I’m in the process of interviewing professionals and recovering women for my book, Good Enough Mama: Taking Care of Yourself and Your Recovery During Pregnancy and Postpartum. And I’m being blown away by the amazing women I am meeting. So I’ve decided to share some of the experience, strength, and hope they are offering in their stories.
But first, a bit on Advanced Maternal Age (and how it relates to eating disorders):
There are many reasons why women are delaying having a baby until later in life, including: effective contraception, gender equality, women reaching higher educational
levels, cultural value shifts, divorce or partnering later in life, lack of childcare support, an absence of supportive family policies in the workplace, economic hardship, job instability or work in male dominated fields that are not supportive of or understanding of motherhood.*
Along with reaching higher educational levels, many recovering women want to do personal growth work and solidify their eating disorder recovery prior to becoming a parent. However, delaying childbirth until after age 35 can further inhibit fertility for women that may already have fertility problems leftover from their eating disorder history.
Twenty million women and 10 million men have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Fertility problems, though they can be overcome, are among the potential long-term consequences of such conditions, with some studies suggesting that eating disorders account for about 18 percent of patients seen in infertility clinics, says Dr. Leslie A. Appiah, associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. **
OK, enough with the stats. I’d like to get to the stories of hope because the purpose of this blog (and the upcoming book) is sharing hope: hope that recovery is possible, hope that motherhood is possible, hope in the knowledge that you are not alone.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to Sheira Kahn, MFT. Sheira is a marriage and family therapist in private practice with two decades of experience in treating eating disorders and three decades of her own recovery. For those of you struggling with hope that you can still be a mom later in life: She had a baby at age 50.
Here is her recovery story:
When I was a teenager and I was bulimic. The house where lived was filled with turmoil that I literally couldn’t stomach. Thankfully, when I moved out, I stopped purging. However, hatred of my self and my body persisted. I still hated my body and I hated every bite of food that I ate. The mental part of the disorder persisted. I was in pain and I knew that I didn’t want live that way. So I joined a meditation school where they taught us about how to work with the critic. And since my critic was always criticizing me about my body, I did what they said to reduce your critic. Every time my inner critic was loud and mean, I practiced. And my relationship with my body changed, because there was less hatred being channeled from a critic toward myself. Then, a book on hunger and fullness signals taught me how to listen to my stomach, not my critic, when making food decisions.
What inspired and motivated you to get into recovery?
I was in so much pain. I wanted the pain to be reduced. I think with some people, the coping mechanism (of the disordered eating) works to keep them numb to the pain, so they keep doing the coping mechanism. But for me I was in pain. It wasn’t a hard decision for me. I felt so bad. I thought recovery was going to make me feel better, so I threw I threw myself into it.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a mom or did that desire come later?
I always did growing up and then, in my 20s, I thought I didn’t. And then it came back. And then it came back very, very strongly. I assumed that would happen for me, as it seemed to happen so easily for other people. I had no idea that it that I would have to go through a lot actually to become a mom.
For me it was a combination of factors. I wanted to be partnered. I married someone that I had fallen in love with when I was 21. He wanted to have kids, and I didn’t. Then I changed my mind, but then he had changed his mind! That relationship wasn’t working out for several reasons. Then I got married again. I was in my I was 40’s when we started trying, so I was on the late side as far as far as fertility. It might have happened if I had felt safer in the relationship. However, I didn’t feel safe in the relationship to bring in a child. I believe this influenced my already shaky fertility. However, I knew I really wanted to have a baby, and I was ready to do whatever I needed to do. I was ready to have a baby or have a family, even without a partner who is willing to do it. I just knew that I had to go for it.
By that time there were some things in place that showed me I could be successful being a mom. I felt healed enough in myself. I had a sense of inner strength and I had support. I was making good livelihood on my own at that point, so I knew I’d be able to provide for a baby.
What happened in the decade between 40 and 50?
Three things during that decade: internal readiness, emotional clearing, and practical steps.
