After a bit of a summer hiatus, it felt like time for me pull out the laptop and blog again. Today I was both saddened and struck by the crippling negative body talk of my clients. In fact, if we look around, we hear it all over. It’s as if it is completely reasonable to bash our bodies at every street corner.
“This makes me look fat.”
“Oh, she’s really let herself go…”
“I probably shouldn’t eat this. I’m too fat already.”
And, the seemingly complimentary, but just as vicious…
“Oh, you look so good! Did you lose weight?”
Somehow, our moral fabric gets attached to our body shape and size. These comments, while innocent at first glance, can be demoralizing. In fact, some of my clients have comments like these going on in their heads so much all day that it’s hard for them to focus on much else. Other clients further along in their recovery may be able to challenge those thoughts and function well in their lives, but still feel a debilitating sense of shame and disgust around their bodies in the background.
Why do we pick on ourselves so much?
Why do we narrowly see one body type as ideal and all strive to fit into that mold?
Why is fat-ism the last real sanctioned “ism” out there?
I’m not going to answer these questions because they aren’t easy to answer in full. I could write about the cultural changes in body types over the years and the way Marilyn Monroe’s size 12 would be unacceptable in a decade where there is now a size 000. (Don’t even get me started on that one!) I could write about the way the beauty industry insists on making us (particularly women) feel bad about our appearance by airbrushing pores, photoshopping thighs, and giving us a picture of women that is downright fake. After all, if we felt really good about ourselves, then we probably wouldn’t buy that face cream or lipstick or diet product. I could write about the way that subtle comments about weight to a “chubby” child go destructively deep and erode self-esteem. I hear about this childhood shame in the stories of so many of my clients who struggle with disordered eating for decades.
Actually, I’m going to write a bit about the fact that negative body thoughts (who doesn’t have them?) can go awry and become the foundation on which develops a terrible relationship with food and fitness — and, for some, ultimately an eating disorder. I’m also going to invite you to think about and reframe the ways in which you talk to yourself (and those around you) about body weight and shape.
After working with beautiful — truly beautiful inside and out — women and men over the last 16 years, it still makes me deeply sad when I hear the crushing negative body talk that comes out of the mouths of my clients. These are people who are successful, smart, funny, articulate, creative, uniquely gifted — but they cannot see it because all they see is how fat they are. It doesn’t matter how much they weigh, either. They can be underweight or overweight according to medical standards; what matters most is that they feel less than their full selves because of the way that their bodies look.
When someone feels bad about her body — when she feels that she must be smaller than who she is in the present — she is more likely to go on a diet, make food choices that reflect restriction rather than pleasure, exercise to exhaustion and not for enjoyment, and walk around with a general sense of being defective and too much. When these negative body thoughts and the behaviors that stem from them become constant, obsessive, and distracting from the rest of life, then an eating disorder can develop. Eating disorders are the number one killer of all the psychiatric illnesses. It is seriously dangerous for children, adolescents, and adults to go down this path, yet we see so many examples of the way bad body talk is somehow acceptable in our society. How many times have you overheard a bunch of women criticize their bodies, as if this was a way to bond? Yuck.
What really happens, though, when negative body thoughts (again, who doesn’t have them once in awhile?) really go all wrong? How does this thinking get out of control and develop into eating disorders for some and not others?
There are so many factors — genetic, temperamental, and environmental among them — that predispose some people to eating disorders. What I’ve noticed frequently is that disregulated eating and bad body thoughts become a way to take feelings that something is just not right and make them concrete. “I don’t like myself” becomes “I don’t like my body.” “Something is not right” becomes easier to articulate if we say, “Something is not right with my body.” If we don’t like our bodies, well, the internet says that we can do all kinds of things to change them. But all the green smoothies and cross-fit in the world won’t make us like ourselves any more, or compensate for painful feelings that we need to express, or make what feels wrong about our lives really go away. The diet industry likes to feed us the image that if we just change our bodies we can feel good and change our lives, but it’s really not that simple.
Some of my clients “lose the weight” and realize that they don’t really feel much better about themselves. Sometimes they try losing more weight and get dangerously low. How devastating to find out that losing weight is never the answer to life-long happiness. If it is, well, they often realize that it’s a pretty shallow life that their deeper, truer selves aren’t so interested in living.
Now, mind you, I’m not bashing good self and body care. I’m a nutritionist, after all. And a dancer. I believe in taking good care of the amazing bodies that we have been blessed with this lifetime. I work on helping my clients come to an appreciation of the wonderful part of us that the body is. But our bodies are just one part of who we are. I might make a body connection when I dance with a partner and that’s lovely, but it’s the people that I make heart and soul connections with that really keep me coming back.
Loving our bodies starts, in my opinion and in my practice, with loving ourselves and with seeing our bodies as an extension of that self-love. I want to challenge all of you reading — whether you struggle with disordered eating, are in recovery, or are just reading because you enjoy my banter on this topic — to ask yourself the following question when you say something negative (out loud or in your mind) about your body. Ask yourself: What’s really wrong right now?
I’m serious. Just do it. Are these bad body thoughts coming up because you feel inadequate talking to someone that you admire? Are they coming up because you are feeling judged by a family member? Are you feeling fat because your dieting friend is ordering the burger without a bun and you wonder if you should, too? Or are you feeling fat because you just ran up the stairs and feel more breathless than last week? Fat is really not a feeling. It’s tougher to get in touch with other deeper feelings of shame, inadequacy, fear, loneliness, and grief that might be under those negative body thoughts. The body is a great container for our negative energy.
When you feel bad about your body and ask yourself the question “What’s really wrong now?” you get to what you are really feeling in the present moment. When you do so, you may be less likely to use food (over- or under-indulgence) or exercise in a way that is self-destructive. You may, with practice over time, be able to substitute the destructive eating behavior with something that more effectively addresses the feelings underneath. Some of my clients have noticed, after careful reflection, that they use food restriction, binge eating, purging, or hyper-exercise as a self-punishment. They really do feel terrible about themselves, and these activities make their internal struggle concrete and real — in real time. They embody their pain.
Once you notice what might be behind your negative body thoughts, examine what doesn’t feel right — either on your own or with a trusted friend or therapist. Don’t succumb to body bashing just because it’s socially acceptable. We can’t even begin to take good care of the bodies that we have if we loathe them or, even more significantly, if we loathe the person within. I don’t find that clients can make a lot of headway in their nutrition therapy if they are also not doing the work on understanding and caring for their deeper, unique selves.
Don’t allow the negative body thoughts to swim about in your heads. Don’t stay on the surface and say that you’d only be happy if [insert transformative body change here]. Question those negative thoughts. Be curious about them. Listen to what they are trying to say is wrong in your life. Don’t be afraid to squirm when you discover the answers. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s worth examining some painful truths to eventually come to a place of body-acceptance and self-love.
Have a deeply nurturing, restful summer. I look forward to more regularly supporting your journey toward a healthy relationship with food and body here at the blog in September…