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body acceptance

Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Photo by  Ali Inay  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Imagine this…

Your overweight teen confides in you that he’s getting teased at school about his weight. You have noticed recently that he has been eating more pleasure foods (like chips) while playing video games. You yourself have gained a few pounds, and you’ve decided to go on a little diet. How do you manage this situation? What do you say (or not say) to him?

Helping children foster a positive body image while developing a healthy relationship with food can seem like navigating a minefield. Messages that our bodies aren’t good enough and that our self-worth depends on our looks are everywhere, while at the same time clever marketing is constantly encouraging us to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods. Body dissatisfaction is common among adolescents, and has been shown to predict unhealthy weight-related behaviours that put individuals at risk of weight gain (e.g., binge eating and reduced breakfast consumption) (1). Moreover, our lifestyles are more sedentary than ever before (2), and global childhood overweight and obesity is on the rise (see http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood/en/).

You may feel like you have no power to influence your children in this toxic landscape that overemphasizes being thin while at the same time encourages overeating. Fortunately, there are some things you can do! It turns out that what we, as parents and caregivers, say about food, weight and dieting (even if we’re talking about ourselves or our friends) matters. For example, when we encourage kids to make healthful food choices, and support them in physical activity, they tend to have more positive dietary habits (like eating more fruits and vegetables) and engage in more healthy physical activity (3, 4). At the other extreme, kids who are teased about their weight in early adolescence tend to have poorer emotional well-being (5) and more disordered eating (e.g., binge eating) in late adolescence and young adulthood (6).

So how can we help children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, while not making them feel like their self-worth is based on the size and shape of their bodies? In general, we want to try to:

  • Ban any form of diet talk and negative body talk from our homes.

  • Encourage healthful eating and physical activity habits.

  • Through our words, try to nurture an identity beyond physical appearance.

Easier said than done, I know. Check out these specific examples below, taken from and inspired by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s book, " “I’m like so fat!” Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world" (7).

1. Instead of DIET TALK like:
• "I feel so fat; I need to go on a diet."
• "No thanks to dessert; I’m dieting."
• "I’m so proud of my friend Stacey for sticking with her diet."
• "Have you ever thought of going on such-and-such diet? It really worked for your Aunt Carol."

TRY:
• “I’ll pass on dessert today and have an apple instead; I haven’t had enough fruits and vegetables today.”
• “No thanks, I’m full.”
• “Yes, I’d love dessert. Just a small piece please.”
• “This is delicious. I’m really enjoying this meal. But no thanks to seconds.”
• “I’ve discovered a million different ways to eat fruits and vegetables.”
• “I’m not going on any more ‘diets.’ Instead I’m going to focus on some long-term changes in my eating and physical activity patterns that can make me feel better about myself.”

2. Instead of NEGATIVE BODY TALK like:
• “I feel so fat in this dress.” 
• “I’m working out so much and not losing weight; I don’t know if it’s worth it all the time?”

TRY: 
• “My body has undergone some changes lately; I think I’ll try on something else that might fit my body better.” 
• “I can really tell the difference in my strength and stamina since I’ve been working out.”

3. Instead of over-emphasizing your kid’s PHYSICAL APPEARANCE through comments like:
• “You look so pretty today.”
• “Wow you look great in that picture. You’re the handsomest kid in the class.”
• “You’re going to break some hearts when you’re older with that handsome face.”

TRY:
• “I love your laugh; it’s just contagious.”
• “When you smile, your whole face lights up. It’s just beautiful.”
• “You have a great, unique sense of style. I admire the way you wear what looks great on you instead of what everyone else is wearing.”
• “You look so much like Grandpa; when I look at you it brings back so many great memories.”

----

For more great tips and information on this topic, check out my colleague Jodie’s blog post, We All Know What It’s Like To Feel Fat. Let’s Try To Change That For Our Next Generation.

Join us…

  • In person! Come check out our workshop for parents and caregivers, Healthy Children: Body and Mind, on March 25th, 2018 from 1:30 - 3pm at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA (Montreal) to learn more about how to help kids nurture a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Email jrichardson@connectepsychology.com for more information.

  • On social media! Follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology.


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


NOTES

  • A shorter version of this blogpost was originally posted as a Facebook post here.

  • Learn more about the research discussed in this blogpost here: Project EAT Publications

REFERENCES

  1. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S. J., Hannan, P. J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2), 244-251.

  2. Owen, N., Sparling, P. B., Healy, G. N., Dunstan, D. W., & Matthews, C. E. (2010, December). Sedentary behavior: emerging evidence for a new health risk. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 85, No. 12, pp. 1138-1141). Elsevier.

  3. Pearson, N., Biddle, S. J., & Gorely, T. (2009). Family correlates of fruit and vegetable consumption in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Public health nutrition, 12(2), 267-283.

  4. Heitzler, C. D., Martin, S. L., Duke, J., & Huhman, M. (2006). Correlates of physical activity in a national sample of children aged 9–13 years. Preventive medicine, 42(4), 254-260.

  5. Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Haines, J., & Wall, M. (2006). Weight-teasing and emotional well-being in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(6), 675-683.

