Body Image Work: Excessive Connection or Excessive Disconnection to Parts of our Bodies, What to do When we're Obsessed with Certain Body Parts when we Look in the Mirror | The Brownble Podcast

Excessive Connection, or Excessive Disconnection to Parts of our Bodies: My Experience and Practice with Embodiment

diet & exercise on being vegan podcast May 20, 2022





Show notes:

 


 

Body image, body neutrality and acceptance are a few of those topics we talk a lot about in our blog and podcast, and we’re diving in deep today to talk about a side of my own journey with my body image work I haven’t shared before. In a way, it’s further exploration on the topic of embodiment, for which I shared a great exercise in episode 206 a two part episode where I answer a listener question about whether or not I still struggle with body image even after practicing intuitive eating, making peace with food, and letting go of diet culture.

Today I want to share some of my personal experiences when it comes to over focusing on very specific parts of our bodies. Everything I’ll share today is based on my own experience, and not meant to substitute medical or mental health advice, I am simply sharing stories from my own personal explorations in body image work. These have been topics that I’ve taken to my own therapist and have done work on, and they are meant to be examples of how great and healing it can be when we find professional help for past memories, trauma or to find connection with these parts of our bodies, and navigate excessive disconnection to parts of our bodies as well or excessive focus on them. I’ll of course be sharing some great resources that helped me on my journey as well, to hopefully help you find support when healing your relationship and connection to your own body, especially, if like me, the "issues" with your body or body image, have specific parts that come to mind as soon as I say this.

 


 

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Overfocusing on One Body Part When we Look in the Mirror

I’ve learned so many strategies for body neutrality over the years when looking in the mirror. Mirrors, scales and photographs (whether new or old), are in my experience the three forms of body checking we engage in the most when we’ve had a tumultuous journey with our bodies. I have very fixed opinions on each (mainly that the scale needs to go), and how you can begin to apply self compassion when and if you’re in these situations of seeing yourself and your body and immediately applying judgement, but for now, one thing I can say is, for most of my life, my eyes have gone straight to one place and one place alone when I look in the mirror, my stomach.

For some people this area is their lower body, their legs, their bum, their inner thighs, for others it’s their arms, or their back, their breasts, the lines on their forehead, the possible bags under their eyes, their nose, their hair, a particular scar, birth mark or area where there is a visible difference from other peoples bodies or faces. I remember that from a very early age, magazines, TV, movies and conversations were always shifted towards the idea that every girl and woman had some area they had to fix and didn't like. To me it’s quite funny how we all seem to have one of these, they are completely different from one person to the next, and yet, we dig a little shame hole for ourselves and create a home there, all alone, trying to hide, and we don’t realize that in fact we’re in a field of burrows. Rather than notice that we’re all in this state of body imperfection together, we live inside a lonely bubble by ourselves. 


At any given day at the beach, we’re looking longingly at that person with the tiny waist, feeling badly about our own, completely oblivious to the fact that that same person was looking longingly at our legs 5 minutes ago, making a wish of their own. Just as with the experience of life itself, we zero in on what we perceive needs “fixing”, and ignore the many positives that fill our days, our bodies and our lives. If this were a class by one of the many mindfulness teachers I’ve learned from through the years, they’d say it is yet another example of a time in which for days on end we ignore the non-toothaches.

It has taken so much practice to be kinder and accepting of myself when I find myself having an off day and my eyes are immediately going to my midsection like lasers. One thing I have learned is that those laser beams have been reinforced by my daily actions for so many years, that my perception often can’t be trusted, that others would look and not even register these self-perceived imperfections, and that even if they did, even if they are very evident, these say very little about our worth or value as a person.

One of the things that has helped me the most has been working on past trauma related to my body in therapy. It has helped me understand the reason for those laser beams, and it has brought so much healing.

A Personal Story of Body Image and my Stomach

From the time I was a little girl, I started having a huge attachment to food, it was a way of dealing with the anxiety I was feeling because of my circumstances growing up, and since I feel all anxiety in my stomach, that feeling of it being unsettled made me want to eat to calm it down.

This is how I had my first few binges as a kid, many of which went down in secret, kneeling on the floor next to my mother’s closet where she had a box filled with chocolate and sweets she kept for whenever she had to make a last minute gift. Whenever I started to feel anxiety bubbling up, I’d hit the box, or the pantry, or the fridge. I’d have one piece, then another, then another and I would walk away several times only to come back seconds later, because of course, eating would only distract me from my anxiety for brief moments and then the feeling would come back.

