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
Many years ago, when I was in the early phase of recovery from an eating disorder, I challenged myself to buy a pair of pants embracing my butt. They were not my usual baggy style, were well-fitted, and had glitter on the butt! It was an “opposite action” to wear clothing that my internal body image critic would have never allowed. And, as all opposite action creates, it helped me develop a sense of esteem in myself by practicing an “esteem -able act.”
Many women do not like their butts, literally. Occasionally I find a woman who loves and/or accepts her butt. Jennifer Lopez is the poster child for embracing her butt as an asset.
According to Harvard medical School research, the fat found in large buttocks and hips may even protect against type 2 diabetes.
Fat found commonly around the lower areas, known as subcutaneous fat, or fat that collects under the skin, helps to improve the sensitivity of the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible for regulating blood sugar and therefore a big bottom might offer some protection against diabetes. The research shows that…people with pear-shaped bodies, with fat deposits in the buttocks and hips, are less prone to these disorders.
Cell Metabolism, Dec. 2008, Diabetes in Control: news and Information for medical professionals, January 20, 2009, Diabetesincontrol.com
Wearing different kinds of pants (glitter or not) no longer challenges me and esteem able acts have become different in my work as a Mom and Psychologist. Now getting my “butt” out of the way has become “But I don’t have TIME to work on my book!” or “But my child won’t eat vegetables, no matter HOW I prepare them!”
Whatever your butt or but issues, see if there is a way to find an opposite action, even if it is a baby opposite action step to get your but out of the way, remembering that often what’s in the way IS the way .
PS Babies love their butts. Try to remember a (or create for the very first) time when you could love yours.
“It takes no time to open your heart, but when will you do it? That is what takes the time.”
After working with women recovering from body hatred for the past decade and a half, I have noticed a few pitfalls that people get stuck in during the process of learning to love (and/or accept more on this soon) their bodies. One of them is:
“I don’t have TIME.”
In eating disorder recovery, it often shows up as “OK, I’ve stopped bingeing/purging/starving/overeating(insert disordered eating behavior here), so I should love my body now. When will that happen? 1 month? 2? Because I don’t have the patience for years. I’m ready to move on and be “normal.” What I say to this is Ummmm, sorry. There is no “normal,” and if there was (if “normal” means not having an eating disorder) then many of those people don’t like their bodies either. Leaning to love and accept yourself at a deep fundamental level (which is what body image issues are really about) takes time. Usually years. It cuts to the fundamental core of the self. (But don’t worry this project is 5 minutes PER WEEK for 8 weeks. You can do that. You can do this!)
In mommy hood, it often shows up as “I’m too busy taking care of everyone else! I don’t have time for that superficial body image stuff! I’m lucky if I get a pair of sweat pants on and a haircut once/year!” To which I would say first of all, you can’t afford to NOT have the time because your child is picking up on every single nonverbal cue you give them as to your relationship with your own body and you are passing it on. So if there’s any suffering there that you wish your child to NOT experience, you have to do your own work. And second of all, it doesn’t actually take that much time. It is more about quality rather than quantity.
The Power of Intention
This is a new project, but not a new idea. It is about the power of intention to shift your relationship with your body. The good news is It won’t require much from you except willingness. And, actually, it won’t take too much time. 5 minutes/week for 8 weeks. But let me tell you a bit about the premise. As a clinician assisting people cultivate a different relationship with their bodies and themselves, I work with willingness. I also work with assisting people identify and shift the ways they talk to themselves, including both the content and the tone. A large part of this is actually dis-identifyig enough from the parts of yourself, particularly the often overdeveloped Superego Critical part, to find and cultivate other parts. The other part(s) being kinder, more self-advocating, non-shaming loving parts.
There is a well-know study in which experimenters were told to observe rats in a maze, but one group of experimenters were told that their rats were “bright” and another group were told that their rats were “dull.” (Rosenthal, R. & Fode, K.L.1963) They were actually all from the same group of lab rats, but guess which rats performed better? Yep. The ones that were supposedly “bright.” When looking at why, it was found that the experimenters had an intention of them doing better and encouraged these rats more. I want to invite you to bring this “experimenter bias” back to yourself: loving kindness, attention, intention.
