Excerpt from Sacrificing Our Selves for Love by Jane Wegscheider Hyman and Esther Rome, in cooperation with The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.
When we have harmed our bodies by trying to change our looks, the first step toward better health is to understand what we are doing to ourselves, and why. Yet, even when we realize how and why we are harming our health, we may find it very difficult to change our attitudes and behavior. Most of us grew up saturated with pictures of an “ideal” body. As a result, self-acceptance can be a long and difficult process. It involves changing the way we see ourselves, and gradually weaning ourselves from the insidious power of images that have surrounded us all our lives.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Over the years, each of us has developed a picture in our mind of how we look. When we think about our bodies, what our mind’s eye sees is actually a complex image formed by years of experiences — with parents or other caregivers during infancy and childhood; during puberty’s sexual development; from the remarks, comments, or innuendoes from others; from the way we each think that others see and judge us; and from comparisons of our faces and bodies to those of our peers and to media images of women. Adolescence is usually a crucial time for the formation of self-images because girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are often more concerned about their appearance and more self-critical than any other age group.1 When we look in a mirror or watch ourselves on a videotape, we see the complex picture that we have put together over the years. What we see may not match what others see. In fact, others’ opinions of a woman’s looks are no guideline to how she sees herself. A woman who you think is slender or beautifully featured is likely to see herself as overweight or to have a feature she cannot accept.
How we see ourselves is important to our physical and emotional health. Our most fundamental sense of ourselves is as a body; therefore, our body image is closely related to our sense of overall worthiness. Our body image affects our self-esteem, and vice versa. For example, if we have persistent negative thoughts about our looks, these thoughts can undermine confidence in our abilities. On the other hand, if our work is highly praised, or if we have attracted a new lover, we may suddenly see ourselves as more appealing than before. Also, when we are happy and optimistic, our self-image may be better than when we feel lonely or pessimistic.
I still eat as much as I did when I was bulimic, and I weigh as much as I did then. And yet, I don’t have a problem with it anymore. Now, I like my body and I think I eat well. It’s all in your head — it really is.
I think that the eating and body image stuff were very much symptoms of other things that were wrong: an inability to express myself needing to be perfect — a perfect girl. I know that when I feel good about myself and when I’m happy and feel solid, I don’t worry about my body; I feel really good about it. And when I don’t, then it manifests itself in how I feel about my body. —Woman who recovered from bulimia
Our overall self-esteem is more closely related to the way we see ourselves than it is to the way others see us. For example, family, friends, lovers, and colleagues may think that we look fine, extremely attractive, or beautiful. Nonetheless, our self-esteem will not improve if we remain critical of the way we look. Conversely, if we find that we look more attractive than others think we do, our self-esteem is likely to be correspondingly high. This happy view of ourselves is a way to escape the tyranny of other people’s judgments. Furthermore, believing that we are attractive fosters our social confidence and skill. In other words, accepting and liking our own appearance is a healthy state of mind because it helps us feel content with ourselves and with our lives.
Unfortunately, a healthy self-love is not common among women. Many of us have distorted views of our own bodies, finding certain features or parts unacceptable and embarrassing even when other people think we look quite normal. You probably know at least one woman whose concern over her nose, hips, or wrinkles seems exaggerated to you (just as your concerns may seem exaggerated to her). Studies suggest that the majority of women who have eating disorders or who request cosmetic surgery have self-disparaging, distorted images of certain features or parts of their bodies.2 Those of us who are emaciated by self-starvation but still find parts or all of our bodies “too fat” are extreme examples of a tendency toward distortion now known to be widespread among women. Because of media images and other influences, many of us have irrational thoughts and unrealistic expectations of how our bodies should look. And the thoughts and expectations encourage distorted images of our own bodies. Think of the simple act of stepping on a scale and reading the numbers. These numbers are charged with meaning and associations that you have learned from the media and possibly from physicians, friends, and family. Such associations will partly determine your reaction. Your first thought may be “I’m too heavy,” meaning that you weigh more than others (a chart, a physician, a magazine article, a weight-loss clinic) say you should. This thought may lead to emotions: anxiety and self-loathing at being heavier than others say you should be. Your thoughts and emotions may trigger a reaction: you start a low-calorie diet. Eventually, the diet leads to a higher weight than before, which brings on further thoughts: “I can’t even control my weight. I’m a failure.” In this way, unrealistic expectations of what we should weigh and how we should look influence our thoughts, emotions, and health. They are a constant strain on our self-esteem.
