Body Image -Perception or Reality?

The picture wasn’t valuable, it was just a copy of a painting, but it was my favorite.  It depicted a beach house -not the whole thing, just a partial exterior wall showing two windows and a door.  I loved the colors and shadows.  I felt at peace when looking at it; almost as if I could reach out, open the door and walk into a calm place.

As I took it off the wall to wrap it up, this one last look made me feel a respite from the drudgery of moving a household.  But something seemed different about the picture now, something in the window I hadn’t seen before.  There, almost as big as the window itself was an angel painted in profile.

I couldn’t believe my eyes!  How long had I owned this picture, admiring it everyday when I walked into my bedroom -four years or more?  And I never noticed the angel.  In fact, if I had spotted it before, this art wouldn’t be hanging in my home.  When I purchased it, I was an atheist.  Angels or anything resembling Christian or religious heritage had no place in my house.

But recently, I had recovered my lost faith.  Was this a divine event or a message from God letting me know that the angel was watching over me even while I was an unbeliever?  I wanted to believe this…and in some form, it may have been true.  But in reality, I knew that my perception of the painting was skewed because of my beliefs.  In my atheistic mindset, I didn’t perceive the angel.  I liked the painting and wanted it in my house. Not seeing the angel allowed me to take it home and admire it without compromising the beliefs I held at that time.

We perceive the world based on our mindset and beliefs.  When I was in the throes of an eating disorder, I perceived my body as being bigger than it really was.  In the mirror, I saw a much larger me than reality.  If someone pointed out that my perception was inaccurate, I was convinced they were the ones with the skewed perspective, not me!

My perception of myself was not based on truth, it was based on a feeling.  And that feeling came from a deep-seated belief that I was not good enough the way I was.  It manifested itself in the thought that I had to be thin to be a good person, to be acceptable to society.  I chose to see my chubbiness as a critical defect in my being.

Of course, all these beliefs came from somewhere, some traumatic experience in my childhood or being teased and mistreated because of my weight.  But to me, it doesn’t matter as much how I got them, what matters more is how I changed them.

When I began this binge free journey, my expectation was that I would stop bingeing and overeating which would result in weight loss.  But the further I got into this journey, the more I began to appreciate my body for what it is.  Not struggling with food has given me a new awareness of what it means to be healthy.  I don’t have to be “thin” to be healthy or good looking.  Health and beauty come in every shape and size.

One way I came to terms with my body was to make a list of all the awesome things it can do -like walking, showering, laughing, stretching, even breathing.  All these things may seem mundane, but without a functional body we couldn’t do any of them.  I also found the things below helpful in getting me to appreciate the body I have.

-While looking in the mirror, I say positive things about my body, looking at every part with kindness, not disdain.  I smile while doing this.  I didn’t feel it at first but after a few times, I felt happier in general.
-I take pictures of myself having fun with others.  If someone else takes a picture of me on their phone, I ask them to send it to me.  I look at those pictures with kindness and appreciate that I am having fun.  I don’t criticize my body or tell myself that I need to change anything.
-I don’t make jokes about my size or belittle myself in any way.  If I find myself doing this, I don’t chastise, I just stop the negative talk and go on.

No matter your size, you are a valuable person.  Thin, fat, tall, short, whatever, it doesn’t matter.  If we base our value on our body size, we are missing out on the best part of life. Take a chance.  Be honest.  See the value you hold that isn’t related to your size or what you look like.  When you are open to it, you will perceive it.

First time to my blog? Start here.

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Power Of Habit or Bad Hair Day?

For the past two weeks I have been fretting over my hair.  It has lost its luster, gets frizzy for no reason and just doesn’t feel the same.  I have wracked my brain trying to figure out what’s causing it.  Am I just getting old?  Is my body chemistry changing?  Am I eating something bad for me?  Am I in the sun too much or not enough?

Deciding to put all these questions aside and take a nice shower, I step into the tub and grab the shampoo which sits on a shelf to the right.  Wait…uh….. this is not shampoo… this is body wash.  For the last two weeks, out of habit, I have reached to the right to pump out a handful of shampoo, but have been slathering body soap on my hair instead!

I see now the body wash and the shampoo have been switched.  How did they get switched?  And more importantly, why didn’t I notice this?