  6. Haines, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Eisenberg, M. E., & Hannan, P. J. (2006). Weight teasing and disordered eating behaviors in adolescents: longitudinal findings from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics, 117(2), e209-e215.

  7. Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I'm, like, SO fat!: helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Guilford Press.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat.  Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat. Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

shutterstock_277455629.jpg

I could feed you the statistics saying that obesity, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are serious problems in our society*, but I think you already know it. Why? Because most of us know exactly how terrible it feels to feel bad about our body, to feel fat compared to others, to feel judged, obsessed, and anxious about everything we eat and everyone we see. Most of us at one point or another in our lives have tried some sort of unhealthy weight control behaviour, gotten stuck in a dieting-binge eating cycle, or found ourselves feeling depressed and ashamed because of how we look. We might not admit it openly, but we know.

Why do so many of us know this? Because we live in a “toxic environment”1 for body image and weight-related problems. We are constantly receiving cues to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods on TV, in the grocery store, while driving down the street and we are enabled to be as sedentary as possible with our cars, our escalators, and our ball throwers for our dogs. And yet, within this same environment that facilitates weight gain, we are bombarded with messages that we should be unrealistically thin and fit and everywhere we look we are surrounded with images of thinness that are associated with success, love, popularity, and happiness.

“It is difficult to imagine an environment more effective than ours for producing nearly universal body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with eating and weight, clinical cases of eating disorders, and obesity.” Dr. Kelly Brownell1

But again you already know all of this, why? Because we experience it everyday when we go on Facebook or Instagram. Before we clicked we felt fine but now we feel that sinking feeling in our gut and start thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not fit enough”, etc. We experience it when we’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we read the headlines of the magazines stating how this actress is now battling anorexia and how fat the other one’s butt looks in her bikini and how to lose our own belly fat in just 30 days! And what is all this obsessiveness for? So we can all continue to make the beauty & dieting & fast food industries prosper? So we can all spend inordinate amounts of time on our appearance and thinking about food? So we can all try to look the same? So we can all feel terrible about ourselves? I guess not, but we’re so used to it that many of us don’t even see that our environment is a problem, we blame ourselves instead for not being thin enough, tall enough, fit enough… we think we’ll feel better if we just “fit in”.

Maybe you want to change all of this for yourself. I hope so, because you deserve it. But, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that you don’t want your kids or kids you care about to feel the same way that you have. You want them to feel healthy and strong. You want them to feel confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their food choices, and about their uniqueness. You want them to take care of themselves, to trust themselves and to be free to be themselves, right?

So, what can we do to mitigate this toxic social environment that we live in so that our children can make healthy choices and feel good about themselves?

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor, researcher and advocate in the field of obesity and eating disorder prevention has written a great book called “I’m, like, So fat!”2 on how to help our teens navigate eating and body image in this weight-obsessed world. It’s a super helpful read! Here are just a few pointers from the book:

1. Model healthy behaviours and healthy body talk.

a. Model healthy eating patterns, which means eating regularly and not skipping meals. Model healthy food choices, which means incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods. If you have trouble adhering to these guidelines due to your own eating preoccupations try to model healthy behaviours in front of your children. What they see you doing is what matters most for them.

b. Show your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods in moderation; this is a skill they need to have in this environment! When you have a piece of cake try to show them you appreciate it. Don’t say something like “oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this”. And if you choose not to opt for cake on an occasion, say something like “tonight my body feels like something more refreshing for dessert”, rather than “I’d love to but I can’t, I’m on a diet”.

c. Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Tell them something you’re grateful for about your body, for example “I’m so thankful that my legs are so strong, they helped me walk all the way to my meeting today”. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. For example find something positive to say about your wrinkles like how these lines show all the expressions your face has worn over the years. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.

d. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children.

2. Create a healthy environment at home.

a. Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand and, if possible, cut up and ready to go.

b. Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.

c. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, do it with them. Walking, biking, skiing, going to the park… Make physical activity part of family time together. Start wherever you can and try to make it fun!

3. Focus less on appearance, more on health.

a. Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of losing weight.

b. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for weight teasing or negative weight talk in your home. Help your children realize that weight teasing is not acceptable.

c. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.

4. Talk to them, and listen even more.

a. Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their weight concerns. Empathize with them, you can even tell them you know how difficult it is to feel “fat” or less attractive than your peers for one reason or another. We all feel like this sometimes.

b. When your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions. Let them know that you’re always there to listen.

c. Let your child know that you love them no matter what their size, shape, and appearance. That you love them just as they are. Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive force for them!

Come to our workshop in March if you want to talk more about how you can try your best to be a positive influence for your children in our toxic environment. And follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology if you want to join the conversation before that!


Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1Dr. Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of the World Food Policy Center

2I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.

World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet, Updated October 2017

Project EAT studies can be found here: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/#EAT1

Becker A.E et al., Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, The British Journal of Psychiatry Jun 2002, 180 (6) 509-514.