Which brings me back to the issue of how you talk to your body. How do you speak to your body? Do you say “You should be smaller/larger/less wrinkled/not have cellulite/be less flabby/stop being so disgusting”? Then this is an opportunity for you to practice treating your body more “bright” and less “dull.” Really- if you’ve been saying unkind things to yourself for decades, what do you have to lose by trying to say something different?
The Every Body Love your Body Project
5 minutes (or less) of writing an affirmative statement toward part of your body every Wednesday (You can write yours on whatever day you would like but I will pick an affirmation winner and post the next part on Wednesday). Write your statement in the comments, and I will randomly pick a winner every week. I invite you to write this statement on a note and post it on your mirror for the week.
Each week we will look at a different part of your body and say something kind to it. That is IT. The only “rules” are:
1) It must be authentic to you.
2) It has to be kind, accepting, or neutral in tone.
3) If it is negative, it must be directed toward your body image CRITIC, not your body.
Then every week, I will pick a winner from the comments and that person will receive a free affirmation from Dr. Linda!
This week’s body part: the FACE
I’ll get us started on some examples here. Since we are starting with the face, I could say (going with the three choices above):
1) I like my little wrinkles around my eyes. They show empathy, wisdom and kindness.
2) I have nice cheekbones.
3) Those furrows between my eyes and on my forehead are hard-won! If I were to Botox those wrinkles, my face would lose its character. Shut the F*ck up! (That is to my body image critic, which says “Maybe you should think about getting bangs because did you know that bangs are the new Botox?”)
You may notice, when you write something kind toward your body, part(s) of you roaring in protest “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” That is good. That means you are on the right track with shifting from treating yourself as a “dull rat” to a “bright” one 🙂 Keep going!
See you next week!
The body has been made so problematic… that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born
Who among us in this culture of busy-ness to get-things-done, has not consciously or unconsciously thought life would be so much easier if we didn’t need to tend to this human body with all of its needs, desires, and dis/comforts?
A Mother’s Body, The Earth’s Body
Yet the body, our human bodies, the earth body on which we live, are what give us life and sustain us. We all come from, grew in, a body, a mother’s body and we all return to a body, this planet’s body, when we die. Coming back to this body, these bodies, are essential to fully living the original duality of life: we are all born, we will all die. The body remembers the past and creates the future. The body, every person’s body, your body, is actually made from the stars of the cosmos, starts that collapsed in the past:
Every single cell in our bodies contains elements created in the burning center of a collapsing star — from the iron in our blood to every bit of calcium in our bones and keratin in our hair. That’s because in the very early days of the universe that followed the Big Bang, only the simplest elements existed, like hydrogen.
In the words of the celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson “We are not just figuratively but literally made of star dust.” 1
And yet so many of us walk around thinking of our bodies as a slow burden to carry our minds around. As a Psychologist, I have compassionate awareness for people who have experienced trauma have a tendency to avoid felt-sense in their bodies. There is good reason for this: trauma is painful, we are not meant to experience that much pain, and to survive we often leave our bodies during the pain. Learning to re-enter the body and feel safe there is a journey that requires fiercely compassionate attention, often with a safe (therapist) guide assisting the process. Women and men recovering from eating disorders often have sensitive dispositions that, if not “leaving” or numbing feelings in the body through eating disorder behaviors, require building up the capacity to tolerate distress in the body. People who find themselves “living in their heads” can also find that re-entering the body actually brings a sense of peace that accomplishing “more” can never provide.
Finding Animals in Your Body
What? No, I’m not talking about parasites. I’m talking about a fun way to return to, explore and invite what your body has to say to you, without judgement. That is the beauty of expressive arts work- it uses the right brain to invite the body back in while bypassing the left brain’s “gatekeeping.” Expressive art can be a vehicle for you to come back to your body in a fun, playful and safe way.
Soulcollage(R) is an expressive arts process developed by Seena Frost, MFT, in which you make a deck of collage-d cards, each card representing an aspect of your multifaceted self. Finding an animal, in the soulcollage process, includes being guided in a meditation through the different energy centers in your body to see what animal being lives in each of them.
When doing the process of finding an animal in each of the chakras in the body, it is not a literal, but an imaginal process. Because of this, it can be a fun and inviting way to curiously explore wisdom in the body.