There was an internal readiness that I didn’t achieve until I was 48 years old. I came from a family where there was emotional trauma. There was extreme disconnection: fighting, antagonism, conflict, and fear between my parents. That set me up to have very few skills for building long term relationships. It gave me a layer of fear. When there are emotional injuries like this, it’s like a layer in your body. It felt like a layer of beliefs that went along with this fear. I thought that I would never be able to have a family. Or that it could happen for other people, but not me. I saw it happening for other people, and I believed it couldn’t exist for me. There was all this evidence that had confirmed the belief I held: Sheira doesn’t get to have family. I had been divorced once and then was getting divorced a second time. I had miscarried…
(Don’t worry! Remember this is about hope. The story doesn’t end here! Stay tuned next week for part two where we get to the Hope part of Experience, Strength, and Hope)
Sheira Kahn, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist in the bay area who gave birth to a beautiful baby girl at age 50. To read more about her professionally, you can visit her website here
*Mills M, Rindfuss, RR, McDonald P, Te Velde E,“Why do people postpone parenthood? Reasons and social policy incentives,” ESHRE Reproduction and Society Task Force: Hum Reprod Update, 17(6):848-60, Nov/Dec 2011.
** Medaris Miller, Anna “The Lasting Toll of An Eating Disorder: Fertility Issues,” US News and World Report, March 31, 2016.
I had one of those moments today. As I was pulling on my jeans, I could feel they were too tight. My midriff was mid-drifting. And that first automatic thought – “I’ve gained weight!”- was quickly followed by a shitload of culturally conditioned fat-shaming judgements. The good news is that then I took a deep breath. And remembered this voice comes in when I am suffering in some way that needs tending. That I have over twenty years of eating disorder recovery behind my back (and in my stomach). That this fearful voice doesn’t pop up very much any more and I have another way of being with myself now. Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-voice kicked back in.
Might these jeans be tight because they just came out of the drier?
If you did gain weight, so what?
Here’s how the rest of that conversation went down:
Anxious-part-of-self: What do you mean so what? SO WHAT? My body is supposed to stay the same. This is my recovery body and it’s not supposed to change.
Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-Self: Interesting. Where did you hear that? Actually, your body has changed many times over the past two decades. Most people’s bodies do. Who told you your body is supposed to stay the same? I think I remember your very first recovery mentor telling you twenty years ago (when I was a young adult and she was middle-aged) two things:
1) The size of your body is not your business.
2) The only constant is change.
When I work with women on body image suffering, often there is a correlation with the uncertainty that come with the life-passage transformations such as young adulthood, marriage, pregnancy, postpartum, middle age, and elderhood- and body image. Life transitions can be challenging, and the culture we live in doesn’t have a container for women traveling through these rites of passage. We do have a body-shaming culture that tells us there is something wrong (with our bodies) and it is our responsibility to fix/change them (our bodies). In the absence of community, and of rituals that assist us in crossing these thresholds, a fearful body-shaming voice can come in to keep us “safe.” Safe from what? Safe from the scary changes of the unknown by assuring us that If you can keep your body from changing, then this (life-change) will not be distressing. Safe from having to go through it alone. Safe from facing all the mixed messages in a culture that feels ambivalent at best, and actively disdainful at worst, about supporting women through the rites of passage into adulthood, motherhood, middle age, and becoming a crone. But in practicing hating our bodies, we miss out on appreciating how wise they are in leading and guiding us through these life transformations.
Midlife Mid-Drift (and other women’s body/life changes)
In perimenopause, the ovaries produce less estrogen, which can cause the body to store extra fat (because fat cells can produce estrogen, which offers the body a safety net). Interesting. Thus the thickening around the middle. Pretty smart, body!
In adolescence, a hormone called GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) is released, and then forms two new hormones that signal the body to gain weight and become fertile. Smart body!
In pregnancy, weight gain is distributed in all kinds of useful ways, including: increased
blood, breast tissue, fat stores for future breast feeding, amniotic fluid, the placenta, oh, and the actual baby! Wise body.
Just like postpartum, when the stomach carries shapes and marks that show it grew to hold a child. Successful body!
My body is changing again. It’s what happens for women throughout the life cycle. By the way, when I was researching reasons why a woman’s body changes in adolescence, the perinatal period, and midlife, guess what popped up on Google? You got it: 10 Ways to Diet That Away. (“That” being the inevitable changes in your body.)
