Sage Rupp is an Albuquerque therapist who has worked for years with women and men around issues of sexual violence. She has also worked with countless women around body image and studied how women’s sense of their own body image affects them.
Through her bravery in speaking out about body image, her vulnerability and beautiful honesty, we are given insight into one of the most challenging issues working to shape women every day. Please, enjoy this interview with Sage Rupp.
Interviewer Liza Wolff-Francis: Let’s start with you saying a few things about body image and how working with body image issues has affected you.
Sage Rupp: When I think about body image, I think about my own issues with body image and how it has basically shaped my entire life because I think for women particularly, it affects self esteem, how you feel about yourself and also how you think other people think about you in general. I’ve been struggling with it my whole life and I started studying it in Graduate School and after Graduate School, so at least ten years or more.
It influences my work in that almost every woman that I see individually for counseling has some kind of body image issue. Sometimes it takes the focus more than others, but it’s almost always there. There’s always an element of it and it’s usually tied into self esteem and how you feel about yourself and also self worth.
Liza: How do you think body image affects women in this society?
Sage: Women are really influenced. Young girls, actually, are really influenced, I think it starts really young, probably in elementary school, by the images, by things they see on the television, in magazines, in moves, in the media in general and start preparing themselves. They see that as an ideal beauty image and think ‘Oh, well I need to live up to that and if I don’t look like that, then something’s wrong with me.’ I know I started dieting in the second grade and I think it has gotten worse in this country, not better.
I was always thinking I was too fat, even though I wasn’t really fat and then eventually I got fat, but it started out as a body image issue and I think that when girls, particularly, around age twelve, right when they’re getting ready to go into junior high, that pre-adolescent age, is when they’re really hyper-sensitive to body image and wanting to be popular. And for young girls, being popular means being really pretty and being really pretty is about being thin in our culture, so if you’re not really thin, therefore you don’t think you’re really pretty. For myself, that’s always what I thought, ‘Oh, I would be pretty if I was thinner,’ so I equated the two and I always felt like I wasn’t good enough and it significantly affected me wanting to be part of groups, like sports. I was too afraid to be part of groups in sports. I didn’t want to be seen. I didn’t want to be in the spotlight and I didn’t want to stand out. I just thought I would be ridiculed and judged as lacking in some way.
I think we’re also influenced by our families and grandma saying stuff like, “Oh dear, you have such a pretty face” or “When are you going to lose your baby fat?” or I had a critical father who was really critical of my weight, as young as elementary school. So I was raised very hypersensitive about body image. And my mom had been raised that way in her family and my mother was heavy, in rebellion to her mother who was always on her about her weight, around the clock, even when she was very thin. So it’s generations of that.
Liza: How do you think sexual violence affects how women feel about their bodies?- Since you’ve worked a lot with sexual violence survivors.
Sage: I think in terms of sexual violence, it’s the ultimate in objectification. You’re just an object to be used and abused and I think that a lot of times women think it was something about them or their body, maybe the way they were dressed or something they did or just having a woman’s body, put them at risk. So a lot of women will cover themselves. They’ll wear clothes that cover their bodies. They’ll be like three sizes too big. Stuff like that.
It affects how they see themselves, their bodies. How they think others see them. It goes hand in hand. I think it can lead to them objectifying themselves even more. So you can have either extreme of just covering completely and hiding out in big clothes or sexually acting out and being really promiscuous and thinking their whole self worth is tied into their sexuality. I’ve seen that too.
Liza: Do you believe that the media’s influence on the public pushes women to feel that others might know what is best for their bodies or have the right to have expectations for women’s bodies? Like do you think that because everyone in the society sees media images of women’s bodies that maybe it is more acceptable for women and to everyone that everyone have a say about what happens or has happened to women’s bodies, like with contraception laws, like with sexual assault?
Sage: That’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about it like that. Probably. Yeah, I don’t know. I think like why do other people feel like they need to tell women what they need to do with their bodies? I don’t understand that. Like we don’t know for ourselves what we want to do with our bodies. I mean, it’s got to be tied in to that objectification of women. Why else are people making those decisions? I went right to the contraception thing because that’s what’s on my mind with the whole Planned Parenthood and the funding being at risk and about our rights being taken away.