We may experience a similar chain of reactions for any part or aspect of our bodies. For example, when looking in a mirror you may think, “My nose is too long,” comparing your nose to those you have seen in fashion magazines or on television. This thought may trigger anxiety: “Because of my nose, no one will ever love me.” This emotion may lead to a change in behavior — when you go to social events you may try to avoid letting others see your face in profile. You will probably become extremely self-conscious by being so focused on avoiding certain angles or positions vis–vis others, which may give the impression that you are stiff, affected, and distracted. If a prospective partner turns away from you for any reason, your thought may be: “It’s just as I imagined — X is not attracted to me because of my nose.” This may lead to more extreme anxiety and further destructive thoughts: “I am not worthy of love.”
Other people, however, including romantically inclined partners, may find your weight or your nose quite pleasing. Unfortunately, their opinions are not likely to shake your entrenched thoughts and emotions. Instead, you may find that your life increasingly revolves around your physical self-consciousness. You may avoid social gatherings or outings where you think your body will be scrutinized, avoid bright lights, and even avoid physical intimacy, depriving yourself of the very situations that you may long for. Such self-deprivation can become a habit, a tragic result of a woman’s lack of acceptance of her own body.
CHANGING YOUR MIND
Our self-destructive behaviors may begin with thoughts such as “I’m too heavy” or “My nose is too long.” But such thoughts can be changed. We can exercise our imagination to begin to change the way we see ourselves. Because body images reside in the mind, our goal is to teach our minds to be our allies rather than our enemies. However, be prepared for the hard work required in a culture so hostile to our self-acceptance.
One way to begin is to write down automatic, negative thoughts about your appearance each time they arise (see accompanying box).
By using this technique, you can challenge an unlimited number of assumptions about your looks and broaden your concept of beauty. For example, the thought, “I’m ashamed of these brown spots and wrinkles on my hands. They’re so ugly!” may become, “My hands have a variety of colors and textures. I’m fascinated by the beiges and browns, and by the tiny lines on my fingers. These are hands with a past!’
If you begin practicing such alternative ways of thinking, try to use counterarguments based on reality, not fantasy, and that are self-affirming and persuasive. Once you have worked through a column of automatic thoughts and rational counterarguments, rehearse the counter-arguments aloud. Then practice catching automatic thoughts as soon as they occur and challenging them with ready arguments.
Part of my recovery from bulimia was accepting my body. I would tell myself. I’m muscular and I’m curvaceous; I’m not 5’8″ and 105 pounds and I’m never going to be.
Recognizing and Dealing with Automatic Thoughts
The psychologist Rita Freedman gives the following example of a woman who has just had her hair cut in a new way and is so appalled at the results that she feels ashamed to go to a party.3
“I look hideous. This haircut is a disaster.”
“I always make such a mess of everything.”
“I’m ashamed to go out. Everyone will laugh.”
“I can’t go. I’ll die if anyone sees me.”
After noting her automatic thoughts, she examines them for flaws:
Errors in Thinking
Self-blame; turning one event into many
Emotional reasoning; jumping to conclusions
Jumping to conclusions; exaggeration
Then she writes down rational thoughts to use instead:
“It’s not great, but it’s not hideous. Looking scalped isn’t really earthshaking.”
“I wanted a new look. Just because it didn’t turn out as I expected this time doesn’t mean I mess up all the time.”
