Deb Burgard, PhD
Change your mind, change your culture, and let your body be
When I was in graduate school, I taught a fitness class for women over 200 pounds. It was a blast. The women in my class had been waiting for a place free from weight loss lectures and thin women bemoaning their thighs, and when they found the class, they really let their inner party gals rip.
I led the class for several years, at the same time that I was running an eating disorder treatment program at a hospital across the San Francisco Bay. I remember going to work at the hospital one night after teaching my class and noticing the feeling of coming from my expansive, joyful class to enter the doors of the hospital. Inside, the nurses’ station was crowded with perfectly coiffed, perfectly manicured, and perfectly tortured eating disorder patients. It was like entering a vacuum tube; something was sucking the life force out. At that moment, I realized that I was working with the healthiest fat women and the sickest thin women. Then I realized what a rare perspective this must be. As the years have passed, I have understood both the gift of this experience and the burden because it often puts me at odds with the wider world of clinicians and the public.
How to love your body naked
Yesterday a staffer from Ego magazine wanted some tips for an article on “loving your body naked.” I was glad the request came as a voicemail message so that I had time to think about how to respond. Let’s see: Random tips for loving your body naked. Being naked, you do not have any underwear or waistbands pulling at you or pointy shoes to wear, and that feels better already. How about doing things naked that are fun? Touch, sex, sense, dance, nap, stretch. Closing your eyes so that you can feel your body experience more from the inside. Water. Baths. Skinny-dipping. Some people have a great time cleaning their house naked with their music blaring or doing my “Body Appreciation” meditation (see below). Generally, if I were trying to improve a relationship with someone else, how would I show love to them?
I called her back and said, “Well, people seem to think of body image as a picture, a picture you are supposed to try to improve if you want to feel better. But it really is more like a relationship that you have with another part of yourself, the part that identifies with your body. If you want to feel better, you have to make the relationship better. All sorts of things come to mind to do if you think of it that way.”
“Uh,huh.” I could tell that this was not what she was looking for. Apparently daunted by the mental effort of trying to translate this into the existing format of the article, she said, “Um, maybe I should tell you how we have set it up. It’s like the list of things you can do to feel better in a week, then a month, and 6 months. Like, for a week you could use moisturizer and for a month you could do ab exercises, and like that.”
I said, “So you’re trying to make your body image over with a body makeover? Isn’t that like telling a friend who you are not getting along with that you want to be friends, but first she has to get 800s on her SATs and clear up her acne and bring you the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West? Do you expect a friendship in that kind of trouble to improve by her doing those things?”
“Right. Well, um, do you have any other kinds of tips?” I told her I did not think tips like that were helpful in the long run, and she quickly (and with evident relief) said goodbye.
I had not even offered the tip about avoiding reading women’s magazines!
I get called for the “body image” articles in the January and June issues of these magazines, and it is almost always the same disappointing format. But maybe I am naive to think that the editors genuinely want women to feel better because that might put their advertisers out of business. If the way women feel about their bodies is not dependent on what their bodies look like, if it is rather a matter of how they relate to this part of themselves, then the relevant answers have nothing to do with moisturizers, makeup, and abdominal exercises and everything to do with what we know about good relationships.
But it is true that working on relationships is hard work and does not lend itself as easily to bulleted sound bites.
What is the role of body image in the “Health at Every Size” philosophy?
What is body image anyway? The public seems to think of body image as a literal picture in one’s head, a picture that most women find wanting. Improving body image is a matter of making one’s body appearance “better,” that is, closer to the cultural ideal. In contrast, the psychological community’s dominant model casts body image as a set of ideas that cause distress when they are distorted. Improving body image in this model is a matter of examining the meanings the person has given to different body features and challenging the distortions.
But body image can be usefully and perhaps most accurately modeled as a relationship: the relationship between the conscious self and the less conscious part of the self who identifies with the body. The feelings that most women have about their bodies are a direct consequence of the nature of this relationship. In our culture, women and girls are taught very explicitly to blame, neglect, and abuse their body-selves, and (no surprise!) they feel a great deal of distress about this.
One of the early feminist body image exercises was to write a letter to your body and then write back from your body. In my experience, patients who do this exercise find it pretty easy to write the letter to their body because they are just writing down what they hear in their minds most of the waking day. This tends to be a steady stream of complaints, criticism, embarrassment, disappointment, disgust, and punishment. For some people, really looking at what they are saying is a revelation. They cannot imagine saying these things to another person or even to another living thing.