I think unless you want to tell me a little more what you’re thinking with that question, I think you’re right. That’s probably true.
Liza: Yeah, I think also on my mind is contraception and Planned Parenthood and I’m just wondering if women’s bodies are often being objectified in the media, like sometimes models are like half dead or beaten up or in these very sexual positions or clothing that is sexually suggestive… I think it’s the society and the system that’s objectifying them, but I just wonder if the people on the other end of that, everybody looking at that is like, ‘I don’t think that’s okay or I do think it’s okay’ and is then therefore thinking they have more of a right to say things about actual women and our bodies and about healthcare and stuff like that, and even about sexual assault. Like, I see women naked all the time, so I can sexually assault somebody. Not that that’s necessarily a thought like that, but does it lead to that? That’s just what I was thinking of other people’s perception about women’s body image.
Sage: Definitely, I think it could. I think it’s the objectification of women in general and the more that women are seen as objects, then they’re not connected to themselves. That they’re there to be used for somebody else, like pleasure-wise. In terms of objectification, it’s like you don’t really have a soul or a spirit or a voice. So why would you be able to make up your own mind, your own decisions for you?
And then I also think we internalize that objectification. Women objectify themselves all the time. I think women can also believe, you know what’s best for me. So it’s perpetuated by women as well. That’s the saddest part.
Internalized patriarchy maybe is a better way of saying that.
Remember when Brittney Spears said about President Bush, “he’s our president, he knows best.” Just like no independent thinking.
Liza: How do you think the sexualizing of women affects women’s perceptions of themselves and each other?
Sage: I think the sexualization of women makes women feel like their only worth is as a sex object. And that’s where they get their esteem from. So, If I’m really sexy, I feel good about myself or I feel good about myself because so many men or women want me, that gives me self esteem. But that’s my only worth, as a sexualized being. But I wouldn’t even say being.
Liza: Like just a sexualized object?
Liza: Aside from sexualized images of women, how do you feel body image affects self esteem?
Sage: Well, because if you have a negative body image. If you look at yourself in the mirror and you don’t like what you see. Most women it’s about fat, but it could be about anything, my nose is too big. Body image isn’t always just about fat. That’s how it was for me, but it could be anything really. You look at yourself in the mirror and you don’t like what you see. And usually it’s a million and one things, it’s not one thing. It’s a lot of things. And if you don’t like the reflection that you see in the mirror, and we live in this culture that completely objectifies women (it’s like which came first, the chicken or the egg?- probably the culture) then you feel like, what’s my worth. If I don’t like what I look like when I look at myself in the mirror, I guarantee when other people look at me, they aren’t going to like what they see. And if I’m a woman, that’s what I think my worth is.
So it’s not how smart I am, or how many A’s I’m getting, or how many promotions I’m getting, or how many papers I’m publishing. Even if I have a relationship that’s great, it’s like if your body image is poor, typically, it doesn’t matter what else is going well for you because the only thing that matters to you is liking what you see in the mirror and wanting other people to like you for how you look and if that happens, then you feel good about yourself.
Liza: How do you believe our feelings about our bodies affect our relationships with other women?
Sage: I think sometimes women are jealous of other women. If a woman has low self esteem, she may feel even worse about herself. If she’s with other women who she thinks are really attractive, she may not want to be friends with women who are really pretty or really attractive because she doesn’t want to be seen in a group with them and then looked at as the dumpy one or the ugly one out of the group. I also think there’ s a lot of competition among women, especially younger women.
Liza: For men? Or just in general?
Sage: With each other, but yeah, it’s around men. Generally speaking, I think it’s about how attractive you’re appearing to men and competing with each other. Who’s the hottest out of the group or who’s going to get the most attention from men if you’re going out?
But I think young girls compare themselves to each other all the time. I remember when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, one of my best friends was this girl Janet and she had the flat stomach and big boobs, just naturally, she just had that, and we were all jealous of Janet. We all wanted her body. We’re like, ‘that’s not fair, why does she get to have that body?’ (laughing) I had a bigger stomach and littler boobs and my friend Laura had big boobs but she was also a big girl. But it didn’t stop me from being friends with her at all. But sure, I was envious and jealous of lots of my friends, especially in junior high and high school.
