovable. I am loved and lovable now. Now as I am.'”
Jen: That’s so good. What a refreshing thing to hear. It’s so different from every other narrative aimed at women. I really agree with you that it can matter. I mean, this can matter.
Hillary: But it doesn’t make anyone money! It doesn’t make anyone money.
Jen: That’s a super good point. There is no money in it.
Hillary: No gym memberships get signed up for if we’re like, “I’m good, girl. I’m good.” Right?
Jen: Honestly. I don’t know if you follow Jameela Jamil. I don’t know if you know who that is.
Hillary: Yes, I do.
Jen: She’s an actress on The Good Place.
Jen: We had her on the show a few weeks ago. She is just doing this amazing work right now about a counter-narrative, and she is killing it all out. All of it. All the celebrity culture, the endorsement culture, the crazy-fad-unhealthy-diet culture, the magazine, airbrush culture. She makes the same point. This is not a mystery.
What’s interesting is a lot of those industries, their front-facing idea is that they love women. That’s what they say, “We love women. We are for women. We’re showcasing women. We care for women,” but the truth is, they’re making money on women.
Hillary: That’s right.
Jen: Let me ask you this last question before we sort of wrap it up together. You mentioned this earlier, so I just wanted to touch back on it, when we listen to the world about what our body should look like, then at that point, our body no longer belongs to ourselves. That is a scary place to live.
I know that you’re working on a new book called Embodiment. Can you talk a little bit about this concept, and when did our brains get disconnected from our bodies? We’ve talked a little bit about it, but what can we do about it?
Hillary: Yes. Oh, yes. Jen, this is a really fun question to answer because it makes us see how long and how much work has been put into us feeling this way that we do.
I was talking with women about this again at an event that I was leading recently, and women were shocked to feel like, “Oh my goodness. It’s not because I’m broken that I feel this way. You mean there’s millennia of thought that has been put into me feeling bad about myself?” We actually see the split between mind and body start even as far as back Plato. Plato said, “The soul and the body are distinct from each other and the soul is good and the body is bad,” right? Then we see our friend Paul and his Pauline Theology pick this up and talk about, “The flesh is bad.”
For people who grew up in the church, there is an extra narrative to contend with, which has felt like we have been told that our flesh is where our sinfulness is, and even more so as women. Women have been told over and over again, “It’s your body. Your body is bad. It led everyone astray. It’s where lust is. Body is bad.” Then we see even further, Descartes. René Descartes, the philosopher, say that, “The mind is closer to the soul. The mind can leave the body. The body is bad. Body is where pain is. Body is where lust is. Body is where desire is.” And in that, there was also this kind of this gendered story too, where men were able to leave—this is a very like heteronormative story historically—but men were able to leave the house and go to the ivory tower and think and do theology. And women, because of the cycles and the rhythms of the body and taking care of children, had to stay with the daily tasks and the lived experience of the body. In addition to there being this story about mind being good and body being bad, women were associated more with the body and the needs and the desires and the lust of the body.
There is a patriarchal component to this. But what’s interesting about embodiment is it’s a construct that comes out of continental philosophy within that existentialism or phenomenology. And the idea is that maybe we are our bodies, and that as bodies that we can live with more dimensions of existence. Instead of just being in our thoughts, that we can be in our senses, that we can be in our connection to the earth and to the rhythms of the body, and we can feel goodness in the body.
We see with different theological ideas this idea of transcendence in theology, which was about leaving the now, that God is far away and big and distinct and very unhuman. But in feminist theologies and liberation theologies, we see the construction of God as being here and now in the very present moment, as close as our breath, perhaps even our breath itself.
Jen: That’s good.
Hillary: Embodiment is this beautiful, spiritual, philosophical idea that says, “We’re missing out on the fullness of life when we try to get away from the body, that there is something that we learn about God, there is something we learn about beauty, there is something we learn about pleasure when we are in the body, and that those things are not bad. That it’s good. That it’s really good.”
I’m writing a book right now about what embodiment is and how we can befriend and fall in love with our bodies again— including even if we’ve had a marginalized body, if we’ve experienced chronic pain, if we’ve been in trauma and our body has been the site of our trauma. Like, I do not believe that that excludes us from experiencing goodness in the body.
Jen: That just kind of makes me want to cry my eyes out. We’re so tired. We’re all just so tired of this. I mean, I am thinking back to what you said a minute ago. I can’t even put a number on how many minutes and hours and days will be added back into all of our lives if we just freed up the mental space from all this self-loathing. It’s such a preoccupation. It takes so much hope. It’s like a halftime job chasing all these ideas and fads around. I believe in this and I want this so much for my girls. Just my girls.
Hillary: I want it for them too.
Jen: I have an 18-year-old. I have a 12-year-old. I love the idea of sending them into adulthood whole and integrated and just proud of their bodies and their souls and their minds and all of that packaged together. It’s just good. I want to just commend you and tell you just keep going.
Hillary: Thank you.
Jen: We do not have enough teachers in this area. We do not. We certainly do not have enough mentors. I find this discussion as important as anything I can think of that I’ve had lately. This is really, really good.
So listen, in this series, we are wrapping up talking to every guest and we’re asking just kind of three quick questions and really whatever pops to mind.
Hillary: Great. Okay.
Jen: I think our idea of this series, which is called Good Change, is that we hate those sort of “sell the whole farm” idea to self-love, right? “You’re going to have to start from scratch,” or, “You’re going to have clear the slate and start over,” or, “You need to change everything about yourself and then you’ll be happy.” I just think that is such a toxic unhealthy approach. I like this approach. “This is your body that you have been given. Let’s love it.”
Hillary: That’s right.
Jen: Let’s live right inside of it and love it. To that sort of end, what’s the best small change, just a little tiny toggle, that you’ve ever made in your life?