A Recovery Reminder
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, or any form of body image hatred (aka if you live in this culture), DO NOT visit Dr. Google for your answers to questions about life transitions. Dr. Google will always tell you that losing weight is the answer to complex life problems. Stop dieting, start rioting, and find your people. Find your support team of friends, professional help, and spiritual sustenance to help midwife you through your life transitions. Listen to the wise, fiercely compassionate and sometimes as* kicking part-of-you-that-knows and act on that voice. Now is not the time to let the weight on your stomach go. Now is the time to let the weight of holding up unrealistic expectations of who-you-are-supposed-to-be vs. who-you-actually-are go. Or, as Brené Brown so eloquently states about midlife:
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders (or your midriff), pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
“It is true that there are skeletons hiding in our closet, but there is treasure
hiding there, too.” -Teal Swan
OK moms and recovering women, as we all know, bathing suit season is fast approaching. In my work as a therapist for moms and women recovering from eating disorders, sessions are starting to revolve around:
- How to hide body parts while wearing summer clothing
- How to avoid wearing a bathing suit
- Comparing and Despairing
I encourage moms, and anyone with body image issues (so basically everyone) to let that shit go. Of course I mean emotionally (I’m a therapist 🙂 ) But I also mean literally: Bring in the old bathing-suit/pair-of-short-shorts/sleeveless-little-red-dress and we will have a goodbye ritual.
Marie Kondo, in her famous (and clearly written BC: Before Child), The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014) writes:
The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in hand and ask Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.
Although easy-sounding, this can be tricky. When I ask my clients to bring in their clothes from their pre-pregnancy or pre eating disorder recovery days and ask,
“Does this [shirt/dress/pair-of-jeans] give you joy?” they almost always say unequivocally,
And then I ask “Is it REALLY the [shirt/dress/pair-of-jeans]?”
To which they say “YES.”
Then we sit there and look at each other in a staring contest. However, since therapy is expensive, this usually only lasts a few minutes at most. Then they might say something like:
“Well, maybe it’s the memory if wearing this pair of jeans and feeling confidant.”
“I wore this dress on my first date with my husband.”
“When I was [this size], I didn’t ever feel anxious.”
“I was happy when I wore this.”
Then I ask them where the happiness came from.
“The shirt/dress/pair of jeans” they say.
“No,” I say. “From you. The happiness came from inside of you.”
Them: “No, it was the dress.”
Me (Their Best-Self): “Go buy another.”
Them: “I’m not the right size.”
Me (Their Best-Self):
“You are the right size. You are the right size. Right now. Your stomach is the right size. Your thighs are the right size. Your arms are the right size. Your JEANS may be the wrong size, your DRESS or your BATHING SUIT or THE CLOTHING INDUSTRY may be the wrong size, but not you.”
“But what about the happiness I felt when I wore these jeans (dress/bathing-suit)?”
More staring, but with compassion and softening. And then we cut up the clothes. Sometimes we make them into journal covers. Or toddler clothes (because that is who size zero is made for).
Then we get to the tears and the grief. Because motherhood, and eating disorder recovery, is not only a whole new body. It is a whole new life. Do you really want the life you had when you were wearing that dress/bathing suit/jeans? You may have had more freedom (moms), or you may have had a thinner body, but were you really happy? Were you not just as- if not more- obsessed about food or worried about somebody finding out or seeing “the real you” (because under the dress you were feeling anxious, insecure, and lonely)? So your tummy was smaller. Did you wake up in the morning filled with joy about everything in your life, your relationships, your career, and your connection with meaningful purpose because your stomach was free of stretch marks or your arms were thin? I doubt it.
Happiness, in my opinion, is more about being in acceptance with what-is rather than what-you-would-like-to-be. If you have a little red dress that you used to wear in your pre-mommy or pre-recovery days that doesn’t fit (and never will because spanxs-are-for-women-who-willingly-subject-themselves-to-torture-and-isn’t motherhood-already-hard-enough), let that shit go. Is it really making you happy hanging there in your closet? Or is it looking at you every day saying:
“You used to wear me. Now you are a hippo-that-wears-sweat-pants.”
That doesn’t sound like it’s sparking joy. That sounds like a shaming, mean voice that should not be allowed in your house and definitely not in your closet.
Saying goodbye to the illusion of happiness being tied to an unattainable body shape/size can often bring up grief…which then can lead to freedom, which feels like, yes, you guessed it, happiness. Maybe not full-on joyful euphoria, more like self-accepting contentment. But isn’t that good-enough? Isn’t that what you wanted all along?
Oh, and more space in your closet for new clothes.
Moana’s Archetypal Message Offers Hope and Healing… Lava Monster and All
I was very excited to see the movie Moana. But it took a long time. Life got in the way…my little one and I went to the theater twice and it was sold out…and then, finally, we saw it. I entered expecting it to be good, but by the end I was sobbing. Like many archetypal stories, this one reaches right onto your heart. And with this one, the hero is a girl. A girl who has nothing but a canoe, a friend in the ocean, and a grandmother who believed in her.