*If you’d like statistics here are a few from the World Health Organization as well as studies by Dr. Anne Becker in Fiji and Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project EAT:

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

Globally rates of childhood overweight and obesity have risen from 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.

Project EAT, a large multi-site study of 4700 adolescents in the United States, found that:

  • Almost half of girls and one fourth of boys were highly dissatisfied with their bodies and that body dissatisfaction contributed to a plethora of problems like unhealthy dieting, binge eating, depression, and weight gain over time.
  • Girls who read magazine articles about dieting/weight loss were six times more likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviours (like vomiting, diet pills). Boys who read the articles were four times as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television reported more television viewing time, less physical activity, poorer dietary habits, fewer family meals, and poorer school performance. 

When Fiji got television in 1995, vomiting for weight control purposes went from 0-11% among girls over a three-year period, eating pathology more than doubled and girls living in households with a television were more than three times as likely to have high eating pathology.

I didn’t realize just how much this body image stuff applied to me… Maybe it’s the same for you?

I didn’t realize just how much this body image stuff applied to me… Maybe it’s the same for you?

By: Amanda Ravary

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This is a guest post from Amanda Ravary, who was a volunteer at our clinic and is now completing her Masters in Psychology at McGill University. She generously agreed to write a few posts for our blog, this one particularly touched me as it is a reflection of her experience sitting in on one of our group therapy sessions for individuals with eating issues. 


Recently, I’ve been sitting in on group therapy sessions run by Dr. Jodie Richardson. Every week, different topics relating to eating issues are discussed. And this week, the topic was body image. I knew before the session started that even I would benefit from it. But by the end of the session, I was truly surprised by how much of an impact it really had on me.  

Body image – what is it?

Everyone talks about body image. You hear about it everywhere and anywhere you go. Especially in today’s day and age, you’re always hearing about people’s problems with body image. It always seems as though it’s something that needs to be fixed. At least for me, that is. It’s always this concept about someone that isn’t entirely okay, something that’s been damaged over time.

Think about it, when was the last time you heard someone say, “I have a great body” or  “I don’t think I need to change anything about my body”? Statements like those seem to be quite unusual and surprising. But even more so, these statements are almost unheard of.

But what exactly is body image even? This was the question I was first asked in this therapy session. Immediately, everyone seemed to have answers to this question. The bottom line came down to this: body image is your personal relationship with your body. It’s about the beliefs, perceptions, and thoughts you hold about your appearance and your physical body. It extends to include your feelings and sensations, as well as the functions and actions of your body. It’s really what you see your body to be, including everything it does and everything you perceive it to be. Yet, one thing I noticed when everyone was giving their answers, was that there tended to be a negative spin on it.

The question I was then asked was the following: how do you feel in your body? Without even looking around, I could feel the mood in the room change. It was almost as if a wave of tension took over the whole room. All of these people that were so quick to respond earlier, seemed to be in a state of dead silence. And then slowly people starting speaking up, voicing their personal feelings towards their body. And one by one, people expressed their lack of satisfaction with their body image, their almost hatred towards their bodies, their negative thoughts and perceptions about their appearance.

And that’s when I realized the extent to which negative body image really is a pervasive problem in today’s culture. Jodie went on to explain that there are many reasons why we have these negative views of ourselves.

One reason she mentioned was social pressures and influences. She explained that this could involve a variety of pressures from family, friends, media, and past experiences. This one really resonated with my personal experiences. For myself, the pressure from media and how that trickles down into my every day life really tends to make an impact. Every day you’re saturated with images in magazines, TV, movies, advertisements, and more, about the perfect body that you should be working over time to achieve. You’re told to go to the gym every chance you get and to eat a perfectly balanced diet (with no carbs obviously!). And all this so that we can look just like that perfectly skinny airbrushed model on TV. But we stop and think to ourselves, “Well it’s just TV, obviously no one in real life looks like that”. But when all you see are these images constantly, it gets harder and harder to just ignore them. And then people around you are so consumed by these images that they start influencing you more directly too. And this is when it really begins to take a toll.

Many of the people in the session had experienced family pressures to maintain a certain appearance. Negativity coming from certain family members seemed to be a significant factor contributing to their poor body image. Which makes sense, right? How can you ever have a healthy view of your body when those closest to you criticize it? Seems like quite the impossible task that some of these people have had to struggle against.

Do we really need to fix our body image?

Having a negative body image really can take its toll on people. Your body is what you live in everyday, and viewing it in a negative way definitely isn’t a way to live. Besides the fact that poor body image itself really influences our daily lives, it actually causes other problems too. Here are a few of the problems that are often found to come with negative body image:

·      Low self-esteem

·      Depression

·      Eating problems

·      Lower subjective well being

·      Less consumption of fruits and vegetables

·      Less physical activity

So, we have these issues with body image that are already a big problem enough on their own. But now we have all of these secondary problems stemming from this core problem. Shows just how important body image really is, right?

Key distinction

We then discussed a very key distinction that I think most people (including myself) had never really realized. Jodie explained that your actual physical body is not always related to your body image. Meaning that, if you try to make changes to your physical body, this won’t necessarily change your body image. Many people in the group actually spoke up agreeing with this. Some explained that even after losing significant amounts of weight and finally reaching a target weight goal, their body image was still as negative as it was before the weight loss.

