By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I had my first “dart in the heart” moment at age 12, when a kid at school called me “thunder thighs.” Until then, I wasn’t aware of my body as being too big, I was simply in my body. So, I started my first diet. Little did I know this would lead to a career of sneak eating, a cycle of weight fluctuations and a full-time job — no matter my weight — of feeling fat. I joined the “club” of American women who partake in what I call “fat chat.” This is where you talk about how fat you feel or how good or bad you are according to what you eat or weigh.
Like many people, I look back at pictures and see that I was a normal, healthy adolescent but, alas, the dieting/overeating cycle was set in motion. Eventually I got help, and I learned to go deeper than the size of my thighs or the grams of fat on my plate. I learned that there are no “good” or “bad” foods and I learned to challenge, rather than believe, every thought in my head.
Bad body image is an epidemic. I’ve had 6-year-old clients who are already counting calories and feeling fat. I’ve counseled seniors who have no memory of taking a guilt-free bite of food. Ever. And I work with every age in between. I often say that trying to overcome disordered eating and bad body image in our culture is like trying to recover from the flu while you are living in a Petri dish of flu germs. We’re surrounded by unnatural and unkind messages of what we are supposed to look like and how we are supposed to eat and move. But it is possible to recover and if you are one of the millions of people who are plagued with the body image blues, here are some tips for you.
Tips for Beating the Body Image Blues
- Broadening your perspective — Shift from viewing your body size as the most important focus in life to seeing that there are many other important aspects of life.
Many of my clients think that their size is so important, they miss out on what they actually have in their lives. People have told me that they would rather die or get cancer than gain five pounds. I recently asked a young client who is very thin whether she would choose what she considers the perfect body (and the self-torture and obsession that haunt her daily) or a healthy body that’s within the range her doctor wants her (which is about five pounds more than she is now) and be free of the torment. She chose the “perfect body.” People in our culture are hypnotized and possessed. We have had a spell cast upon us — from our first fairy tale to the current magazine on the checkout aisle. It says this: If you are thin and pretty, you will feel happy and special. Cultures with no disordered eating teach children that they are worthy and special no matter what. Here, we have to earn our worth. Other cultures have rituals that center around nature, the seasons, and following your inspiration. Our rituals center on diet and exercise regimens, and applying wrinkle removal crèmes. Our mantra is: “thin, rich, attractive and coupled.” Most people spend their lives striving to become one or more of those things.
Can you create a ritual that has a deeper meaning to you? Can you find something to be grateful about in your life? Can you find something to appreciate about your body?
- Radical acceptance — Be willing to accept the size and shape that nature intended you to be rather than spend your life fighting it.
So many people spend their lives fighting against their natural shape. Radical acceptance is about letting go of that fight and being willing to find your natural weight range. I tell people all the time that it’s like spending your time wishing your feet were smaller. It’s about changing your mindset from thinking that there’s something wrong with your body, to understanding that there is something wrong with your thinking. I had a client years ago who was obsessed with the size of her thighs. She is what we might call “pear-shaped,” and no matter how emaciated she got, she still had her shape. She spent an enormous amount of time and effort trying to change her thighs — it nearly killed her. Eventually, after countless sessions and a lot of hard work on her part, she challenged her thinking and realized it was her thinking, far more than her thighs, that was causing the agony. She let go of the fight and she won. She is now free of obsession, eats “real” food and has a rich and full life.
Can you imagine accepting yourself or even some part of yourself? What would you think about all day if you weren’t thinking about your body size? What would you stand to gain if you practiced radical acceptance?
- Challenging the myth that thinner people are happier — Break the spell that has been cast upon us that says thin means happy, more worthy and more lovable.
In our culture, we’re taught that thinner people are happier. I’m guessing you know thin people who are unhappy and people of all sizes who are content, just as they are. This doesn’t mean that some people don’t need to make changes toward health, but the idea that if someone is thinner, they will be happier is challenged every single time someone loses weight on a diet and rather than saying, “Okay, I’m happy now,” they gain it all back. In fact, 98 percent of the people who lose weight on diets gain it back, and then some. In our book, The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook, my co-author and I wrote that, “Trying to solve a weight problem with a diet alone is like trying to fix a major engine problem in your car by giving it a new paint job.” If losing weight made you happy, then most of America would be thin and happy by now, and the multi-billion dollar diet industry would be shrinking, not growing!Can you find something or some things to be happy about today, even if your weight did not change an ounce? Can you take a look around and see that on some level, we are all the same? We are all afraid of some things. We all want love. We are all here temporarily. We all have problems.
How would it feel if the next time you compared yourself to someone who was thinner than you, you told yourself that you were making up a story about this person’s happiness and you really have no idea how they are on the inside, what they have gone through or will go through?
- Separating self-image from body image — Finding other ways to see yourself in the world that have nothing to do with your body.
Healthy people have a self-image that is separate from their body image. They have an identity that is about many things. Perhaps their identity centers on being a friend, a student, a parent or loving nature. Maybe their focus is a hobby, an instrument or an animal. There are many things that go into a person’s identity or feelings of specialness and self-worth. And — on top of it all — they have a body that they take care of and live in.When someone has a bad body image, they generally do not feel special and they don’t have a strong sense of identity and worth. They latch onto being thin as something they can do and control and be good at. Then their self-image and their body image get twisted up and they think they are as good as their body looks to them.
Can you find some other ways that you might feel or be special that have nothing to do with your looks? Can you imagine what it would feel like if you felt worthy? What are some other ways you might separate your body image from your self-image?
- Dealing with the underlying issues — Become willing to go deeper, beneath body image distraction, and heal the original wounds that started you down this path in the first place.
Body obsession is very painful, but it also works as a distraction and sometimes a full- or part-time job. Part of healing is becoming willing to see that the problems go deeper than the size of a person’s abs, or how many carbs or fat grams they ate that day.Be willing to go deeper into the feelings, thoughts and relationship issues that the body obsession distracts you from. This is hard work. Rarely do people come to me and say, “I want to work on feeling my painful, unresolved feelings and learn how to challenge my thinking and speak up more to the people in my life.” It is more often that their weight or body obsession is what brings them to my door. The good news is that when they learn these things, they find a way out because they start to feel better over time, and they no longer need the bad body image as a decoy.
What deeper issues do you suspect your bad body image might be distracting you from? Try asking yourself, the next time you find yourself obsessing on your body: What would I be feeling or thinking about if I wasn’t thinking about my size?
Healing body image is an ongoing process. Nobody goes from self-hate to self-love overnight. It takes a lot of patience and practice to unravel all the unnatural messages you may have learned. It takes the willingness and courage to listen to your natural hunger and fullness, and your body’s natural need for movement and rest. It takes finding the right teachers or role models to show you the way. And it takes the desire to want peace more than a certain size or shape or number on the scale.
It is possible to break free from the chains of food and weight obsession. It is possible to eat delicious, satisfying, moderate meals and not gain weight. It is possible to express difficult emotions and feel a sense of relief and peace afterwards. It is possible to feel a sense of connectedness and live more and more in the present. It is possible to change some of your internal rules and still feel safe in the world. It is possible to live a full life that is about more than the size of your thighs or the amount of carbs in your day. I wish this for you…