Everybody has a canoe, whatever your “canoe” is: the vehicle that carries you on your journey to awakening. For some it is writing, or art. For some it is meditation, 12 step, or yoga. And everyone has someone who believed or believes in him or her. (More on that later). And every one of us, no matter how far gone, disconnected, unworthy, or unforgivable we think we are, knows the truth about themselves deep down. Not the Demigod complex of trying-to-rule-the-world-because-he-feels-unworthy-so-he-is-constantly-trying-to-make-up-for-it-by-acting-bigger-than-he-is. Not that part. (Although Heaven knows there is a lot of that energy going around, and that part definitely needs both compassion and fierce confrontation). But I’m not talking about that part here. I’m talking about the deeply-humble, but most powerful intuition-heart-knowing.
In Moana, the Goddess Te Fiti is the one who held the “greatest power ever known,” who creates Life. And she shared it with the world! And yet, without her heart she began to crumble, and a terrible darkness was born.
What is this power of creation?
Women have long-held the power of creation in their bodies. It’s not an accident that women with disordered eating hate or try to starve away parts of themselves that reflect this power of fertility: their hips, their stomachs (wombs), their butts. The power of fertility is profound but, in the current culture, relationship with this power is ambivalent at best. This fertile power is not just literal, it is symbolic. Archetypally, the feminine includes the Great Mother, the Earth Mother that holds the power of creation. Long ago the Venus De Willendorf embodied fertility. Hindu goddesses such as Aditi and Aitimmavaru are the mothers of the deities and laid the egg that hatched the gods Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu. In the Wiccan tradition, the Mother Goddess is sometimes identified as the Triple Goddess, composed of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Another name for the mother goddess is Gaia, Earth Mother.
The feminine goddess archetype also holds the power of destruction, as seen in the Hindu goddesses Durga and Kali dancing on her dead consort, Siva. In Moana, this destructive force is embodied in Te Ka, the lava monster. A similar goddess in Hawaii is Pele, the goddess of the volcanoes. She is also the creator of the Hawaiian islands. This points to how interrelated these forces of creation and destruction can be.
Creation or Destruction?
Any woman with disordered eating knows, in her body, when this force of feeding life turns into a force of destroying or hurting. When eating an enjoyable bowl of ice-cream turns into frantically stuffing the entire carton in, shoveling it down so quickly so it can be violently thrown back up, that is the destroyer. That is where feeding your own life-body turns against the self. There are many reasons for this: trauma and abuse, a family or larger culture that tells women “nice girls don’t get angry,” ambivalence and fear of becoming a women in a culture that does not celebrate the power of the feminine, and many more. We do not have rituals to celebrate becoming a woman in American culture, and so it is a time when many girls start to implode. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls writes: “Adolescent girls discover that it is impossible to be both feminine and adult.” And so menstruation, having a woman’s body, and speaking from the place of your inner truth become submerged, hidden, hated, and cut off.
Back To Moana
So Moana, from her childhood has this connection with herself and the world. She connects with the ocean; it “calls her.” She connects with the turtles; she connects her Grandmother’s sense of knowing something bigger than what her family and culture are telling her to be the truth. And, like many women struggling with disordered eating, wanting to be good girls, and finding their voice, she wrestles with it. She sings:
“See the light where the sky meets the sea/ It calls me/ No one knows how far it goes”*
“The voice inside is a different song/ What’s wrong with me?” *
This questioning part, this part that doesn’t match up with cultural expectations needs mirroring and validation. Without it, self-destruction (disordered eating, depression, anxiety, etc) runs rampant. We all have, if we look far and deep enough, this person or Being that mirrors our inner truth in our life. It may be a teacher who “got” your art. Or it may have been an aunt who had travelled her own healing journey and was in recovery from alcoholism. If you are lucky, it was a parent. For many of us, we find this mirroring understanding in a therapist. For Moana, this was her Grandmother. Her Grandmother is the self-described “village crazy,” who doesn’t have to answer to Moana’s father (the Village Chief).
