You Can’t Judge a Body by Its Cover — New Book by David Bedrick Offers Crucial Psychosocial Insights for Understanding People Beyond the Obvious — review by Fannie LeFlore, posted December 1, 2020
In his new book on women, dieting and body image, Psychotherapist David Bedrick captures the literal and metaphorical realities of what happens when people feel forced to deny or hide from their true selves in order to gain acceptance by others. When unrealistic expectations of perfection intrude and weight is used to determine someone’s worth, the unspoken dynamics of advertised messages reveal just how much women are conditioned to shrink due to social pressures. When women have a need to grow emotionally beyond approval-seeking but being authentic still results in relational difficulties, many feel pressured to ignore their internal guidance or compromise their own self-esteem and overall well-being. Yet, given the reality that diets often set people up for self-loathing and many feel hungrier for something more while attempting to cut calories, it begs the question of what is really going on.
David Bedrick takes us there — by looking beyond the surface of things in You Can’t Judge a Body by Its Cover. Since 2008, he has collected case studies that inform insights he shares on how body shame, hunger, weight-loss and their connections to sexism, racism and abuse, affect the ability of women to feel good enough about themselves to allow their human spirit to express itself. Bedrick offers an in-depth look into stories from diverse women he interviewed who struggled to resist judgmental self-images, manage boundary violations due to difficult relationships with others, and break through cultural views they often unconsciously internalized based on body size. Many experienced wide-ranging negative results in physical health and psychosocial outcomes, before realizing the heavy toll over time.
Bedrick brings a combination of objective witnessing and conscious compassion in his assessments of the women’s experiences by reframing their perceptions of inherent weakness to notice strengths in how they coped with some daunting challenges. Trying to adhere to diet programs was often restrictive, oppressive and unworkable. Facing fears of failure and learning to embrace reasonable limitations once considered fatal flaws that made them unappealing. Bedrick helped clients recognize how a hunger for growth ultimately empowered many to make breakthroughs from facing underlying issues hidden from awareness, in their focused attempts to lose weight. Many women uncovered examples of shame, misplaced blame and abuses that had resulted in symptoms related to depression and anxiety due to extremely critical views about how they look.
You Can’t Judge a Body by Its Cover offers details of Bedrick’s empathic interventions and broad perspectives by taking into account that while body weight is a shallow indicator, realistic options for empowerment can be honed when individuals see themselves more holistically by recognizing political, cultural and social factors that affect human lives across diverse groups. Bedrick’s expertise on trauma and the debilitating impact of shame, helps bring clarity for people striving to become their authentic selves, whose identity stability is compromised by unreasonable societal dictates with idealistic versions of perfectionism or distorted perceptions of flaws, used as measures to define who they should be.
Given the tumultuous times we live in, and as old narratives are challenged to make more room for more inclusion of women in leadership and to remove barriers to mainstream participation by marginalized populations, the need to challenge the status quo is evident. The approaches espoused by Bedrick provide a life-affirming framework for psychology to recognize, validate and integrate social determinants of human health, extending beyond the medical model. This involves understanding how politics is more than traditional legalistic definitions of processes, procedures and policies to incorporate a comprehensive view instead of simplistic diagnostic labels, about how society and culture play major roles in affecting overall quality of life for most individuals.
Bedrick says the social and political world shape the inner lives of people on multiple levels, and advocates for broader awareness in the field of psychology about the importance of systemic changes that take into account traumatic experiences by different individuals and groups. He believes dialogue about these issues can support healing and allow basic truths from diverse people to be understood enough to help impact hearts and minds, as well as socioeconomic and public health outcomes. These themes are a continuation from Bedrick’s two previous books, including Revisioning Activism, which is a compilation of essays on factors that influence human functioning and well-being beyond individual choices, including issues of race, gender, anti-Semitism, etc.
As Bedrick has written, “Politics live on cable news, marches, and at the voting box. But politics also live in our bodies. The way we shape, shame, and hate our bodies is not only personal. The viewpoints we carry are profoundly informed by patriarchy, manifesting in the objectifying gaze of men and internalized sexism in women. White mainstream viewpoints are profoundly informed by white supremacy, manifesting in toxic views of the black and brown body. Mainstream viewpoints are informed by ableism, manifesting in hurtful projections on bodies that move and form in ways that are outside normative constructions. And these viewpoints are informed by heteronormativity, manifesting in narrow ideas about gender expression and injury to those who live outside those margins. Changing the way we view our own body, as well as others’ bodies, is a form of activism, one that helps break shame’s annihilating grip.”
Bedrick is an example of how trailblazers in various professions and across generations, continually advance understanding of the human condition through their courageous work. Henri Nouwen was a professor and writer with interests rooted primarily in psychology and spirituality, social justice and community — similar to Bedrick’s specialties. A quote by Nouwen captures the essence of what Bedrick excels at: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” Indeed, Bedrick is both a strong voice of reason and inspirational practitioner of compassion. His common sense approaches help healing processes to unfold and empower people to confront, know and accept themselves in balanced ways that enhance ongoing learning with the ability to become more grounded and mentally healthier.