Whenever I ask you what your favorite topic is in the podcast and blog, the answer is always the same: body image. This doesn’t surprise me, because struggles with the way our bodies look are like an annoying voice that whispers to us constantly or at least from time to time. Even people you’d never suspect, either because they’re conventionally beautiful, in a small body or seemingly very confident, struggle with body image issues. By now, if you’ve listened to our podcast long enough, you know why this is so present in people’s lives. We live in a society that puts so much value and pressure on the aesthetic, that puts so much judgement on what is external, how we dress, how we look, how flawless our skin is, how toned our body is, how small we are (in the case of most women), how strong and muscular we are (in the case of most men). Every ad we see, most social media accounts we encounter, every magazine we buy, is slowly but surely conditioning us throughout our lives to expect greatness and perfection from our bodies, never mind that the people featured in these don’t even look like that, never mind that even if they do they probably live and die for maintaining such rigid control to not lose it, never mind if we’d be happier understanding that all bodies are by design made to be different. Like Pavlov’s dog, we simply salivate when the clicker is hit (well, technically it was a metronome). We see an image and immediately the thought that follows is “how do I compare?”.
You’d think that with quarantine and COVID we would have valued the simple joy and privilege it means to be healthy and alive when others aren’t. You’d think we’d be so worried of adapting to this new normal, to homeschooling, to zoom meetings, to the social and psychological adjustments that come with separation and being on our own, we’d be too busy to worry about our bodies too. Well, as it turns out, for many of us, this time in slight or total isolation, this moment of complete uncertainty, has made some of those body image gremlins come back up for air. If this has happened to you, know that you are not alone.
In this two part post, we’ll be discussing common body image triggers, identifying what I call our failsafe road, and I’ll be giving you some exercises and journaling prompts to hold your hand a bit through this difficult time, but please remember that if your body image struggles are associated with an eating disorder, a product of deep trauma, or you’re engaging in self harm or have a more serious mental health issue, these should always be done with the support of your mental health team and they are meant as inspiration and education, and not as a substitute for mental health support or advice.
Self Compassion: Giving yourself a kind pat on the back
Before I dive into some of the cool tools I want to help you with today, I first want to talk about the very simple fact that we might simply be readjusting.
For many of us our shopping, cooking and eating habits were changed during this pandemic. For others, our exercise routine has changed. For many, emotionally, this is a challenging time, and it has perhaps made us step away from all the tools we’ve learned to keep us at a place in which we feel happy and at ease with our eating and movement routines. This is normal.
Sometimes detours and breaks in our happy routines are good lessons in remembering that we also have to learn to be resilient and flexible. That three months or 1 year of forgetting about mindful movement and mindful eating for example, is simply something that we can notice and come back to, again and again. In fact, teaching ourselves that we indeed do come back no matter how many detours we have, can be hugely helpful because it develops trust. It helps us remember that we’ve been through rough times before and we still came back to our happy center and this time is no different. It also helps us notice patterns and identify specific moments throughout the year in which we can use a bit more awareness and self compassion.
This insane year especially, give yourself a little break from feeling bad about any changes you’ve had to make in your life that might be triggering a difficult moment when it comes to body image.
How can this world crisis not affect us, not change us? This is normal, and it’s simply the result of all that conditioning that makes us think that any change in our routine will alter and change our bodies in a way we do not want.
It is also not very compassionate to feel that if these changes in our bodies did occur, and we’re seeing them in the mirror while we’re getting dressed, or on the scale when we go to the doctor, or in a tighter pair of jeans, that this is a terrible, horrible, thing. Our bodies are little complex engines, and if a change in how much we go outside, how much we walk, how many errands we run, how much time we spend indoors, is causing a change in our bodies, we need to learn to be compassionate with ourselves in these times too. We need to practice self compassion especially during these times.
Our bodies are meant to change and fluctuate over time and through life stages, the problem is we only see an unrealistic, often teenage body as the ideal, unchanged, unmoving even with the passing of time. The reality is much more fluid and complex, and we need to learn how to be able to act with kindness towards ourselves when these changes occur. Also remembering that there is a range that our bodies will usually fluctuate within, and that our body has all sorts of mechanisms in place to help us come back to the place where it’s at its equilibrium.