“I’m his mother – I don’t have to tell him anything!” *
This Grandmother is what Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call a “Wild Woman,” one who has power in her body. In the Hopi tradition there is a butterfly dancer. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD writes in Women Who Run With The Wolves, (Ballentine Books: New York, 1992)
The butterfly dancer must be old because she represents the soul that is old. She is wide of thigh and broad of rump because she carries much. Her gray hair certifies…[that] the Butterfly Woman can touch everyone…This is her power. Hers is the body of La Mariposa, the butterfly.
It is not about what her body looks like – it is about listening to her feeling within:
The wilder woman will not be easily swayed…For her the questions are not how to form, but how to feel. The breast in all its shapes has the function of feeling and feeding…Does it feel? It is a good breast.
The hips, they are wide for a reason…they are portals, the handholds for love, a place for children to hide behind…
There is no “supposed to be” in bodies. The question is not size of shape or years of age, or even having two of everything, for some do not. But the wild issue is, does this body feel, does it have right connection to pleasure, to heart to soul, to the wild?…Can it in its own way move, dance, jiggle, sway? Nothing else matters.
Her “Wild Woman” Grandmother mirrors and nurtures listening-to-her-inner voice inside her body for Moana. She sings:
“You may hear a voice inside/ And if the voice starts to whisper/ To follow the farthest star/ Moana, that voice inside is/ Who you are” *
And this is the truth that guides Moana on the hero’s journey that every recovering woman must travel: Who are you?
Who You Really Are
This is the work that I engage with my clients every week: Who are you? How can you listen to your values? What does your inner Wise self have to say? How can I help you separate enough from the critical voices telling you “Stay small” or “Art is not for grown ups” or “You should do something more practical” rather than follow your dream of becoming a Nutritionist/Healer/Artist/Yoga Teacher/Environmental Educator/Women’s Advocate. This process involves separating enough from the cultural dictates and negative messages enough to hear the quiet voice inside. It is the moment when Moana, abandoned by Maui on the boat and despairing, is visited by her Grandmother’s spirit. And her Grandmother asks the question: Moana, Who are you? This is the point at which she discovers “the call isn’t out there at all – it’s inside me.”
You might be thinking “But how is this going to help in my recovery and in the world we are living right now?” Well, there certainly are a lot of “lava monsters” whose hearts have been stolen in the world right now. Where do we start? Where do I start? Where can you start? We start with ourselves. I start with myself. You start with yourself.
The cartoonist Walt Kelly stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Moana, in looking for the place to return the heart of Te Fiti suddenly realizes it is in her worst fear. The heart of Te Fit is inside the lava monster. But she is not afraid. Because she knows that fear, that addiction/eating disorder/lava monster/war/global warming/misogyny (as just a few examples J) are not outside her: They are inside her. And the call to awaken was always inside her as well. The call to find her true self. There is nothing to fear.
One of my favorite quotes from A Course In Miracles, A Self-Study in Spiritual Thought says:
The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance. The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.
In Moana, the, still voice of never-ending, powerful, and all-encompassing love emerges as she sings to the Lava Monster Te Ka:
“I have crossed the horizon to find you, I know your name / They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this is not who you are / You know who you are, who you truly are.” *
*Lyrics from Soundtrack to Moana (2016)
All original art work copyright Linda Shanti Mccabe
I have been following and quietly cheerleading the work of The Body Positive for years. Created by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott, LCSW, in 1996, The Body Positive is a community offering freedom from societal messages that keep people in a struggle with their bodies. Connie’s experience with an eating disorder in her teen years and the death of her sister Stephanie inspired her life’s work to improve the self-image of youth and adults. She founded The Body Positive in honor of her sister, and to ensure that her daughter Carmen and other children would grow up in a new world—one where people focus on changing the world, not their bodies.
Like Connie, my work is inspired from the desire to break the intergenerational legacy of eating disorders. I want eating disorders to stop with me, and I want my child to be free.
So it was with great pleasure that I read Connie’s book, Embody (Gurze books, 2014), which outlines the work of body positivity beautifully. Early in the book, Connie outlines how the Body Positive model differs drastically from not only dieting, but also a self-help model or cultural message around “arriving” at a static end point in order to be “done” (and therefore not need to grow, feel, work or explore anymore).