“I’m entitled to make a mistake. Some people may laugh, others will sympathize. Most won’t care.”
“I can go or not go. Either way I won’t die. At home I’ll be safe and lonely. If I go, I’ll have more risk but more to gain.”
You can use the same technique when you step on a scale or look in a mirror.
“My thighs are disgusting.”
“I can’t lose the flab even though I’ve dieted. I’m a failure at everything I try.”
“I’ll never find anyone to love me with thighs like this.”
“I can’t go to the beach today. Sam will see my thighs and be revolted.”
Errors in Thinking
Jumping to conclusions
Jumping to Conclusions
“My thighs are the largest part of me.”
“Mother’s thighs are also big. I guess big thighs run in my family.”
“Some people like big thighs: they find them soft, snugly, and sexy.”
“If Sam is so easily revolted I may as well find out now. In any case, I don’t want to become a recluse. I’ll go to the beach and enjoy myself.”
We can combine the above exercise with other routines to help change our body image. These routines include:
Training in self-assertion, especially in regard to appearance: “My weight is my own concern, not yours.” “A flat chest is normal after a mastectomy!”
Beginning to overcome fears: for example, if you are afraid to appear in public in a bathing suit, you can begin by wearing just a sleeveless dress, then wearing progressively more revealing clothing until you feel comfortable in a swimsuit.
Testing reality: ordering a full meal in public even if you fear ridicule; ordering dessert in front of a critical parent, friend, or lover.
Scheduling pleasant events for our bodies: taking time out regularly for a massage, a long bath, a relaxing swim.
Choosing dance therapy or other practices in healthful movement, such as the Alexander technique and Feldenkreis method (see ‘Resources”).
In addition, we can practice more healthful ways of using scales and mirrors, two objects that often trigger self-disparaging thoughts about our bodies. One survey suggests that many women weigh themselves more than once a week, and that some women step on the scale once a day or more.4 Such frequent monitoring magnifies the significance of any changes in the numbers on the scale and can repeatedly trigger negative thoughts and anxieties. Try to be aware of the number of times you step on the scale per day or week, and of your thoughts and feelings about the numbers you see. Then decide on a schedule to reduce scale use. You may decide to move your scale to a less accessible place or to remove it from your home altogether. As you learn to accept and love your body, you will find a scale unnecessary. Some women demolish their scales, which they see as a fitting end for an object that caused them so much distress.
Some of us also misuse mirrors, either refusing to look at parts of our bodies, refusing to look at ourselves unclothed, or repeatedly and compulsively looking at ourselves to check our image. Mirrors greatly influence body images. They make us more self-conscious by drawing attention to our looks, thereby encouraging critical self-scrutiny. When we see our own images we tend to compare them with media-induced ideals of beauty, inviting rejection of our own bodies, or mixed feelings at best.
We can work on constructive ways of using a mirror, such as using relaxation techniques while looking in the mirror, or rehearsing short, convincing compliments about different parts of our bodies: “My eyes are a lovely color.” Some women write praise lists that are meaningful for them and that cross the boundaries set by stereotypical beauty ideals:
“These hands look strong and capable.”
“My eyes are bright and humorous.”
“I have a relaxed, warm expression on my face.”
We can all learn to use praise lists to defend ourselves against habitual self-criticism and to help broaden our concept of beauty.
We could also decide to cover our mirrors for a month or two to allow ourselves to concentrate on how our bodies feel and whether or not our clothes are comfortable, rather than on how we look. However, if you already cover your mirrors because you intensely dislike your looks, you might uncover at least one mirror and practice the self-praise exercises above and the body image exercises later in this chapter.
When I looked in the mirror it was like cutting my body up into different pieces and evaluating the pieces, as if it was some sort of thing: “That’s my butt, there are my arms, and this is what my breasts took like.” I was very harshly critical in a sort of splicing way. I would really focus on different parts and then rip those parts apart, being hypercritical. It was a violent way to look at my body. It’s the way men look at women’s bodies. It’s the way people took at pornography — a violent took. In a way, I was looking at my own body the way a man looks at pornography.
