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IMPROVING BODY IMAGE: A PLANO EATING DISORDER THERAPIST EXPLAINS

WHAT IS BODY IMAGE?

My favorite definition of body image, from body image expert Signe Darpinian, is the image of your body you have in your mind, and how you feel about it. Many things influence how our body image develops, such as the people we spend time with, positive and negative life experiences, gender, and media.  

WHY IS BODY IMAGE IMPORTANT?

Decades of research have made it clear that body image dissatisfaction, or negative body image, is one of the leading risk factors for developing an eating disorder. As a Plano eating disorder counselor, I have to take this seriously and find ways to help my clients with this. After all, research has also shown us that negative body image has the potential to wipe out every other area of life that you hold dear. It’s that big of a deal. 

In this blog post, I share how I help clients improve body image in eating disorder therapy in Plano, Texas. I hope that these suggestions can help you, too! 

WAYS TO IMPROVE BODY IMAGE

Working on your body image is a lifelong effort. The critical and image-obsessed world we live in guarantees that. Yet it IS possible to hate your body less. It might even be possible to appreciate it. And you don’t have to achieve body positivity or body love to recover from an eating disorder or to have a wonderful life! 

STOP BODY CHECKING

As an eating disorder counselor in Plano, TX, I encourage clients to start paying closer attention to how and when body image distress shows up. Body checking is when you compulsively monitor your body to see how you measure up, and those with negative body image do it a lot. 

Body checking can take many forms. You might compulsively weigh and measure your body, or frequently take selfies and share on social media. You might try on clothes multiple times a day to check if they still fit. Or frequently touch certain areas of your body to determine if they are acceptable. Sometimes it’s just an ever-present attention to how you look, almost like you’re seeing your selfie in your mind throughout the day. 

The intention of body checking, though mostly subconscious, is to make sure you’re ok (acceptable in shape and size). If not, you quickly figure out a way to change that in some way. This possibility can offer a sense of hope by feeling a sense of control in a very chaotic world. This makes you feel better… for a brief moment. And the cycle begins again.

Keeping a log can help you monitor body checking. Keep notes on when and how you do it, and what thoughts and feelings come up. Then try to decrease the frequency of checking and the length of time you spend engaged in checking. 

For example, one of my Plano eating disorder therapy clients looked at herself every time she passed her bathroom mirror, first in just her underwear after waking. She would also pull up her shirt to look as she passed throughout the day.  She began taking notes and realized that often it was out of habit, but other times she would seek out the mirror purposefully. She noticed that sometimes it made her feel good, typically when she had been engaging in eating disorder behaviors such as calorie restriction. She also noticed that this good feeling was fleeting, soon to be replaced by anxiety about her body changing. Most of the time though, the body checking just made her feel bad– more anxious and down about her body, with a desire to avoid people. This feeling often grew into feeling bad about many other things in her life.  

When we decrease body checking, we spend less time obsessing over how we don’t measure up. It seems scary, I know. Clients always think this sounds like “giving up” or not taking good care of yourself. The truth is, when you stop body checking, negative body thoughts decrease a bit, and negative mood decreases, too. You have more time, energy, and brain space to devote to other truly important life areas, like your relationships and hobbies. 

CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SOCIAL MEDIA

As an adolescent during the 80s, I can’t even fathom how much WORSE I would have felt about myself if I’d had a phone in hand every second of the day to remind my adolescent brain how I compared to others. For us older folks, we have to go to old photo albums to see how our bodies compare to our younger years. Now, this information is at your fingertips at any moment. It’s too much. 

As an eating disorder counselor in Plano, Texas, I educate clients (including my Plano anxiety disorder therapy clients) about the plentiful research on social media use and mental health. (It’s not looking good!) My advice to them is the same I’ll share here. Become a smart media consumer- Pay attention to how certain images make you think and feel. Most clients admit that upon closer observation, social media images DO keep them focused on how they’re not measuring up in some way physically. Most also admit that social media use makes them low-key anxious about life in general, feeling pressure to compare themselves to others’ achievements and possessions. 

Diversify your feed! Zoom out on your life and notice what things inspire you, fill you up, and bring you joy! If you notice all of your social media content is focused on appearance (or triggers you to obsess about yours), change things up a bit. What do you value? Travel? Gardening? Music? Add accounts focused on these topics into your feed. 

