What is it that causes us to see only the flaws, the imperfections and the things we want to change about our appearances? What motivates us to attend with such scrutiny to the folds, the sags, the creases and the wrinkles? What prevents many of us from seeing the beauty and uniqueness that we do actually possess—no matter what our shape or size? What stops us from accepting ourselves as we are? The answer is, ALMOST EVERYTHING. Our body image evolves over time and resides in some complex amalgam of messages and experiences gained over the years through family, friends, community, culture and society. Women are bombarded by messages on a daily basis about how they are in need of improvement, about how they are not OK the way they are.
Lose 20 lbs in 8 days! 2 weeks! A month! Women are assaulted by these assertions daily while standing in the supermarket checkout line, commuting or surfing the web. Magazine headlines, billboards and flashing sidebar messages promise that the secret to happiness and success hinges on weight loss, and reinforces that it needs to happen now! Fast! So that life can actually begin. This can lead to the indefinite postponement of projects, career moves and/or relationships because we feel that we are not worthy or deserving of satisfaction, success or even comfort at our current weight—the way we are NOW. As stated by Geneen Roth in Women, Food and God, “The relentless attempts to be thin take you further and further away from what could actually end your suffering: getting back in touch with who you really are. Your true nature. Your essence.” In other words, it may be a matter of learning--training ourselves--to pay attention to what we already feel, need, know and want, to the signals and signs that our bodies and souls are giving us in the present moment that frees us up to pursue what we truly need and want, what fuels our souls. Mindfulness-a here and now connection to our bodies and feelings- could possibly help end our obsessions with weight loss and perfectionism and allow us to live our lives to the fullest.
Recent research states that on average, most women have somewhere between 13-50 negative body thoughts per day. Advertising strategically harnesses this overwhelming anxiety about body image. The media-along with the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry-convinces girls and women that physical appearance is inextricably wrapped up in self worth, encouraging dieting and prompting the purchase of products that will somehow smooth, flatten and tighten us. And they almost never work. A 2006 study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine states that most people participating in weight-loss programs “regain about one-third of the weight lost during the next year and are typically back to baseline in three to five years.” Dieting tends to be one of the main factors that instigates an unhealthy relationship with food and disordered patterns of eating.
The lens of critical hyper awareness that society provides and through which girls and women learn to view their bodies frequently leads to obsessive thinking about food and disordered eating, as well. This critical lens can also trigger fear-fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of love because, as Geneen Roth suggests, we don’t want to surrender to love in a relationship because we don’t want to give ourselves to something we might eventually lose. Emotional discomfort—feelings of fear, sadness, grief, loneliness or boredom tend to scare us, which sometimes conditions us to run—to numb out, to turn to obsessive thinking about food and/or weight loss to distract us from feeling what is actually there. We get into a cycle of thinking about food, and instead of listening to the cues in our bodies and eating to satiate hunger, we eat to soothe ourselves for relief or comfort which then leads to feelings of guilt, shame and contempt for our actions and our bodies. According to Jean Kristellar, PhD, Co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating and the Mindfulness Based Eating Awareness Training Program, “It is extraordinarily common in our food abundant society for ‘unwise’ eating patterns to develop and become entrenched, resulting in eating disorders and obesity. Patterns, developed since childhood, interact with societal pressures to override basic nutritional needs. The use of food as a viable source of pleasure and emotional satisfaction becomes distorted." Kristellar’s research has shown that mindfulness, when applied to hunger, fullness and eating can help transform our relationship to food and our bodies while also helping us to address our inclinations to flee from our feelings.
In response to these important issues, The Women’s Health Resource Center at California Pacific Medical Center has created an innovative program called BodyLOVE, a 12 week group for women co-lead by Janet McBride, a nutritionist/dietician and Helena McMahon, a psychotherapist who both specialize in women's health, body image and eating disorders. Such topics as Mindfulness and Mindful Eating, Food and Mood, Binges and Cravings, Expressing Needs/Assertiveness, Creating Safe Food Surroundings and Building Energy and Movement are explored from both physiological and psychological standpoints, allowing for optimal learning and exploration of these central themes in efforts to create a more positive and healthy relationship to food, eating and our bodies. In a safe, comfortable and contained environment, a variety of creative approaches and learning points are integrated to help guide participants toward understanding and incorporating important new information, gaining new perspective and reflecting upon their own relationships with food, eating and body image. The groups also provide women with a safe space to explore relationships generally and to build trust and self-confidence, and offer participants a unique opportunity to identify unhealthy patterns and to learn how to change them. Groups meet on Wednesday evenings from 6-9PM. Call Barb Silver, CNP, Director of the Women's Health Resource Center at CPMC at (415) 600-0502 for more information and/or to sign up for the group.