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A New Perspective on Body Image Concerns

As I write this blog, I am 37 weeks (9 months) pregnant. I have felt lucky in the sense that pregnancy and motherhood have, for the most part, been incredibly healing for my relationship with my body. I’ve learned to respect and appreciate my body in ways I never did before, and I’ve had some beautiful moments of true body love as my body, and I have worked together to bring my children into the world.

This pregnancy, however, has thrown me more body image curveballs than I’ve had to deal with in years. My capacity to respect and honor my body as it has changed and expanded (and expanded, and expanded!) has been challenged. For the past nine months, I’ve felt pretty grumpy in my body. I’ve felt frustrated with the physical discomfort, exhaustion, and limitations brought on by this pregnancy. I’ve officially outgrown some of my maternity clothes, and choosing outfits has sometimes felt stressful. At times, I’ve felt very uncomfortable with my body’s appearance, and haven’t loved seeing photos of myself or catching my reflection in the mirror.

Even though the physical and emotional discomfort with my body has felt challenging at times, I’ve also felt increased commitment to being kind to my body during this time. For me, kindness has meant getting as much rest as I can, continuing to feed my body the foods and portions that taste and feel good, and slowing down significantly on physical activity. I’ve also chosen to step on the scale backwards at all of my doctor’s appointments, because I know that being aware of my weight has the potential to make it harder for me to fulfill my intentions to care for my body’s needs. My body is softer, rounder, fleshier, and probably heavier than it has ever been. Even though these changes have made body image more of a challenge, being patient with and kind to my body is more of a priority now than it ever has been.

I share all of this for a couple of reasons. First, I want to normalize body image struggles. I am a licensed therapist who specializes in supporting clients with eating disorders and body image concerns. Generally, my body image is pretty good! And, I am not immune to occasional body image woes of my own. I have enjoyed full recovery from my own eating disorder for years, and I still have some ups and downs with body image. If you have body image struggles, know you’re not alone. (An important note: I do live with body privilege because of my body type. My privilege doesn’t exempt me from body image struggles but is a factor in how I and the world around me experience my body.)

Second, it’s important to acknowledge that body image struggles can exist alongside respectful, caring treatment of our bodies. Yes, you can feel uncomfortable with your body’s appearance, AND you can choose to continue to take care of your body. You can feel upset by how your body looks, and not try to force it to change. It’s possible to feel multiple ways about your body at the same time. Mixed feelings about your body are to be expected because having a body is an inherently complex experience. Here are a few of the mixed feelings I’ve had about my body during this pregnancy:

I don’t really like how my pregnant body looks sometimes. I’m also awestruck by the amazing feats my body is capable of.

I feel frustrated that my body is uncomfortable, in pain, and exhausted. I also know my body is doing her best for me and for my baby.

Part of me wishes to be in a smaller body. I am also committed to nourishing and respecting my pregnant (and postpartum body), even if I don’t love how it looks.

Sometimes the harder parts of “mixed feelings,” the ones that lead you to criticize yourself and feel like you need to change your body, are easier to notice than the kind, accepting parts. If you are struggling with your body image, and feeling the pull of dieting or disordered eating, please remember that you don’t have to go there. You can remind yourself that your body is doing amazing things for you, constantly, and deserves your respect and care. You don’t have to love how your body looks in order to be kind to it. You can be struggling with your body image, and still remain committed to recovery and body respect. Body image can be full of challenges, but it doesn’t have to pull you off track in your recovery.

Lessons From My Mental Health Journey

Lessons From My Mental Health Journey

 

I was so grumpy. I hated the world and everyone in it. It was grey, and dark outside and I felt the same inside. My children were grating my nerves, and my husband couldn’t do anything right. I wanted everyone to go away and be left alone with my self-loathing.

I knew I could turn to my “toolkit” for help with my mood, but I resisted. Sometimes I just want to let the storm rage rather than rally the strength required to quell it.  

Hours later, reluctantly, and almost angrily, I decided to try one the strategies that had helped me in the past. I started looking through my camera roll at happy memories from the last year and started writing a gratitude list. It took about 30 minutes, but I felt better. 