The second part of the exercise is usually harder. Allowing themselves to be consciously on the “receiving end” of their own treatment is a painful experience. In the letter back from the body, many times the “voice” is younger and bewildered. The earnestness and innocence of the “body self” are shocking to many patients. What is fascinating is how both sides can feel abused, tortured, and betrayed (just like a relationship between two people!).
Looking at the interaction as a relationship, many patients are moved to change the way they are talking to and treating themselves. Wanting to feel more self esteem, they begin to understand that to feel worthy, they need to treat themselves as worthy. I sometimes use the metaphor of an abused foster child. You can say to that child, “Everything’s going to be fine now; you have a home with me,” but he or she is going to be cautious and watchful. Talk is cheap, and you need to show him or her that you mean what you say. Change is required
in two arenas: the body disparagement has to stop and the parenting of one’s bodily needs must improve.
Health at Every Size (HAES) is about body loyalty. It supports the size acceptance movement as one of its central tenets because weight discrimination is one of the key vectors for body abuse. So much of the effort to perfect the body is an effort to achieve some kind of safety from the potential humiliations of being taunted about an imperfect one. A central HAES tenet notes the goal of “an end to weight bias—recognition that body shape, size, and/or weight are not evidence of any particular way of eating, level of physical personality, psychological issue or moral character; confirmation that there is beauty and worth in EVERY body”. (See all HAES Tenets) Changing the culture is, of course, the opposite of trying to make one’s body over. And caring for the body that one is taught to despise is a subversive act. But acts of loyalty are powerful in a relationship, and they change the feelings within that relationship.
Building a loyal relationship
John Gottman, PhD, has been studying couples for 30 years, looking at which features predict their staying together and which predict their splitting up. He has found that criticism and contemptuousness are among the most toxic behaviors to relationships. There are plenty of those in the average woman’s body disparagement! And when patients observe their behavior toward their body’s needs, there is often a neglect of these needs, such that if they were doing it to another person, they would be appalled and ashamed. Some sort of regulatory
agency would be called in—Child Protective Services or the Humane Society.
I tried an exercise in one of my Body Positive groups recently, in which I had everyone think about the “I” voice and then the “Body” voice. Then I had volunteers choose someone in the group to play their “I” and someone else to play their “Body.” The “directors” coached the actors in their typical feelings and statements and then set them loose to have a conversation. The resulting role-playing was fascinating and intensely moving.
One woman shyly directed her “I” actor to try and “bargain” with her body to not embarrass her when visiting her family: “Don’t get in a swimsuit, don’t show cellulite. Don’t jiggle. Your ankles are too thick to wear sandals.” She coached her “Body” actor to give feedback about feeling hopeless, unfairly maligned, and unprotected from the snide comments of her family members: “I’m trying to be here for you. I keep your energy up, I allow you to work really long hours. I just can’t be a thin body for you. That’s not who I am.”
The actors warmed to their roles and talked about what it felt like to be in this relationship. “I’m so scared you are going to embarrass me! Why can’t you be more acceptable?” “You’re scared? I’m terrified of you! I’m just trying to do my job. I feel terrible that I can’t please you.” The director was amazed at how well her peers captured feelings of which she had been only dimly aware. She was able to see how she would address the conflict if she were witnessing it between two people.
Me and my shadow
There is no reason why women cannot feel toward their bodies the way they would toward a noble steed, a beloved home, or even the precious earth itself. If we let ourselves be aware of the real gift of these bodies, it is almost overwhelming. Whatever happens before we are born and after we die, the fact remains that our bodies are the reason we can be on the planet.
When a woman begins to appreciate her human home, she also experiences being on the receiving end of this grace because the part of her that identifies with her body reaps the benefit of being cared for more lovingly. No longer a latchkey kid, an abused mule, a disparaged Cinderella, the body self can relax and blossom. Parenting ourselves makes the universe feel like a different place because a great deal of our experience comes from our own thoughts and actions. While we are working hard at changing the culture, we also can live with more intentionality and commitment to the most intimate of relationships—our own inner worlds.
Gratitude for this Body: A Meditation
What has your body done for you lately?
