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Excerpts from Sacrificing Our Selves for Love

Chapter 6: Accepting Ourselves

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

Automatic Thoughts

    "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

    Exaggeration

    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:

Rational Counterarguments

    "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:

Automatic Thoughts

    "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

    Exaggeration

    Irrational; self-blame

    Jumping to conclusions

   Jumping to Conclusions

Rational Counterarguments

    "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").

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