It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. And the theme this year is “Let’s talk about it.” Talking about eating disorders isn’t necessarily comfortable. Or pretty. Last week I wrote about women having all of their feelings, including anger, and having the right to assert their boundaries. This means a woman has the right to say no. She has a right to say no to unsolicited comments about her appearance and her body size.
When women aren’t allowed to directly express these boundaries or when there is trauma such as sexual assault, an eating disorder can become unconscious expression. For example,
- Binge eating or starving can become I’m going to make my body sexually unattractive so I can be protected from ever having to go through the trauma of sexual abuse again.
- Bulimia can become I’m going to take this food in, in a violent, self-harming way, and then I can get rid of it. I can get the trauma and the pain of the assault out of me.
- Anorexia can become I’m going to show you that you CAN be too thin. I’m so thin that I’m smaller than the 12-year-old girls on model runways that your culture says are sexually attractive or coveted.
At the most basic level, women have the right to say no to abuse and feel safe from sexual and physical assault. But when a woman’s right to say no is laden with cultural ambivalence and minimizing, abuse and rape occur at an alarmingly high level. And rape culture thrives.
No Means No.
Violence against women is still frighteningly common. Here are just a few scary statistics:
- 22% of surveyed women reported they were physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend or date in their lifetime. (National Violence Against Women Survey, November 2000).
- Approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. [i]
- Of the American women surveyed who said they had been the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life, 21.6 percent were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 32.4 percent were ages 12 to 17. [ii]
I see many of these women in my practice. (No, not all women recovering from eating disorders have a history of abuse. Eating disorders have a complex and multifaceted etiology.) Sexual assault among women is very common though more common than you may think. Among my colleagues, we talk about how the statistics are more likely to be one in three women.
One in Three
Due to survivors being reticent to report it, the statistics reported are often much lower than the actual numbers. The shame of the abuse is still often carried by the survivor. When assault perpetrated against a woman is blamed on the woman, or not believed, or minimized, there is little incentive to speak up. We need only look at the news of the past few weeks to find evidence for this. And when convictions for three sexual assault felonies, such as in the 2016 Stanford rape case, get reduced from 14 years in state prison to 6 months in county jail, there is little incentive for survivors to pursue legal action.[iii]
If one in three women has been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, that means it is highly likely that you, your spouse, your sister, your mom, your child, your friend, or your colleague has been sexually assaulted. The experience of sexual assault is not limited to women of particular socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or religion. I am probably preaching to the converted here, but just to name a few basic educational points about sexual assault:
- Sexual assault is an act of violence, not sex.
- Sexual assault is not caused by what a woman wears, drinks, or doesn’t drink, or whether she is “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
- Sexual assault is not consensual. If a woman is unable to consent, that is non-consent. If a woman says stop, then that is non-consent. If a woman has said yes in the past, but is saying no now, that is non-consent.
- Sexual assault can leave long-lasting impact of the survivor, including but not limited to Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Flashbacks, Self-Harm, Suicidality, Eating Disorders, STD’s, and unwanted Pregnancy.[iv]
I could go on and on about the work to be done in healing “rape culture.” I am grateful for the education and advocacy work[v] being done currently. And I am grateful for the January 2017 Women’s March “Pink Pussy Hat” movement reclaiming women’s bodies and rights as their own. I am grateful for every survivor doing their healing work. I am grateful for every woman and man who says “No, this is not ok” to rape culture. And I am grateful for 19-year-old Nina Donovan writing her “I Am a Nasty Woman” poem and Ashley Judd reading this poem at the Washington DC Women’s March. In Donovan’s poem she writes:
“I am not as nasty as racism…homophobia, sexual assault, transphobia, white supremacy, misogyny, ignorance and white privilege.”[vi]
Feminism today is being called to become intersectional, addressing the places where misogyny, racism, and socioeconomic status intersect, and where they don’t. Stay tuned for the next post on how eating disorders do not just affect straight, white, adolescent women. And, in the meantime, what can you do? You can be an ally. You can talk about it. Talk about eating disorders and that recovery is possible. Talk about how rape culture is not okay. Be an ally: for yourself, for others. Healing is possible. You are not alone.
[iii] “Telling the Story of the Stanford Rape Case” by Marina Koren, The Atlantic, June 6, 2016
[iv] RAINN.org RAINN stands for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE
[vi] Ashley Judd reciting Nina Donovan’s “I Am A Nasty Woman” poem at the January 2017 Women’s March https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/ashley-judd-recites-i-am-a-nasty-woman-poem-at-march/2017/01/21/93205bc6-dffd-11e6-8902-610fe486791c_video.html
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
“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!
Before recovery, everybody knows there is a problem except you. After recovery, no-one knows there is a problem except you, and it is your job to live in the solution. It is the challenge and opportunity of every recovering person to acknowledge the problem and live the solution.
It is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In my mind, that means all the people still struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating are putting their heads in the sand and pretending everything is ok. They don’t want to talk about it, everything is “fine,” let’s get on with the business of being perfect, trying to be perfect, or at least look ok so nobody knows what’s really going on. And all the people who have recovered, are willingly trying to recover, or work assisting people to recover are running around like Chicken Little saying “Hey! Everything is NOT ok and that is ok! Let’s celebrate imperfection! Let’s talk about what’s really going on! Let’s raise awareness! Let’s get our heads out of the sand!”
I never thought I would have an eating disorder. Eating Disorders were for models, popular girls, adolescents or athletes. I was none of these. I was a feminist. I was going to join the peace-corps and go to Africa and save the mountain gorillas from extinction. I was 20 years old and ready to save the world. Except I couldn’t pass the physical exam to apply to the peace-corps due to complications from my eating disorder.
I also never thought I would become a therapist. But life takes us in interesting directions, not always the places we plan. Ad here I am, 17 years recovered, 15 years working in recovery, still at it. I turned my passion for advocacy to helping all of the actual people suffering with eating disorders, not just the models and athletes, but the feminists, the environmentalists, the men secretly struggling with “a women’s disease,” and the middle aged moms. Because in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). That means either you or someone you know.
People suffering with eating disorders come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Emaciated, overweight, “normal” weight, men, women, adolescents, people of all skin colors, children ALL suffer from eating disorders. Though it may seem like it, eating disorders are not about food or weight. Eating disorders are hidden diseases that are not “a superficial problem with dieting” but deadly and complex diseases that deserve to be treated and eradicated. I’m speaking up for those who are still hiding, who are still suffering, who are not yet ready to “be in the solution” of freedom from shame, but want to know that it is possible. It is possible. You are not alone. Come out when you are ready. We are here for you, in a long lineage of healing, those of us who have recovered, who are recovering, who assist others to recover.
For More information on National eating Disorders Awareness Week and how to get involved: http://nedawareness.org/social