It’s time to stop gaslighting ourselves

….about our own beauty Load struggles

we need to stop gaslighting ourselves in our body image struggles

We need to stop gaslighting ourselves over our body image struggles as it is causing us angst and insecurity.

Many of us are now familiar with the concept of ‘gaslighting’ within toxic relationships — a form of emotional abuse in which someone manipulates another person into doubting their own beliefs, perceptions and reality.

But, increasingly, I’m noticing we’re turning this gaslighting on ourselves, too.

As a relationships counsellor and couples therapist, I’ve been privy to hundreds of women sharing their intimate stories and worries with me for more than a decade — and every single one of them was feeling the effects of what I call ‘the beauty load’.

For example, one women’s partner had just had an affair — and she worried it was because she put on too much weight and was no longer attractive enough.

Another client had severe acne and feared no one would ever be able to love her when she looked that way, and so she stopped seeking a relationship.

Yet another woman felt she could no longer wear certain types of clothes anymore because she was “too old to be beautiful”. So she settled for clothes she didn’t even like, but felt were “age appropriate”.

What these women were unknowingly doing — and what so many of us are doing — is internally gaslighting ourselves.

We’re internalising a dominant cultural narrative around women’s looks and harshly turning this beauty load back on ourselves. We are gaslighting ourselves.

No wonder so many of us feel so inadequate, right?

How ‘the beauty load’ sparks self-gaslighting

(Here is a clip of me talking about how the ‘beauty load’ sparks self-gaslighting)

You’ve likely heard of the ‘mental load’ — a term for the invisible labour involved in managing a household and family, which typically falls on women’s shoulders.

I believe we’re also up against the ‘beauty load’ — constant vigilance that we carry like a load on our shoulders, where we’re always wondering: “Am I pretty enough, do I look good enough, is my appearance enough?”

And I believe this pressure particularly affects women.

For thousands of years, our voices as women haven’t been appreciated or valued. Our worth hasn’t been measured by our ideas, the way we show up in the world, our change-making or the ways we help create a better world, like it has been for men.

So we’ve had to put our worth elsewhere.

Thousands of years of patriarchal thinking have pushed both men and women into believing that a woman’s worth lies in the way she looks, and how closely that aligns with the changing whim of current fashion trends. Whether we’re stylish enough, young enough, sexy enough, thin enough, or if our eyelashes are long enough.

It’s this exact cultural lens that fuels a $571 billion beauty industry, which promises we can be ‘enough’ if we just buy this dress or that makeup.

‘The beauty load’ causes us to turn against ourselves

The beauty load depletes our finances as we buy all those must-have items, and eats into our time as we spend precious minutes and hours tweaking our appearances.

Worse yet, the beauty load harms us psychologically too, particularly for women. It eats away at our confidence, crushes our capacity to be in the world with a strong voice and big ideas, and prevents us from really being ourselves.

This toll, I feel, is not often talked about — the toll the beauty load takes on our spirit. (In fact, I feel so strongly about this topic, that I wrote an entire book on it: The Beauty Load.)

It creates an internal turning against ourselves — and this is what I mean when I say we are gaslighting ourselves.

How to see clearly when self-gaslighting is happening

Gaslighting is when someone leads you to question your own reality. For example, Partner A might dismiss a problem that their partner raises, turning the problem on Partner B and making them the problem:

“Not only does this problem not exist but you are crazy. You are too sensitive. You are the problem.”

That’s gaslighting. And it creates confusion. It creates a sense of disconnect from our intuition and truth.

I believe this is exactly what our culture has been doing to us, with consumerist and patriarchal messaging that places women’s value on the insatiable quest for beauty improvement.

And then, in turn, we gaslight ourselves with this beauty load. We take all the toxic beauty messaging that we have been conditioned with our whole lives, and we turn it on ourselves.

As though we are the problem. As though our bodies are the problem.

But it’s actually our cultural beauty paradigm that is the problem, not us! The blame belongs out there, within our culture of patriarchy and beauty ideals and a fashion industry making billions of dollars out of making us feel lacking.

Yet, instead of acknowledging this, we gaslight ourselves by dismissing and minimising the heavy beauty load.

We turn it on ourselves with questions like: Is my bum too big? Would I be more acceptable if I got a spray tan? Do I need a new outfit for people to take me seriously?

One sure way to know that you are gaslighting yourself

The main signs that you’re gaslighting yourself are things such as:

  • Doubting your worth based on your looks
  • Asking yourself if you’re attractive enough
  • Having a negative voice in your head about the way you look.

But here’s one really clear way to instantly get a sense of self-gaslighting.

Ask yourself: “How would I feel about my children or a young person being exposed to these messages or this thinking?” 

The thought of your pure, perfect children being affected by this toxic messaging might get your mother instincts firing. You’ll then be able to clearly see that it’s the messaging that’s the problem and not the kid. Well — it’s the same for us as adults.

How do I stop gaslighting my body image struggles?

I believe we have to start with awareness — with the understanding that this really does exist in our culture.

Because awareness is always the first step to change. It opens the door to the realisation that these messages around us are massively affecting us, all the time.

That what we’re feeling is really real. It’s a normal response to our culture and our world. And if we just dismiss it and deny it, we’re essentially saying: “You should get over yourself.” And that doesn’t feel good.

Instead, it’s about having forgiveness. Both for how your body looks in this moment and for all those moments looking back over your life where you twisted the toxic messaging back on yourself. Instead of being judgemental, we need to bring in self-compassion.

We need to acknowledge to ourselves that this sucks, it’s the beauty load and it’s hard.

A truly effective way to do to this is via what I call ‘parts work’.

Essentially, you sit down and deeply acknowledge the parts of you that are worried about how you look, and the parts of you that have been really scared in the past.

Rather than getting all judgy about these scared parts, let’s be compassionate to them. Our parts are worried about us as they want to keep us safe from upset or hurt. When you consider all the messaging, it would make sense that there would be a part that is worried about fitting in in terms of looks. This part is not crazy. It makes sense. It is normal.

Our parts tend to calm down and feel less extreme when we validate them rather than try to ignore them or tell them to go away.

Here is a worksheet you can use to get compassionate to your scared parts.

Let’s normalise talking about how we’re feeling about our bodies

This is my call for us to normalise the reality that many of us are struggling with the beauty load and for us to start openly sharing how we’re feeling.

Because the opposite is covering up, hiding what’s affecting us and that leads to us self-gaslighting.

And here lies another root of the problem — because when we don’t share our struggles with our friends and loved ones, in comes the anxiety of isolation: “I feel so anxious about my body, like it’s always in my mind and I can’t get relief. I never feel good about myself. It’s eating away at my self-worth, what is wrong with me?”

Now, often we don’t share these types of struggles with our friends because we feel that this is personally our fault. And so we blame ourselves for it; we gaslight ourselves. 

But I hope this article inspires you to look at this in a different way, perhaps a way you haven’t ever considered before — and that you can start to move towards relief within yourself for the insecurity and angst about how you feel about the way you look.

Consider this your call to personal freedom, beyond the toxic beauty load culture.

Wishing you all the very best.

x Nicole

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Nicole Mathieson

Hi, I'm Nicole Mathieson, a relationship and body image coach, couple therapist and author.

My relationships blog helps couples learn practical ways to cultivate a deeper understanding of one another, find safety and connection in relationships, navigate difficult conversations and repair after conflict.