At some point or another we have all criticized our bodies. While it is difficult to experience inner pain or bear witness to the pain in the world, we have some control over our own bodies. It is common and expected in a culture consumed by weight and appearance that we have trouble accepting ourselves just as they are. The solution for addressing our weight or muscle tone is much simpler than sitting with grief, shame, guilt or any number of complex and painful emotions. At the same time, we are told or shown every day that being fat is bad. Our government is fighting obesity, fat jokes are prevalent in the media and this banter is constantly heard in school and social settings. It is common and socially acceptable to say, “I’m fat”. In fact, the media has numerous scripts devoted to dialogue where friends and partners try to figure out how to respond to this statement because it is so loaded with meaning. “I’m fat” means much more than a concrete measure of weight or appearance. It is directly related to how we feel and perceive ourselves.
Feeling unattractive in a culture that promotes unrealistic ideals of beauty is inextricably linked to feeling “bad”. Although feelings per se are never bad, there are certainly feelings that are uncomfortable, or that we wish we could avoid or make go away. There are physically uncomfortable feelings, like feeling stuffed after eating too much and uncomfortable emotions like guilt, embarrassment, shame, anger, and regret. But one thing is certain. Fat is NOT a feeling. Telling ourselves that we are fat or unattractive is merely a distraction, a way of displacing our discomfort in a culture that equates being “fat” with being less beautiful or acceptable. Recent research has actually shown that the fat bias in the United States contributes to both poorer mental health outcomes and risk for obesity. In other words, the fact that our country thinks that being overweight is bad not only makes you feel worse about yourself, but it makes you gain weight too. It contributes directly to eating disorders and a negative perception of one’s body, or negative body image.
If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable in your body most of the time, or judging your body in a critical way, it could mean you have a negative body image. Question whether you would still love yourself if your size or appearance changed. If you are consumed with your appearance, if you frequently find yourself “body checking” in mirrors, comparing yourself to others, or weighing in on the scale, think about how much time and energy this is taking up in your life. Like all things in life, our body image exists on a continuum. A positive body image involves perceiving, accepting and enjoying your body just as it is.
Body image affects everyone, but is impacted by our communities and how we identify ourselves. Brown University found that amongst college students, body image is a widespread preoccupation, with nearly 75% of the normal-weight women and 46% of normal-weight men thinking about their weight and appearance “all of the time” or “frequently”. A comprehensive review of studies on body image and eating disorders among self-identified lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women revealed that while heterosexual women were significantly more dissatisfied with their bodies, lesbian and bisexual women also experienced significant body dissatisfaction. The degree to which lesbian women accepted their bodies was correlated to the degree they internalized or rejected dominant cultural norms of female beauty. For this same reason, body image issues are extremely prevalent among gay men. Most boys look to the older men in their lives as role models, but for many gay men who grew up with rejection by the older men in their families and communities, some argue that they are more influenced by the unrealistic beauty of male models and television figures. Eating disorders, depression, risky sexual behaviors, and self-hatred are consequences that have been linked to the widespread negative body image amongst gay men.
It makes sense that the more time and energy that one spends on trying to reach an image of unattainable beauty, the more it erodes self-esteem and focuses us on outer solutions to inner problems. There are numerous programs designed to combat negative body image by helping individuals accept themselves as they are. Two San Francisco bay area women, Andrea Wachter and Marsea Marcus, designed a program for combating negative body image through groups that provide tools for developing emotional awareness and decreasing isolation. Inner Solutions is their forum for discussing and educating the public on food, weight and body image issues. It is consistent with the Health at Every Size (HAES) paradigm, an approach that emphasizes intuitive eating over dieting. Attuned or intuitive eating is eating when one is hungry and until one is full. It has been linked to numerous health benefits including higher self-esteem, more pleasure and enjoyment, and improved health. This approach involves tuning into your individual needs and rejecting messages about what or how much to eat. Not surprisingly, it confirms scientifically that we are all healthier when we trust our intuition.
To ultimately let go of negative body image, we need to see our ”selves” reflected back to us. This assures us that we are normal, valued and not alone. While it is impossible to see realistic images of ourselves reflected in the media, being truly “seen” involves having your inner world heard, reflected and valued. This is the value of seeking therapy for body image struggles. In therapy, there is an environment of respect for your inner world and professional training by someone who will be gentle with your thoughts and feelings. If you are currently struggling with either negative body image or an eating disorder, you already know how hard it is to make the first step to speak honestly about your feelings to others. Food is pleasurable and predictable. You know how it’s going to taste. You know that ice cream will always be creamy and chocolate always sweet. Drugs and alcohol always produce a high, a distraction. It can be very difficult to start trusting people when substances provide such reliable, yet temporary, relief from difficult feelings. But trusting others and opening up about struggles with food and weight is the only way to combat negative body image and eating disorders. You cannot do it alone.
Groups are the treatment of choice for combating negative body image. They are particularly helpful because they are designed to decrease the isolation caused by the negative feelings associated with it. Groups stimulate open, honest conversations about our feelings that are shared among all participants. The safety of the group setting allows for our perceptions to be challenged in a safe and direct way that fosters connection with others. Below are resources for education and groups that can help if you are struggling with food, weight or body image issues.