Body Positive: Not Body Positive:
|Tools for a lifetime of exploration||A static goal-oriented view of life|
|A definition of health that is based on balanced self-care and self-love||An idealized external image of a ‘healthy’ person|
|No Double binds||Conflicting messages that leave people confused or frustrated|
|Attuned self-care||“Rules” about eating and exercise|
|A foundation of self-love and forgiveness||“Shoulds” and punishment|
|A celebration of diversity as beauty||A limited definition of “ideal” beauty|
|The development of positive communities||Connecting with others through negative self-talk|
There are so many things that stood out for me in this book. Here are a few that I celebrated in particular:
* Exploring your Body Story through creatively using expressive arts and writing
*Turning your critical eyes toward discernment of negative messages you may have received from your family of origin (without blaming your mother) and culture rather than turning them against yourself.
*Defining and supporting Intuitive eating
*Re-defining exercise as a way to have fun and pleasure in your life (walking, dancing) and release brain chemicals to keep our moods stable rather than a way to punish ourselves or shape our bodies differently
* Including tools for quieting the Critical Voice
*Declaring your Authentic Beauty
Throughout the book, personal stories from Connie, Elizabeth, and people who have participated in Body Positive community are shared. There is a feeling that you are not alone in the struggle, and your are not alone in your journey to re-find (or find in the first place) joy and peace in your body and your life.
It isn’t often that I would recommend a book to friends, colleagues, and my clients! This is that book.
Every morning my little one pulls up my shirt, kisses you, and says, “I came from there!” You are fleshy now, stretched. I feel warmth and softness when I touch you. Mother. You hang over my jeans a bit. My sagging muffin top. I try not to mentally airbrush you out of pictures- the little traces of shame that still linger, the empire cut shirts, even though I haven’t been pregnant for five years.
Twenty years ago disgust for you filled my world. And crushed my spirit. All the self-loathing, anger, fear and shame were stuffed into you. I’m sorry. So many apology letters written to you in those first years of eating disorder recovery. But I did grow to accept you! And fed you. And then you created an amazing child! (Ok it was my womb, but you are the flesh that stretched to accommodate). You grew and stretched beyond what I thought was possible
Belly, I’m sorry that there are so many images in the world that don’t look like you. I know those images make you feel unloved, disgusting, flabby. I’m sorry those images make you feel wrong.
Those images tell you all kinds of crazy sh*t:
“Be smaller! Be flatter! Do this to be loved! Be big and full of yourself until age seven and then be flat and hungry. But don’t feel hungry! Just look thin! Don’t get angry! Hide your intuition. Don’t listen to it. Be attractive by not being yourself! Don’t get stretched. If you get stretched, get sucked and stitched back in.”
I just want you to know, Belly, they’re wrong, those messages. Contrary to what the images tell you, there is nothing wrong with you. Let me say it again as you have received those other brutal messages so many times.
Belly, there is nothing wrong with you.
I’m so excited to have a guest blog today by By Andrea Wachter, LMFT, co-author of The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and the new children’s book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell. I have followed her work for years (since I got into recovery nineteen years ago!) and am honored to share her words of wisdom.
Breaking the Bad Body Image Legacy
I was raised by a mom who was extremely dissatisfied with her body. Sadly, and statistically, there is a good chance that you were too. It’s nobody’s fault. Most of our mothers were handed the same bad body image baton that we were, leaving far too many of us competing in the never ending race of trying to eat a certain way, exercise a certain way and look a certain way in order to feel attractive and loveable.
Fortunately, there is a movement toward health and healing. My hope is that someday, a woman who dislikes or despises her body will be as rare as one who thinks that washing her child’s mouth out with soap is a wise parenting tool. As a culture, we need a massive update on our body image programming and if you are reading this blog, there is a good chance that you are up for the task.
Whether someone inherits a bad body image from their family, or learned it from our crazy culture, it is possible to heal. In my therapy practice, I have worked with women of all ages and from all walks of life and I have found that if there is desire and willingness, there is hope to break the legacy of bad body image.
My earliest memory of body image awareness was when I was about eight years old. I innocently walked into the bathroom and saw my mom soaking in the tub. While I don’t remember her exact words, I do recall her saying something negative and unkind about her body. I silently wondered why she didn’t like her body. And the programming went on from there: negative comments she made about feeling or being fat; certain foods being deemed “good” or “bad;” needing to diet or exercise to make up for what she ate.
Then came the painfully memorable shift when the focus turned to my body: Being told I was “getting a little chubby;” getting served the tasteless diet foods that were kept in a special freezer in the garage, while my dad and brother ate the regular foods from the kitchen; my dad telling me I have “such a pretty face,” if only I would “lose a few pounds;” paying my sister and me to lose weight.