Hillary: Oh, ever? Oh my goodness.
Jen: Just small change, and it like deeply impacted your trajectory.
Hillary: I mean, I could talk for hours about this because I feel there have been so many. But the one that comes top of mind right now is to dance. This is not in a class, not for anyone, not choreographed. Music on, naked in my house alone, moving in a way that feels good. Because what we know from embodiment is that you can’t believe goodness about your body if you haven’t experienced goodness with your body. I’ve been creating these experiences of freedom and joy in kind of movement. So I, when no one’s home, I dance naked.
Jen: That’s fabulous. I just love it.
Hillary: To blues music.
Jen: Literally the best answer this podcast has ever heard. What about this one: what’s one positive thing, if you do have one, that you just do everyday just to feel good?
Hillary: I would say, I mean, lots of little things like I’ve been trying to get to bed earlier. But truly probably the most impactful one is to trust my body. If body says something, if she says something like, “You’re tired,” I listen. She says, “You’re hungry,” I listen. She says, “This doesn’t feel safe,” I listen.
Jen: That’s good.
Hillary: She says, “I’m in pain,” I listen.
Jen: I love that because she’s a good partner.
Hillary: It’s good. I can trust her. She tells me the truth.
Jen: She’s been with you everyday that you’ve lived on this earth.
Hillary: That’s right.
Jen: You never got anywhere without her.
Hillary: Exactly. That’s right. Never been a single place without her.
Jen: Last one, this is Barbara Brown Taylor question that we love and ask every single guest: what’s saving your life right now?
Hillary: Okay. Well, because it’s top of mind, I would say one of these women’s retreat I’m doing. Lisa Gungor and I. Lisa is married to my Michael Gungor, who’s also on The Liturgists Podcast, but we have started these women’s retreats, women’s embodiment retreats that are focused on kind of the sacredness of the body and the goodness of femininity and not in a traditional sense of like doing pretty things, but really like kind of an earthy connection to God, to each other, and to create a new story about being a woman in this world, one that undoes shame and isolation and competition. We just had another one in Ojai in California. It wrecked me.
Jen: Did it?
Hillary: It wrecked me. Jen, these women are powerful beyond measure. I always like to say to people, “We didn’t come up with the story that we’re bad in isolation, and we’re not going to tell a new story in isolation either. We need each other to tell a new story. We need each other to remind ourselves of the truth about the fact that we are good and we are loved and we are full of light and we have divine in us.”
I just got back from one of these retreats, and my heart was bursting and my body was vibrating. I just felt like it was all going to be okay.
Jen: Oh, what a great answer. Will you just tell my listeners where can they find you? Because I already know right now that some of my people are listening going, “I need to go to that retreat. I need to get all the way to wherever the next one is.” Where can they find you, your books, everything?
Hillary: Yes, absolutely. Okay. Lisa and I post about the retreats on Instagram, on Twitter. You can follow me on Instagram, @hillaryliannamcbride is my handle. On Twitter, @hillarylmcbride. You can find information about me and my writing and upcoming speaking engagements on my website hillarylmcbride.com. My first name has two L’s. I usually post about stuff on there.
And you can listen to me on The Liturgists Podcast. I do custom meditations for the The Liturgists patrons. If you sign up to be a patron, every few weeks I do a custom meditation so people can hear a little bit of that. I often do embodiment related ones to help us heal our relationships with our bodies.
Then lastly, I have a podcast with CBC, which is Canada’s NPR. It’s about therapy. Some of my clients have given me permission to stick mics in our sessions, and we use pseudonyms to protect their identity. But it’s about demystifying mental health and treatment and therapy. Instead of pat answers and bite-size self-help, it’s seeing what the journey of healing really looks like and walking beside people to feel less alone. That’s a podcast called Other People’s Problems.
Jen: Good work, sister. Good, good, good work. Thank you for everything you said today. I’m thankful that I got to introduce my podcast community. The ones that didn’t know you are so happy now that they do.
Hillary: Thank you, Jen.
Jen: Please keep teaching us, and please keep leading us. We are listening. I have great hope not just for our daughters’ generation, but also for ours, that this is within reach. I’m so grateful that you are reaching and showing the rest of us how to do it too. Thanks for being on today.
Hillary: Oh, my greatest pleasure. Thank you so much.
Hillary: For all the work you’re doing. Just sing your praises all day long.
Jen: Thanks, Hillary.
Hillary: Bye, Jen.
Jen: I hope you loved that conversation as much as I did. I’m just going to be thinking on this one for a long time. Grateful to women like Hillary who are leading us like this and who are not buying into just the shame-based body culture that you and I have literally lived in since the day we were born. What a new and wonderful story to tell.
I know you’re going to want to hear more from Hillary, and so just as a reminder, everything we talked about today, I will have linked over at jenhatmaker.com underneath the Podcast tab with this particular episode. Amanda will have the whole page built out for you. Every link, every website, all of Hillary’s social handles, every bit of information on the internet about Hillary we will have at your disposal. Do go over there for more, if you want to hear more about her workshops that she runs. I mean, what a wonderful opportunity.
Anyhow, we are grateful to you, listeners. My team and I love you. We care so much about you. So Amanda and Laura and I say thank you so much for listening week in and week out. Thank you for being such a powerful and robust community. You download and you listen and you share it and you review it and you rate it and just thank you for all that, you guys. It’s our pleasure and our honor to continue to serve you.
There’s so much more in this series, you guys. I’m telling you, I said it at the top of the hour, but every interview in this series just has lit something in me. It just stoked a flame. I hope you feel the same way, and we have more to come.
Come back next week as we continue For the Love of Good Change, and can’t wait to bring you more. Have a great week, you guys. See you next time.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!