As we practice more positive approaches to our bodies, we can begin to think about healthy approaches to exercise. Movement nourishes our bodies, and exercise can be a sign of love and respect for ourselves. Even those of us who are ill, infirm, or disabled can find ways of moving certain joints or body parts to improve circulation and maintain flexibility. However, exercise can also become self-abusive. Some of us find that we have an almost compulsive urge to join yet another aerobics class, to run one more mile, or to buy yet more weights or workout machines. We may continue exercising when overtired or in pain, disregarding our bodies’ clear signals that we need rest. Omitting a regular exercise routine may be so frightening that we continue exercising even when injured.
If you think that you may be addicted to exercise, try to be aware of why you are exercising, how often, and how you feel when you have to miss an exercise session. If you become anxious when you miss a session, what are your fears? Over a period of months, you may want to gradually reduce your time exercising, stop timing yourself and counting, and try focusing on the fun of movement rather than on fitness or weight. Joining a folk dance group or dancing at home to music can help you feel the joy of movement and the exuberance of rhythm. Remember that loving your body means moving it to accomplish tasks and because it needs movement, not moving it to change the way it looks. You can reinforce your body love and self-esteem through positive statements as you move:
“My body is strong and comfortable.”
“I enjoy my relaxed arms and legs.”
“I like myself and feel easy in my body.”5
In these ways we can help ourselves turn an oppressive addiction into an act of self- respect.
ACCEPTING OUR WEIGHT
The ultimate act of respect for the body is to nourish it sufficiently and well. However, many of us sporadically or continuously starve ourselves and therefore have lost our natural ability to know when our bodies need food and when they do not. If you feel hungry all the time, or never feel hungry, try eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as a midmorning and midafternoon snack if you wish. Eat your meals and snacks at the same time each day, and eventually you will feel hungry before each meal. Be aware that chewing thoroughly helps the digestion of your food. This is healthy for all of us, and especially for those of us recovering from bulimia, whose bodies must readjust to proper digestion.
Each of us might also practice the body image exercises given at the end of this chapter to help us accept our own setpoint weight. Techniques such as these for improved self-acceptance may help us see ourselves more positively and raise our self-esteem. If we learn such exercises as young girls, they might lower our risk of low-calorie diets and other eating disorders and make us aware early in life of the cultural pressures for weight loss and of the need to defend ourselves against them. (For this reason, it is a good idea to practice the exercises with our daughters.) Remember, however, that changing our thoughts and behavior patterns requires vigilance and continuous practice to withstand ceaseless opposing media messages; biased employers, families, partners, and medical care practitioners; and peer pressures.
We can support one another in our efforts by becoming more aware of what we say to each other about our looks. For example, notice the compliments you give and receive. How many are comments on the way you or others look? Make an agreement among trusted friends not to compliment each other’s appearance, especially weight. For example, if you tell a friend: “You look like you’ve lost weight. Great!” you are rewarding her for being thinner; you are entrenching the idea in her mind and yours that only thinness is attractive; and you may be encouraging her to worry about maintaining her weight. Even avoid comments on haircuts and clothing. It will be harder than you think! Instead, practice greetings that have more to do with personality than appearance, such as: “You look especially lively today!” or simply warm-hearted greetings such as: “I’m so glad to see you again.” Also, with a group of friends or other women interested in changing their body images, practice responding to comments about your weight. For example, your response to: “Do you think you’ve put on some weight?” might be: “I feel much better at this weight, thank you.” In some cultures, remarks about looking heavier, such as “You look fresh and fat today,” are compliments.6
CHALLENGING THE MEDIA
Researchers are increasingly aware of the relationship among media images, distorted body images, low self-esteem, shyness, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Therefore, we may find exercises that challenge the media and change our media-related habits, helpful ways to improve our self-images. By gathering data, we can learn to identify media pressures to conform to a certain body standard.