I harbor not an ounce of blame or resentment toward these precious people. They received the same mixed-up messages we all have: If you lose weight, you will be more attractive and loveable. If you exercise, eat lean proteins, vegetables and fruits, you will be “good.” If you eat what have been deemed “bad” foods, you will be out of control and lose the praise and love you so hunger for.
Being a sensitive child who was desperately eager to please, I took my parents’ early teachings to heart. My dieting turned to sneak eating which led to periods of serious restricting which led to major binges which eventually morphed into a hard core case of bulimia. I added massive amounts of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes into the mix and spent decades completely lost in food, weight and body obsession. My self-worth, my social life, my love life, my health and my schooling were all greatly and negatively impacted by my painful and insidious relationship with food and my constant attempts to lose weight. And even when I did manage (countless times) to lose weight, it never once brought the peace of mind and happiness that I was told it would. Instead, my weight losses came with terror of weight gain and the animal-like hunger that accompanies and follows starvation.
I once asked my mom how she became so obsessed with dieting and so unhappy with her body. She told me that her mom and grandmother were both heavy but really didn’t seem to give it a second thought. It was only when she moved out of her poor Brooklyn neighborhood and into a “nice neighborhood filled with thin women” that she began to diet. She said, “I think I learned it from friends and it probably came from watching TV. Plus, your father was always so obsessed with my being thin.”
I then asked my dad how he came to be so obsessed with thinness. His answer was honest and it actually made sense to me. My dad ran a ladies clothing company in Manhattan. He worked tirelessly in the factory and he explained, “I guess I saw that the sewers in the factory were all fat and poor and seemed pretty unhappy. They had hard lives. The models who worked for us in the showroom were all thin, rich and glamourous and they seemed to be so happy.” Seemed being the operative word here. My precious papa took a small segment of the population, made some big assumptions, and based on his profound love for me, led me down a road he thought would bring me goodness. As did my mom. We were all given the same faulty programs.
The great news is that I eventually found my way out. And even better news is that I made a career out of it. My life’s work is now about helping others overcome their battles with food, weight and body issues as well as doing early prevention for kids who are showing signs of body dissatisfaction. Much like drugs, the earlier you intervene, the less entrenched the patterns are and all the more hope there is to change.
I was not a light weight dieter, binger and body hater. (Pardon the pun!) I went hard core. Fortunately, I dove hard core into healing too. It takes hard core dedication to break the legacy that so many of us have been handed: to eat exactly what we want in moderate amounts; to say “no” to food, even when others are pushing us to eat; to say “yes” to moving our bodies in ways we love; to say “yes” to rest when we are tired; to say “yes” to tears and compassion when we are sad, mad or scared; to speak our truth rather than stuff it with excess food; to say “no” to unachievable perfection; to accept and appreciate the size and shape of the bodies we were given, the age we are, the aging process.
Healing from food and body issues is not for the faint of heart, but then neither is starving ourselves, overeating, bingeing, body hatred or constant comparing. Both paths are challenging but thankfully one road leads to freedom and peace. I wish this for you.
Click here to check out Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell by Andrea Wachter and Marsea Marcus.
Andrea Wachter is a psychotherapist and co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell as well as The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook. She is also au
thor of the upcoming book, Getting Over Overeating for Teens. Andrea is an inspirational counselor,
author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, blogs and other services, please visit innersolutions
Recently I observed a 3-year-old girl with her family in a restaurant. She
was having difficulty walking due to the heels on her sandals. I actually understand her desire to be “more grown up.” However, I did feel sad and curious about a cultural paradigm that promotes preschoolers to be hobbling in order to look thinner.
You might be saying “But she wasn’t trying to look thinner. She was just copying Mommy, or wanting to play dress up.” To which I would say “And why was Mommy wearing high heels?” I was at a [dress up] event for parents of young children recently and one of the dads curiously asked “why DO women wear high heels?” To which I heard a mom reply:
“To enhance their legs or look thinner.”