This kind of goes against what most people think. It always seems that if you change your body, you will reach a state of happiness. And this is what you tend to hear in the media all the time too. You’re always told that if you make changes to you body, you will feel good about yourself. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? But, apparently, this isn’t actually the case.

Since our body image isn’t tied to physical changes in our body, we need to work on body image specifically to change it. The only way we are ever going to be able to even appreciate changes in our body, is if we first learned to accept and love our relationship that we have with our body. Otherwise, changes we make to our body will go unappreciated. And what would be the point of that?

How do we change our body image?

So, now the big question: how do we change our body image? If we can’t do it by changing our physical bodies, there must be other ways to do it. First, we need to change the relationship we have with our body. People tend to refer to and act as though their bodies are objects. Just like when you are trying to change your body, you treat it as an object that needs some work. Instead, we need to start seeing our bodies as an integral part of ourselves – not some extra component that needs to be changed. Your body is what you live in, it is part of you. It is not a secondary object. The first step is to start treating your body less like an object, and more like an important part of yourself.

Self-compassion

Jodie then went on to explain a new concept to us called self-compassion. At first I seemed very skeptical about this idea. But then she had us carry out an exercise that really changed my views in a drastic way. She asked us all to close our eyes and listen to what she was saying. She first asked us to imagine the voice in our head that spends its time critiquing our body. She said to picture that voice, and to put a face to it. She asked us to really imagine everything possible about this voice and the image we had put to it. Think about how this voice sounds, what the face of it looks like, what is it telling us, how do we look and feel when this voice is talking to us.

After this exercise, I was surprised by how much it moved me. To really sit back and think about that voice in your head that’s always critiquing you and putting you down, really changed my perspective on my body image. Why should I let this voice put me down? For myself, simply just realizing this voice existed and putting a face to it, opened up my eyes to the possibility of change.

Many other people in the group tended to be moved by this experience to. I think it came as a surprise to most people how powerful that exercise really was. I felt saturated in the emotions coming from the majority of the people in the room.  

Jodie then continued and asked us to repeat the same exercise. Except this time, we had to imagine a voice of compassion, instead of a voice of the critic. Again, we had to imagine all the aspects about this voice and the face we put to it. You could see the change in the overall mood of the room after this. It was almost as if a wave of relief took over. Some people even shared their experience as to what they imagined their voice of compassion to be. Everyone pictured a face and voice that was warm, kind, and comforting. This voice was the one that supported them and understood their feelings.

The idea of self-compassion involves having an understanding of your own suffering and failures. It means having compassion for yourself as you would normally for a friend or family member. Instead of criticizing yourself or ignoring your own pain, take that compassion you normally extend to others and share some with yourself.

Jodie then left us with the idea that next time we heard that voice of the critic, maybe it would be possible to call on the voice of compassion to take over. It might sound easier said than done, but I think with practice this might truly help at overcoming some of our negative views towards ourselves. 

Personal intentions

The session ended with one last concept to think about. Jodie suggested for everyone to make a personal intention. This would be something that you want to achieve for yourself. However, she said that instead of framing it in a negative way, make it positive. We always tend to make goals for things we need to stop doing, but what if started working towards things we should start doing?

Here’s an example: Instead of saying, “I want to not have a poor body image”, try saying “I want to work on having a more positive relationship with my body”. Give yourself something to work towards, not something to avoid. If your intention seems too big, try breaking it down into smaller sub-goals. That way whenever you reach one of them, you can enjoy your success one step at a time. 


References 

Gillen, M. M. (2015). Associations between positive body image and indicators of men's and women's mental and physical health. Body image, 13, 67-74.

Cash, Thomas. The body image workbook: an eight-step program for learning to like your looks. New Harbinger Publications, 2008.

Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S. J., Hannan, P. J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2), 244-251.

My journey from self-hate to self-love

My journey from self-hate to self-love

This blog post is a very special edition brought to you by our yoga teacher Nicole Jones. She was courageous enough to share her story in a testimonial of her struggle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. Nicole is an inspiring yoga teacher and we are so very grateful to her for sharing her story with you on our platform. I hope that it can inspire in many the desire to work towards developing self-acceptance, body appreciation and compassion for themselves and others. Thank you Nicole.

 

          From a very young age I never felt like I quite fit in and always thought I was different. To try and blend in I pushed myself to be seen as an achiever. I strived for success in everything I did because I did not just want to be involved I wanted to excel. I wanted validation. I wanted to be both noticed and accepted. I didn’t know why I felt quite so insecure and inadequate, but for as long as I can remember I had this burning desire to be “perfect”.  

