If you are struggling with an eating disorder, this article might present triggers. Please think carefully before reading it.
In the previous post, I discussed the relationship between eating disorders and body image. Negative body image is a key diagnostic factor in all eating disorders, regardless of the type or character of the diagnosis (anorexia/bulimia/other). Now that I have discussed some of the causes, it’s important to talk about how you can challenge those negative thoughts and feelings regarding your body and take back control. As long as you continue to use your body as a stick to beat yourself, the eating disorder will continue to have a foot hold in your life. As long as it has the chance, it will return.
But I also think that the lessons from tackling body image problems amongst people with eating disorders are important for the whole population. We live in an age of intense pressure on our appearances, with the result that frighteningly high numbers of people (not just women) are increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies. This isn’t healthy. Not only can it reduce self-esteem, but it can lead to anxiety and depression. It’s time to think differently about our bodies and how we perceive them.
It’s not what you see, but how you feel
As I stated in the previous article, body image isn’t really about what you see in the mirror, but who. Our mind’s ability to accurately see our body for what it is is distorted by our opinions of ourselves, by social expectations, by pressures from the media and social media and by our past experiences. In eating disorders, this is amplified even more, but the principle is the same whether you suffer from an eating disorder or not. It’s not about what you see, but how you feel.
We are constantly bombarded by messages and images of how we ‘should‘ look, by the ‘ideal’ body type. Add this to the life time of experiences we’ve had with our bodies which alters how we perceive and feel about them, and it’s no surprise that what we see in the mirror is an altered perception of reality. This optical illusion summarises quite nicely how what is around us influences what we see and feel. Both theorange circles are the same size.
So, we need to start to think differently about our bodies and what we really mean when we are dissatisfied with them.
As I wrote in the previous article, when I talked about how I felt about my body when I was really poorly, I jumped straight from feeling fat and bloated to feeling like a bad person, feeling disgusting and out of control. Those descriptions go far beyond the valuation of appearance, to saying something more profound about how you feel about yourself as a person. This demonstrates how the illness isn’t really about weight or food or body size and shape: it’s about deeper feelings about yourself. It’s about control. It’s about a crippling perfectionism. It’s about a sense of self-dislike that leads to dangerous self-denial and self-neglect. It’s a more extreme, more personal, more harmful version of the cultural and social valuations we put on appearance.
What do you mean by ‘fat’?
So, we need to ask ourselves, what really lies behind the word ‘fat’?
Technically, you can’t feel fat. Bear with me – this took me a while to get my head around, too. It’s a physical description, just the same as having blue eyes, or being brown-haired. I don’t feel brown-haired. People with eating disorders use the phrase so often that the meaning behind it is lost. When I was most under the influence of anorexia, I would say all the time that I was ‘fat’, that I ‘felt fat’, that I felt ‘horrible and fat’. At that point, I was still underweight. So what did I actually mean? I was using that small, simple word to disguise the deeper feelings underneath: the shame, guilt, distress, disgust of losing control, of breaking the rules that I had created to try to control myself. When I said I felt fat, I was really saying that I felt like a bad person.
So, whether you suffer from an eating disorder or not, you need to ask yourself what you really mean when you say ‘I feel fat’. Because it is quite possible that you don’t mean what you say.
Change how you see, not what you see
Our body wasn’t made to look amazing. That’s not what it’s there for. Our body is there for us to function in the world. Just like a car. I love my car because it gets me from A to B. It might be an old banger, but it’s still safe, it’s still reliable, and old bangers often have the most character anyway. It’s functional. So why can’t I think about my body that way?It might not be the fastest, newest, shiniest model, but it does what I need it to do.
It’s so simple but this way of thinking blew my mind when I first encountered it. I use this whenever I still have a bad day and the old thoughts return: ‘you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’ve lost control, you’re a bad person’. I look at myself and think, this body is amazing because it lets me live, so why should I care how it looks?
This can be applied to parts of the body. One of the most useful exercises I did was to label parts of my body, especially those that I struggled with the most, and turn around how I felt about them by thinking about what they do for me. I like my hands, because they let me write and play the piano. I like my legs because they get me places. I like my eyes because they let me see and experience the world. I like my torso because without it I’d just be a tangle of limbs unable to properly experience life. I like my arms because they let me hug people.
This is a simple way of changing how you feel about your body. It won’t get rid of your eating disorder (that requires deeper thought into the causes and belief systems which sustain it, of which body image is only a small part), and it won’t change how you feel about your body all the time. But it is a useful way to challenge your negative feelings and thoughts.
I’ve come to realise, though, that ultimately, I need to try to go beyond accepting the functionality of my body, to trying to like it, if I want to really make sure that the eating disorder has no control over me. And that’s a hard process. And it’s not about changing how I look, or even changing how I feel about my body, but about changing how I feel about myself. Because if I begin to like myself as a person, my perception of how I look will alter completely. Remember, it’s not about how you look, but how you feel.
If you or someone you know may be suffering with an eating disorder, here are some links to find out more information about the illness and treatment. Please don’t think you’re not ‘ill enough’: if you need help, ask for it…