When I work with women recovering from disordered eating, who often hate their stomachs, they find wisdom and joy again when they find an animal in their solar plexus. “I hate my stomach,” after discovering a tiger, becomes “I own my power, hunt for what feeds me, and am fiercely clear about my intentions.
But what if I don’t find an animal, find more than one or find one that I don’t like?
There are no wrong ways to find or not find an animal. Because this is an imaginal process, it is in Rumi’s mystical field “beyond right doing and wrong doing.” When I was guided through this meditation in the soulcollage facilitator training, we were directed to find an animal in our fifth chakra, the center of expression located in the throat. I found a horse in my throat. First there was a hummingbird, then it flew away, then a horse appeared. Now, I don’t have anything against horses per say, but I really didn’t WANT to find a horse. I would have preferred the hummingbird. Hummingbirds are beautiful magical gems flying through the air and humming! Horses are clunky, big, and snort. But because this was an imaginal process that was fun, I was able to let go of baggage/judgement about a horse vs a hummingbird. I got curious and asked what the horse had to offer and why it appeared. Turns out that it had a wealth of wisdom to offer me about letting my intuition lead the way in my life. This horse told my anxiety-mind that was obsessing over a particular Psychological licensing obstacle at the time: “Let go and trust that I can get you there quicker.” It basically told my mind to get back onto and into the “horse” of my body and relax.
In my training as an Imaginal Psychologist, we learned that “psyche” comes from the Greek word meaning soul. And so psychology is actually about the soul, bringing the soul back. The soul lives in the body, as well as the mind. There is no mind-body split from this perspective. There is an invitation to return to the place where your mind, body and soul are aspects of a unified YOU. I love this quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her wisdom of what returning to your body can bring:
I saw again what I had been taught to ignore, the power in the body. The cultural power of the body is its beauty, but power in the body is rare, for most have chased it away with their torture of or embarrassment by the flesh… the wildish woman can inquire into the luminosity of her own body and understand it not as a dumbbell that we are sentenced to carry for life, not as a beast of burden, pampered or otherwise… but a series of doors and dreams and poems through which we can learn and know all manner of things. In the wild psyche, body is understood as a being in its own right, one who loves us, depends on us, one to whom we are sometimes mother and who sometimes is mother to us.
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD, Women Who Run with the Wolves
1 “Every cell in your body is infused with the collapse of a star,” The Huffington Post, Cate Matthews, May 21, 2014.
2 “The Seven Chakras for Beginners” Mind Body Green, October 28, 2009.
DrLindaShanti.com or email Linda@DrLindaShanti.com (for soulcollage workshops!)
This is my son’s belly. He is very proud of it. He is also proud of his poo and pee. He lives in a shame free land (so far). I will protect him from shame for as long as I can. He is in Erikson’s “Shame vs Doubt” stage exploring the question “Is it ok to be me?” He happily runs around, showing off his belly, exploring this question. I will fiercely fight for him to hold onto the truth that lives in his belly that it is not only ok but ESSENTIAL that he be himself.
I remember 15 years ago very early in my eating disorder recovery thinking in the midst of horrible body image distress “My belly is so fat- it looks like it is pregnant!” It wasn’t pregnant- it was full of shame, anger and unexpressed emotions. It was FAT: Feeling Are Thick. It was also nowhere near the size of a pregnant belly, having lived the reality, I now know. If I were to talk to my younger self now, I would say, with great compassion and fierceness, “Honey, you are nowhere near to having a pregnant belly. You want to see a pregnant belly? HERE. Now. What is in there that needs to be birthed and expressed? Get it out because it is not only ok but ESSENTIAL to your recovery and your life that you be yourself.” My older self has learned that. And my belly is now (mostly) free from shame and anger having receivied many apology letters for how I abused it and having been listened to much more frequently over the past decade and a half.
I’m not going to say it wasn’t difficult with body image postpartum (see “Dear New Mama” and “Does being a Mommy make me look fat?” previous posts). However, I AM proud of my Mama belly. I grew a child in there. Yes, my belly looks different in a bathing suit because I GREW A CHILD in there. Wow. That is pretty miraculous. Thank you belly.
A friend of mine sent me this video postpartum. It is well worth watching the celebration of a woman’s body and belly.