I've been told by my past therapists that poor body image is the last thing to go with an eating disorder. The ED thought have gotten quieter as I haved learned to fight them with DBT skills. The urges are less prevalent as I have lots of tools to combat them. But the way I view my body is still has distorted as the day I went into treatment.
The way I view my body is so irrational, and very normal for people with eating disorders. It is like looking in a funhouse mirror. I can do a body check in the bathroom and have a neutral view of what I see and them walk to the bedroom and do the same body check in that mirror and suddenly I feel like I've gained 800 lbs. I don't know which mirror is the most accurate reflection. I've come to learn that all mirrors lie, but that doesn't stop ED telling me to do a body check anytime I pass a reflective surface.
Body image has been the focus of my therapy for the last several years as the other ED issues were under control. I've done everything from workbook pages to exposure therapy. In exposure therapy I had to stand in from of a full length mirror and observe my thoughts for a set amount of time. Each time I had to increase the amount of time spent in front of the mirror. Nothing really seemed to make a difference. What has helped the most is focusing on body acceptance vs body positive.
For many years my focus was on body positivity. It is a great movement and I envy all the people that have achieved this level of body image. Body positivity is total love for your body as it is. People of all shapes and sizes just loving their bodies for what it is and how it serves them in their lives. It sounds so wonderful and for years I thought that was where I needed to be. I would try to find things that made me feel positive about my body. I would start working out and love how strong and empowered I felt in my body, but exercise would turn out to be a double edged sword for me. It would begin to be compulsive. I judged myself if I didn't work out and I began to use exercise as permission to eat certain foods. It was hard for me to distinguish my motivation for exercise. Was I doing it because I wanted the end result of feeling empowered or was I doing it because I wanted to be able to eat a cookie for dessert? (FYI you can eat the cookie regardless!) ED can cause very black and white thinking- you either have bad body image or positive body image. I didn't know there was an in between. A grey, neutral zone for body image- body acceptance.
This new way of thinking about my body was a game changer. I don't have to love my body, I just have to accept it. Like the saying "it is what it is." I never knew this was an option! I don't have to look in the mirror and admire what I see, I can just look and move on. Having the pressure off my shoulders of feeling like I HAD to have a positive opinion of my body is a relief, but I am still working on body acceptance. I am working on it every day. Every time I am in the bathroom, I try to challenge myself not to do a body check. I am using a lot of self talk using neutral statements like: "I'm not fat," "My body is not wrong," "My body does not define me." I'm also working really hard to shift my focus from "skinny" to "happy." I find myself asking "does this bring me joy, or will this make me happy?" This is especially helpful when I am trying to figure out my motivation for exercise. The large majority of days the answer is no, exercise won't bring me joy and that is OKAY! My favorite way to exercise is by attending dance fusion classes at my gym. I am terrible at cardio or strength training on my own, if it hurts then I stop. But the gym has been closed for a while and even when it reopens, I'm not sure I will be first in line to me in a confined classroom with people breathing heavily. So, for now I will choose things that bring me joy, like walking my dog, riding my bike, or just relaxing and reading a book.
Like I said, I am still working on this every day. Body acceptance isn't second nature yet, but I will keep practicing. The other day I tried a little exposure therapy of my own. I have a crop top sweatshirt that I LOVE. Usually I wear is over a tank top, but I love the way it looks on other people without a tank top underneath. I thought I would give it a shot since crop tops are not exclusively for people with toned midsections. I wore it for 3/4ths of the day. I felt very self conscious even though I was just in my house with my boyfriend. But I wanted to see how far I could push my negative thoughts. I ended up changing because I noticed how it was affecting my mood. It wasn't making me happy, so I changed into something that I felt more comfortable in. Will I ever feel good enough in my skin to confidently sport a stomach exposing top? Probably not, but that is okay. Something that in my wise mind I know, but part of me still doesn't accept.
Body image isn't an issue exclusive to people with eating disorders. It is everywhere. All ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations. Our society exposes us all to unrealistic images through photoshopping images in the media, a strong diet culture, and widespread body shaming. I hope that changes someday, but until then, just try to accept your body as it is. Your appearance does not define who you are. Focus on happiness and do all things for love and happiness in your life.
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