As far a habits go, this is not a big deal.  I can choose to change my routine and reach to the left for the shampoo or put the bottles back in their places.  Seems easy enough.  But what if I had never noticed this and just went around worrying about my hair and how bad it looked?  I could have driven myself crazy trying to find the reason behind my bad hair days.  I could have spent weeks or months worrying and trying to change things that either made no difference or made things worse.  Seems kind of stupid doesn’t it?

Yet, this is exactly what I did when I was trying to ‘fight’ an eating disorder.  I turned what was a habit into a complicated mess of body shaming, food restriction, and bingeing.  I saw myself as a defective person who couldn’t control herself.   I agonized so much that the disorder became my comfort.

Yes, it was comfortable.  Even though it was a devastating and sometimes life threatening habit, it made me comfortable to do the things I did.  Of course, I did not like the aftermath.  It was like using the body wash on my hair but hating the results.  And how ridiculous it seems to keep washing my hair with body wash and then complain about it.  But that’s what I did with the eating and body shaming year after year.  I kept doing the same thing and hating the results.  I kept looking for complicated answers instead of looking right in front of me.

How I changed

When I decided to de-complicate the binging problem, I had to realize that the disordered eating and body bashing were habits.  They did an excellent job of keeping me functioning and getting me through stress.  Of course they caused a lot of stress too -this is what perpetuated them.

Once I realized that my disordered behaviors were not a part of my personality, but something I did in response to my environment, I let go of the guilt.  I made a choice to believe that there is no ‘good or bad’ involved in eating or being any certain weight or body size.  I began to believe deep down that I was a good person, regardless of what I ate or how I looked.  I re-established my rightful place in the universe. (For me, this meant seeing God not as an entity judging me and keeping score, but as a support and encourager in all I do.)

Then I stopped dividing food into good and bad categories.  I allowed myself to eat all foods with no guilt or shame or feelings of eating something ‘sinfully delicious.’  All food became okay to eat for its own time and purpose.  I also began looking at my body differently.  Instead of labeling it as bad because it held extra fat or wasn’t as muscular as I it wanted to be, I started to appreciate it for the good things it did.

Eventually, I could look at myself in the mirror and not fret over the thighs or wiggly belly.  My body stopped being my focus.  It is now neither good nor bad.  It is just one element of my complete being.  It doesn’t define my status, my feelings, my health, or my personality, it doesn’t make me more or less valuable than anyone else.

And even though others may use my body to make judgments about who I am, I can leave that with them and not worry about it.

I believe we create habits out of necessity.  They allow us to perform activities while our mind is occupied with something else.  Sometimes they end up being good for us and sometimes not.  Making and breaking habits can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be.

Letting go of guilt and self condemnation was the giant first step in changing my life.  If I can do this, you can too.

P.S. The shampoo and body soap got misplaced by my husband when he cleaned the tub and shower.  (Yes, he occasionally cleans the bathroom, but no, he is not available for hire!)

For more steps on starting the binge free journey click here.

For more technical advice on habit and behavior change, read James Clear’s The Paradox of Behavior Change.   Check some of his other articles on habits.

 

“If you judge me for what I look like, that’s on you, not me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bathing Suit Test

Journal excerpt

July 5

We went to the river today.  I wore my bathing suit all day.  I did not put on a pair of shorts to hide my thighs, I did not put on a large T-shirt to cover everything.  With all my big talk about accepting my body and being nice to myself for the past two and half years, today is the first day I wore my bathing suit without being worried about my body or what I looked like to others. 

When I slipped off the bathing suit to shower, I felt like I had passed a test.  Like I reached some milestone in life.  It’s been easy to talk the talk and say how I feel empowered by eating normally and that I accept myself as I am, but the truth comes in hard doses.

The first truth is that I have gained a few pounds since I broke my ankle. The next truth is that my that my daughter is getting married. We have both been busy making plans and reveling in the joy of it all.  But deep in my mind, a pin prick of self consciousness began to grow.  

I began to think about dresses I would wear, how they would look on me and how I would look in pictures.  I mulled over styles and tried to choose the best one to make me look thinner.  

This began thoughts of maybe losing a few pounds, several pounds actually, for the wedding.  This started me thinking about calories, which led to restricting some foods which led to eating more food which led to guilt about eating some ice cream, which led to…..no, I didn’t binge.  But I did overeat for a few days while sorting all this out. 