I myself have worn high heels (though much less after becoming a mom as walking/running/getting shoes dirty and protecting my back have become more important). There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look attractive. However, I do question certain underlying values including
- Looking-thin-or-smaller-is-more-important-than-being-able-to-walk; or
- A woman’s-value-is-in-their-appearance-rather-than-their-skills, abilities, or being.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan (Dad is Fat, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2013) riffs on the ridiculous-ness of this strange cultural phenomena when he talks about the obsessive interest in his newborn baby girl’s weight:
The masses of family and friends want to …get information on the baby. For some reason, it’s really important for people to know how much the baby weighs. This always baffled me. ‘How much does she weigh?’ That’s rude. She’s not even a day old, and people seem to be obsessed with my daughter’s weight? She was nine pounds, but I remember telling friends, ‘She was eight pounds, sixteen ounces’ because it sounded thinner. Either way, she carried the weight very well, but we put her on the Atkins diet anyway…
My latest celebrity hero is Adele: not because I like her music or even follow celebrities much. But because she is one voice of opposition within the airbrushed media culture challenging lies such as:
- Looking Good= You will Not Suffer or Die and
- You can never be too rich or too thin.
She is speaking out, modeling for women and mothers, that is it okay to be yourself, in the size that you are. There are more valuable compasses from which to steer your life than appearance. Though admitting to some body image problems, she states:
“I think I remind everyone of themselves…I’m not perfect. I don’t let [body image problems] rule my life…I’m motivated by … a legacy that I’m leaving for my child.”*
Amen to that.
*Us Weekly, “Adele Choosing Family Over Fame,” Issue 1086, December 7, 2015.
I recently had the privilege of sitting on a doctoral candidate’s dissertation committee.• She was researching maternal intuitive eating and how this can prevent children from developing obesity. One title she considered was “You are what your mother eats,” which, though catchy, we decided was just too reinforcing of the already all-too-prevelant “mother guilt.” If you are a mother, you know what I am talking about: you worry about what your child eats, doesn’t eat, how much, in what way, whether it is packaged in BPA free packaging, whether their daily sugar intake is setting them up for future alcoholism…(OK, I may be getting a bit too far into neurosis here, but the point is that moms worry about their kids, and specifically, what their kids eat). So we decided to change the title.
You are (and are not) what your mother eats.
OK, so now that we have put the guilt aside, her research was fascinating! In many ways, it confirmed much of what has already been discovered about intuitive eating. Intuitive eating (1) can be summarized by the following factors:
- relying on internal cues for hunger and satiety
- eating for physiological rather than emotional reasons
- no dietary restrictions/unconditional permission to eat
- body size acceptance
It has been discovered and empirically validated that infants and toddlers have the capacity to self regulate their eating (2), given the right conditions. The right conditions being: provide a wide variety of nutrient dense food, while allowing the child autonomy to choose which of these foods to eat and when they are hungry.
Ellyn Satter’s work summarizes how parents can think about and put into practice modeling/trusting intuitive eating with children, while surrendering battles for control over two-year-olds refusing to eat broccoli in the following way:
The Division of Responsibility for infants:
- The parent is responsible for what.
- The child is responsible for how much (and everything else).
The Division of Responsibility for toddlers through adolescents
- The parent is responsible for what, when, where.
- The child is responsible for how much and whether.
More on Ellyn Satter (and down loadable handouts) here: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org
Two of the most fascinating clinical implications of this candidate’s research were:
- Mothers can learn about how they can indirectly influence their child’s self-regulation via body acceptance messages.
- Body appreciation is a predictor of intuitive eating and Body acceptance messages from mothers predict awareness of the internal feelings and function of the body.
In other words, the more YOU as a mother listen to YOUR OWN body, hunger cues, appreciate and do not criticize your own body, the more this translates to your child(ren).
She found that “controlling feeding practices” such as:
- Pressuring your child to eat,
- Restricting access to certain foods, as a means to decrease the amount of “unhealthy” foods a child consumes, and
- Monitoring food intake, as a means to track the amount of “unhealthy” foods a child consumes. (4)
all have a negative correlation with developing intuitive eating and do not support body appreciation.
Yep, that means NOT saying “you can have dessert if you eat your vegetables,” not pressuring your child to finish what’s on their plate, and stop micromanaging how much sugar your child eats at various birthday parties. I know, it’s hard! I’m on the journey with you, Mama, trusting that at SOME point in his lifetime my child will eat broccoli…or not! And I can model that it is ok either way.
*Congratulations Dr. Rosanna Franklin, PsyD, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University, 2014.
1. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyses Resch, 1995
2. Birch and Deysher 1985; Matheny, Birch, and Picciano, 1990.
3. Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2011; Avalos & Tylka, 2006.
4. Birch et al., 2001.