Food became this incredible warm blanket that made me feel taken care of, and I can now see, how even when I never lived in a home with food insecurity, I still grew up with a scarcity mentality around food. If our life was unstable, if I felt bad things could happen at any moment, if someone took my security blanket i.e. food, where would I be? When food was set in front of me, it wasn’t a matter of calmly enjoying it, it was a matter of trying to grab as much as I could grab, eyeing what was left over on serving platters and other people’s plates because I wanted THAT piece of lasagna and didn’t want anyone else to have it, and so I’d grab it and my mother would say “Gordy! - my mom's nickname for me- You still have some left over on your plate”. Sometimes, it still happens that I’m so afraid I’ll be left without food, I pile on duplicates and now it’s Carlos who points to the piece on my plate I haven’t touched yet. I am filled with immense gratitude and privilege when I say I have never been without food in my life, and yet, psychologically, emotionally, I have paired feeding myself with security, and it was also the start of huge connection and at the same time huge disconnection from, you guessed it: my stomach. 


When I was 15 years old, I was bullied terribly at school. It started as sexual harassment from the boys at school, although I didn’t know what that word meant at the time, and when I finally told someone, the kids found out and regular bullying was piled on top of it. It was such a fear filled time in my life and also the beginning of my chronic gastritis.

It felt like overnight my stomach had gone on strike and I was experiencing excruciating pain in my stomach all the way up to my throat, and every time I’d eat, I’d calm the feeling down slightly as I swallowed, but this was then followed by worsened pain. I went to doctors who prescribed medication and special diets which only lessened the symptoms at the start, but as the situation at school got worse by the second, the symptoms also became much worse, the pain wouldn’t stop. My stomach after eating would make me look like I was several months pregnant, and would make me double over with pain.

This story is a much bigger one than I can tell here, and it had very bad consequences for me and my family, but what is important for the topic at hand is that this is the point of my life when I began to learn how to disassociate from my stomach, disconnection from it became a way for my brain to handle the pain. 

It is in these events that I’ve had to do so much work in therapy. Through the years I’ve experienced the two ends of the spectrum, extreme connection with my stomach, especially after eating large meals or feeling pain like I did back then; moments in which it feels like my stomach is the only part of my body I have any awareness of and I’m focusing on it too strongly. I’ve also experienced huge moments of disconnection to my stomach (this is probably the state I'm in most frequently). For example, I have an issue with posture, in that there are long times throughout the day in which I have zero awareness of what my stomach is doing, whether it’s relaxing or tightening up. I’m sure by now you’re realizing another aspect of my eating I’ve had to work on more than most when it comes to practicing intuitive eating, and that is relearning what hunger and fullness cues feel like, because often enough, those signals went ignored inside my body.

Add to all of these experiences the fact that in my past, and many women have been there, it was this area that I had old very damaging relationships comment on, bringing my attention there yet again, this time in regards to its appearance.

So many of us have this issue with our own body pain points.


 

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To me, the sense of too much focus (almost obsessive connection and attention), feels like a heaviness, a distension of my belly, the feeling like I’m painfully holding my stomach in, even if I’m not, the feeling that it is outstretched and yet I can't pull it back in. It feels so powerfully heavy and distended (these are the exact feelings I had during my painful gastritis), it feels like it is all and everything I can feel, as if no other body part exists.

Disconnection feels like I am heavy everywhere but there, like I cannot tune into that part of my body, like it's something my brain ignores and cannot feel, even if I try to focus on it, if I manage to tune into that part of myself I feel this sense of lack, of emptiness.


I asked around to some of my friends and family who I know have experienced this too, only with different parts of their own bodies, they’ve shared mostly the feeling of disconnection, and within it, so many different sensations unique to them. Some felt hollowness, some felt tingling, some felt numbness or a heaviness paired with numbness, some registered the feeling of that part being almost detached from the rest of their bodies, almost as if it didn’t belong to them, a foreign element of sorts. It has brought me great comfort to realize that it isn’t only me, that for many of us, our past history and our body image, can bring about these very specific feelings.

Through the years, these moments of extreme uncomfortable connection (in which it feels like it’s my only body part), and these moments of total disconnection (in which it feels like that part of my body has been unplugged from the rest), have brought me so many issues with food, eating, body image and self-esteem. Throughout this process, it has been going to these origin stories in therapy, and healing those wounds that has brought so much healing, and a sense of balanced connection.

Then there is another type of connection, the dots we join when our own internal feelings with these parts have attached themselves to body ideals, body expectations, comments from partners, parents, coaches, teachers. When these two dots are connected, it can feel like each and every time we look in the mirror, our eyes go straight there, to the area we connect too much to on a daily basis, to the one we've received comments on, to the one we've disconnected from as a defence mechanism.

Other than therapy, there are two tools that have helped tremendously in my own journey, one includes physical actions to bring about awareness and connection that I’ve only recently realized was very important and started doing, given to me by my dear bestie Ve (who you heard me talking to on episode 200 on the wounds behind perfectionism). The other one a visual mirror exercise given to me by my therapist. I want to share them with you today just as examples of the kind of practices that can accompany the emotional work that needs to be done (because of course trauma needs professional support).