And it can be sorted out. It takes some time, soul searching, and some confidence in who I am and what I am about.  It takes reassurance and self compassion. Oh, and it takes faith in myself and faith in something bigger than myself -I call this God.  

These past couple months have brought a whole new perspective on what it is to really accept myself. In the face of a wedding and wanting to look as good as possible for my beautiful daughter, I have had to come to terms with what it means to be my best for my children.  If being my best means that I am skinny, but my mind is constantly on my body and weight, how is that my best?

I will look my best when I feel my best.  And I don’t have to be skinny or even thin to feel my best.

My best is when I am happy and confident in who I am regardless of my body size.

My best is being content with myself so that I can fully participate in the life around me.

I’ve had a difficult time writing for this blog when my thoughts have been about losing weight and looking my best for my daughters wedding…

But I have pretty much resolved this issue. And when I wore my bathing suit for the entire day,  it cemented the idea that I don’t have to lose weight for any reason. I am okay just the way I am. I have passed the test.

Now that my ankle is almost healed and I am able to be more active, I may lose some weight. But I will not force this or dwell on it. For the wedding, I will dress in a stylish way regardless of my size, but I will not think about my thighs or my height or whatever else has kept me preoccupied in the past.  I will be happy for my daughter and celebrate her wonderful day.

What ‘Feeling Fat’ Means To Me

When I was 14 years old, I babysat for the family who lived across the street. They had two children; a toddler and a baby of seven months. The mom, Kari, was not happy with the extra weight she gained from having the baby. She constantly dieted and exercised. She and my mother often traded diet tips and weight loss stories while drinking black coffee at our kitchen table.
One time, a few days into one of her restrictive diets, Kari came over to our house and sat down. She stretched out her legs, pointed her feet like a ballerina and said, “I feel so thin today. I know I’m not thin, but I feel thin.”
Thinness, to Kari, (to all of us back then) equated with being better, happier, and more attractive. That day, I got the message seared into my brain that feeling thin was proof you had willpower and you stuck to your diet. Fatness and feeling fat was bad, even if it was proof you just had a baby.

From then on, I tried my hardest to follow a diet. I wanted that elusive ‘thin’ feeling. I thought it was the only feeling that would relieve the terrifying ‘fat’ feeling that was beginning to invade my consciousness. So, instead of trying to help myself feel happy or content or peaceful or loving, I chose to work on feeling thin to combat feeling fat.

The things that made me feel thin were -following a low-calorie diet for a few days, jogging every day, or fasting. All these things led to losing a few pounds and I felt thin for a short time. Looking back now, I don’t know how I got through college or managed to have friends. Everything in my life was less important than losing weight.

Throughout my life, I have painstakingly weighed and measured my food, counting every carb, calorie and fat gram. And I did manage, a few times, to get to a weight I was happy with…more truthfully, I got to a weight that I thought would make me happy.

The problem was, in trying to mold my body for the approval of others, I succeeded in learning how to hate my body imperfections. When you are thin, you still think about your thighs, your stomach, the skin under your arms and a hundred other perceived flaws.

So, even though I became petite, my self-esteem was artificial. I felt thin when I was actively losing weight, but felt fat if I ate too much. And inside, I had hole in the core of my being even bigger than before I lost the weight. My self-esteem was linked to the number on the scale, same as always.

Being thin did not guarantee people were going to like me and it did not give me a foundation to handle stress. In fact, it triggered more stress because I felt a more urgent need to stay slim; to not disappoint myself and others. This attitude gave birth to a full fledged eating disorder and years of unhealthy habits (which were even worse than my mom’s fad diets.)

How does this all relate to ‘feeling fat?

In the first ED program I attended, I was encouraged to express my feelings in a group therapy session after lunch each day. If I, or anyone in the group said they felt fat, we were told to find another word because ‘fat’ was not a feeling. This never helped me come to terms with the feeling of being fat, it just kept me trying to escape it. I kept  thinking I was wrong about my feelings. I felt invalidated. And even though I looked for other words on a printed out list of feelings, none of them expressed how I felt.

I agree that we need to stop equating thinness with happiness, and fatness with negativity. I spend a significant amount of my time reading and writing about this. I am on that bandwagon. But emotions and feelings are very complex subjects, and trying to explain that fat is not a feeling just complicates things even more. Only by embracing my experience of feeling fat could I learn to recognize other emotions and get some meaning back into my life.