I’m NOT about to give you an advertisement on the power of coping strategies. I have a love -hate relationship with coping strategies as much as my clients do. I share this experience because I want you to know I was surprised at how well this strategy worked for me in this moment. This usually isn’t the case. Coping strategies are important elements in our wellness toolkits but they are often disappointing. Coping strategies are exactly that…ways to cope. They aren’t strategies to produce miracles. 

Because mental illness doesn’t like to play by rules or respond perfectly to “formulas.” We can always do things to help ourselves in difficult emotional spaces…but the degree to which those emotional spaces change in response to our efforts, varies from time to time.

Sometimes we can overcome mental illness. And sometimes, perhaps more often than we want to talk about, mental illness is something we manage

For me, this is my on-again, off-again relationship with depression. 

Depression entered my life when I was a young teenager, but I would not understand it as depression until much later. I interpreted it as teenage heartbreak and body self-loathing. It wasn’t until I recovered from my eating disorder that I saw depression quietly abiding beneath and I was able to name it.

Medication and therapy changed everything. Later, in graduate school, I successfully went off my antidepressants and sustained my “recovery” from depression. I was doing well. I was hopeful that depression was a thing of my past, part of my broody teenage, young adult life. I believed the dogged optimism I inherited from my father, paired with the valuable skills I learned training as a psychologist, was everything I needed to leave depression behind. 

That’s not how my life progressed. At this point, I honestly can’t count the number of depressive episodes I’ve had. Sometimes they last months and months. One episode, postpartum, lasted two years. And then sometimes depression visits only for days, which technically means it doesn’t qualify as an “episode” but is painful nonetheless.

Each experience with depression varies by degree and intensity. Sometimes the episode is so subtle that it’s not until the depression lifts that I realize I was depressed at all. Other times the darkness is so visceral and consuming it is physically painful.

I have done a lot of work to understand my experience with depression and my relationship to it. In my 20s, when I was between depressive episodes, I lived in constant fear, wondering when the next episode would come. That is no longer my experience. 

I am not afraid of my depression anymore. I still hate it, but I know how to manage it. I know how to take care of myself when it comes knocking and decides to stay for a while. 

When I recognize it, I let depression help me grow. It stretches me, and it increases my compassion for others. It connects me to the humanity all around me as we each fight our own battles. Depression forces me to slow down, prioritize, and live more gently in this chaotic world. It forces me to plunge depths I don’t want to explore, but when I emerge, I am more deeply appreciative of the light. If I let depression be my teacher, it sure helps the visit pass more tolerably. 

Sometimes, depression just sucks. Part of managing mental illness can be letting myself ride the waves without having to tell myself “This is great because I’m learning to swim!” Sometimes I just feel dark, alone, scared, and broken. And that’s ok too. Those feelings, like all, will ebb and flow and I don’t always have to paint them pretty or make them meaningful. 

In summary, here’s what I’ve learned from my personal experience: Mental health matters. But mental health doesn’t always look or feel like what we expect. Sometimes mental health is full recovery. Sometimes mental health is resiliency. Sometimes mental health is growing through pain. Sometimes mental health is being gentle with ourselves in the torment.

Focus Your Goals

Focus Your Goals

We’re approaching the end of the year and the beginning of an onslaught of pressure to set goals for self-improvement in the new year. With all that pressure, it can be easy to feel like now is the time to change ALL THE THINGS. I want to remind you that you don’t need to start waking up earlier, read more books, make more homemade meals, write thank-you cards, learn Spanish, take guitar lessons, volunteer at the food bank, call your mom more often, drink more water, use your phone less, and practice mindfulness all at once. It’s great to want to improve and grow, AND remember that you don’t have to work on everything at the same time. If your list of goals is starting to get as long as a CVS receipt, it might be time to consider that perfectionism may be taking over your goal-setting.

Self-criticism might be telling you that you really DO need to change all of your habits at once because you’re not good enough. Perfectionism might tell you that not setting goals in all areas of your life means you aren’t trying hard enough. If your goals are bred by feelings of self-criticism and inadequacy, you’ll likely have a hard time sticking to them. In the end, trying to criticize yourself into changing probably isn’t going to help you. On the other hand, if your goals are born out of a desire to have more of what matters to you, you’re more likely to feel motivated to achieve your goals. 

