[This article is an excerpt from my book “BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Recover”]
You may commit to eating enough food, and you may stop restricting. You may even recover your normal hunger cues and normal eating. But if you still have a bad body image and still think your body needs to change for you to be happy, then it can be very easy to fall back to your eating disorder behaviors or stay in a destructive mindset, one that never lets you enjoy a full recovery and the true freedom of being and feeling normal around foods and your body.
In one study of college students, 74.4% of normal-weight women stated that they thought about their weight or appearance “all the time” or “frequently.” But the women weren’t alone because the study also found that 46% of the normal-weight men surveyed responded the same way. (1) That’s an alarmingly large number of people.
Poor body image increases the risk for extreme weight/body control behaviors. Researchers have found that increased preoccupation with appearance and body dissatisfaction put people at greater risk for engaging in dangerous practices to control weight and size. Extreme dieting, overexercising, laxative abuse, vomiting, smoking, and use of anabolic steroids have all been associated with negative body image.(2)
This frequent participation in social media may lead to a distorted and unrealistic body image.
Most often, people with eating disorders focus on having a skinny body. They look at “thinspiration” pictures on Pinterest, watch YouTube videos with different diet gurus, search #thighgap on Instagram, and so on. This frequent participation in social media (and media in general) may lead to a distorted and unrealistic body image.
People Magazine asked 1,000 women about their bodies and how the images of Hollywood’s stars influence their self-esteem. The results? Only ten percent of respondents said they were completely satisfied with their bodies, and eighty percent said images of women on TV and in movies, fashion magazines, and advertising make them feel insecure about their looks. This insecurity can easily lead to a distorted view of one’s body. If the media doesn’t revise its ideal standard of beauty, more and more women could end up as victims of media-triggered eating disorders.(3)According to the authors of The Adonis Complex, “There’s often a vicious circle here: the more a person focuses on his body, the worse he tends to feel about how he looks – obsession breeds discontent.”(4)
The more we live in an artificial world of media – either through TV, magazines, Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube – the more distorted our image of the real world and real bodies is. We might think we know how media tries to manipulate us and that we’re just too aware to be fooled into that, but studies show otherwise.
German neuroscientist Dennis Hummel showed young women photographs of themselves that had been digitally manipulated to make their bodies look subtly heavier or thinner. Then he put the women through a series of visual tasks that asked them how realistic they thought their bodies looked in a series of photographs that were also subtly altered. Hummel found that after the women had been exposed to a thinner image of their bodies, they judged everything else they saw during the test as fatter, and vice versa. When they looked at images of other women’s bodies, they then judged their own differently. In other words, what they got used to seeing all around them influenced their sense of their own bodies and other people’s.(5) That’s how media skews our body image. It is all about chronic suggestions that change our view and understanding of reality.
A famous study of teenage girls in Fiji examined their attitudes around eating and body image just after television was introduced to the country and then again three years later. Psychiatrist and anthropologist Anne Becker, currently a professor at Harvard, chose Fiji for several reasons: large bodies were considered aesthetically pleasing there, dieting and disordered eating were relatively unknown (there’d been only one documented case of anorexia in Fiji), and the advent of television in 1995 offered a unique chance to explore its effects.
Becker and her colleagues saw profound differences in teen girls after Western television was introduced. Before TV, no girls vomited to control their weight, and few reported dieting or body dissatisfaction. Only three years later, eleven percent of the girls said they vomited for weight loss; sixty-nine percent acknowledged dieting at some point, and a full three-quarters of them said they felt too big or too fat at least some of the time. As one 1998 study subject told researchers, “The actresses and all those girls, especially those European girls, I just admire them and I want to be like them. I want their size. Because Fijians are, many of us, I can say most, we are brought up with those heavy foods, and we are getting fat. And now, we feel that it is bad to have this huge body. We have to have those thin, slim bodies [on TV].”(6)
The female ideal these days is not even genetically achievable to most women.
The female ideal these days is not even genetically achievable to most women. The ideal is not only biologically unattainable but downright dangerous to achieve as well. Skinny does not automatically mean healthy. As we talked in the first chapter, your body has a natural set-point weight where it feels it’s best – if your weight fluctuates a lot from that point, it’s unhealthy, and you will face some consequences such as loss of menstruation, osteoporosis, heart failure, and so on – your body will have to work overtime to bring your body back to balance, back to its set-point.
Did you know that if Barbie were life-sized, she’d be at seventy-six percent of a healthy body weight – a weight consistent with acute hospitalization? “The same thing goes for [six]-pack abs and the ‘ripped’ look being promoted to men; the ability to have very defined abdominal muscles is genetically endowed, and the hyper-muscled physique of action figures and male fitness models is impossible to achieve without illegal anabolic steroids.”(7)
About fifty years ago, the media’s portrayal of “the ideal” female figure was drastically different than it is today. At that time, mannequins and models more or less reflected the average woman’s size. Mannequins and models have grown thinner by the year, straying further and further away from the average woman’s physical form. Not only do most runway models currently meet the BMI for anorexia, but even the median plus-size model has shrunk several dress sizes over the past decade.(8)
But there is hope! One study shows that the more we are exposed to body diversity, the more we tolerate, accept, and even prefer different body types.(9) The more we see one kind of body (either bigger or smaller), the more we like that kind of body. So the more you come out of the magazine-skinny-photoshopped-model-body-idealization bubble, the better your body image and the more supportive you become toward all kinds of different body types, including your own.