            When I was 14 years old I was top of my class, popular amongst friends and played competitive hockey and AAA soccer. My soccer team made it to the National championship and won the title in 1998. It was around this time where psychologically things took a turn. Ironically, the moment that sticks out most from the championship weekend, and I remember it like it was yesterday, was not when we won, but when a teammate said I had “A big Booty”. It’s amazing that what should have been an exhilarating time of my life was overshadowed by such a menial comment. I think something snapped in me that day. After years of having an unkind internal dialogue suddenly my worst fears came true: someone from the outside was pointing out a flaw I had noticed about myself, true or not, and something had to be done. From that moment I started to question my size, my body, my appearance and it quickly spiraled into a self-hate cycle I could not seem to break. I started to monitor my food intake, count calories and restrict my diet. Food became my obsession. Food was all I thought about and at the time I thought I was being healthy. This was just the beginning of my journey with an eating disorder.

            I quickly developed an obsessive need to burn off every single thing I ate. What started as a passion for a Tae Bo fitness class at a local gym turned into a calculated attempt to control calorie loss. I would get anxiety if my elliptical machine was in use when I entered the gym. I had mental breakdowns if there were snow storms and I had no way to get to the gym.  My relationship with food and exercise was beyond irrational. A debilitating fear took over me when things didn’t go as planned, I was convinced I was going to get fat.  I looked in the mirror everyday and all I saw was a person I hated to look at- a distorted image of who I was.

            At the age of 15 I was sneaking on a friend’s bus after school so I could get to the gym to do cardio before my 6pm fitness class. My last three years of high school are a complete blur. My focus and attention was dominated, and controlled by my eating disorder. What started off as just dieting became all that I knew, and it controlled my every move. I became so aware of where I was going, with whom and what I was eating. Excessive exercising and a restricted calorie intake developed into full blown bulimia nervosa, a disorder that carries so much shame that I did everything in my power to hide it for years and years.  I lied, I hid, I manipulated and I did whatever I could to make sure I could throw up after eating. Looking back I thought I was in control, but in actuality I was so out of control I could barely keep it together. I often remember my loved ones describing being around me as similar to “walking on eggshells”. You never knew when I would crack.

            In my late teens I was forced to see a nutritionist and I made small attempts to get better, but what ended up happening was, I got better at hiding it. I had periods when I wouldn’t vomit and my obsession for exercise would subside, but the moment I felt stressed I would bounce back into my binge eating and purging. It got to a point where I remember crying as I would vomit because I hated who I had become, but I felt like I had no way of stopping. Food and the way I looked was all I cared about, I felt as though it was my measure of self worth. Looking back I have a hard time believing I survived it all.

           Only now do I recognize that the trigger for my eating disorder had nothing to do with my physical appearance at all, but food and my body was something I could control (or at least try to) unlike my emotions/feelings/thoughts I had about my sense of self. Feeling uncomfortable for most of my teenage years was part of me struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, my identity, and the woman I wanted to be. Time, however, is what breathes the understanding of our experiences. At that point I was seeking some way to appear just like everybody else- as if that was some kind of answer.

            The summer before entering university I was in a very verbally abusive relationship, which didn’t help my self-worth, but shows just how little I thought of myself. I decided I would travel with a friend at the time to Europe, to explore another country, gain independence and experience life. This trip ended up taking a turn for the worst, a memory that I live with everyday of my life. I was raped. Now years later I am finally facing the impact of what happened to me. I’m left with flashbacks of waking up in someone else’s room, vivid memories of the abuse that happened to me on that night. I would pay to erase these memories from my brain, but I can’t. That night I was violated and with that I lost my pride, self-worth and my freedom. Instead of facing the incident head on, I chose to shelve it and told myself I’d be okay and I could deal with it alone. So I did and I kept it in for almost 7 years. I chose to pretend it didn’t exist, to move on and “forget” what had happened to me. Little did I realize the impact that would have on me long term.

           Fast forward 3 years, excessive drinking and self-destructive behavior in combination with full-blown bulimia- I was at my worst. I hated myself more than ever, I had no self-esteem, but I somehow had an incredible capacity to keep an image of perfection to all those around me, never ever allowing anybody to see my layers and what was going on inside.

            Then at 24, I was introduced to Bikram yoga. From the first moment I stepped into the studio I felt an instant need to come back for more. This is when my journey to recovery began. I started to practice every single day and that place became my new safe space: somewhere I could be and find a little bit of peace in my day. I would drive from off island about an hour there and back everyday, I didn’t care what it took, I needed to get on my mat. I sensed security and a sense of peace for the first time. Through this practice I started to feel my body and started to value what it could do, I started to tune into sensations and actually start to feel. I learned how to breathe with awareness and I developed a new relationship with myself: one of self-appreciation, as opposed to hate. I started to look at food differently as well, taking up cooking as a pastime. I stopped making myself sick and started to fuel myself with the nutrients I needed. I practiced Bikram yoga every single day for 4 years and then I discovered Moksha, the next step in my journey. Although I thought I was so much better than I was I didn’t realize what was to come.