DON’T FORGET OTHER MEDIA, TOO!

Social media gets so much attention these days, and for good reason. But I advise my eating disorder therapy clients AND my anxiety disorder therapy clients to notice how all forms of media impact them. Not only do we check social media throughout the day (I have teenagers… their social media use is unreal!), but we also watch entertainment differently than in the past. It’s in our hands. I stayed at a boutique hotel recently that proudly advertised no TVs in the rooms to help customers “unplug.” Cute. So I just pulled out my laptop and watched a Netflix movie. I watch movies and shows on my phone as I ride my Peloton. It’s there ALL THE TIME. 

As with body checking, monitor your use and see how it makes you feel. If you love reality tv, but watching it triggers you to harshly judge yourself in comparison to the people on the show, decrease your viewing, get rid of it, or diversify by adding in other things you watch. It’s impossible to expect us to get rid of media altogether, so learn to use it wisely. 

LEARN ABOUT FATPHOBIA AND WEIGHT STIGMA

I plan to expand on it more in a future post, as no discussion of body image is complete without that. But what is it? Weight stigma is defined as bias against individuals because of their body size. Fatphobia is the pathological fear of fatness, or an extreme aversion to larger bodies.

Suffice it to say here: Fatphobia is everywhere. All the time. We need to be aware of how it shows up in our culture. Pay attention to how it shows up in social media, television and film. Notice how it shows up in our conversations with family and friends. Most importantly, notice how innocent it seems, yet how it so profoundly negatively affects all of us. Body image expert Signe Darpinian has this to say about how mental health experts can educate clients about fatphobia: “You can start by telling them to casually point it out whenever they see it. Pop culture is always so helpful that way! For example, you could say “I’d forgotten that these old episodes of New Girl have so much fatphobia. I hate how they shame Schmidt for being fat in high school. There’s nothing wrong with being fat.” 

BEFRIEND YOUR BODY

Instead of aiming for body love or body positivity, work on simply befriending your body. Treat it the way you treat others, even when they aren’t your favorite person or when you disagree with them. If you struggle with this, try these exercises to grow the muscle of self-compassion: Imagine how you would talk to your child or your niece/nephew if they were feeling bad about something. How would you comfort them? Or imagine sitting down to chat with someone you find warm and caring. How would they likely talk to you when you’re having a rough day? Another idea is to imagine yourself as a small child having a rough time with something. How would you have wanted someone to talk to you? These exercises help to get in touch with your compassionate side. If you’re able to do this, practice using THAT voice to talk to your body. 

Another way to befriend your body is to respect it by taking good care of it, as you would a small child or a beloved pet. Basic self-care practices like washing your face and body, brushing your teeth, and getting good sleep are good for ALL of us! Others like massage, yoga, and pedicures can seem excessive, but can be a good reminder that your body deserves a nice splurge now and then, too! Remember that joyful movement and eating delicious and nutritious meals aren’t just for those in perfect bodies. These behaviors remind you that even though you might not like your body, or even if you feel disgust toward it, you can still take care of it and treat it well. Your body deserves that. Every body deserves dignity and respect. 

Social media can sometimes help with befriending your body. Remember, I said we can’t expect to get rid of social media, so figure out ways to use it wisely. Seek out body-neutral or body-positive content.  I wish that in my childhood there had been programs like Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls!, or shows with larger-bodied main characters like Shrill and This is Us. I also love seeing larger-bodied mannequins in clothing stores these days! 

SET MICROGOALS

With any changes we make, starting small is important. Big, fast change just isn’t possible with body image and eating disorder recovery in general. “Microgoals” are more achievable and long-lasting. If making a change in body image work feels too scary or overwhelming, it will prove too difficult to maintain, and hopelessness will set in. 

What do microgoals look like? If you struggle with trying on old clothes that no longer fit, rather than throwing all these clothes out at once, you might start with packaging them and storing them out of your sight. I had one client who chose to slowly decrease the number of times she changed outfits before choosing one. She eventually got down to allowing herself to change outfits only once. Not everybody is in the same place with body image progress. So we have to be flexible, check to see what’s the most distressing, and experiment a bit to find what helps to make solid progress.