Are you struggling with eating disorder recovery? Do you also want to improve your body image but don’t know where to start? For many, the body positivity movement seems great in theory, but also completely out of reach. In this blog post, I’ll share the first step in fighting negative body image: learning to tolerate your body, even when you hate it. When you practice tolerating your body, you learn to endure discomfort, rather than make the situation worse by acting on eating disorder urges such as restricting, purging, using laxatives, overexercising, or binge eating.
WHY WORK ON BODY IMAGE IN EATING DISORDER RECOVERY
As an eating disorder therapist in Plano, Texas, I discuss body image with all of my clients in eating disorder recovery for several reasons. Negative body image, or overconcern with one’s body shape/size/weight, triggers eating disorder symptoms. Poor body image is also a predictor of eating disorder relapse. Negative body image is also very stubborn. It’s the last symptom to go away in eating disorder recovery. It has to be addressed consistently from the beginning of eating disorder counseling.
Research on eating disorders suggests that negative body image involves feeling DISGUST for your body. So we have to focus on the disgust if we are to improve body image. But if we expect to start feeling love toward our body by simply exposing ourselves to images of people in larger bodies smiling in bikinis, lovingly caressing their cellulite, we will likely never get anywhere beyond more discomfort and shame for not loving our bodies enough.
ALSO… media images still highlight attractive, mostly average body sizes. Even the mainstream body positivity images. The average American woman is a size 14-16, yet the average model is said to be a size 2. I do believe this is changing, at least in the images we see in social media, and in films and tv. We simply cannot move forward if we are constantly feeling shame about our bodies.
For many, the body positivity movement has led to increased anxiety. This makes sense given that we are bombarded with images and stories on social media of women celebrating their bodies, in all shapes and sizes these days. I LOVE this progress we’ve made! I was ecstatic to see Lizzo marching around onstage in lingerie, looking so damn comfortable up there! My clients don’t always feel the same. They want to get there, but don’t know how.
Negative body image can create anxiety, stress, and difficulty staying emotionally balanced. If we can learn to distract or calm ourselves when we notice it, we have a chance to tolerate these uncomfortable emotions better. We can learn to or even enjoy a moment, even if we aren’t happy with our body. Later on in eating disorder recovery work, we move on to body image acceptance, compassion, and maybe even liking our bodies.
To practice tolerating your body, really try to notice when you are having a body image moment– a moment of distress or disturbance, in which really negative thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations come up. Perhaps this is when you are having an intimate moment with a romantic partner. You wonder if your double or triple chins are noticeable. Or when you decide to brave wearing a bathing suit to the beach for the first time since elementary school. You find yourself panicking at the thought of what you look like from behind as you walk in front of a group of strangers. Especially teenage strangers. In effort to move beyond this stress so you can ENJOY THE MOMENT, BECAUSE YOU F*ING DESERVE TO, here are some things you can do.
TOOLS FOR BODY TOLERANCE
DISTRACTION AND SELF-SOOTHING TOOLS
- BREATHE! Practicing deep breathing, relaxation breathing, meditative breathing… whatever you want to call it… is the easiest skill to help calm your nervous system. It’s also the foundation of so many other helpful coping skills in eating disorder therapy. (see my blog post describing various breathing exercises)
- ACTIVITIES THAT ENGAGE THE SENSES: Try using a heated blanket, neck wrap, or take a warm bath or shower. Or try a cold shower or cold cloth applied to the face or eyes. Try massaging your hands or feet with aromatic essential oils, or diffusing them. Listen to soothing music or sounds in nature. Go for a stroll and pay close attention to what you see and hear: birds, leaves, flowers, lightning bugs. My favorite sensory activities are burning candles and using a handheld back and neck massager.
- GET BUSY: Do arts and crafts, like knitting, crocheting, paint by number (my personal favorite since the pandemic began). Tend your garden. Do laundry or clean your kitchen. Learn to play an instrument. Walk or play with your pet. Snuggle with your pet (another favorite of mine).
These help you to be present and enjoy the moment, focusing less on body image distress.
- BREATHING: There are various exercises for focusing on the breath as it enters and leaves your body, changing the length of exhale, adding in imagery, or using music or sounds to guide you. See my blog post on breathing techniques to ease anxiety.
- 5 SENSES: An exercise in which you notice what you can hear, feel, see, smell, taste in the environment around you. Here is a worksheet to help guide you.
- MINDFULLY LISTEN TO MUSIC: Listen to music of your choice, but focus on the different instruments you hear, the voices the silences between the notes. For me, sometimes this is classical music, and other times it is rock music, depending on my mood and how distressed I am.
EXPOSURE HIERARCHY FOR BODY AVOIDANCE
Typically, clients with eating disorders avoid things that make them feel bad about their bodies. This seems to help in the short term, but in the long run, it actually makes body image worse. With this tool, a therapist can guide you to very gradually do the things that create anxiety, while teaching you to calm your anxiety and tolerate distressing situations better.
MINDFUL PROGRESSIVE BODY SCAN
This is an exercise in which you focus on one part of your body at a time while trying to notice these parts nonjudgmentally. This can help us tolerate the experience of noticing our bodies without making the moment worse.
What all of the above body tolerance skills have in common is they can decrease anxiety in the moment, and buy us some time until our rational mind is back online. Until then, we are in fight/flight/freeze mode and may do something to make our body image even worse.
If you could use help learning to tolerate your body, I’d love to help. I OFFER VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me here or at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include anxiety, depression, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My counseling office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.