Quieting the Body-Shaming Demon: A Challenge for Readers
In September, I went to a two-day conference on Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating in Meredith, NH. I had the pleasure of sitting in on an incredibly empowering presentation about one woman’s approach to preventing eating disorders, specifically in schools.
The presentation was amazing. I was beaming the entire time. I will spare you all the details because one part stood out as the single most important take-away message:
If we are trying to make the world a better place by quieting the nasty demon that is an eating disorder, we have got to change the way we talk about ourselves. How can we preach, “stop body-shaming!” and “accept yourself!” when the next minute we are joking about bikini season or calling ourselves ‘fat’ because we ate some cookies?
As a professional in the field, I have the responsibility to set an example for my adolescents and their families. I eat dinner with them three nights a week, and demonstrate that I can eat a balanced meal containing grains, proteins, and, yes, fats, and be okay with it. I eat an afternoon snack every day, and some of those days, it’s with the adolescents who come to program after school. Some of them have said that they love when staff eats with them, because it shows them they aren’t downing Cheez-Its and Nutter Butters just to gain weight. Shockingly to some, cheese crackers & delicious peanut butter cookies actually help people 1) satisfy cravings, 2) have energy!, and 3) nourish their body and mind.
Every few weeks, I teach a lesson about Body-Shaming (see more here). Part of this activity asks the kids to name at least one thing they like about their physical appearance. Most of them really struggle with this, sometimes because it’s just hard, and other times because they don’t want to seem “arrogant.” Thank you, Regina George, for the “So you agree? You think you’re pretty?” mentality you’ve instilled in the minds of most people under the age of 30. (That being said, I still love Mean Girls.)
Once they do respond, most of them list their eyes or their hair. I have mixed feelings about this. At first, I think, “Yes!! You recognize that your body isn’t just your shoulders down to your ankles! Your face and hair are also body parts!” Then the other part of me is so sad to imagine how hard it is for people to say, “You know, I like my stomach. My arms are great! And my legs are strong and make me great at my sport/walking my dog/literally getting me anywhere I ever need to go.”
After the conference, I vowed to spend (at least) the entire weekend free of body-shaming including but not limited to commenting negatively on other’s appearance, or commenting negatively on my own. I do well with the former, and struggle more with the latter. Yes, I am an eating disorder therapist with an unrelenting passion for improving body image. I also live in a highly-critical, image-focused society and have my ups and downs. For the days immediately following the conference, any time I had a negative thought about my appearance, I pushed it aside. Not verbalizing it actually made a HUGE difference. Verbalizing it gives the statement power. It, intentionally or not, requests that someone else then comment, “Oh my God, Regina, you’re sooo skinny!” (hello again, Mean Girls). Is that the only way we validate ourselves? By putting ourselves down and relying on our peers to pick us back up?
The night after the conference, I went to a comedy show. Within five minutes of arriving at the venue, an usher joked to me that he was “too heavy to be ejected” if he broke the house rules. Another five minutes passed, and one of the comedians told a horrible joke about an overweight woman – I’m not going to validate his joke by including it here, but I will just say it ended in hysterical audience laughter. IT IS INESCAPABLE.
Another important take-away from the presentation was that we have to stop “normalizing” self-hatred. It actually isn’t that normal. I remember when I was living in Peru a few years ago, my friends from Europe who were also studying there told me that I was way too hard on myself. I would take a picture a few times until I was satisfied enough to post it in a public forum. I got much better with that by the end of my three months there … but after having been back in the U.S. for three years, I again find it hard to escape the all-American, constantly-criticizing-myself mentality.
I want to challenge anyone reading this to become more mindful of your own body-shaming. Again, this means commenting negatively on the appearance of others, as well as commenting negatively on your own. You probably do not have a perfect body, because that would be physically impossible. What does that even mean, have we figured that out yet? But it is your body, and it gets you from place to place, it gives you a home, and it keeps you warm.
“Anyone saying negative things about themselves empowers other people to do the same. When you speak positively about yourself, it doesn’t mean you are 100 percent OK with your body, but you are living with it and loving what you have today. Then you empower and give permission to other people to do the same.”
Erika Vargas, LMHC, is the Lead Adolescent Clinician at Walden’s Braintree clinic. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families. Erika is passionate about promoting healthy body image, understanding the impact of social media on self-esteem, and encouraging parent education in the treatment of eating disorders. In her non-clinical life, Erika enjoys traveling and spending time with her corgi. Erika welcomes comments at EVargas@waldenbehavioralcare.com.