My Body, My Self 

I get this all the time, actually. It comes from someone who reads MyBodyMySelf, comes to my talks, or has known me for a long time. Yes, I have this problem. I think I know why they are surprised.  We are talking about body image and eating behavior, and I am not carrying around a visible amount of extra fat, and I don’t have ribs sticking out of my back. So you can't see it. People say this to me because they believe what I am talking about is a visible problem. But the issue this blog addresses is mostly not visible. It is hidden inside our minds.

Today’s National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) reports that 20 million American women will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lifetime. The 20 million women estimate is up from practically nothing in 1960. This statistic is staggering: one out of every eight women will be diagnosed with a mental illness around their body image and eating where practically no mental illness existed 50 years ago. 

These statistics are relevant to all women because we are all living in the same environment, our diet culture, that is causing the epidemic. All eating disorders have in common an underlying “body image disturbance.” Six of 8 women today live with a similar-in-kind body image disturbance, or simply a negative body image, from living in a time and place obsessed with youth, thinness, and having a perfect body.

What is going on in a young girl's mind when she sees images of a Victoria Secret model that might cause her to internalize an unrealistic body standard? A girl forms her idea of who she will be from the women she encounters in her world. This is just how humans (and other mammals) work. A girl's mother will be her first role model for how to be a woman.

A hundred years ago a young girl might have had aunts, grandmothers and larger family living close by to add to the array of female role models she encountered in her world. In today's world, most of the women a girl encounters during her day are actually fake women. We have 5,000 ad images coming at us each day with pictures of women like the Victoria Secret models, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The women in the ads aren't really real because they have spent hours in hair and make-up, trained like an Olympic athlete for the shoot, and the images have been digitally altered.

Fifty percent of adult women and 90% of teenage girls will be on a diet this year. In our crazy, body-obsessed diet culture, these dieters hope to control the size and shape of their bodies by controling their food intake.   

Diet history
'Being on a diet' was a relatively new concept in the 1970s, and dieting has mushroomed out of control in the last 50 or so years. It started with the Grapefruit Diet and Weight Watchers. Then along came The Scarsdale Diet, Jenny Craig, the low-fat food craze.  We then had the Zone Diet, the Southbeach Diet, The Biggest Loser DIet and TV show, the gluten-free craze, and The Paleo Diet. All of these diets made food-restricting seem like 'normal' behavior.  

WHAT you eat in the form of food and diet plans has been the main focus of weight loss in our diet culture. The Amazon book warehouse has 64,000 current books on Health, Fitness and Dieting.  Most of these books discuss WHAT you eat -- the food itself. Each book is chock full of the nutritional objectives the author believes to be the newest or best way to combine foods so you can sculpt the shape of your body. 

The fact is, there are many ways to feed your amazing body. Our diet culture would have you believe that there is some magical, perfect combination of foods waiting for you to find by obsessing over food minutia such as calories, carbs, or points. But there isn't. Sixty years of diet culture has only shown us that there no "one and done" answer. All we have really learned from our diet culture is how to stop listening to our own body and mind around eating in order to listen to the newest diet craze.

'Staying awake at the plate' is about eating mindfully, more fully aware of your emotions, your behaviors, and your motivations around eating.  It’s about living in the present moment with your eating behavior rather than worrying about the past or obsessing about the future.  
 
Every idea we’re exploring in MyBodyMySelf centers around becoming aware of your eating behavior and figuring out what works and doesn’t work for you. Mindful eating is what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habits, defines as a keystone habit – a certain habit that’s actually more important than other habits because it transforms everything around it. Today's discussion explores the large and small ways mindfulness can transform your eating. 

We have quite a bit to consider when piecing apart our individual relationship with food and our bodies.  But before we get to working with the individual pieces, we need to re-align our ultimate destination. This is a version of re-calibrating our internal GPS around our body image and eating. Where are we headed?  

The first stop will be intentionally replacing the 30 year old picture of Twiggy or Farrah or whoever you have gnawing in the back of your mind as your model of what you think you should look like. For our generation that came of age in the early days of the feminist movement, the image/role model could likely be you, yourself at a younger time and weight. Or for those of us stuck in food prison, it is most likely a relentless adherence to Twiggy-like a number on the scale. Or it could be her clothing size, that keeps you captive, forbidding you from ever enjoying a piece of bread or dessert. 

I just spent the last two weeks in Paris eating French food, drinking French wine, and talking about life with French women. It just doesn’t get much better than that for me!

With all the discussion about body image and 'diet culture' in the United States, I was fascinated to learn that the average French woman doesn’t have the same issues around her body image and eating that we have here in America. While French society does put pressure on women to be thin, your average (not eating disordered) French woman does not diet and is not struggling with the emotional consequences of food restricting that so many American women experience. How could this be?