 

 

Body Image Exercise: Strengthen that Mind Body Connection through Targeted Embodiment (i.e. Do Exercise Where you can Feel it)

This one you owe to my friend Ve. I experienced the loss of someone I loved very much in the past few weeks, and it was extremely hard on me even though I knew that she was sick, and even though I knew I had to prepare myself for that moment. Through a slightly different set of circumstances, Ve explained how in body psychology, building the awareness and strength of that disconnected or fragile part of your body can actually give you emotional strength as well. 

I kept that information with me for a few days and realized that during the times of my life in which I have felt stronger emotionally, I have also been more connected to my stomach, and these moments have coincided with some sort of exercise or movement in which I practiced that connection.

When you need to strengthen that connection with that part of your body that feels like it frequently leaves the building, you can and should work on the emotional origins behind the disconnection (in my experience this needs to come first and with the help of a professional), but you can also work on the physical act of connecting with it.

For this purpose (and in this instance in an unrelated way, i.e. loss), every day for the past few weeks I’ve been taking 5 minutes to do this one simple exercise. Either lying down, kneeling, or on my hands and knees, I am letting my stomach go and stretch out in the most relaxed way possible. I’m not running from what I see or feel (its what I did for many years and I know I don’t need to anymore). I exhale and feel the distension of my stomach as it were Thanksgiving post feast, and then I inhale and pull everything up and in and register what that feels like. I repeat this again and again for 5 minutes. During this exercise I am not only strengthening my pelvic muscles but I am developing a new register of this part of my body. I am noticing what it feels like when it's in release, and what it feels like when it’s contracted. After a few days, I started to realize that this was helping me have more balanced awareness of my stomach and even of its signals, without being overly connected in an obsessive and self punishing way to how it may or may not look.

This can be done with any part of your body you have a strange relationship with. It can be done by stretching and releasing, by tightening it and letting it go, by doing forms of exercise where you can take moments to feel this part of your body, and I recommend moving it in a slow and focused way. It is not exercise to tone or change this body part, but to build inner connection to it in a way that is more self compassionate, so that this body part goes from this thing you feel you need to hide (from yourself and from others), to just another part, of your beautiful whole. It can be as simple as this contraction and releasing, a simple focused exercise of breathing into that part of your body, slow movements done in yoga or pilates style exercises where you really need to focus on that body part, or some simple stretching of that part of your body. Anything to help you build that kind connection.

Remember to also listen to episode 206 to follow this up with an example of changing a triggering day when it comes to body image into an exercise of present embodiment.

 

Body Image Exercise: Practice Looking at Yourself in the Mirror as a Whole

This is an active exercise that needs to be strengthened with regular, routine practice of it like if you were toning a muscle, every time you look at yourself in the mirror. 

Next time you step in front of the mirror and you begin to notice your eyes going to that part of your body you’ve been fixating on, take a step back and see yourself as a whole person, a whole body. See that you are more than the sum of your parts, that those “self perceived flaws”, or parts we’ve learned from beauty standards that need “fixing”, are a part of your precious body and remind yourself that what people see when they see you is exactly that wholeness, that their eyes aren’t darting to those regions like yours, because they haven’t had the lived experience that made you focus on them in the first place.

This is an exercise in actually taking a step back, and seeing the full picture of yourself, and remember (and we’ll cover mirrors in a future episode because the way I look in mirrors has gone through a huge change through the years), that you can re-establish a relationship with the mirror, as a two second glance to see that you didn’t miss a button, or to check how the colors of your outfit match and that your pony tail is on straight.

Mirrors were not designed as the torture devices we’ve made them to be in which we stay there (God forbid naked!) with a slightly distorted version of our own image, nitpicking and zeroing in, comparing ourselves to yesterday or even worse, our also flawed memory of what we looked like when we were a teenager and this massive mind-body torture started.

Approach a mirror like a kid would, 2 seconds, see yourself as a whole person, and run out the door to play and live your life.




Last but not least, speaking of mirrors, I couldn’t end this post and episode without sharing one of my favorite TED talks of all time, in which the speaker talks about looking at herself in a “true mirror”, what that is and what it taught her. It is a celebration of uniqueness, a video to watch when you need to come back to Earth after a particularly hard day in which you feel a perfect appearance would be the only important or interesting thing about you. It's a great thing to watch when you have that urge to perfect and correct, to turn that lovely unique you, into a similar copy of others. It also discusses the different layers of ourselves, what others think about us, what we would like others to think about us, what we think about ourselves and who we truly are. 

Make sure to also check out the book "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, a great read when trying to join the dots of past trauma and how it can affect and change our bodies, and the types of therapy that can help. Huge shoutout to EMDR therapy which changed my life and which I still do today.

Check out resources like the NEDA website for specific resources, a hotline, resources for free and low cost support, plus a list of therapists that can help you on your journey to a more peaceful relationship with food and your body.

Thank you to our sponsor this week, the wonderful Etsy shop Green and Experience, and we'll be back next week with more.


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