If you want to increase your chances of success, pick one or two goals that resonate with you, rather than having an intimidating, stress-inducing list of things you’re trying to change at once. Real, meaningful change happens through gradual, focused effort. Think about how an icicle forms–one drop of water at a time, dripping and freezing in the same spot over and over until the icicle takes shape. Give yourself a chance to focus on improving one important thing at a time, instead of overburdening yourself with a long list of goals.

Here’s one strategy for creating a short, manageable list of goals:

  1. Start with a brain-dump. Write down all the things you feel like you should or want to change. It’s ok if the list is long.
  2. Cross off anything on the list that feels like it’s coming from self-criticism.
  3. Cross off anything on the list that feels like it’s coming from someone else’s expectations, instead of from what really matters to you.
  4. Look at what’s left, and limit yourself to circling just five items that resonate with you.
  5. Of those five, narrow down to three (I know, this is hard!).
  6. Turn your three items into SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-defined). For example: instead of “Read more books,” try “Read 12 books by December 31, 2023.”
  7. Write down your three SMART goals in a place where you’ll see them daily.

I hope that as you wrap up 2022 and begin 2023, you’ll be able to feel hopeful and excited about the growth and change ahead of you. If overwhelm is starting to flood over you, remember that it’s ok to simplify, ok to say “no” or “not yet” to some changes, and definitely ok to remember that perfectionism does not have to be in charge of your life.

When Do I Earn the Right to Lose Weight?

When Do I Earn the Right to Lose Weight?

A client recently said, “Anna, I’ve been working on my relationship with food and my body for a long time. I feel pretty confident and stable in recovery. When do I get to work on changing my body?” And I replied, “You mean, when do you earn the right to lose weight?” To which she responded, “Exactly.” 

This may resonate with you on your own journey with body and food. I’ve heard similar versions of this dialogue from several clients. A rendition of, “Now can I lose weight the ‘right’ way?” 

First, what is always true is you have body autonomy. You have every right to claim your body in whatever ways feels true to you. 

With that said, if weight loss feels true to you, I would want to understand why.

Why do you want to lose weight? What do you believe would be different for you if you lost weight? What is unacceptable about your current shape and size? 

Almost universally, I hear clients say they will “feel more confident” if they lose weight. When I hear that, I interpret that to mean, “I believe I am more likely to be accepted and loved by others. Even admired. I can show up in my body in spaces and not worry about rejection. I will also find myself more acceptable and loveable; therefore, I won’t reject myself.” 

It is true that our society reinforces weight loss, admires weight loss, and gives more respect and admiration to people in smaller sizes. It then follows that it makes sense that you may believe you would feel more confident by also being in a smaller size. You may even experience, in your history of weight change, an increased sense of confidence in a smaller size.  

But what is that confidence based on? It is based on something external to you. It is based on perception. And something external is never sustainable. True confidence is an inside job. 

And true belonging is not a size. The diet industry thrives on our fears of rejection and loneliness and perpetuates the lie that diverse bodies are unacceptable. People of every shape and size belong. They are found in communities, marriages, families, and every type of relationship available to our species. If we take the time to notice all the humans around us in all their diversity, we will know this to be true. 

Therefore confidence and belonging is not size dependent. 

Another common reason to want to lose weight is for “health.” 

It is also a fallacy that size is an indicator of health. If health was really your truth, weight loss would likely be counterproductive to this goal. In pursuit of health, some people find organic weight change to be a byproduct. But this is by no means universal, nor is it the goal. Health is about nourishing and moving your body appropriately. It is about taking care of your body and yourself. Deprivation in service of weight loss is not health. 

The “health” reason to pursue weight loss is almost universally a cover-up for continued body dissatisfaction.

Ok, so obviously, based on my profession, training, and experience, you know I’m biased. So this is where I will say weight loss, or even pursuing it, isn’t inherently bad. 

What matters is the why underneath the what. Why do you want to lose weight? 

I am chronically and deeply saddened by our culture’s obsession with weight and weight loss. In my experience, there are very few whys for the pursuit of weight loss that aren’t based on false premises or cultural lies. I desperately want to live in a world where our mental and physical energies are spent pursuing our actual truths. In pursuit of our true passions. In pursuit of our contributions. Not in pursuit of how much (or little) space we believe we should occupy in our bodies. 