            Through Moksha, I was able to identify my needs, my wants, my values, my morals and discover more and more of who I truly was. I slowly started to appreciate my body and what it could do. I started to stand in my own power, something I had never done. I learned about health from another set of eyes and completely changed my relationship towards myself. Moksha taught me compassion for myself, which in turn allowed me to have so much more room for love, empathy and compassion for others. Yoga literally transformed my life and allowed me to survive an eating disorder I thought would have a grip on me my entire life. I now teach and have made it my life’s work to help others step on their mats and allow them the opportunity to unravel and face their own demons. The process doesn’t happen overnight, but making that choice to walk into a studio or try yoga for the first time is a powerful opportunity for anyone to have.

            Yoga has taught me to love, appreciate and value myself in ways I never thought were possible. I now have a healthy relationship with food, my body and I genuinely love who I see in the mirror. These are things ten years ago I never thought would be possible. My journey with yoga saved me and I am forever grateful for what it has done for me. Today I look back and embrace every piece of my puzzle because had I not experienced it at all, I would not be where I am today. I now live my passion and do my very best to be authentic in my teaching and allow for others to unravel. I am not perfect and I never will be. I am proud of my story and of who I have become. I hope my story serves others in a positive way and allows people to relate to the struggles and provide, if nothing else, hope toward love and light.

Nic

What does the research say about yoga and eating disorders?

The subject of yoga as a therapeutic intervention for individuals with eating disorders has only begun to be studied. To date, research shows that, supported by other treatment modalities, yoga can help increase self-awareness, self-reflection and the ability to self-soothe in individuals with eating disorders. Yoga has also been demonstrated to be effective as an adjunct therapy for improving eating psychopathology and decreasing binge eating. Additional research examining the value of yoga interventions for individuals with eating disorders is needed.  

Disclaimer:

Yoga does not provide and does not replace individual professional care and advice, provided in light of your unique situation and needs, by a health care professional. If you are suffering from an eating disorder or any other psychological disorder we advise you to contact a local health care professional to help you devise a comprehensive treatment plan. If you need help finding a professional near you please contact us at info@connectepsychology.com


Nicole Jones is a Physical Educator and Yoga Teacher in Montreal, Quebec. Learn more about Nicole here.


References

Balasubramaniam, M., Telles, S., & Doraiswamy, P. M. (2012). Yoga on our minds: a systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders. Frontiers in PSYCHIATRY, 3.

Carei, T. R., Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Breuner, C. C., & Brown, M. A. (2010). Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 346-351.

Douglass, L. (2009). Yoga as an intervention in the treatment of eating disorders: does it help?. Eating Disorders, 17(2), 126-139.

Kristeller, J. L., Baer, R. A., & Quillian-Wolever, R. (2006). Mindfulness-based approaches to eating disorders. Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications, 75-91.

Why You Should Like your Body and How to Do It: Part 2

Why You Should Like your Body and How to Do It: Part 2

Liking our bodies - Is it really worth it? 

As explained in Part 1 of this blog series, there are many reasons why liking our bodies is difficult: societal messages promote unrealistic body and weight standards (see Gillen 2015), it is socially unacceptable to like our bodies, and we’re taught that to motivate ourselves to change our bodies we need to employ a healthy dose of self-criticism (e.g., “I look so gross; I really need to lose weight.”). In arguing “why” we should like our bodies more, I describe research suggesting that liking our bodies is associated with better mental health and more healthy eating behaviours. In other words, if we like our bodies, not only will we feel better in general, but we will also be more likely to attain the health and eating goals that we typically try to attain by hating our bodies.

It occurred to me that another reason to like our bodies more is that liking our bodies may be an important piece in liking ourselves in general. How can we truly like ourselves if we don’t like our bodies? And if we don’t like ourselves, can we lead fulfilling lives? More specifically, I wondered if being kind towards our bodies, or having compassion towards our bodies, may promote and be a necessary part of self-worth and fulfillment.

So, I started looking deeper into this issue and found myself fascinated with and excited by all the research out there on self-compassion. Self-compassion involves having an attitude of kindness and nonjudgmental understanding towards oneself and one’s perceived flaws and failures, similar to the sort of attitude we might have towards a close friend or family member who is experiencing difficulties (Neff 2003a). Additionally, it promotes feelings of interconnectedness through the recognition that suffering is a common human experience (Neff 2003a). Although self-esteem and self-compassion overlap, self-esteem constitutes evaluation of the self (How good am I?) and comparisons to others (Am I better than them?), whereas self-compassion is non-evaluative and promotes interconnectedness (Neff 2003a). 

Studies show that people who are higher on self-compassion experience more psychological benefits. For example, people who are higher on self-compassion report being better able to handle difficult situations by keeping them in perspective (Leary et al., 2007), their moods tend to be more positive and they are more optimistic (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007), they are less self-critical and experience less anxiety and depression, and they score higher on measures of social connectedness and life satisfaction (Neff, 2003b).

Not surprisingly, at least one study has shown that positive body image is linked to self-compassion (Wasylkiw, MacKinnon, & MacLellan, 2012). Indeed, people with a positive body image are more compassionate towards their bodies: they report more self-care behaviours; such as exercising, meditating, or resting at home when tired (Cook-Cottone, 2014); they are more likely to protect their skin from UV exposure (Gillen 2005); and they have healthier eating behaviours, such as eating mindfully and avoiding opportunities to overeat when trying to lose weight (Carraça et al., 2011).

