Dear Feminist Therapist,
I managed to make it through the holidays with my family, but my mom said something that really bothered me and I just can’t seem to let go of it. She started talking about New Year’s resolutions, asked me what I wanted to change about myself in January and if my resolution was to lose weight. I have been self-conscious about my weight for a long time, and it seems that whenever my mother and I are together, she is watching everything I eat, and commenting on her body and my body. I thought I was doing quite well with how I felt about my body, then she started making comments like that. Now, it’s all I can think about and it seems to have broken open this body shame I had been able to tuck away. What do I do?
You are so not alone in this. Even if we love our families, and generally get along with them. It is hard for most of us to spend time with family over the holidays — people are stressed, have high expectations, and spend amounts of time with each other that we would never expect to work any other time of the year. So, just know that you are not alone.
There are a few thoughts I have about this. First, it’s great to try to “tuck something away,” but sometimes that fools us into thinking we aren’t bothered by something. Think of it like having a bruise on your leg –if nothing touches the bruise and it’s under your pant leg, you might forget you have it altogether. Then someone comes along and pokes it, and the bruise hurts, reminding you there is still an injury there. In the same way, your mother’s comment may have reminded you about something you still have to deal with it.
Second, It’s easy to go around and around and around with a thought in our head, but just end up creating a “groove” of sorts, that actually makes it easier to keep thinking that way. We have more control over our thoughts than we think — not always in the immediate, and not about what seems to pop up unsuspectingly, but there is good neurological evidence that shows people can train their brains to get off certain loops. So instead of just going over the same thing, playing the scenario over in our heads, we can decide to do something about it. Here are some things could try:
- Get a body image workbook or read a feminist book critiquing the objectification of women’s bodies.
- Think about what you would like to say next time someone says something like what your mom said to you
- Have a conversation in your head that talks back to the negative body image voice
- Do some therapy, or talk to other women who you know have also struggled with these issues to get some ideas about how to move forward
- Focus on what you would like to work on in the New Year, and write the goal someplace visible. Pick something like: Learning to appreciate the space you take up in the world, building more body compassion, and educating yourself about feminist perspectives on women’s relationships with their bodies and diet culture.
Last, it’s not surprising to me that you have struggles with your body when your mom makes comments like that to you. I have done extensive work for my MA and PhD research in this area, and academic research shows that mother’s relationships with their own bodies are one of the most significant predictors of how their daughters feel about their own bodies. Although I would need to know more about your mom to state this definitively, I imagine that she might have insecurity about her body that is somehow spilling out onto you. You can always try to ignore her comments. But if that is not working for you, you could always think about talking to her and telling her how her comments make you feel. You might like the book The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner, which provides a feminist perspective on relationships, how to set boundaries, how to communicate hard things, and how to change relationship patterns. I have hope that this coming year, you can become more yourself, even if that is very different than what your mother wants for you, or for herself.
Dear Feminist Therapist,
My dad has a number of illnesses that make his life really difficult. He’s been coping well for some time, but recently got some tests back and learned that things are taking a turn for the worse. We don’t know how long he is going to live, and in what condition. I also just got accepted into a school I’ve been wanting to get into. I have been taking prerequisites for years, and ready to start this next stage of my life, but this is happening at the same time that my dad’s health is getting worse. I have put so many of my dreams on hold for my family in the past and have worked so hard to get into this program, but feel guilty and don’t want to miss the opportunity to spend this last little bit of time with my dad. I don’t know how long he will be around. What should I do?
My heart is torn for you just reading this — what a painful situation to be in. I’m saddened to hear about the progression in your dad’s illness. I think, as women, we are often the first to give up on the things we want in order to take care of relationships — even if no one asks us to, we have been socialized to feel it is our duty, and we feel guilty if we don’t. That being said, I think one of the things women often do really well is join together, provide support to others, and hang in there with people when they are hurting. I wonder if there a way you can do both? Do you have to choose one or the other? Perhaps you can’t do both to the level that you would like to, but maybe you don’t have to?
