Sadly, the trends in how we all—girls, boys, adults—view our bodies are not good. Body image dissatisfaction remains high, especially among females. Eating disorder therapists report a growing age range among patients—as young as five or six and as old as over 80. One-third of patients at a major eating disorders treatment center are over 30, and the number of males needing help is also rising. The stereotype of eating disorders being the province of white upper-class girls is far out of date.
Successful recovery from such diseases involves re-visioning healthier attitudes about body, weight, and food. But re-visioning our attitudes can also help anyone living in our culture, where an overwhelming majority of girls and women don’t like their bodies.
A simple method is writing toward body love as little as 10 minutes a day, according to psychologist Margo Maine, co-author of The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect. When journaling, don’t worry about writing “well”; just put down whatever you’re thinking. These tips from The Body Myth offer some guidelines for re-visioning your body image through journaling.
- Start sketching out a life story of your food and body attitudes, identifying times when you became uncomfortable or unhappy about your body and noting what was happening in the rest of your life at that time. Acknowledge the role of family members and other people and events that shaped your life, both positively and negatively. Note how often or seldom you met your real needs and hungers, and how that relates to any obsessions about weight, food, and body image.
- Use language that reflects honest feelings. For example, remember that fat is not a feeling. Whenever that three-letter f-word comes up in conversation or drifts into your mind, it is a signal to dig deeper and find out what you are really feeling in that moment. It might be sadness, anxiety, fear, loss, inadequacy, loneliness, or other difficult emotions.
- As you come to understand your life story, you will naturally become less critical and harsh with yourself; you may even learn to empathize with yourself. This, in turn, will make you less likely to think negative and self-blaming thoughts that open the gates for the self-punitive behaviors such as restricting food, over-exercising, overeating, or purging.
- Try “doing the math” on a balance sheet that explores the price you pay for using dysfunctional eating and exercising behaviors. When you felt good about being thin, was there anything else you truly enjoyed about your life? What was the quality of your relationships with others? These behaviors always take sufferers away from real people and real pleasure.
- Write about what is happening in your life currently to encourage eating or body image struggles. What is behind these struggles, and how can you support yourself better? As you chart recent progress, remember that it’s okay and normal to feel worse before feeling better. Dysfunctional behavior can mask and numb feelings of pain and joy, and when you stop doing them, you will actually feel emotions more intensely than you have in ages. This may be the first time you ever address some life issues head-on. It will not be easy, but these feelings will not last forever. All feelings change, so cherish the good ones when they are present and recall them fondly when they go. Meanwhile, remember that the difficult emotions will also pass in time if you let them. Now is the only time you have. Planning how you’re going to feel next week is a real waste of time and energy—plus it may keep you from realizing it when you actually do feel better.
- Jot down what truly feeds your appetite. Our culture teaches us that we should want a constricted body instead of a full spirit; then our intuitive sense of our needs and hungers begins to fade. The next time you feel a food binge or a shopping frenzy coming on, stop and ask: What am I really hungry for? That answer is what will truly satisfy your appetite for living.
Adapted from The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect by Margo Maine and Joe Kelly.