Liza: So, how do you think young girls and women can feel good about their body image and support each other around that?
Sage: What has helped me is more of an internal focus. So instead of being so focused on what I see in the mirror or judging what I see in the mirror, is more of this, ‘well, alright, I see that I have extra weight on my body, but when I focus on what’s going on inside of my body, how am I feeling?’
If I’m quiet and turn inward. If I pay attention to my breath or my heart beat, I feel at peace and relaxed. I might even feel happy. And it’s without judgment. I’ve been working on getting rid of that inner critic which tells me I’m too fat, I’m getting older… It says a million and one negative things, but I’m trying to work on when I notice it’s up, I will say stuff like, “Oh that’s not helpful” or “Oh, that’s really cute, go bug someone else” or I’ll just tell it to fuck off because it’s not helpful. I know that when the inner critic is up, and everybody has an inner critic, this is me speaking as a therapist, that idea of the inner critic is really important for young girls to understand to be able to externalize it and understand that it’s really not who they are, like you’re not your inner critic. That’s not you. Those are all those voices you’ve internalized over the years, from society, from your family, maybe even from your boyfriend or your girlfriend who’ve made judgmental comments about your body. So that disconnecting from the inner critic and having more of an internal focus and being accepting, like just being like, this is where I am right now and it’s okay.
One of the things I struggle with most is wanting to be thin yesterday, so like wanting to bypass the whole process and I’m just working really hard on being present. Just be in the present moment and if I notice I’m being judgmental, I try to disengage from that and just focus on how I’m feeling in my body.
Liza: How do you think women can encourage other women? Especially if you’re with somebody who’s like, ‘Oh I look so ugly today’ or, I’m look so gross today.’ Like women together, how do they support each other around body image issues?
Sage: That is so hard because the culture is so much like, let’s commiserate about our imperfections.
‘Oh yeah, I’m so fat.’
‘Oh me too.’
‘Oh I want to lose weight.’
‘Oh me too.’
Women do that. I can’t get away from it at work.
I think what happens is positive. What happens typically is “well let’s exercise together, you know, let’s support each other and go for a walk, rather than “you’re beautiful just the way you are. Look at all these other qualities you have to offer. You’ve got a great personality. You’re stable. You have a job. You’re a very loving person, a compassionate person, a creative person. There are all these other things that we could say, but often it’s this buy-in that weight-loss has to happen in order to feel good. So, the support among women is usually as exercise buddies.
I think it would be cool if women would interrupt that with other women, so that when women start debasing themselves or degrading themselves in some sort of way, that another woman would step in and say “Hey, Hey, be nice to yourself.” But usually what happens is instead they go, “me too, I know exactly how you feel.” “I’ve been there. Oh girl, I struggle with that too.” Tehy commiserate together.
Liza: That’s true and I’m guilty of that too.
Sage: Oh me too.
Liza: I think you’re right, it’s part of the culture. It’s hard not to do that.
Sage: It’s so strong in the culture, especially among women.
Liza: Yeah, it is. I think it has to change.
Sage: It does.
Liza: That’s all my questions. Do you have anything else you think is important to say?
Sage: I think other things that have helped me in terms of body image have been meditations, like do you know Thích Nhất Hạnh? He’s a Vietnamese Budhist monk. He’s written all kinds of books and led millions of meditation retreats over I don’t know how many years, he’s an old man now, but one of his retreats or books, but one of the meditations was you close your eyes and give thanks and you go through every single internal organ in your body and you give thanks to it for what it does.
So one thing, is noticing your body isn’t just this external appearance, there is so much going on in this body that is working for you and to be able to appreciate and have gratitude for your liver, your lungs, your legs, your arms, your hands, your feet, that you have a mouth, that you can hear, see, smile. Thereare so many things our bodies do for us every day that we completely take for granted because the focus is so much on what you look like. We’re so shallow.
With this meditation, you start to really feel the gratitude for your body. So, it’s a good one too.
Liza: Thank you.
Sage: You’re welcome.