We all deserve to take up space. Body acceptance and true confidence are not earned through body change. Our bodies, as they are, are acceptable and worthy of love and belonging. Peace with our bodies can be found in any size. 

Ask For What You Need

Ask For What You Need

 

When I was a teenager, I had a therapist who shared an insight that has stuck with me. She said, “Healthy people ask for what they need.” For 17-year-old me, this felt like a revelation, as I was accustomed to trying to do most things in my life independently. I tried as hard as I could to get through the hard parts of my life without asking anything of anyone for fear of being a burden. It had never occurred to me that it might be healthy to ask for what I needed.

As life has gone on, I’ve seen the benefits of having the courage to speak up for my own needs. I also get to see my therapy clients experience change and healing as they step into advocating for their needs in their relationships. Even after years of experiencing and witnessing the benefits of asking in healthy ways to have needs met, I’ll admit that this principle is still really difficult for me. I still tend to be overly independent, and I still often struggle to ask for what I need. It’s not easy!

Many of the clients I meet with who are working through recovery from eating concerns can relate to the struggle of asking for what they need. Asking to have needs met can be incredibly vulnerable. It can feel scary and overwhelming to fear being a burden to others, to worry that your needs are not actually valid, or to doubt that your needs will be met by the people in your life. Despite all of these vulnerabilities, asking for what you need is still an essential part of finding success in eating recovery. Here are a few insights that might help you if you are struggling to ask for what you need:

  1. Remember that having needs is part of being human. There are zero people on this planet who don’t have needs and who don’t need help getting those needs met. Having needs doesn’t make you selfish, weak, or broken.
  2. Being straightforward when you ask for what you need is healthy. Clear, open, and specific statements of your needs can help build your relationships and increase the likelihood that your needs will be met. Don’t get me wrong, there are unhealthy ways to ask to have your needs met. These less healthy ways usually involve indirect communication and can end up being received as passive-aggressive, manipulative, or confusing. Being direct and open about what you need can feel vulnerable, but it allows for honest and effective communication. You can be both assertive and respectful of others’ needs as you advocate for yourself. Some examples of healthy, straightforward statements of needs:
    1. “I need you to support my recovery by not discussing your diet around me.”
    2. “I need help sticking to my meal plan today. Are you able to help me by eating dinner with me tonight?”
    3. “This conversation is important to me. I need you to set your phone down while we talk so I know you’re hearing me.”
  3. Asking for help when you need it will actually help you be more self-sufficient in the long run. Our needs usually don’t go away when we ignore or hide them. They stick around, and if we don’t ask for help in getting them met, we can soon deal with a pile of needs that feel impossible to meet. If you ask for what you need early on, your needs will likely feel more manageable as you move forward.

Having needs is human, and so is needing help meeting your needs! Especially as we approach a time of year when we spend more time around our loved ones, I hope we’ll all feel able to speak up and ask for what we need.

The AND in Body Acceptance

The AND in Body Acceptance

As a woman, my relationship with my body is ever changing. Each new decade brings new experiences and new ways my body asks me to accept her.

In my early 20s, in recovery from my eating disorder, I worked proactively to accept my body for who and how she is. This journey continued through pregnancies and postpartum, and the chaos of raising little kids, and now in my wisened 40 years on earth, I am confronting the “joys“ of aging and perimenopause.

I know my clients have wondered if true body acceptance is actually a “thing.” I am here to say emphatically, “Yes! It is!”

And

That doesn’t mean the work is over for me.

Sometimes body acceptance is a soft landing spot where I enjoy months, or even years, of emotional freedom to live my life according to my values, enjoying my body as a companion along the way. And sometimes my body acceptance slips and old, critical patterns rear their heads. Yes, sometimes I am “triggered” and have to re-commit myself and put in deliberate work to accept my ever-changing-body.

This happened to me just a few months ago.

This summer, my best friend and I went on an epic trip to Switzerland to celebrate our 40th birthdays. We filled this trip with incredible adventures. Our craziest adventure was jumping off a 295-foot cliff, free falling until we were caught by the rope that swung us over 70 miles per hour above a white-capped river between narrow canyon walls.

