Overcoming Body Dissatisfaction
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
Recovering from an eating disorder is a long, fraught, and imperfect journey. Sometimes, it can feel like taking two steps forward and one step back, or like standing still. I recently learned that eating disorders mirror substance abuse disorders, which helped me understand why the path to recovery continues to be bumpy at times. Eating disorders and substance abuse are similar in that individuals report an unrelenting and uncontrollable drive to pursue a maladaptive behavior (either consuming a drug or engaging in disordered eating.) People with both eating disorders and substance abuse issues will avoid social situations and use their behaviors to ease anxiety. The primary difference is that those abusing substances are looking for a short-term fix, while those engaged in eating disorders are also pursuing a long-term goal, (i.e. controlling their bodies).
But one particularly damning aspect of eating disorders is body dissatisfaction. I can't go so far as to say that body dissatisfaction causes eating disorder or vice versa-that's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. I do know that although I've stopped puking, using diet pills, heavily restricting, or constantly weighing myself, I still struggle with body dissatisfaction at times. Feeling unhappy in one's body is at once the most normal and unhealthy thing in the world. Or I should say, the normalization of body dissatisfaction is unhealthy beyond belief. I once saw a mother in the grocery store tell her young daughter that ice cream wasn't allowed in their house because it would make everyone fat. Not only is this not true, but the demonization of certain foods alongside societal pressures to maintain an unhealthy degree of thinness can leave devastating impressions on children that they carry with them into adulthood. The moment we're made aware that our bodies are bad or wrong is the moment we learn that bodies themselves can be considered bad or wrong, which is exactly what the $422 billion diet industry wants us to think.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), body image concerns often begin at a young age and endure throughout life. By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape, and about half of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming fat. Yikes. In addition, over half of teenage girls and nearly a third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. Un-learning poor body image is difficult, especially in a world where being unhappy or unsatisfied about one's body seems nearly mainstream.
I've compiled a list of tips to help you appreciate your body and boost your levels of body satisfaction. Keep in mind that this is ongoing work. Your attitude about your body (or about anything) probably won't change overnight. This is ongoing work, but well worth it.
1. Remind yourself what your body can do.
This is my number one tip, because it's the one I use the most. Sometimes, I dislike how thick my thighs are or how muscly my body is, because muscular women don't fit the thin-is-beautiful stereotype. But, my body allows me to climb mountains, run fast, lift heavy weights, and generally do more than most people are able to do. If that's not empowering, I don't know what is.
2. Seek individual counseling.
This is probably the most relevant and evergreen tip. Therapy never hurt anybody. If you're having persistent negative thoughts about yourself or your body, therapy will help. If you're dealing with an eating disorder of any type, therapy will help. If you're simply struggling to figure out life, therapy will help. If you're willing to actively participate in a dialogue structured to better your life, therapy will at the very least, not do much, and at the very best, be life-altering.
3. Do not surround yourself with negative people.
This is just good life advice that more people should practice. If you're around people who constantly complain about their weight or negatively speak about themselves and their bodies, you're probably going to feel bad. Negativity begets negativity. Michael Basssey Johnson said, “To be of good quality, you have to excuse yourself from the presence of shallow and callow minded individuals.” You will not become smarter, healthier, happier, or more confident if you surround yourself with negative people. It's simply not possible.
4. Be conscious in consuming social media.
It's no secret that social media can be very negative for mental health. Common negative side effects of social media include: feeling inadequate, fear of missing out (fomo), feeling isolated, depression/anxiety, self-absorption, and cyber-bullying. You can limit your social media consumption by downloading app blockers on your phone, changing your phone to grey-scale, or simply turning it off. It's also a good idea to vet who you follow on social media. Either mute or un-follow anyone who incites negative emotions. Take control of what you see and when you see it.
5. Wear clothes that fit and make you feel good.
Get rid of things that don't fit, clothes you don't like/never wear, and clothes you used to fit into but now don't. Wearing clothes that fit your body and compliment your shape will help you feel better about your body and fixate on it less. It's pretty obvious when your clothes are the wrong size, and nobody likes feeling constricted in their clothing. Wearing clothes that flatter and fit you will help you focus on things that matter, which brings me to my final point.
6. Get outside yourself.
This is my favorite tip, and it's helped me countless times in my recovery journey. The more time you spend in your head, focusing on yourself or focusing on your dissatisfaction with your body, the worse you're going to feel. Distract yourself with something positive that requires mental space, such as a job, a hobby, volunteering, reading, etc. Once you start focusing your mental power on productive and fulfilling opportunities, you'll feel better. This exercise also teaches you to disassociate your physical appearance from your inherent worth. You are so much more than your face or your body.
P.S. Further reading! "Recovery Doesn't Just Happen," "How Does Social Media Affect Your Body Image?" and "The Complicated Reality of Weight Loss in the Body-Positive Movement."