It seems to me that these acts of protection and appreciation of our bodies, which are essentially self-compassionate acts, are powerful ways to foster and nurture self-compassion for our whole selves. Our bodies are, after all, the vehicles through which we experience everything and a healthy body is an integral part of our well-being. Not liking our bodies, and not respecting its needs while trying to develop self-compassion, would be like trying to communicate to a child we have compassion for them without, for example, helping them to eat and sleep properly and taking care of them when they’re ill.

To summarize, I believe that having a compassionate stance towards our bodies will allow us to have a more compassionate stance towards ourselves in general, and thereby we’ll be better able to weather the storms that life often presents us, whether it’s a conflict with a friend, getting a low grade on an exam, or trying on last summer’s clothes only to discover they no longer fit. In addition, a compassionate stance towards our bodies will help us take better care of our bodies, whether that be through an exercise routine, meditation, healthy eating behaviours or relaxation. So, I hope you check out the tips below on how to like your body more, and by doing so open the door to self-compassion :)

How to improve your body image. 

Below is a list I’ve compiled of various tips and techniques for improving your body image. This list is a continuation of the list outlined in Part 1 of this blog series. Depending on where you’re at in your body acceptance journey, you may find some of the things I recommend difficult to execute on your own. If possible, I recommend seeking the help of a mental health professional who is familiar with these techniques to guide you. I also draw a lot from this great resource: The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks (Thomas Cash, 2008), which I highly recommend for helping you in your body image journey. Additionally, helpful and easy-to-read resources on eating disorders can be found at the Centre for Clinical Interventions website.

9. Realistic goals. Establish more realistic goals and expectations for your weight and body. If you’re having trouble doing so, consult with a dietician; they are great resources for helping you with your healthy eating and weight loss goals. Consider whether the diet you’re on will help you lose weight quickly, or will help you sustain a healthy lifestyle. According to set point theory (Harris, 1990), genetics play a role in our body size and shape, and once our body is at a certain weight, the body uses regulatory mechanisms to keep its weight. So if you have an unrealistic weight loss goal, you will constantly feel discouraged, and will likely blame yourself for not having enough “will power.” Your self-esteem may then be affected, not to mention you’ll likely have a bunch of negative emotions that will get in the way of your motivation, concentration, etc. You may also want to think about putting in place a healthy eating system vs. a goal related to eating and weight, as goals tend to keep us in a state of perpetual failure (Adams, 2013). Systems, unlike goals, are things we do every day, and we can feel good every time we apply our system. An example of a goal is losing 10 lbs., whereas an example of a system is eating healthily.

10. Expand your identity. Invest less of your self-worth in your body image by nurturing other parts of your identity. Identify your values and make goals, habits, and systems consistent with them. What is important to you? What do you find meaningful in life? If you value personal growth, try developing a new hobby or try a new sport that puts you out of your comfort zone. If you value family, try making it a habit to get to know them a little bit more every time you see them. Think about how to make every day a life worth living. If we base our self-worth largely on appearance, we will be fighting it all our lives, as we often get messages that we need to be young, thin, and beautiful to be worthy. Do you really want to spend so much time and energy on this never-ending battle? Why not invest your energy in things that will make you a happier person even at 80 years old, such as attending to your relationships, broadening your skills, developing hobbies, being active, eating in a way that is healthy and sustainable, learning how to be more mindful, etc. What will allow you to look back on your life and say, “I lived my life according to what really mattered”? Check out this worksheet on identifying your values

11. Mirror exposure (Hildebrandt et al., 2012). Often when we have a negative view of our body, our perception of it becomes distorted, so that we see parts of it differently than they actually are. This happens for a few different reasons. First, if you look at anything out of context, especially if you feel negatively about it, it will appear bigger relative to its objective size. So, if we’re zooming in on our thighs and we dislike our thighs, we might think they look “huge.” Second, our brain is able to distort our perception so that we see what we expect to see. If we expect to see fat thighs, we are more likely to see fat thighs. For a more detailed explanation of how our perception of our bodies becomes distorted, check out this information pack from the Centre for Clinic Interventions website.

One way to counter a distorted body perception is to develop the habit of looking at ourselves in the mirror mindfully, without judgment. This is also known as “Mirror exposure” and is outlined in the Body Image Workbook, Second Edition (Thomas Cash, 2008), under “Mindful Mirror Reflections.” A main goal of this exercise is to develop a more objective, realistic, balanced view of our bodies. To do mirror exposure, you stand in front of the mirror and describe your body in terms of its shape, form, colour, texture, and shading, as if you were describing it to someone who can’t see. It is important to be objectively descriptive, not evaluative or judgmental. In other words, avoid using words such as “bad”, “ugly”, “fat”, etc. You want to look at every part of your body equally and not excessively focus on parts that make you feel particularly bad but not avoid them either. Complete the exercise by spending a minute looking at your total reflection, your body as a whole and not as parts. If you do decide to do this exercise, I highly recommended you use the Body Image Workbook, Second Edition (Thomas Cash, 2008) as a guide, or consult with a therapist who is experienced in using this technique.

