Disordered Eating: Reframing the Discussion, Part 7: Body Image

Part 7 of 7. See Part 1 Here.

Author: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and Founder of Eating Disorder Hope.

Body Image

As we’ve been reviewing some of the top tips requested by our community on how to manage disordered eating, it’s important to remember where we started in this discussion. Disordered eating covers a wide array of diagnoses and conditions, and while the spectrum is large, each of these tips can be used in confronting and seeking recovery from an eating disorder.

So, to a certain extent, I’ve saved one of the best tips for last. Of course, they’re all important, but this one is of critical importance.

Body Image and Your Internal Dialogue

One of the longest lasting areas of distress for eating disorder sufferers, and those in recovery, is body image. Body image, how we perceive our body – and how we believe others perceive it, is formulated on a complex array of experiences developed over a lifetime.

Messages we receive during our childhood and adolescence are of particular importance to the development of our body image. Identifying key messages we received in these formative years about the attractiveness, health and functionality of our body are important to recognize.

It is important to recall and consider the messages we received about our bodies while growing up. This allows us to then uncover the deeply held beliefs we formed about our bodies as a result of these messages. These core beliefs about our bodies are often formed on:

  • Inaccurate feedback from our families and friends
  • The constant comparison of our bodies to others
  • A media-hyped ideal of unrealistically thin bodies
  • Experiences where we felt let down by our bodies in health matters

Becoming Smarter than the Media

social-371648_640Our body image deeply affects our relationship with our self. Even now, I continually have to remind myself of my internal worth and consciously prioritize that over my appearance. I have to be an increasingly wise consumer of the media and recognize air-brushed and photoshopped images as pure fantasy and not something realistic to which I should compare myself.

While these forces can seem overwhelming, there is much hope for developing a more positive body image and an increasingly compassionate and respectful relationship with our body. I am living proof of this point! Yes, there may be many things to find fault with my body. But, I choose to focus on the things I really like about my body instead.

Appreciating Function Over Form

I appreciate my body and its functionality. It serves me well! All of my brain cells come together to make me an intelligent and creative person. My strong body is rarely sick and very healthy. I am able to walk long distances, ride my bike, swim, and play golf. I love that my body performs so well for me in these areas. I can also use my arms to hug my son or my hands to paint.

It can sound trite, but this sort of valuation of our body from a functional perspective can really alter our tendency to view our bodies as a walking billboard of who and what we want to project to the world.

Body image and eating disorders are deeply entwined. It is likely that the body image was negative long before the eating disorder developed. As stated above, a poor body image can manifest by teasing from others growing up, physical abnormalities, criticism from significant others and numerous other things.

Couple this with a near constant media bombardment of photo-shopped models sporting extremely thin bodies and you have a good foundation for developing an eating disorder.

The Amazing Abilities of Our Brains and Bodies

face-89346_640We all have incredible bodies that I believe are each uniquely designed by our Creator. These supremely designed and intricate bodies carry out complex functions every minute, just to keep us alive. Our brains allow us to create and conceive ideas, our legs allow us to run and walk, and our arms allow us to carry our children and hug the ones we love, and this isn’t even taking into account the autonomic functions like breathing and a heartbeat that seem to almost magically occur.

If any of these body parts were to function poorly for us, it would become an immediate crisis for us as we totally rely upon all these things in order to live our lives. Needless to say, the importance and value of the millions of functions our bodies carry out each day are invaluable.

Barbie, Ken and Body Image

A sad reality for many of us is that Barbie epitomizes the ideal of beauty and perfection for girls and women. I might add that Snow White, Cinderella and Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) all contribute significantly to the female ideal so many of us feel driven to achieve.

Is it because we believe that a life of goodness, light, fortune and love will be ours if we attain this externally beautiful ideal? Sounds ridiculous, but it may be surprising when we examine our deeply held beliefs about the power of beauty and its influence in our lives.