We began this adventure meeting with our guides and about 14 other humans, who were just as crazy and excited as we were, to make this jump. Before we drove to the jump site, we had to get our harnesses secured. Unexpectedly, we all also lined up to get weighed. I should say here and I have not weighed myself in years as I do not own a scale. This has been part of protecting my long-term eating recovery, as well as my larger stand against diet culture.

I was initially more confused than bothered about why we were each getting weighed. My confusion became annoyance when, after weighing us, the guide wrote our weights on the back of our hands in large black marker. Our numbers were all easily visible to each other.

I made a point not to look the weights on everyone’s hands but couldn’t help but notice the number on my friend’s hand. Her number was significantly less than mine. I knew my friend was smaller (and taller) than me, but that size difference had never been overtly quantified before. I was surprised at how big the discrepancy was between our weights. I immediately felt uncomfortable in my body.

I tried not to think anymore about this and instead focused on the adventure ahead. Our group drove up to the cliff and walked to the platform where we would throw ourselves off. Upon arrival and after instructions, our guide asked a volunteer to go first. This volunteer needed to be in a certain weight range. Only myself and one other group member (a male) qualified. I asked for her rationale and our guide told us someone in the “mid-weight” range needed to jump first to test the rope. I made a joke about the first jumper being a sacrificial offering and was glad that, between the two of us, the male was happy to jump first. As I got back in line, I reflexively started looking at all the weights marked on everyone’s hands. I felt even more uncomfortable in my body as I realized I was the heaviest female in the group.

My mind began warring against itself. I was upset for how uncomfortable I felt. I was embarrassed that I was singled out as different from the other women in the group. I felt embarrassed that I was different, even in such an inconsequential way as weight. I felt less than by being bigger than all the women. I also hated that this derailed me in such a moment as a once-in-a-lifetime jump into a beautiful canyon. I told myself things I know to be true, which include, “Weight and size don’t matter. That isn’t what gives me worth,” and my favorite grounding mantra, “This isn’t how I want to spend my energy.” While these thoughts were helpful, this moment was still really hard and painful for me.

Before jumping off the cliff, I was able to reground myself in the present moment. But honestly, I think standing on the precipice of such a high cliff, knowing I was about to jump, would clear anyone’s thoughts, as my legs felt weak and my heart raced with adrenaline. The jump, fall, and swing, was the most thrilling thing I’ve done in my life. It was so crazy that my brain struggled to process it in the moment and I didn’t fully catch my breath until long after my feet were back on solid ground. My friend and I giggled uncontrollably at our own insanity and had huge smiles on our faces for the rest of the day. I want to tell you, that was the end of that trigger, and I went on my merry way. 

But it wasn’t. 

I wrestled with discomfort in my body and negative thoughts for several weeks afterwards. I also felt ashamed for struggling with my body image after so many years of acceptance and resiliency.

There was no magic bullet that made this experience better overnight. For several weeks I worked hard to regain peace in my body. I had to dust off and use more tools in my toolkit than I have had to in years. I was intentional and practiced mindfulness, grounded myself in my values and personal truths, distracted myself when necessary, and practiced self-care. I also extended myself compassion for being so thrown off balance by this experience. Slowly and deliberately, this burden lifted and I am re-grounded in my own body acceptance. So here in my truth: I have peace and acceptance in my body. AND sometimes this peace needs to be actively fought for.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that while my own body acceptance has been hard fought, I also enjoy body privilege. The experience I had at the canyon swing raised my own awareness at how I never experience weight stigma because I live in a “normal” sized body.

This experience was so benign compared to the experiences others face on a regular basis and knowing how much this distressed me, raises my anger and advocacy. I want to live in a world where everyone enjoys body privilege because every body is valued and seen as good and I commit to doing my part to making such a world a reality.

Comparison and Social Media

Comparison and Social Media

We live in a world where validation from others is consistent. Instead of forming an opinion of ourselves based on our own sense of worth and value, we look to outsiders in hopes of feeling assured. Social media has created a space where praise and accolades are given and ultimately expected with each individual post and interaction. 

