Body image: a personal history

Body image: a personal history

Current research shows that:

  • 42% of girls in 1st-3rd grade want to be thinner,
  • 80% of 10-year old girls are afraid of being fat, and
  • By middle school, 40-70% of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body.

I certainly fall within those statistics. I can even remember little things from about the time I was 10 years old like recognizing one day that my bathing suit no longer fit and feeling ashamed that I would need to buy a bigger one.

When I started high school I was the youngest girl in my grade, I was short and I hadn’t really hit puberty yet. When my body started maturing I can remember friends of mine telling the boys in my grade that I stuffed my bra because they couldn’t believe that I had finally grown breasts.

Around the age of 15 I started to notice that my teenage eating habits (coming home after school and scarfing down pogos, french fries, chicken wings, etc…) were catching up with me so I went on a self-implemented “no carb” diet. I cut out all breads, cereals, potatoes, pasta and rice. I remember eating straight up cold cuts (turkey and chicken slices) from a ziploc bag for lunch. It worked. I quickly lost a few pounds and I was feeling slender, powerful and desirable. But eventually I went back to eating carbs (who can live like that forever?) and the weight crept back on to my belly, arms and face.

As the years went on, my body loathing manifested itself in many more forms of food and exercise related compulsions. Sarah Joy Marsh outlines several of these in her book Hunger, Hope, and Healing as she explains: “with food addiction or food disorder, there are countless ways to produce our own discomfort. Below is a list of some of the more familiar ones.

  1. Getting on the scale; even though it could produce a happy outcome, it is chronically linked to an unhappy relationship with your body and most often it produces disappointment; even if the number is one that relieves you temporarily, it is always short-term relief
  2. Eating past the point of fullness or until you feel bloated
  3. Restricting your caloric intake until your head spins, your stomach aches, and your body and mind are exhausted
  4. Compulsively exercising to the point of physical pain
  5. Believing you are supposed to be a certain size and shape and weight, and feeling profoundly disappointed for every perceived small and large flaw
  6. Pulling the covers over your head and remaining depressed and lethargic in bed
  7. Having unscheduled free time that turns into binge-ing on food, TV, Internet and the like
  8. Overusing laxatives
  9. Determining good foods and bad foods, and then setting yourself up with far too few food choices to feel safe in the grocery store, at a restaurant, at a family meal
  10. Eating in secret, from the garbage, on in hiding and feeling ashamed of it
  11. Being too near to foods that are triggers for you, such as meeting friends at the bakery instead of the park
  12. Repeatedly upsetting your blood sugar levels.”

Do you recognize yourself in any of the above habits? I most certainly do.

When I was 17 years old I went to a nutritionist to again lose those extra 5-10 pounds that made me loathe my belly and feel ashamed to wear bikinis. The nutritionist put me on a meal plan but I only lost about 3 pounds. The weight really wasn’t coming off. Eventually the nutritionist took mercy on me and explained that it’s not coming off so easily is because I don’t really have extra weight to lose and she very gently recommended that I see a psychologist instead because she was worried that I had body dysmorphia. I cried a lot that day. I didn’t want to go to therapy; I just wanted to lose a few pounds! She was absolutely right though and I am so grateful that she did the ethically responsible thing of taking me off her client list. I had no health concerns to speak of and I really had no need to lose weight, it was a project of pure vanity and I was basing my entire self-worth on 5-10 pounds.

But of course the story of a woman grappling with body image doesn’t typically end when she’s 18 years old. After a couple years of therapy (which helped tremendously in terms of my personal relationships, self-worth and struggles with depression) I eventually felt ashamed again of the “extra weight” that I had put on. I determined that I had accumulated about 15 pounds that I needed to take off. As Sarajoy explains, “shame can disguise itself as a helpful, motivating voice; yet no one has ever learned brave new skills from shame.” So not surprisingly I channeled those feelings of shame into another diet regime: this time I went on Weight Watchers. To make it as simple and mindless as possibly I would drive to Plattsburgh every couple of months and stock up on all of the “calorie free”, “no carb”, “no sugar” products and frozen Weight Watchers meals that we didn’t have in Canada at the time. Eating this way made it quite easy for me to calculate points and everything seemed pretty tasty too. I could wake up and have a carb free English muffin sprayed with I can’t believe it’s not butter, then defrost a lunch of general tao chicken followed by a 100 calorie pack of oreos, and for dinner I’d microwave a Weight Watchers quesadilla and a sugar-free/fat-free brownie for dessert. My plan worked again! I rapidly lost a lot of weight and I felt powerful, beautiful and desirable once more. I really had no plans to ever stop eating this way until I started feeling dizzy and nauseous all the time…I went to see an endocrinologist and a dietician to assess what was going on. The dietician was not too pleased to see that I was consuming mostly processed foods every day and she recommended that I add more protein to my diet and start cooking my own meals. This was really destabilizing, I was very reluctant to give up my perfectly measured portions of frozen foods and face the confusion of the produce, meats and dairy aisles – how would I calculate my points this way? Eventually, through the guidance of my therapist, my focus was brought back to the more profound facets that make up my self-worth and I gave up the Weight Watchers diet. During this time I met my husband and we developed a mutual love of cooking together and exploring all different types of ethnic cuisines. I finished up my studies and landed an amazing job, we moved in together and he proposed! Life was good and I wasn’t stressing over what I ate – until I starting thinking about the wedding photos and eventually my anxieties over those same 5-15 pounds that I continued to gain and lose over and over again resurfaced…