Our body is often looked at as our “billboard” that we carry around in our lives – ‘advertising’ to all who cross our path our level of confidence, discipline, self control, power and desirability. Is this our primary currency in this life? Is our beauty, demonstrated through our bodies and faces, the ticket to the good life?

The Myth of the Perfect Body

That is certainly the prevalent message to girls and women. How much have we bought into this myth? Is it really a fairytale that “thinness” will bring all that we desire to our lives? Does an obsessive control over the scale readings make us more powerful and ensure that our “billboard” remains acceptable and beautiful?

Let’s step away from the marketing hype, and consider reframing our paradigm about the female body. In addition to its many crucial functions that ensure our life (breathing, pumping blood, organ function), our body is the temporary encasement of our soul in this life.

Body Image 101

family-tree-295298_640Many women feel their body has betrayed them because they have been unable to sculpt them into what they want. I have yet to meet a client seeking treatment for an eating disorder who has not waged an all out, no holds barred war on her body to get it to “submit” to the ideal thin image she holds in her mind.

There is frequently denial of genetic programming and the unrelenting conviction that with enough will power, you can create the perfectly lean, taut and culturally admired body. This generally leads to dieting, which leads to food/weight preoccupation, which leads to an eating disorder.

The Visual Family Tree

A useful exercise, for those seeking recovery from an eating disorder, is to create a “visual family tree” with full body photographs of all your maternal and paternal relatives. This photographic family reunion will offer significant insight into the genetic predisposition your body inherited from your family.

All of this is entirely beyond your control and you had absolutely no say in your height, your bone structure, and the width of your hips. Observing others related to you may allow you to view yourself a little more diplomatically, since all rational people have to admit that genes play a significant role in our appearance, shape and weight.

The Detached Relationship with Our Bodies

When discussing body image, it is essential to identify how it feels to be in your body. Most of us have a tendency to have a somewhat detached relationship with our body. As if our heart and mind are not intricately tied to our physical being.

But the truth is, all humans are bio-psycho-social-spiritual beings and each component affects the other parts. When we feel deep emotions our bodies react with raised blood pressure, perspiration, and a multitude of other physical expressions of that feeling. There is no denying that the emotional experience of the individual is reflected in physical sensations and bodily responses.

Your Stomach: Relating Your Emotions to the Feelings in Your Body

Where do you experience deep sadness in your body? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your chest? Many of the clients I have worked with, in recovery from eating disorders, experience many of their emotions in their stomachs. Interesting that the very organ we try to control through limiting food consumption is also the same organ that may experience deep feelings.

  • Is that why some women, struggling with anorexia, quit eating when stress escalates?
  • Is that why the binge and purge feels so cleansing to the bulimic?
  • Does massive amounts of carbohydrates and sugar bury the feelings under the mountain of food consumed for the individual struggling with binge eating disorder?
  • Is that why those struggling with compulsive eating and weight management tend to overeat in response to their emotions?

We must recognize that our body is the vessel of our soul, mind, spirit and heart. It is not a separate entity from our inner selves, and all aspects of ourselves, including our bodies, need to be treated with respect, compassion and caring.

Accepting Ourselves As Is

7267115528_ae6f80daa5_zSo, it then makes sense to go about the business of accepting what is unchangeable and deciding whether it is worth the effort to modify what we truly have the power to change.. For example, we mostly consider our height to be unchangeable.

However, in some extreme cases in Japan, folks submit to painful limb lengthening procedures to gain a few inches in height. They feel the benefits of being taller will provide greater prospects both professionally and personally, and think it is worth the painful extended procedure and risks.

It sounds crazy to most of us! But many people see weight as easily changed to our liking, and disregard the genetic predisposition that largely determines our build and weight.

The Eating Disorder Was Never Worth It

It is believed that 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States suffer from eating disorders. In many of these cases, it was the desire to be thinner, leaner and/or more “cut” that led to the tinkering with Mother Nature and their heredity. All this to change their bodies to conform to what they perceive as the societal ideal.