One of my favorite quotes by Lindsay Kite reads, “When your empowerment is based on others’ physical appraisal of you, it can be taken away as freely as it was given.” (Lindsay Kite, 2020). Whether it’s Tik Tok, Instagram, or any other form of social media, we often rely on others to define our worth, and we then use it to decipher how capable we are in the real world.

Give yourself permission to set boundaries surrounding social media use and consider how each of the following may encourage you to take back your power:

  • Mute or Unfollow- Instead of following pages or individuals who hinder your growth in recovery, you deserve the right to unfollow or mute free of guilt. 
  • Take time off- If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling, comparing yourself to others, or relying on outsiders to decipher your worth, it may be time for a social media break. 
  • Post without alterations- Your body is worthy of acceptance without any photoshop or editing. 
  • Delete comments- You have control over your own page. If someone makes a comment that objectifies you, makes you feel uncomfortable, or discusses your body in any way, you have the power to delete said comment.
  • Post without limitation- Challenge yourself to post pictures for your own enjoyment and because you want to savor the memories, not for the recognition of others. 

Comparison through social media is harmful and unreliable. We are comparing others’ best moments to what may feel like are our worst. Comparison consists of dwelling on the past or encourages anxiety as we think about the future. With so little time to be present, we begin focusing on others’ lives more than our own. When in recovery, we owe it to ourselves to look beyond comparison and take into consideration how social media is impacting beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us. As we look inward and differentiate between what is helpful and what is not, we reclaim the power that is often given to others.

Leaps of Faith in Recovery

Leaps of Faith in Recovery

In one of my all-time favorite films, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hero, the rugged adventurer-professor Indiana Jones, is faced with a set of tasks he must complete in order to find the Holy Grail and save his father’s life. In one task, deep inside an ancient canyon, his path leads him to a statue of a lion, which stands at the edge of a wide, seemingly bottomless abyss. Across the chasm, he can see that the path continues toward his destination. A clue tells him, “Only in a leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.” Leaping from the lion to the other side of the abyss is impossible–the distance is far too wide for any person to jump without falling to their doom. Indiana Jones realizes that the only way forward is to take a leap of faith–to step away from the safety of solid ground and toward the void.

Talk about a recovery metaphor, right? 

There are so many points in recovery when a leap of faith is required. Stepping away from the familiarity of your eating disorder and into the vulnerable space of recovery can feel like standing at the edge of an abyss–terrifying. But, just like it was for Indiana Jones, the way forward often requires just such a step. Staying in your eating disorder ultimately keeps you stuck and barred from the rest of the journey ahead. 

So how do you take that leap of faith? What does that look like in real life?

First, you need to be honest with yourself. There is likely a part of you that knows what your next recovery leap of faith needs to be. Maybe the leap is starting therapy to get help with your eating disorder. Maybe the leap is being honest with your dietitian about eating disorder behaviors. Maybe the leap is getting rid of your scale, or deciding to commit to not counting calories. Whatever that next step iis, it’s probably something challenging, even intimidating or frightening–otherwise it wouldn’t require a leap of faith! If you can be honest with yourself about what your next step in recovery is, you’re that much closer to being able to progress. On the other hand, if you’re not being honest with yourself, you’re likely to stay stuck.

After honesty comes action. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones decides that in order to save his father, he has no choice but to take the leap of faith and step from the lion’s head towards the dizzyingly deep abyss. He gathers his courage, closes his eyes, and takes a deliberate step forward off the edge of the cliff, not knowing what will happen next. It is only then that he discovers that there was a bridge over the chasm after all, a bridge invisible to him until he took a step forward and found his footing. Without that step of action, the way forward would have remained unseen. In order for you to find your footing in recovery, you have to take action. 

Once you’ve been honest with yourself about what your next recovery step is, that next step needs to become a reality, not just a good idea. Remind yourself that you only need to take one step at a time. You don’t have to get through recovery in one flying leap; in fact, you can’t. That seemingly impossible leap of faith is actually a series of steps that must be taken one at a time. With each step in recovery, you can gain confidence that making it to your goal is possible, even if it seemed impossible before.

So, two invitations for you. 1) Go watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s just a dang good movie. If you know, you know. 2) Do a bit of soul-searching, and get honest with yourself about what your next “leap of faith” in recovery is. As scary as that honesty might feel right now, it will help you find the path forward toward the life you deserve.