Negative Body Image.
In my tribe of Eating Disorder Treatment Specialists, we often say negative body image is the first to come and the last to leave in the treatment of food and body issues.
And that is a pretty constant truth from the many recovery journeys I have witnessed over the years.
My clients have taught me some more nuanced facts about body image, regardless of whether they have had a full blown eating disorder or not.
Everyone has (at least) a bad body image day.
Depending on where you fall, if at all, on the disordered eating spectrum, dealing with dark, obsessive, and/or negative thoughts and compulsions regarding your body is a part of the gig when dealing with disordered eating.
You may recognize all too well some of these reccurring negative thoughts used to bully and shame yourself – just fill in the blanks with your own words to customize these statements to your experience:
My ____ is so ____. I feel so ______. I am so ______. My _____ looks so ____. I just need to___. When I _____ I will be _____. I hate my_____. My _____ will always/never be_____.
So many try to manage these thoughts and feelings by stuffing them and putting on their “I love my body” and “It’s all good” masks of virtue, hiding the truth that they are living at war with their body. Others externalize these thoughts and add to the cacophony of negative body talk and diet talk.
And this is where things often spiral.
Many try to manage the pain of being in their skin and their body shame by:
- over exercising
- restrictive eating
- mindless, emotional eating
- all of the above
And this can lead to a dark journey into the world of eating disorders and disordered eating. Yet, many hover in this place of emotional ickiness where they cannot shake the uneasiness of living in their skin and make genuine, though harmful, attempts to get relief.
For many of you, this battle really is not about your body.
If my client is stable emotionally and physically, and her needs are met nutritionally, then I often look at negative body image as a sign of something bigger.
Like when you get that scratchy throat feeling. It is a sign you are on the verge of getting really sick; it is not just about the sore throat. You know you need to rest, to take some extra Vitamin C, drink some tea, ask for help with projects, cut back on your social calendar.
When the yuck of a bad body image moment comes up, it is often a sign of something else going on in your life. I move my clients away from the laser focus obsessions on what needs to change with their body and pull back the blinders to look at what else is going on in their life.
If you are feeling this way, it is important to asses:
- if you are you getting enough rest,
- how you are adjusting to weight restoration or weight loss (yes, weight loss can be very triggering)
- social support — safe, sustainable, available social support
- if you daily activities are life giving or draining
- dieting behaviors
- traumatic or distressing life events that have gone untreated
- if your temperament is perfectionistic, obsessive-compulsive, cares big, and feels emotions intensely
- labs taken within the last month and making sure all physical systems are operating well and your body’s needs are being met
I have learned that setting the expectation to always be comfortable in your skin is a set up for continual frustration and feelings of hopelessness. (Not helpful…)
The key is not to focus on the goal of eradicating negative body image days (though the parallel process is to decrease the frequency and intensity of those days, for sure) but instead to respond on those days, weeks, months when you are feeling crappy in your skin DIFFERENTLY.
Instead of defaulting to negative food and body obsessions and action, I work with my clients on how to acknowledge what they are really feeling and what they are really thinking in that moment.
Then we focus on respecting those thoughts and feelings in the moment. I also emphasize the truth in how my clients feel. What they feel is always real but rarely is it ever fact.
Finally, we focus on how to respond differently when body hatred arises. Instead of stuffing, minimizing or denying — which only fuel the negative thoughts and coping tools — I work with my clients on accessing new tools and strategies when the dreaded body yuck surfaces.
When there is too much focus on feeling better in your body and not looking at the correlation with bad body image to other factors — physical, emotional, social, and spiritual — then I think we are limiting the potential of experiencing true health and true healing.
And it is ok not to love your body all the time.
But I think it is imperative to focus on respecting your body and being grateful for your body — even when you do not like it.
You can actually dislike your body while also showing your body respect and gratitude. Eventually, respect and gratitude will win if you hang in there.
For example, there are a good handful of people I know that I do not care for but I respect them, treat them with dignity and kindness, and find space for being genuinely grateful for the challenging relationship.
Consider this strategy in your relationship with your body.
With heavy doses of respect and gratitude in addition to responding differently to your bad body image days, the feeling of your body never being enough may dissipate, and an eventual truce with your body may be declared.
And if one of those days surfaces again, the hope is you do not shame yourself for backsliding in your recovery but see your body image woes as a clue, a hint to investigate what is out of sorts in your life.
All the while administering generous doses of respect and gratitude.How do you deal with your bad body image days? Do you agree that it is not realistic to achieve a space where you never have a bad body image day?
With respect and gratitude –