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 hadn’t thought of my body as being too big, I was simply in my body. So, I did what many people do, I started my first diet. Little did I know that this would lead to a full-time, unpaid job of sneak eating, dieting, binging and hating my body.
Like many people, I look back at pictures and see that I was a normal, healthy adolescent but, alas, I had hopped on the dieting/riot roller coaster and it would be decades before I would climb off. Eventually, I found 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 counseled six-year-olds who are already counting calories and “feeling fat.” I’ve worked with seniors who have no memory of taking a guilt-free bite of food. Ever. And I’ve worked with nearly 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:
Broaden 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 spend so much time and energy trying to change their bodies that they miss out on what they actually have in their lives. Our culture has hypnotized far too many of us. Most of us have had a spell cast upon us — from our first fairy tale to the current magazine on the checkout aisle that says this: If you perfect your body, 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. Some cultures have rituals that center around nature, the seasons, and following your inspiration. Our rituals center more on diet and exercise regimens and applying wrinkle removal crèmes. When we spend massive amounts of time striving to change our appearance, we miss out on what else we have in our lives and what our bodies actually do for us.
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 — Try on the notion of accepting the size and shape that nature intended you to be.
So many people spend their lives rejecting their natural shape and size. Radical acceptance is about letting go of that fight and being willing to discover and accept your natural weight range. Arguing with Your natural body size is like spending your time wishing our feet were smaller. Radical acceptance is about upgrading 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 referred to herself as, “pear-shaped,” and she literally despised her thighs. No matter how emaciated she got, she still had her natural shape. The efforts and actions she took to try to change the size of her thighs nearly killed her. Eventually, after a lot of hard work on her part, she decided to change her thinking. She realized it was her thinking, far more than her thighs, that was causing her agony. She let go of the fight and she won. She is now free of obsession, eats “real” food and has a rich, 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?
Challenge 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.
The diet industry leads us to believe that that thinness leads to happiness. I bet you know some thin people who are unhappy. 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 and/or remain obsessed. If thinness brought happiness, then the billions of people who have lost weight on diets would be happy, 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 body did not change? 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 are all here temporarily. We all have problems. We all want love.
Separate Self-image from body image — Find 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 on 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 all that, they have a body that they take care of and live in. When someone has a bad body image, they generally don’t feel special and don’t have a strong sense of worth. They latch onto changing their body 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 only 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 now? What are some other ways you might separate your body image from your self-image?
Deal with your 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 our problems go much deeper than the size of our bodies or how many carbs or fat grams we’ve eaten. Becoming willing to go deeper means finding the support and the courage to explore the feelings, thoughts and relationship issues that the body obsession has been distracting us 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.” Usually what brings them to my door is their food and body obsession. The good news is that as we uncover and heal our deeper issues, we find a way out because we start to feel better over time, and we 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? The next time you find yourself obsessing on your body, try asking yourself this: What would I be feeling or thinking about if I wasn’t thinking about my body right now?
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 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, shape or number on the scale.
It is possible to break free from the chains of food and body obsession. It is possible to eat delicious, satisfying meals and make peace with the body you live in. 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 so much more than the size of your body or the amount of carbs in your day. I wish this for you…