Having talked about the practical aspect, the reality of life aspect, let’s dive in a little bit deeper.
The failsafe road
I think we all have different coping skills for dealing with the hard stuff, and most of us, whether we’ve noticed it or not, have a failsafe we’ve conditioned and put into place and strongly maintained. The place we always go to when things get hard, the thing that will distract us from our feelings, help inhibit emotions, and give us a temporary and false sense of control.
Let me give you some examples:
We go through a difficult time because we’re in a job we don’t like, and because of the deep work and decision making needed to fix this problem, we go down our failsafe road, we immediately start nitpicking and think there are problems in our relationships. If this is us, this is the place we usually go to when we face hardships.
There is a deep issue in our partnership that needs to be looked at, but because it is so hard and painful to do so, we go down our failsafe road which might be increasing productivity at work. Pushing past our limits. If this is us, this is the place we usually go to when we face hardships.
We have a deep problem with perfectionism at work and overdoing it, but looking into why that’s happening for us, or what mechanisms instilled that particular pressure we put on ourselves is hard, so we go down our failsafe road and believe the problem is we’re not exercising enough. We then turn those same perfectionistic tendencies onto our workouts and exercise routines. If this is us, this is the place we usually go to when we face hardships.
We’re in lockdown, we’re fearing what might happen, we’re afraid for our relatives or friends who are at higher risk, we worry about the economy, our job security, the deep and difficult emotions we’re having about not knowing when this period will end. For many of us, the failsafe road, especially if we’ve been down it many times before, is having struggles with our body image. This is me. Chances are if you’re reading or listening, this is you too, and this is probably the place where you usually go to when you face hardships.
It’s very possible that you have one or two main failsafe roads, that because we feel a false sense of control within that road, it actually feels easier to go down it, rather than explore what’s really going on. If body image issues are your failsafe road, you might find yourself adding extra pressure and judgement on your body whether you’re going through a difficult time at work, are struggling with financial pressure, are worried about politics or the economy, are going through a stressful phase with your kids or partners. If body image is that road for you, you’re coming back to it again and again, reinforcing that pathway, training yourself that whenever you feel inner turmoil, your body might be to blame.
Before I give you additional tools that will help so much in this department in part 2 coming next week, the very first step is to take an honest look back.
Try to find the previous moments in the past year in which you’ve felt that the culprit for anxiety and stress was the shape and size of your body, and try to see if anything else was going on. It’s sometimes easier to look at previous examples of this first, and then, with all the information you discover, apply it to your current moment and body image struggles and try to see if there could be something else that needs your attention.
I’ve gone all the way to enlist a friend who, whenever she hears me telling her that the gremlins seem to be reappearing behind me in the mirror, in dressing rooms or in the shower, she should ask me, “what else is going on?”. 99% of the time something else is happening, and I’m going down my failsafe road as an automatic, temporary and definitely not positive, usual way of facing hardships. From all the emails and comments we’ve received, COVID and quarantine was definitely this trigger for so many of us.
Even if by doing this little exercise of finding your failsafe road, you discover that it isn’t a more focused concern over your body image, but it lies in work, in an excessive concern over your job and productivity, over the state of your relationships, over the productivity or perfection of those around you, over your romantic relationships, over your children or friendships. No matter what it is, finding it and identifying it is the first step in catching yourself before the focus on it becomes so obsessive you’re not only ignoring the emotions and situations that do need your attention, but you’re also adding additional and unnecessary pressure where it doesn’t belong.
In part 2 coming next week we’re taking this exploration a little bit deeper. We’ll talk about specific triggers when it comes to body image, things that might occur in your day to day lives that will serve as a little Pavlov bell and as an unhealthy reminder that you can use your failsafe road as a distraction, and as usual I’ll give you some exercises that might help you manage them better.
Until then, please remember that it is normal for changes in our bodies to occur, with or without a pandemic. It’s normal to let some of those habits you’ve been learning here to get more flexible and even forgotten from time to time and all you have to do is pull them back up. Remember that the more you practice being flexible in your expectations and on the pressures you put on yourself, the more you develop that body image resilience that is so necessary and helpful in this journey to a better relationship with food and your body. If it helps, get out your journal and write about previous moments with body image struggles, and begin to explore your failsafe roads, before we dive in deeper together next week.
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