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.
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.