I began thinking about my own body image watching the older women in my life. My 89-year-old aunt needed help getting into her Spanx for a wedding. She wouldn’t wear her first choice for a dress because she didn’t like how her arms looked in it. A friend’s 84-year-old mom got dizzy and fainted from lack of food while grocery shopping. She has a very limited list of "healthy/good" foods she is willing to eat. Her disordered eating symptoms have flown under the radar of her doctors and family for decades, and this is now just how she lives.
My mom's friend still weighed herself daily at 83 years and was very proud -- about five years back -- when she lost a few pounds. One day she boasted that she had lost 10 pounds without trying. She died within the year of a sneaky, slow growing cancer.
When I speak of these women to audiences, I usually hear, “OMG, when does all this struggle to control our bodies ever end?” Is there a point where we get to stop worrying about how our body parts appear to others or what food is off limits to us or how much we weigh? These are good questions. We just assume these worries will magically disappear at some point.
The answer these octogenarians seemed to give was, nothing is going to change unless YOU get in there and change it. I could see that habitual thought patterns and behaviors around food and body only get more and more entrenched as the years roll on. By your 8thdecade these habits will be like concrete in your mind.
This predicament is not our fault. We’ve all been born into a crazy culture that over-values women’s appearance putting pressure on us to conform to the body style of day. For the last 50 years, this style has always included being thin or thinner. We live in a world surrounded by a lots of food, lots of advice about how to eat, and lots and lots of pictures of attractive people by society’s slim standards.
However, we do have the power to alter our trajectory, if we choose. I chose to do the brave work a few years ago for my current and future selves. Changing my own course took real intention and time, which only makes sense since my habitual thought patterns and behavior around food and my body took decades to cultivate.
I looked in the mirror long and hard, and decided to change managing my weight through my fear of the bathroom scale. I knew it would better for me to be free of the ball and chain that had me dieting constantly and spending my precious time waiting for a perfect number to show up. "Managing my weight" became an archaic concept; it's not something that needs managing. Instead I focused on self-care management, which includes awareness around: how I want to eat, how I want to exercise, how much sleep makes sense for me, where I am feeling stress or emotional ups or downs.
I also came to realize that my appearance isn't as big of a piece of who I am as our Diet Culture led me to believe. I look good enough, and I have many, many other things to do.
I researched. I found thoughtful articles, books, and groups of women all about struggling with these issues. I found the seminal book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (must use the 3rdedition or the 2017 workbook) and I became re-connected with my body and its signals and realized as an adult, I can eat whatever I want. The question became “What do I want?” to take care of myself physically and mentally.
In the process of my research I learned that our society’s body concerns have ramped up like crazy for our kids. They have even more pressure from their Kardashian Culture to conform to a body ideal. Seventy-five percent of adolescent girls and 50% of adolescent boys today suffer from body dissatisfaction. Body dissatifaction is a risk factor for all eating disorders and is linked to depression and isolation. Studies just over the last 2 years have firmly blamed this generations's body dissatisfaction on their social media usage. Their social media has become more and more visual over the last 5 years with the uptick in Instagram and Snapchat.
I wanted to help. I wanted to be part of the movement that re-focuses kids and society on those things that matter more in life such as focusing on the real pieces of who they are. I trained to be a Be Body Positive Facilitator to work with children and their parents on developing body confidence at the Body Positive in Berkeley, California. From there, I got an additional license on The Body Project curriculum from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) to work with high school aged girls and boys who are at risk of developing an eating disorder.
The first time I taught a high school health unit on body image, I was shocked. The health teacher told me that 4 of the 25 kids in the class already had an eating disorder diagnosis. That was twice the national average, and the national average is appalling. Then I learned that there was no standard curriculum on body image that the schools were using despite the fact that 90% of the high school kids I surveyed consider this to be a critical topic for discussion.
I began talking to the Illinois State Board of Education. Their social emotional learning team were eager to entertain discussion on giving teachers information and curriculum resources on body image. I thought I would need to make more of a case for the need for intervention on body image in middle and high schools. But each time I found myself in the position where I might need to argue for the need for intervention in the schools, I was told, "You don't have to convince me, I have a daughter in middle school. I am living it."
With the help from volunteers from ANAD, the wonderful, national eating disorder organization, we set about talking to Illinois regional education districts about body image statistics and effective body image lessons for kids in Illinois. Hopefully we will get to as many districts in Illinois as possible in 2019. Then we have plans to go on to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
We live in an unfortunate time for the body esteem of women and men, young and old. But times are changing. Women are waking up and challenging the status quo with the #METOO movement and the #TIMES UP movement. Hopefully, with awareness and attention we can change all the way we feel about our bodies and work to change our shallow, cultural norms around body image that aren't working for most people today. That spirit of awareness and challenge is how we can create body confidence and learn to love our bodies and ourselves.