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.
What is the issue we are talking about in MyBodyMySelf?
The issue MyBodyMySelf addresses is simply when a woman’s body shape or size and her eating behavior take up a large amount of time and attention in her life and space in her mind. The average woman could be obsessed with staying thin or she could be preoccupied with going on diets, restricting her food to lose weight. She could do either or both at different times. You don’t know if the way a woman views her body or her eating behavior is a problem for her by looking at her. You would need to ask her. And she needs to possess a reasonable amount of self-awareness to give a truthful answer.
MyBodyMySelf is written for the 6 of 8 women living in our diet culture who don't have a mental health disorder around body image and food, but spend too much time unhappy with their body and the way they eat.
Many, many women spend an inordinate amount of time and space in their minds -- mindshare -- on what they should or shouldn’t eat and how people see their body, engaging in a tremendous amount of self-judment and self-punishment around food and their weight. I see this as a problem of spending the finite time you have on earth unnecessarily giving away too much mindshare to food, eating, and your weight. You only get so much time alive. This could be time doing what you love, things that actually bring joy or meaning to your life.
What consists of an inordinate amount of time varies from person to person. I might be bothered if this takes up 25% of the space in my brain. Another women might be okay with it taking up 50% of her mindshare. It is only a problem, if and when it is a problem for you.
This blog is for any woman who is at the point where she is sick and tired of how much she has thought about her body and how she eats. It is for the woman and who is motivated to change the amount of time in her life and space in her mind that her body and eating has twisted up in her inner life. This blog is for the women who is motivated and ready to take charge of this complicated issue and is willing to unpack her relationship with her body and eating in an effort to straighten out these issues for good because she has other things to do with her time. And, we all have other things to do with our precious time.
Are we talking about disordered eating or emotional eating?
I don’t think it actually matters very much. There are no real labels to apply and no reason to feel disordered. I actually don’t see myself as a disordered eater or an emotional eater. It is just what is going on for you. What we are talking about is not a disorder or disordered – it is about finding balance in your body with your eating. There is no shame in ‘fessing up' to being a bit out of balance -- spending more brain space than is necessary on your body or eating -- in today’s diet culture. This is something every woman confronts to some extent in our body-obsessed world. I think our diet culture is very much to blame, and we women are just trying to survive within it. Admitting to being a bit out of balance can actually be the first step to help you make improvements to the quality of your life going forward.
Isn’t this just about appearing skinny or fat?
Nope. Skinny and fat are all personal judgments you pronounce upon yourself about what you think you should look like. Many mentally healthy women are fine with their appearance and very healthy at higher numbers on the scale. Many women who appear thin and in control are really tormenting themselves by binge eating or are restricting what they eat to a large degree, locking themselves in food prison, afraid of food at each meal.
What we are talking about is a complex, personal mixture of the following issues:
- A constant preoccupation with body shape or size,
- A fear of weight gain,
- A fear of food,
- The use of food to soothe undetected emotions,
- The control of food and/or exercise as a distraction from one's emotional life,
- The control of food and/or exercise used as a self definition,
- An intense emotional reaction to limiting food choices every day because of the need for the bathroom scale or clothing size to read a particular number,
- A core belief that the size of one’s body reflects one's worth as a person, or is a very big piece of who she is,
- A feeling of shame about the body one has been given to live her life from.
I assume that you can relate to some of this. . . .
Yes, I’ve had my own personal cocktail of some of the above issues. I’ve spent too much time in the past thinking about my body and what I have eaten. I think it is 'normal' for a woman to be this way in our society, a society obsessed with youth, thinness and having a perfect body. Because of these statistics, I think the vast majority of women in the developed world can relate to this on some level:
- A recent study in London revealed an epidemic of eating disorders in Great Britain in middle-aged women numbering in the tens of thousands,
- 20 million women in the US, or 12.5% of all women, will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lifetime
- 70%-80% of women report being unhappy with their bodies (lots of different reports on this, all with the majority of women reporting being unhappy with their bodies)
- 90% of teenage girls and 50% of adult women will be on a diet this year
- 45% of women who are on a diet are considered a “normal” weight for their height
- the average woman goes on 61 diets in her lifetime by age 45
- the average woman spends 31 years of her life dieting
- the majority of people we go to for help, such as nutritionists or dietitians, remain either actively eating disordered or prone to the same patterns of thinking that fuel such behaviors
- 40% of models are anorexic
I don’t think having this problem is a fault or a personal failing. Unfortunately, this is just how women in today's diet culture relate to their bodies. This is an issue of awareness of what is going on with you in relationship to food and your body, and a choice you make going forward for how you want to be.
Using this blog as a tool for change
Yes, I had this problem; no, you can’t see it; and, yes, it is super-complicated. Each woman has her own personal cocktail of body and eating issues that are, luckily, repairable. You CAN reduce the amount of time you spend thinking about your body, food and eating to a reasonable amount of mindshare. You CAN stop obsessing about food and your body, and free up time and space for things you want to do. All you need to do is to be willing to unpack the complex puzzle of how you currently think about your body and eating and be open to another way to think about it.
MyBodyMySelf is written for the 6 of 8 women in our culture who DO NOT have a mental health disorder around body image and food, but spend too much time unhappy with their body and their eating behavior. It presents an opportunity for self awareness that might be helpful to the average woman when thinking about her body and eating. The information posted in MyBodyMySelf is my opinion from research on women's relationship to their bodies and eating that I began at the University of Chicago's social work school. It is not treatment or a substitute for treatment for an actual eating disorder. If you think you or a loved one might be suffering from an eating disorder, you need to direct your questions and concerns to your personal physician. Eating disorders are serious mental health issues and require treatment from specialized, mental health professionals. Look in the Sources below for eating disorder resource suggestions, including where you can find a physician who specializes in eating disorders in your area.
- Paul Campos, The Diet Myth, 2005.
- Harriet Brown, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight--and What We Can Do about It, 2015.
- Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2006.
- Susie Orbach, On Eating, 2002.
- Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2006 (2nd edition). Dr. Orbach gaves us the first presciption for Intuitive Eating in the 70s. Everything she says in this book is even more true today. A practicing psychoanalyst in London, she speaks from experience treating patients and has had a firm grasp of the issues women face in our society being objectified. She has been a clear voice in this discussion for over 40 years.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, 2012 (2nd edition). I boil down some of the essence of this book to 8 steps in MyBodyMySelf Post-its.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.
Eating Disorder Resources
- NEDA, National Eating Disorder Association www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
- AED, Academy for Eating Disorders www.AEDwe.org
- IAEDP, International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals www.iaedp.com
- BEDA, Binge Eating Disorder Association www.BEDAonline.com
- APA, American Psychological Association www.APA.org
- ANAD, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Naperville, Illinois www.anad.org
"Don’t make the mistake of comparing your twisted up insides to other people’s blow dried outsides." --Mary Karr, poet and author, Syracuse Commencement Address 2015