This time I chose to shift my focus from food to fitness. I had really developed a love for cooking from scratch and trying new foods and I wasn’t willing to give that up so fast. So I decided to purchase some Jillian Michaels dvds and see if I could push myself to burn off some calories. As you may have noticed from this post or any of my previous blogs, I tend to be an “all or nothing” kind of person so as soon as I felt the empowerment of making it through one of Jillian’s crazy workout I decided to go full force. I joined her website for weekly meal plans, I bought ALL her dvds, and I took her advice and started tracking all the calories I was eating (I mean ALL the calories, every little detail was weighed and measured and logged in an app on my phone) I also wore a heart rate monitor when I worked out so I could better calculate how many calories I was burning. Eventually I extended my workouts to 90 minutes (or more), 5 to 6 days a week. This time I felt even more empowered than ever before. I wasn’t only leaner; I was strong and fit. I could run up mountains and lift heavy weights and I was so adept at all the weighing, measuring and tracking that at any given moment I could easily tell you exactly how many calories I had consumed and how many I was planning on burning in order to stay within my strict limit of 1200 calories per day. I lost all the weight I wanted and at one point I even started seeing a little six-pack of abs poking through my once flabby belly. This was a big deal! My belly was always the body part of mine that I loathed the most. So I continued eating and working out this way for about 4 years, each year upping the ante for my workouts and restricting my calories and food intake a little more and a little more.

I didn’t realize at the time the kind of effects that this regime was having on my mind and my hormones. Tara Stiles explains in her Make your Own Rules Diet book “when you focus on an exercise to simply burn as many calories as possible, you turn off your insula and focus on “the burn.” Your mind becomes stressed and narrow. Your body becomes tense and stuck. You may burn a bunch of calories by the end of your workout, but you will feel as if you have just survived trauma.” Unfortunately, I had become completely disconnected from the actual feelings in my body. My focus was narrowed in on calories, macros, reps, sets, pr’s, clothing sizes – anything that could be measured and calculated. “Feelings” to me were the after effects of either completing my workouts/staying within my calorie allowance (joy and pride) or overeating/under-exercising (shame, anxiety, self-hatred). I held on tight to my patterns of control in everything I did in order to avoid that my fear of waking up one day and realizing my jeans don’t fit anymore. Eventually, all this controlling, weighing, measuring and restricting combined with a stressful work environment lead me to a full on burn out and a very deep depression (see my first blog post for more info).
As I slowly recovered I realized that I could no longer go on eating and working out this way. It may have made me strong and lean but it was a detriment to my mental health. That’s when I began to explore the world of yoga and eventually fell in love with the freedom and ease of Strala. I began to build my life on newer and healthier principles. Some of my favorite Strala inspired mantras that I now apply to my life are:

-Spend more time feeling and less time analyzing

-Easy doesn’t mean lazy.

-It’s my life and I get to make my own rules. (ie: stop following diets and fitness routines designed by others, and spend more time finding what feels uniquely good to me)

It’s a been little over two years now that I’m really living this way and so far it’s been great. But it seems that the story of a woman grappling with her body image doesn’t end at 29 years old either… These past couple months I’ve been feeling those 5-15 pounds that creep back in every time I shift my attention away from strict diet and exercise rules and over to the more profound facets of my self-worth. But this time also feels different; I’m feeling less like taking action and more stuck and unsure of how to proceed. I finally understand that another diet and exercise routine is not the answer and I know that despite the negativity I feel when I look at my belly or see myself in pictures, I am actually still quite strong and healthy and I am living a more meaningful and fulfilling life than I ever have before. It seems my “regime” this time will have to involve more self-love practices and a lot less counting and restricting. All I want is to make peace with the look of my body once and for all but I worry sometimes that this isn’t even possible. Statistics are showing that about 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies so how am I supposed to make my way into the 9% of women who are happy?

My only plan at the moment is to take the time to think about how to proceed before creating any strict rules for myself. So for now, I hope that my story resonates a little with whoever is out there reading this. Please know that you are not alone in your body image struggles. It seems that’s the best I can do for today but I promise to share some of the practices or insights I learn as my history of body image unfolds. Sarahjoy Marsh says that “courage is the ability to do something other than what we’ve been doing” so I invite you to join me in trying some new form of relating to your body today. Let’s share these practices and maybe one day we can make it into to that 9%. Or better yet, maybe one day there will be more women who are happy with their bodies. Now that’s a project worth working on.