This Thursday, January 25 is Mindful Eating Day at The Center for Mindful Eating, and I was delighted to be one of the speakers for the conversations that will be broadcast for listeners on that day. The theme for the day is “Compassionate Self-Care is Essential.”
As I reflected on the topic of eating and body image, my own journey comes to mind. Like many women (maybe most women) my weight, body shape and eating have been constant objects of my awareness probably from about age 12. I remember being a fitness fanatic in the lounge room of the farmhouse I grew up in – doing sit ups and push ups on the Merino wool carpet. I remember laying on my back sunbathing on the jetty in my bathers, a favorite pastime of rural youth in Australia, thinking how lovely my belly must look all sunken in toward my ribs and spine. I also remember seeing a photograph of me in action during a basketball game towards the end of my highschool years, and thinking how unattractive I looked having put on weight at boarding school (man, those huge trays of lasagne were just too good to ignore!).
During those teen years I also remember my father commenting that I was getting too thin, and my aunt, on a different occasion, greeting me at her front door with, “Oh, it’s fat little Kristy!” A girl can’t win!
So weight and appearance have always been on my mind. Given conversations over coffees with women of all different shapes and sizes, it seems many of us are in the same boat.
And our obsessions seem to have very little to do with objectivity: Taryn Brumfitt who started the Body Image Movement reports on how miserable she felt when she was at her “target weight” while competing in bodybuilding competitions. Mirna Valerio, an ambassador for “fathlete” women, is a super fit generously-proportioned gal who understands that her body has its own natural “normal” and she doesn’t try to fight it. What’s the difference between these two women? I’m going to guess that it has something to do with awareness, self-love and feeling supported as part of a community (sometimes a community they started, but nevertheless, we don’t do these things alone!). Taryn has since gone on to discover how different her life is when she accepts who she is and learns to love the faithful and tireless friend she has in her body.
Awareness is noticing the internal dialogue going on in our mind about body image and the even subtler sensations in our body that point to shame and self-criticism. Many of us have grown up in a culture where our weight and appearance have been a topic of an ongoing external conversation that became internalized. These messages come from relatives, friends, people we come into contact with, and the media. It’s a huge task to notice all the ways body image messages are informing our day-to-day activity, and it’s the topic of a whole book, so I don’t have the space for it here. Needless to say, we can’t work out how to tend to ourselves until we can see how we’re suffering from internal criticism and shame around body image. Awareness cultivated through practices like mindfulness, centering, silence, quieting our mind and yoga are great places to start.
Self-love and compassion
Once we’re aware of how our culture has taught us to loathe our body in service of being loved and accepted – ironic that in order to get love we have to hate ourselves (!) – we inevitably see how unkind and unreasonable that approach is. This can be a very drawn-out process, maybe taking years of disengaging ourselves from the messages of our culture, but we can learn a huge amount about ourselves along the way. It turns out that learning to accept and love the body we have can lead us to newly opened doors to creative freedom, aligning ourselves with our personal purpose, and enjoying pleasure. Obsession about body image may be one of the main things holding women back from living the life they are meant to live. We can cultivate self-love and self-compassion by doing courses like Mindful Self-Compassion, Somatic Self-Compassion, Thriving Woman Toolkit or Finding Your Self-Compassion Practice Path.
My belief is that a sense of community is the missing ingredient for many of us. I don’t mean being in a city or being amongst people – we can feel terribly alone amongst strangers – I mean finding our heart tribe, the people who resonate with us. Our tribe is often made up of people who have the same emotional scars as us, holding our journey as part of the collective evolution. If you’re struggling with the burden of body image shame and self-criticism, then your tribe might be Taryn Brumfitt’s The Body Image Movement, or Mirna Valerio’s Fat Girl Running blog, or the HeartWorks tribe or WisdomWomen or Linda Bacon’s Health At Every Size Community or any number of hundreds of communities set up by someone just like you who wanted to give and receive support in their particular area of struggle. You don’t need to do it alone, even though our culture tells us to be self-sustaining individuals. Humans are social creatures and we need to be with others so that we can learn about ourselves and can thrive. We especially need others to help us work with shame because shame is the fear that we do not belong – the one sure way to soothe this fear is to go out and belong!
The other thing I would throw in here, partly inspired by my own journey, is that it can be really difficult to work with shame and the inner critic around body image when there’s something going on in our body that is affecting our attitude to food. I think science is just starting to tap into this information, but we are starting to learn about how important gut health is to our overall wellbeing. In my own journey, I’ve struggled with candida for much of my life, which leads to cravings for food that feed the candida in my gut, which leads to a vicious cycle of feeling physically bad and eating because I feel bad (emotional eating) leading to feeling emotionally bad (self-criticism for eating the “wrong” foods), leading to… My example is specifically about foods that the candida in my gut is drawing me to – your example will be your own specific body challenge leading you to eating particular foods. If you struggle with candida, I can recommend the website my doctor recommended, The Candida Diet. You might also check out HeartWorks tribe member, Cheryl Harris’s, site Harris Whole Health for information about gut health.
Until I had addressed my gut health, it was almost impossible to break the cycle of emotional eating. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to be more disciplined – just don’t eat that doughnut! – but when our body is crying out for a doughnut, it can feel like a violent act to deny it. My suggestion is get your health team together and work out what’s going on with your body as an act of self-compassion to yourself. And if you’re having trouble feeling as if you’re worth self-care, start with self-compassion first. We need to feel kindly toward ourselves and give up the inner criticism before we can move on to believing that we deserve taking care of ourselves.
Many of us use food as a way to comfort ourselves because of old hurts that start to surface. This is pretty natural – of course we’d want to tend to ourselves when painful body memories are surfacing. One of my other suggestions is to find a good body-centered therapist to help you work with your old trauma material as a self-compassionate act. It’s another vicious cycle to be feeling old hurts and eating to tend to those, and then feeling self-criticism for eating. It’s sort of like punishing yourself for loving yourself (with food), which is super painful. Some therapy methodologies I can recommend are Somatic Experiencing, Compassion-Focussed Therapy, Internal Family Systems, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, Sensorimotoer Psychotherapy and Hakomi.
I want you to know that you are not alone on this journey, and that I really want you to reach out for support if your’e struggling with body image. Shame and self-criticism over our body is a rock we’re lugging around and we can work out a way to leave that particular burden in our dust. Cultivating self-compassion is the key to leaving that rock on the roadside and moving forward with more ease. Cultivating self-compassion feeds our willingness to care for ourselves because we can stop judging our body and start taking care of it. You’re worth it!