Sometimes I get emails that tear me up with their honesty and vulnerability.
Here’s one that was recent.
I wanted to tell you that I really enjoy your podcast! I always look forward to the 20-30 minutes where I can just relax and listen to your discussion.
I have always struggled with my weight, despite healthy eating and exercise… While I have never been obese, I have always been above-average and so, body image has become a target for my mental illness to unleash upon. I purposefully avoid mirrors, cringe at photos of myself, and tell myself that when something does not work out romantically for me, the reason is my weight and body size.
I look at other women and recognize that they are not better than me in any realm except they are thin and I am not. It becomes the common denominator in all of my unhappiness.
I’m not even sure the obvious solution (drastic measures to lose weight) will provide me with comfort I seek.
I guess my question is, how do I separate my body image (from) self-worth and how do I learn to love the body I have?
This is the six million dollar question for so many.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of underweight, overweight, bigger boobs, no boobs –you can despise the way you look. And that self-loathing, as the writer above indicates, can only feed depression and demoralization. When it turns really sour, it can develop into “body dysmorphia,” which is critically obsessing about a certain part of your body, and doing all kinds of “things” to change it.
Women in our culture are constantly exposed to photo-shopped adolescent models, selling everything from the right purse to the newest aging cream. Men are sadly being affected as well — the whole “dad bod” thing versus six-pack (or eight or ten) abs craze.
But how many of you click that link on social media that promises the loss of ten pounds? Even if you tell yourself, “This is stupid. They’re just trying to sell me something...” But you click.
Whatever shame you carry about your body is controlling your fingers. And your mind.
The wise writer above also knows rationally that weight loss doesn’t solve the problem with low self-esteem. Weight loss surgeries can be a wonderful tool to help with a change in your relationship with food, and my gastric surgery patients have shown tremendous drive and courage in having the procedure. Yet, all of them have found that there are many feelings to work through that eating helped them to avoid or deny.
But what do you do, every day, as you try to love the body you’re in?
Years ago, I was struggling with body image, leftover from what had been a journey with anorexia. My therapist told me to go home, take off all my clothes, and sit in front of a mirror. I was supposed to talk to myself about what I liked.
I was horrified. But I did it.
That exercise has stuck in my mind. It may have been the first time I’d searched for something positive to say about my body, rather than raking it, and me, over the proverbial coals.
What are three ways that you can being to work on a more positive body image? And that have little to do with actual weight loss?
1) Stop shaming yourself.
Shame will not help you. Shame will not lead you to make positive change. All shame will do is keep you stuck.
“I’ve got such fat ankles.”
“Look at the way my nose juts out.”
“I need to lose at least 100 pounds before anyone would be interested in me.”
You can tune in to what your shame is repeating over and over, and confront it.
“Is this helpful right now? Is this what I’d tell my best friend?” If not, stop, even if you have to yell at yourself. “Stop!” Then replace that thinking with positive comments.
Sit in front of mirror, naked, if you like. But replace the shame with affirmation.
2) Give yourself encouragement in becoming who you want to be.
I loved what a recent gastric patient told me. She was focusing on “non-scale success,” meaning good things that were happening that weren’t about some number on the scale. Walking in the park with fewer stops, and fitting more easily behind the steering wheel of her car were two that come to mind.
Again, her goal was weight loss. But this could be true of anyone trying to love their body shape or size.
“I’m laughing more than I used to, when I’d weigh myself four times a day.”
“I got through an office lunch meeting without worrying about how I looked eating.”
“Someone told me I looked nice today, and I simply said, “Thank you.”
Notice the things that are changing, mentally, physically and emotionally, and enjoy them. Give yourself credit for positive change.
3) Get connected and risk being visible.
Think about it. The first thing someone sees about us is something about our bodies. We’re short, we’re tall. We’re blonde, we’re red-headed. We’re white, we’re black.
If you hate parts of your body, you may isolate, not wanting anyone to see what you see. Never mind that what you see is highly likely to be completely irrational, if it’s based on shame and self-loathing. You may go to work, and come home, or do things for your kids, but never do anything that’s about you, where the attention might focus on you.
The best way to confront this tendency to hole up and hide? Start slowly, but begin to reach out.
In the grocery store check-out line, make small talk with the cashier. Call an old high school friend and catch up. Go to an early church service or a late mass. Volunteer for a small role in your child’s school. Volunteer to walk dogs at a local shelter, or take up tickets at a fundraiser.
Do anything you can possibly think of to begin building relationships and most importantly, to feel engaged with others — to be visible to others.
If this is a re-engagement process rather than starting something completely new, don’t allow yourself to say, “I haven’t talked to her in over a year. I can’t call her now, out of the blue.” Yes, you can. She may have been isolating herself, you never know.
“I didn’t keep things up the last time, I got scared and dropped out. How will this be any different?” You’re being your own enemy, sabotaging your thinking before you ever get started. How many times did you have to try to ride a bike before you succeeded? And you had training wheels. Getting and staying engaged is a lot harder — it’s a skill like anything else.
This isn’t an easy journey. It takes time and practice. You will feel extremely vulnerable.
But vulnerability makes you stronger. And you can do it.