Body Image and Research: Stop Obsessing!

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How much time do women and teen girls obsess about body image?  “The average woman spends about an hour a day contemplating her size, her calorie intake, and her exercise regimen starting at the age of twelve.” (Research compiled by Courtney E. Martin for her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters:  How the Quest for Perfection Is Harming Young Women.)

Although I’ve worked with women for several years, an hour seemed hard to believe.   I’m sure I‘m not even close. So I’m trying to catch myself each time I think about body image, even for a millisecond.  At first I couldn’t catch myself.  But that evening I attended a meeting of about 100 people.  Many of us had pulled our chairs back about a foot to listen to the speaker more comfortably.  I caught myself comparing my thighs to the woman beside me, which surprised me.  It was very subtle but I have to admit that’s where my mind went.  Hmmm….interesting.

Right now I’m in the lobby of a restaurant waiting for a friend, who called to say she would be late. A woman walked in and I noticed myself subtly sizing up her legs.  Since I was seated next to the door, I saw each person walk in.  Another young woman arrived with a man who was about 5’2”.  It must be hard to be a short man. I hardly even noticed the woman.  Next, a pretty blonde woman walked in, and I saw her belly hanging over the top of her jeans.  As people walked toward their tables, I felt my eyes scanning their bodies from head to foot.  Another part of my brain was actively trying to decide what to eat for lunch, and whether I would indulge, deprive myself, or order something in between.

Am I unconsciously comparing myself to these people? If I was my therapist, I would take the conversation deeper to find out what this was about.  But since I live in a culture where people view 250,000 ads before the age of seventeen, I know what it’s about.  Most of the ads scream, “Beauty is almost everything, and to be thin, flawless, and young is beautiful.”  We are bombarded by a tsunami of such messages, and our natural instinct is to obsess about bodies, food, and working out (for some).  I reminded myself that thankfully, God is concerned much more about my heart than my body.  I will practice the stop sign technique from the last blog entry I wrote because it works well, and will continue to re-focus on positive thoughts.

“Man looks at outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”  I Samuel 16:7

Male Body Image: The Man on the Chicken Diet, Part 2

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“When did you first start to gain weight?”  I asked.  The all-important question that most naturopaths, physicians, and nutritionists never ask.  (Note:  The same question must be asked if someone has issues with purging, bingeing, or over-exercising.)

“Hmmm…I think it was my second year of med school.  Before that I was pretty buff and worked out a lot.  I kept working out, but started packing on the pounds.

“So what happened in your life the second year of med school?”

“Oh, nothing really.  I mean it was brutal and agonizing, but nothing really happened that year.  I did well in all my classes, and had some good friends I hung out with.”

“So nothing else really happened that was significant?”  I wondered if maybe the stress had caused him to turn to food as his drug of choice, but my work is like detective work in that sometimes I have to dig hard for clues.  I got the feeling that something else of significance had happened during that time.

“Nope.  Everything stayed the same.  I mean, a girl dumped me for someone else, but we hadn’t really been together that long.”  People often drop bombs like this in therapy, not realizing the tremendous impact the bomb made on their lives.  Denial is definitely alive and well in America.

I sensed that he had cared deeply for her, even though the relationship had not lasted long.  “What was her name?”  I asked.

“Brenda,” he said, in a quiet voice that spoke volumes.

“What was she like?”  People often think that if they talk about painful situations, they will feel worse.  But usually the opposite is true.  Yet it is a tightrope because if they get overwhelmed, they may get flooded sort of like a car.  Then they can’t function.  But if they continue to stuff it, it is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater.  It’s only a matter of time before the pressure causes it to pop out of the water with a burst of power.  Stuffing, I tell my clients, is only for turkeys and teddy bears.  If we stuff our feelings, it leads to self-medication with excessive food, drugs, computer time, shopping, working out, alcohol, or even reading excessively as a form of escape.  (Not that books are bad, but using them – or TV or the computer – to avoid dealing with our feelings leads to trouble.)  We are created for relationship – with God and with people – and when our relationships crumble, our hearts radically shift into despair.  So living in community means that we share our stories of struggle and pain with safe people who will validate us and offer us hoope.

“She was really smart – another med student, actually.  And so pretty, but not in a model sort of way.   More of the natural, girl-next-door type.  She had this auburn hair that was curly, and she hated it.  But it’s one of the things that made her special.  And she had a laugh that you could hear from here to Singapore.”  He smiled quickly, then it vanished like a light switch that was flicked on for a millisecond.

“She sounds like an amazing woman,” I said.

He sighed, which I learned years ago usually means that something monumental is about to be said.  “Then she became lab partners with my roommate – the lab partners were assigned to us – and they gradually went from lab partners to life partners.”  He looked at the floor as though his eyes could bore a hole clear to China.

“Oh man, I am so sorry,” I said.  I could feel the tears welling up in my own heart and saw one of his flowing down his cheek.  We continued to talk gently about Brenda, and I acknowledged that it was very hard to do, but told him that he couldn’t get through it unless he was willing to go through the dark valley to get to the other side.

After a while I tried to lighten it up so he would not leave flooded and decide not  to come back.  “Hey, I have a question,”  I said.

“Oh brother – you always have a question, don’t you?”  We both laughed.

“What’s that?”  he asked.

“Well, you said you were pretty buff during that time in your life.  But even so, it didn’t get you the perfect life.  What’s that about?”

He laughed, this time a funny laugh.  “Sheesh – you always nail me, don’t you?  Okay, okay, I’ll admit that even though I was in great shape, it wasn’t the magic cure-all.”  We talked a bit more about some things in his life he was looking forward to because I wanted him to feel grounded before leaving.  If people leave when they are flooded with sadness, they can spiral downward, which can lead to more depression and/or self-medication.

Then next week, to my surprise, Ben said, “Hey, I brought you something.”  He handed me a brown paper bag.  I opened it up, and inside was a rubber chicken, about six inches long.  “That’s to show your clients that if they have magical thinking – with diets or anything else – it’s like putting their faith in a rubber chicken.”  He shared that he decided not to go on a chicken diet after all, but that he wanted to continue working through his issueswhich caused him to gain extra weight, even though it was hard and at times felt like throwing in the towel.  He knew it would not be easy, but he also knew that the price of not getting better would be much more costly.