We view feeling fat as a negative event because of our beliefs. Initially, we get our beliefs from how we are raised, what we learn from society, and the experiences we have in our lives. If we dismiss feeling fat as an erroneous emotion, we can never come to terms with it. It will forever have a negative connotation.  By not allowing ourselves to examine the feeling, it becomes this ominous thing we are afraid of.

If we are going to change the perception about fat and feeling fat, we have to face it head on; we have to study and re-define it.

Feelings and emotions serve us for survival, not to cause unnecessary suffering.  So, by allowing myself to explore my ‘fat’ feeling I can determine the cause. How I interpret that feeling is really what counts. If I keep trying to vanquish it, I will never get to what my body is really trying to tell me.

For me, feeling fat is an expression of a mild physical discomfort, it’s not a debilitating pain, its not a negative thought,  and it does not change my value as a person. It could be that I ate too much, or I feel bloated from a certain food, or my clothing is uncomfortable. Fat is the word I use to express these feelings. ‘Uncomfortable’ may be a more acceptable word, but fat fits my feeling more precisely.

Its not unlike having an itch or feeling sleepy or any other feeling you can name that requires you to attend to something about your body.  Once the itch is scratched or you take a nap, you can go on with your life.

The problem most of us have is that when we feel fat, we think it means we should lose weight.  We think it is a negative thing that cannot be alleviated by anything other than exercise, dieting and weight loss.  But if we study it carefully, we can make ourselves more comfortable in our own skin by making a few adjustments.

Sometimes these are physical adjustments like loosening our clothes or drinking water instead of soda. Sometimes they are mental adjustments, like remembering that feeling fat is not a negative event.  And like most other issues, when we acknowledge it and open ourselves up to it, we will have a clearer mind. With a clearer mind, we then have a choice to either accept it for what it is -a mild discomfort, or take reasonable measures to resolve it.

For more on trusting your body – Your Body Is Brilliant

For more on body image issues – Can I be Weightless?

 

“The breakthrough will come when we can embrace and examine feeling fat instead of trying to conquer it or run from it.”IMG_0048

 

Broken and Blessed

 Several weeks ago, I broke my ankle. In the past, I would have had a giant pity party and lamented the pain and inconvenience to everyone around me. And even though it has put me a little behind in my writing, it hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm or caused me much distress.

I am writing about it now for two reasons. The first is, I wanted to use this real-life situation to share how negative events can give birth to positive things – that is, if you look for them. The second is, it put a tiny glitch in my binge free life that I had to figure out how to deal with.

Positives From Negatives

I broke my ankle playing tennis. I know, it’s not a contact sport, right? But I couldn’t help going for an overhead that was way out of my reach. As soon as it happened, all play stopped on three courts and everyone rallied around me. They got me to the ER and stayed until my family arrived. After a few days, and when the swelling went down, the orthopedic doc cast it all the way up to the knee.  People sent cards and called to check on me. One friend even sent me a bedside bell. It sounded just like the bells on Downton Abbey except that when I rang it, no one came to my see what I wanted, I just heard peals of laughter coming from the other room.

Since our vacation was set for the following week, my husband rented me a scooter. With one knee propped up and my good leg pushing me forward, I felt like a kid at play. It was an enjoyable conversation starter too. People commented that I needed to have it motorized. I talked to more strangers and made more friends on vacation than I ever would have in the past.

While packing for vacation, I discovered that I could pack four different shoes instead of two pair. I’m not a clothes horse, but I like shoes, so I thought this was a good thing. And since I could not drive, I enjoyed the scenery while my hubby drove from our home in Georgia to the Florida coast.

I also found myself on my knees a good bit. I had to crawl in my bedroom and up and down the stairs. Being on my knees reminded me that I don’t pray as much as I could. It helped me to get back into the habit of praying, whether on my knees or not.

The Glitch

About two weeks after my ankle broke, I noticed my pants were feeling a little tight. I had gone from being active every day of the week to being non-active. At first this caused concern. The old thoughts started taking over.

“I can’t stand this.”
“I have to control my eating so I won’t gain weight.”
“What if I gain so much weight I won’t be able to fit into my clothes?”
“What if I get so bored, I can’t stop eating?”