So much of the time we are either taking our bodies for granted or actively disparaging them. And yet they keep serving us, day after day. Take a few moments to think about how your body has been loyally functioning on your behalf.
A note on meditation: There is no “right” way to reflect. You might want to simply read through the following, or you might want to print off this page and have someone read it to you, or you can make a tape of yourself reading the words. You can do a relaxation first, or not. You might want to have a journal ready to write down what you feel as you finish the meditation.
If you feel like you need to stop at any time, please do so. You may experience powerful feelings from doing meditation, or no feelings, or anything in between. If you have painful emotions emerge, please treat yourself gently. Doing an exercise that puts you in touch with your body may put you in touch with emotions you have “lived above the chin” to avoid. Treat yourself with compassion. You might like some comforting – a hug or a soothing bath or a talk with a trusted friend. Consider writing down what you are feeling.
You can do this meditation more than once; in fact, it can be a regular practice to help you build up an appreciation for your body.
* * * *
If you would like to do the relaxation first: Close your eyes and let your awareness settle gradually on your breath, traveling in . . and out. You do not need to try to breathe, your breath just breathes itself effortlessly. Allow yourself to feel the support of the cushions beneath you and behind you, the floor beneath your feet. Notice any sensations in your body: places where you may feel an itch, or an ache, chill or warmth, or an emptiness, or a fullness . . . or even places that seem to have disappeared and feel numb. Just sit with this awareness of you body for a moment.
Imagine the path of your breath, traveling into and out of your body. As it comes in it warms your body, flowing through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs. You can imagine that it keeps flowing down, warming your stomach, your pelvis, radiating out into your limbs, all the way to the tips of your fingers and toes. Your breath travels through your body, and as you breath out, you take any tension that it finds out of your body. Like a warm ocean wave, your breath brings in relaxation, and takes away tension. Feel these waves for a few moments.
* * * *
Now listen to all the ways that you may have experienced a gift from your body lately. As you listen, let your mind create pictures of the recent past, pictures that fade in and out, creating a kaleidescope of images.
Perhaps your body has:
· Fought off an infection
· Taken you to the top of a hill
· Stayed awake so you could drive home safely
· Learned a new physical skill
· Rewarded you with the sight of a sunset
· Healed a bruise
· Given you a new sensual sensation
· Gotten stronger
· Kept working despite being in pain
· Expressed a strong emotion through your face or body language
· Created another human being
· Defended you from an attack, or healed from an attack
· Grown into its current form from two cells: a sperm and an egg
· Given you sexual pleasure
· Let you know through pain that something needs your attention
· Released you from pain
· Given you the sound of children laughing
· Rejuvenated during sleep
· Allowed you to feel the exquisite touch of another person
Notice any feelings you are having as you let these images come and go. Perhaps you are feeling some positive feelings toward your body, and perhaps there are also some angry or frustrated feelings too. Let all of your feelings be present and just notice them.
Think of one thing in particular that you appreciate. It may be hard, but try to let a focus happen.
Let yourself feel the specialness of this gift from your body, the awe and wonder of it. What would you like to say to your “body self”? Create a phrase that expresses your appreciation. What phrase captures your sense of appreciation for this gift? Take some time to let this phrase form in your mind.
Now say your phrase to your body self. Notice how you feel saying it, and how you feel hearing it.
Maybe this is something you could make time to say more often.
Think of a time during your day when you want to be aware of this body appreciation. It could be any time of your day, but pick a situation that usually happens as a matter of your daily routine already. Whatever this time and place is, it only needs to allow you a few moments of reflection.
What is happening at this time of day? Visualize the environment in as much detail as possible – sights, sounds, smells, sensations of touch, temperature, texture, etc. Now visualize yourself saying your body appreciation phrase. Imagine yourself having feelings about saying it, and hearing yourself say it.
Resolve to let this situation trigger the thought of your body appreciation phrase so that you can feel this appreciation for your body, sincerely and deeply, every day.
Notice any thoughts or feelings you are having before you allow your awareness to return to your surroundings.
* * * *
Now you may want to write about the feelings that came up for you during the meditation. Remember, you may have had powerful feelings or no feelings, or anything in between. There is no “right” set of feelings or images. Try to encourage an attitude of curiosity and respect for whatever your experience is.