One question I ask clients to consider when they are in this position is, “What will you be glad you did in this situation when you are old and dying?” This is something we call “prospective hindsight”: thinking in the future about what you will wish you had done now. This sometimes helps us get out of the stuckness of our mind. You might find that when you think about it, at the end of your own life you will wish you did what you wanted to do for yourself. You might also find that you will think about the moments you wish you had with your dad, and wish you had more of them.
I have a few questions to ask that might help you make a decision about what to do next:
- Do you have other siblings that live near your father? Could they help in providing care and support for him?
- Can you begin the program while also increasing your frequency and connection with your dad? Could you call/email/write letters/go visit regularly? If his health allows it, can he come visit you?
- Can you defer your acceptance to the program, and perhaps start the program when you have more information about how much longer your father will be alive?
- Could you talk to your program advisor about what it would mean to take a leave if you needed to, were he to die while you are in the program?
- Ask your dad what he thinks. You might be feeling guilty about going to school if you start, but when you ask him, he might actually want you to do that.
Life is full of loss. Sometimes when someone we love is dying it’s hard not to feel like a part of us is dying too. We need to grieve, and connect with ourselves and others, to make as much room for the emotion as possible. But just because they stop living doesn’t mean we need to stop living too. This is a chance to reevaluate your values and to think existentially about what matters for you. Know that no matter what you do it will both cost you something and give you something. In situations like this there is no perfect way forward. Just the way you choose.
Dear Feminist Therapist,
I am interested in reading more about feminist therapy after reading the article posted on the Feminist Current recently about how psychology undermines feminist activism. In reading the comment section it seems as though not all people agreed, and some have had therapists who have encouraged their activism as a part of their healing. What else can I read about feminist therapy and feminist psychology to be better informed. My gut says that psychology as a whole has been really individual-focused, and even explicitly anti-feminist at times, but that the feminist psychology and feminist therapy movements have something to offer. Can you point me in the direction of some sources?
I’m glad you wrote in. I had similar feelings while reading this article. The feminist movement within psychology and therapy, or as an answer to mainstream psychology and therapy operates under very different political assumptions meant to provide corrections to the largely masculinist nature of psychology and therapy, particularly as it was practiced historically.
Feminist psychology often focuses on the individual experience as it is impacted by sociopolitical factors, including patriarchy, and seeks to support women to connect with each other, activism, resources, and the broader story of women’s oppression. Also, feminist psychology has been resistant to the pathologization of women’s normative and appropriate distress to a misogynistic and patriarchal society. This has included the development of specific feminist research methodologies sensitized to the silencing of women and sociocultural context, and are meant to amplify the voices of women within the academic community and literature, and to the broader community. Interestingly, most of the work in the field of psychological trauma (particularly sexual trauma) has been largely influenced by feminist psychologists, as they have fought to support the validation of women’s experiences of sexual trauma, as they impact women’s neurobiology as well as lived experience. This has been the case even when women’s experiences of sexual trauma have been repeatedly and systemically minimized or misunderstood by medicine, the state, and even other women.
You might find the conversation I had with Meghan Murphy about feminist therapy to be helpful
You might also find work in the area of feminist phenomenology interesting. Some of those works are included in this list:
- Throwing Like a Girl And Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory by Iris Marion Young
- Toward a New Psychology of Women by Jean Baker Miller
- In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan
- The Birth of Pleasure by Carol Gilligan
- Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, Jill Mattuck Tarule
- Feminist Perspectives in Therapy: Empowering Diverse Women by Judith Worell and Pamela Remer
- Woman Changing Woman: Feminine Psychology Re-Conceived Through Myth and Experience by Virginia Rutter
- Women in Therapy by Harriet Lerner
- The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner
- Volatile Bodies by Elizabeth Grosz
- Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo
You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)