For example, ask yourself the following questions, and write down your responses and results:
What television programs do I commonly watch?
What items do the programs or their sponsors sell and what images associate thinness with physical attractiveness?
What images suggest that thinness brings glamour or goodness?
How do I feel after watching such images?
How do I feel about my looks after I stop watching such programs for a week? A month? Longer?
Ask the same questions of any picture magazine you habitually buy. Also, take one issue of the magazine and review it for pictures of full-figured women, women over 50, and ethnic and racial diversity. Notice if the magazine includes articles promoting more diversity in beauty ideals and warning about the dangers of diets, yet pictures only thin women for fashion and other advertising. As an antidote to such magazines, gather photographs of women whose looks are not conventional. Your photographs might include Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Mahalia Jackson, Grandma Moses, Toni Morrison, Helen Keller, Odetta, Golda Meir, Dorothy L. Sayers, and innumerable other women, including, perhaps, some of your own relations and friends.
Also, imagine that you live in a world without images — no television, illustrated magazines, illustrated newspapers, billboards, photographs, or mirrors. How do you think you would feel about your face and body? Would you think about your looks at all?
In addition to awareness exercises, we can form or join lay and professional organizations, such as those listed in “Resources,” to help exert pressure on the media to use images that reflect the enormous diversity of our looks. Such efforts might be partly modeled on the successful use of television programs to reduce drunk driving. The media is today’s most effective educator, and some people working in the media are increasingly interested in eating disorders or have friends or loved ones whose eating is disordered. Television companies could produce shows that illustrate acceptance and love of women in all our diversity. Fashion magazines could employ models who fully reflect the adult life span and humanity, rather than employing mainly white women so tall, thin, and youthful that they represent a ridiculously small fraction of women. Such changes would presumably have an impact on the way we judge ourselves. The media owes us these changes to help reverse the harm that uniformly thin, young, able-bodied images have brought about.
This culture telling us we have to be little is as much of a problem as footbinding in China. You know, women encouraging each other to be thinner and to look a certain way; and mothers doing it to their daughters; and girls doing it to each other, and teachers doing it to girls — to break that cycle is an incredibly powerful thing. The last thing expected is that women will support each other. Usually, what happens is the competitiveness: “Oh my God, she’s smaller than I am or I’ve got bigger breasts than her”– you know, the whole diet-competing thing which a lot of girls do together. And to have women turn that around and be supportive of each other on these issues is powerful. –Woman who recovered from bulimia
I have begun to realize how destructive magazines are since I’ve been in college and become involved in feminist issues. Also, I’ve been dissociating myself from the media. I haven’t bought a magazine like Mademoiselle since I’ve been in college, and I haven’t watched more than an hour of television in six months. –Woman recovering from anorexia
1. Thomas F. Cash, The Psychology of Physical Appearance: Aesthetics, Attributes, and Images, in Thomas F. Cash and Thomas Pruzinsky, eds., Body Images: Development, Deviance, and Change (New York: Guilford Press, 1990), p. 60.
2. Thomas Pruzinsky and Thomas F. Cash, Integrative Themes in Body-Image Development, Deviance, and Change, in Cash and Pruzinsky, Body Images, p. 338.
3. Rita Freedman, Cognitive-Behavioral Perspectives on Body-Image Change, in Cash and Pruzinsky, eds., Body Images, p. 276.
4. Rita Freedman, Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Looks — and Ourselves (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 101.
5. Marcia Hutchinson, Transforming Body Image: Learning to Love the Body You Have (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985), p. 114.
6. This is a complimentary greeting of the Punjab in India, from April Fallon, Culture in the Mirror: Sociocultural Determinants of Body Image, in Cash and Pruzinsky, Body Images, p. 95.
Excerpt from “Sacrificing Our Selves for Love” by Jane Wegscheider Hyman and Esther Rome, in cooperation with The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. © Crossing Press: 1996