I spent a couple days trying to work out what to do about these thoughts. And during that time, I noticed my anxiety level was high, my eating was erratic, and my pants were getting tighter. I finally remembered that my body is an amazing biological machine and it did not need me to tell it what to do. It knows how to heal my ankle and it knows how much sustenance I need to make that happen. I had to get back to trusting it.

So, I did what I have trained myself to do from the beginning of this journey. That is, I acknowledged the existence of the anxious thoughts without judging them as good or bad. This means accepting them as being a normal part of my (or anyone’s) journey. This quelled the thoughts and opened my mind up to a better understanding of my situation, which is -I don’t have to restrict my food.

My body will tell me what I need to eat to heal. And if I listen, it will also tell me when it’s time to increase my activity to strengthen my muscles.  If I gain weight during this time, it’s not a bad thing. I can still trust my body without expecting it to be any certain size. This attitude allows my body to function at an optimal level.

If I had not already been on the binge free path, this broken ankle may have put a major dent in my life and caused me much angst. But I thank God every day for my blessings, despite the broken ankle and other trials. It is true for me that mindset, and not circumstances, determine my happiness. This experience has cemented my belief that when I look for the positive, even in the negative, I will find it.

For more on beginning a binge free life start here.

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Perfect Imperfection

Last week, I was looking online for the perfect photograph to use as a background on my computer.  I found a shot of a lake surrounded by snow dusted mountains.  The mountains were ragged and brown.  The lake sat haphazardly at the bottom of the scene and dark clouds loomed over it, allowing only a few slivers of light to shimmer on the water.  I wondered what made this picture seem so beautiful.

Nothing in the scene was painstaking.  I mean, the snow didn’t worry about where it landed.  The mountains didn’t discuss where they thought it would be best to rise out of the earth, and they didn’t agonize about the shape of their peaks.  And the clouds didn’t care that they blocked out most of the sun.  The photographer took the perfect photo, but what the camera captured was imperfection.  And yes, these are inanimate objects, and I am, well, I’m human, but that landscape is proof to me that beauty in nature, including our bodies, is perfect in its imperfection.

I used to aspire to have the perfect body.  I thought I could control exactly how it looked by going to the gym and following the latest diet.  But no matter how hard I tried, it never looked the way I wanted.  And the harder I worked to get it to fit my ideas of perfection, the more out of control I became.  Like many women, this was one of my main thoughts day and night, and it led to bouts of depression, anxiety, bingeing and for some years, purging.

By the time I began my binge free journey a couple years ago, I had already been through body image therapy.  I can remember how agonizing it was for me and all the women in the group to say even one nice thing about some part of our bodies.  I was relieved when the course was over.

For a long time after that, I tried hard to love my body.  But no matter how hard I tried, that did not happen.  I couldn’t make myself love it, just like I couldn’t make myself love a person I didn’t respect.  But once I began to nourish myself and not restrict foods, something in my psyche shifted and I decided it was time to respect my body.

I began by appreciating what it did for me.  I started with things we take for granted, like -my lungs expand and contract allowing air to enter my body, my blood gets infused with oxygen, my heart beats and distributes that blood through my body, then my cells use the oxygen rich blood to nourish themselves.  How amazing is that?!  I don’t have to force my heart to beat and I don’t have to remind myself to breath, (well sometimes I hold my breath, but you get the gist, breathing is natural!)

I couldn’t make this process happen if I tried, its automatic.  And the body does much more work at a deeper level.  So much more that scientists don’t fully understand everything our body is capable of.

This awareness that my body functions pretty darn well without me having to tell it what to do, helped me to trust it to eat when I needed to.  And once I ate with no guilt or shame, I became aware of true hunger cues.  This took patience and practice, and it was imperfect.  But it happened.

My body may have lumps and bumps, but it has kept me alive even when I tried to force it into someone else’s mold.  It is imperfect perfection in its function and design and I appreciate every inch of it.  It is the representation of me on this earth.  And whether it is thin or fat or in between, I love it enough to present it to the world in the best way I can, but I respect it enough to allow it to look and function the way it was meant to.  And most of all, I don’t worry about what other people think about it.

“I believe there is perfection in our flaws, grace in our missteps and beauty in everything that surrounds us. I am perfect in my humanness, no matter what it looks like.” MD

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