If you were to ask these 11 million people: Are the consequences of practicing your eating disordered behaviors worth it? Have you obtained that “perfect body” ideal? Most will say, “certainly not”! And those that think they are at least closer to the ideal they strive for, has it been worth it? Have the losses of health, family, friends, career, education, and money been worth it?

For me, they were not. Each person must answer this question and live with their decisions. The beauty of this approach is that we can make a different choice moving forward. We can quit battling our bodies and instead love and accept ourselves. What is your choice?

Improving Our Body Image

Thomas Cash, Ph.D. is considered by many to be the authority on body image and related issues. He has penned ann excellent book to read on this topic entitled “What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?” By reading his book, you can progress in your understanding of body image and improve your own relationship with your body.

Writing a Letter to Your Body

Dr. Cash, along with many of my colleagues, suggests writing a letter to your body. Since those with eating disorders have mistreated their bodies, it may be an apology letter for all the harsh treatment.

It may include assurances that you will be treating your body better moving forward as well as being more kind and loving in your private self talk about your body. It may also be nice to express some gratitude and appreciation in the letter too. Give your body credit for all it does, and what it has helped you to accomplish in your life.

Maybe even acknowledge some attributes of your body that you have not given enough focus to, such as a beautiful smile, or nicely sculpted calves, or thick and glossy hair. There are no right or wrong answers, whatever you particularly like and appreciate in your body should be included.

Writing Out Affirmations

Once the letter is completed, take several key points and write affirmations for yourself about your body. These will be compliments to yourself about your body. Try to come up with at least 5 affirmations from the letter. Here are some helpful suggestions to consider:

  • “I really like my straight teeth and beautiful smile.”

Or

  • “I like the femininity of my body and can accept it at whatever weight is most healthy for my body.”

Or

  • “I like how strong my legs are and how they dutifully carried me through the recent 5 mile run I enjoyed.”

Try to make your affirmations as personalized and believable as possible. Write these down on an index card and set this somewhere you will see daily. Might be nice to try having it where you get ready each morning.

Then, stand in front of the mirror and read your affirmations out loud to yourself for a full minute. Go ahead and repeat them, and make sure you do this for the full minute. You are creating a new more positive internal dialogue regarding your body. This is essential to recovery!

Commentary on Body Image

bag-15709_640As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and a woman in recovery from my own eating disorder, I have to admit that body image is tough! I still am not where I would like to be in terms of self-love and acceptance of my body. It is much better, but remains an ongoing work in progress.

It is far easier to be gentle and accepting of others bodies, than my own. The harsh, internal critic can still get the best of me sometimes.

Fortunately, I now have the tools to refute these critical thoughts. Make no mistake though, it is hard work and requires a vigilant watch to recognize and correct these thoughts as soon as they come up.

Important Steps In Long-Term Recovery

So, please consider every small step you take toward improving your body image to be an important step in your long-term recovery. Perspectives rarely change overnight, but over time they can transform by continually being exposed to other information that proves to be more rational and truthful.

In closing I would like to summarize what I have observed as being most helpful for clients, and myself, in improving body image. I would say the top techniques are as follows:

  • Learning to appreciate the wonderful functionality of your body, rather than just its aesthetic appeal.
  • Becoming a wise consumer of the media and realizing that between digital enhancements and the prevalent use of unusually thin models, the media sets us up to dislike our normal and healthy bodies and leads us to view ourselves overly harshly.
  • Appreciating all the traits and nuances of your unique body that make it special. Focusing on what you like about your body far more than what you dislike.
  • Choosing to offer your body love and unconditional positive regard.

While the spectrum of eating disorders is large and complex, let’s not lose sight on the one common thread throughout – HOPE and HEALING. Although my journey began some time ago, I continue to be amazed and grateful for all the amazing people that I have met along the way. In their own way, each one of them has helped me embrace each of these qualities that I know are possible for you to experience also.

My greatest hope is that our community can provide HOPE and HEALING to you as we all work towards being the people we are meant to be.

This is part 7 of 7 of Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion. Part 1 is here.

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.