Researchers at the University of South Florida-Tampa, who published a study on body image and social comparison, think it’s important to broaden the field, so to speak.(10) They suggest you go out in a public place and watch people passing by. In that way you will notice all kinds of different bodies. Not only the skinny ones we often see on television, in magazines and those perfect Instagram accounts. This will train your brain and your inner beauty detector to start accepting all kinds of different body types.
Instead of comparing your body to others, start to embrace the variety of bodies and the individuality around you. Instead of looking at other people’s bodies with criticism, judgment, or in comparison, look at people for their uniqueness. And I mean real people from the streets, not people from the media. Notice the many different shapes and sizes there are and yes, even the beauty “flaws,” according to today’s beauty standards.
By doing this kind of “exercise” in my recovery, I started to see value in all different body sizes, and it helped me feel more accepting of my own body. I also regretted having wasted a part of my life constantly thinking about my flaws and focusing on my “imperfect” body. I looked at women on the streets, and I started to see beauty in every single one of them, in their own personal struggles and stories. And through all of that, I saw myself as just being one of them, a person with my own unique appearance, attitude, and character, all of which stretched far beyond my physical weight and body.
It was just a superficial, meaningless programming. A brainwash.
This is how I woke up from the illusion that life was about having a perfect weight and size. It was just a superficial, meaningless programming. A brainwash. Superficiality was not a part of the person I wanted to be, so I quit believing in it and worshipping it.
I am fully aware that curing negative body image is a big task considering how much programming we have to undo. Negative body image is rooted much deeper than our eating disorder, and it’s a real bitch to dig it out. It takes a lot of time, practice, patience, learning, and repeating to undo the negative image and self-perception. It’s not an overnight thing. But is it possible to have a healthy body image after an eating disorder? Yes, I absolutely believe it’s possible!
If you can accept your natural body weight – the weight that is easy for you to maintain, or your “set-point” – and not force it to beneath your body’s natural, healthy weight, then you can live your life free of dieting, of restriction, of feeling guilty every time you eat a slice of your kid’s birthday cake. But the key is to accept your body just as it is. Just as I have had to learn to accept that I have thighs that are a little bigger than I’d like, you may have to accept that your arms are naturally a little thicker or your hips are a little wider. In other words, accept yourself. Love your body the way it is, and feel grateful for it. Most important[ly], in order to find real happiness, you must learn to love yourself for the totality of who you are and not just what you look like.”(11) –Portia de Rossi, Unbearable Lightness
If you want to read more awesome content like this, to improve your body image, come out of the brainwash, recover from your disordered eating habits and get back to intuitive eating you can read my book “BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Recover”
Want to learn how to go through recovery step by step? Check out my online course “6 Step Kickstart Course For Eating Disorder Recovery and Intuitive Eating”
(1) “Depression/Unhappiness and Poor Body Image/Body Dissatisfaction,” Researchomatic, accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.researchomatic.com/Depression-Unhappiness-And-Poor-Body-Image-Body-Dissatisfaction-122632.html.
(2) “Depression/Unhappiness and Poor Body Image/Body Dissatisfaction,” Researchomatic.
(3) Julie K. L. Dam, How Do I Look? (2000), People online, accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20132200,00.html.
(4) G. Pope, M.D. Harrison, A. Phillips, M.D. Katherine, et al. The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession (2000), Google books, accessed February 7, 2016, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Jo-LHyyIy_kC&pg=PA30&lpg=PA30&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false.
(5) Dennis Hummel et al, Visual Adaptation to Thin and Fat Bodies Transfers Across Identity (2012), PubMed, accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22905232.
(6) E. Anne Becker, A. Rebecca Burwell, et al, Eating Behaviors and Attitudes Following Prolonged Exposure to Television Among Ethnic Fijian Adolescent Girls, (2002), The British Journal of Psychiatry, accessed February 7, 2016, http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/180/6/509.
(7) “Body Image,” BWell Health Promotion, Brown University, accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.brown.edu/campus-life/health/services/promotion/nutrition-eating-concerns-eating-concerns-and-body-image/body-image.
(8) M. Kendyl Klein, “Why Don’t I Look Like Her? The Impact of Social Media on Female Body Image” (2013), Claremont McKenna College, online document, accessed February 7, 2016, http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1749&context=cmc_theses.
(9) L. G. Boothroyd et al, “Visual Diet Versus Associative Learning as Mechanisms of Change in Body Size Preferences” (2012), PubMed, accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23144929.
(10) Erik Fisher et al, “Social Comparison Body Image: An Investigation of Body Comparison Processes Using Multidimensional Scaling” (2002), Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, online document, accessed February 7, 2016, http://jkthompson.myweb.usf.edu/articles/Social%20Comparison%20and%20Body%20Image.pdf.
(11) Portia de Rossi, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain (2011), Kindle version, accessed February 7, 2016.