12. Stop checking.  When we are preoccupied with our body’s shape and weight, we might “check” it often by touching it, pinching it, squeezing it, looking at it in the mirror a lot, or weighing it excessively. Excessive checking is problematic for many reasons. Excessive checking increases our preoccupation with whatever it is we’re checking, and it also causes us to notice small, meaningless changes that we otherwise wouldn’t notice, and interpret those small changes as meaning more they really do. For example, if we weigh ourselves daily, a lot of our thoughts during the day will be in anticipation of weighing ourselves or possibly ruminating about the number we recently saw on the scale. Moreover, with frequent weighing, we will inevitably notice small increases and decreases in our weight, as everyone’s weight goes up or down a pound or two day to day due to biological changes such as water retention. However, if we’re worried about and expecting to gain weight, we will be more likely to interpret small increases as weight gain, and we will try to link that increase with something we ate in the day, even though there’s no association (that piece of cake we had earlier in the day did not make us gain a pound).

13. Stop comparing. Another form of body checking is comparing our bodies to other people’s bodies. I recognize that for some of you not comparing yourself to others probably sounds like an impossible task, as it happens so automatically. I can guarantee you though that in our constant comparing, we are maintaining our negative preoccupation with our bodies and, because we are probably selectively comparing ourselves to highly attractive people, we are making ourselves feel bad over and over again. To reduce body comparisons, start off by practicing catching yourself comparing your body to other people’s bodies. Once you get really good at this, practice shifting your attention to something else when you notice yourself comparing. Don’t judge yourself for comparing, but make a deliberate effort to move your attention away from the comparison. The more you are able to let go of comparing, the easier it will become.

14. Mindfulness. Be mindful of the thoughts and feelings you have about your body image. Mindfulness is a skill based in Eastern philosophical perspectives. Mindfulness teachers suggest that our minds often get carried away by stories, or thoughts about how things are, were, or should be. For example, while looking in the mirror, we may think, “I’m so fat.”, “Why can’t I just look good for once?”, “Why do my friends have it so much easier when it comes to weight?”, “I need to lose 10 lbs. by my birthday.”, etc. Mindfulness teaches us to notice, without judgment, when our mind has jumped onto the thought train, and with practice we can learn to step off of the train and onto the platform. We can step off of the train by coming back to the present moment, by noticing, for example, our breath or the sensations in our bodies. By observing our thoughts without judgment and coming back to the present moment, we will stop ourselves from equating thoughts and feelings with truth, our inner experiences will become more tolerable, and we will be less likely to react in a way that causes us further suffering. Check out my colleague’s Natsumi Sawada’s blog post to learn more about mindfulness!

15. Gratitude. Every day, thank your body for its function. For example, “thank-you legs, you let me dance today. “Thank-you arms, you let me hug my best friend.” Or, simply, “thanks body, you work pretty well most of the time.” Check out this short clip to hear Amy Poehler’s thoughts on how to have gratitude for our bodies.

dirty hands heart.jpg

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, in reflecting on why we should like our bodies, I realized that liking our bodies is likely an important piece in cultivating compassion for our whole selves. I’d like to take this a little further and leave you with this: Perhaps by nurturing compassion for our bodies, we can more readily experience compassion for our loved ones, for people in need, for the environment, for people who annoy us, and for those who have really hurt us. As Tara Brach eloquently said, “Once we have held ourselves with kindness, we can touch others in a vital and healing way.” This is not a new idea, that we can better love others if we love ourselves, but what I’m saying here is that an important, and perhaps necessary, part of this is having compassion for our bodies. In any case, it’s a good place to start :)

For more self-help and mental health resources, check out our resource section!


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Adams, S. (2013). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Penguin UK.

Brach, T. (2013). True refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart. Bantam.

Carraça, E. V., Silva, M. N., Markland, D., Vieira, P. N., Minderico, C. S., Sardinha, L. B., & Teixeira, P. J. (2011). Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 8, 75.

Cash, Thomas. The body image workbook: an eight-step program for learning to like your looks. New Harbinger Publications, 2008.

Cook-Cottone, C. P. (2014). The Mindful Self-Care Scale: Self-care as a tool to promote physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. Retrieved from http://gse.buffalo. edu/about/directory/faculty/cook-cottone.

Gillen, M. M. (2015). Associations between positive body image and indicators of men's and women's mental and physical health. Body image, 13, 67-74.

Harris, R. B. (1990). Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. The FASEB Journal4(15), 3310-3318.       

Hildebrandt, T., Loeb, K., Troupe, S., & Delinsky, S. (2012). Adjunctive mirror exposure for eating disorders: A randomized controlled pilot study. Behaviour research and therapy, 50(12), 797-804.

Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887–904.

Neff, K. D. (2003a). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101.

Neff, K. D. (2003b). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223–250.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139–154.

Wasylkiw, L., MacKinnon, A. L., & MacLellan, A. M. (2012). Exploring the link between self-compassion and body image in university women. Body Image9(2), 236-245.