Today I attempted to shop for clothes and left the stores feeling angry. As I searched through the racks, I could not find my size. Rack after rack, I found zero, double zero, small and extra small. I consider myself an average frame, medium build. I’ve birthed two babies. My weight distributes itself a bit differently now. Some days my clothes fit tighter than other days. When a woman can’t find her own size in an entire store of clothes, the message is clear. Be thinner.
It’s no secret that our culture is obsessed with weight. For girls, this concern can begin before they even elementary school. The concern can turn into an obsession, leading to a lifetime of body image problems, low self esteem and to the extreme extent, full blown eating disorders.
Clients discuss dysfunctional eating patterns frequently in therapy. Many who struggle in their relationships also struggle with their relationship to their bodies. This directly shows up in their food intake. Weight obsession is demonstrated through chronic dieting, binging, use of laxatives, restricting, calorie counting, daily use of the scale and more. It becomes a full time job, it’s exhausting and the dieter never feels ok.
Several of you may know of the more common eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. While many of you may not struggle with an official eating disorder, too many struggle with disordered eating, a category that captures folks who may not fit the full criteria for a validated eating disorder but who nonetheless struggle on a daily basis with their body image and food.
Women, in particular, fall into this category. According to Rita Freedman, Ph.D., author of BodyLove, “two out of three women say that weight is a central factor in their self-approval and that weight gain is the leading cause of negative feelings about their body”. She writes that they often live with a “dieter’s mentality” which she blames on our cultural climate. Women are taught to value thin and lean, for some, to the point of death.
Freedman also cites the work of Alfred Kinsey, sexuality pioneer, who discovered that most women found questions about their weight more embarrassing than questions about intercourse. Most women refused to answer his question, “How much do you weigh?”
Chronic dieting and weight obsession is an emotional disorder often linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia, lethargy and irritability. More extreme symptoms include hypertension, irregular heartbeat, anemia and death. Disordered eating is a result of physical and psychological distress.
A first step toward a healthy body image is to trust your body. Your body was born with a natural weight regulating system that manages appetite, metabolism and body fat. Known as your Set Point, this body system allows your bodies weight to fluctuate in response to various influences but within a natural weight range for your body. If you chronically diet or binge, your body puts certain systems in place to defend against you. Think about that. Your body defends itself against you, not food, YOU.
Freedman notes that your body is often threatened more by weight loss and starvation than it is by weight gain. This explains why it is easier to gain weight than it is to lose it. How wise our bodies are!
So how do you maintain a healthy weight without dieting? Freedman suggests adapting a non-dieter’s mentality instead:
1) Food nourishes you. Remind yourself that eating is good for you. Pause several times during a meal to assess whether or not you are full. Know your body, when it feels hungry and when it feels full.
2) Eating healthy foods benefit everyone. Cut out the junk but know that it’s okay to splurge on ice cream or some other indulgence. No foods are taboo. Attempt to keep salts, sugars and sugar substitutes to a minimum.
3) Remember that your weight is dictated by your own bodies system that includes genetic factors. Make permanent changes to how you eat through nutritious foods and balanced exercise. Trust that with these healthy efforts, your body will also employ it’s set point to help keep you within the range that you need to be.
4) Accept your whole self. You cannot measure your worth in your weight. Go deep. See the beauty that you are inside and out. Live out your beauty every day. Denying your inner beauty benefits no one.
5) Recognize the prejudice against weight that hurts you and so many others and actively fight against that. All deserve respect, whether full-figured, fat, thin, curvy, broad, muscular – reshape society by accepting all shapes.
Many who struggle with disordered eating or full-blown eating disorders struggle to create and maintain deep, intimate relationships. Your work begins with you. Use these steps to help you cultivate a healthy, loving relationship with yourself and with your body. Make loving your whole self a daily practice.