My Body Image Story, Part 2: The Magic Number

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About two years after moving to Maui, my family moved back to the Mainland. But the bubbly, outgoing teen that landed back at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had changed forever. The new version had been ravaged by daily harassment until she grew into a shy, depressed young woman who had only a fraction of the confidence she had two years prior. Stepping out of the plane that blustery November day, we drove to Southcenter first to buy some warm coats. We no longer owned any. All we had were windbreakers, and the Pacific Northwest weather laughed at our flimsy attempts at warmth.

The first days of school are somewhat of a blur. All I wanted was to fit in. I was certain I would be able to find my place in the middle school, and greatly looked forward to belonging, just like in the days before moving to so-called “Paradise.” Belonging is something all people crave, but young teens crave more than other age groups. Our hearts long to be assured that we are connected and loved. I had always been very well-liked, and a leader. So I assumed I would pick up where I had left off.

But I had forgotten one important detail. That is, my skin now glowed with a deep golden bronze tan, and my hair had been painted white-blonde by the paintbrush of the Hawaiian sun. Just as I did not fit in living on Maui as a haole in a school with only a handful of white students, I now did not blend in because of my deep, dark tan and white-blonde hair. Since it was November and tanning salons had not been invented, most people were very pale – kind of like my legs right now, which almost glow in the dark! Also, my body had blossomed and now appeared athletic but full-figured. This sparked interest by the boys, and jealousy in the girls, even though I didn’t want a boyfriend. All I wanted was to fit in like I used to do so well, before we moved to Maui. Thankfully, another girl moved from southern California at about the same time, which took some of the pressure off.

Over time, the tan faded and my hair darkened until it reached “dish blonde” color. (That’s such a weird phrase. I think of after Thanksgiving, when the dish water looks grody and gross, with little food particles water-skiing on top of the muck!) Even so, my soul had been changed forever and now felt heavy and dark. But my entire Maui experience is another book for another time. I have several parts written, but for now it hangs out under my bed with the dust bunnies. Overall, I felt good about my body. I liked the fact that I was strong and able to swim and run. I didn’t worry too much about what to eat until I started looking at a lot of beauty and fashion magazines, such as Seventeen. How could I help but notice the tall, thin models? Not one of them had a curvy figure like mine, and not one was under 5’9. So I decided, for the first time, I needed to lose weight. I was fat, I thought, and baffled because I had never realized it.

I told my dad I was going to go “on a diet,” and he said he thought I didn’t need to. “If you want to lose 5 pounds or so, why don’t you just cut down a little each time you eat?” I could not believe how out-of-the loop he was. I looked at him as if he had three heads, and told him, ”Dad, I have to go on a diet. Nobody just cuts back a little – dieting is how everybody does it.” I sighed at his ignorance on the subject of beauty. He definitely needed to spend more time reading beauty and fashion magazines, and less time working, hunting, and fishing. I wondered if he would ever get a clue. How could he be in his late thirties and be ignorant to one of the best inventions of mankind – dieting?

I decided to start my diet on – drum roll please- Monday. Of course you already knew that, because after all, isn’t that the way the cookie always crumbles? I think there is an unwritten eleventh commandment, “You shall start all diets on Mondays.” But as soon as I began to even think about my first diet, I started to crave almost everything. Except Brussels sprouts. Food, food, food was on my mind what seemed like 24/7. I craved chocolate, chips, hamburgers, donuts, and even white cake. And the weird thing is that I had never really liked donuts or white cake much. So why was I craving it? Because as soon as I limited the foods and categorized them into “good” and “bad,” the cravings began. And that is how I started a cycle of going on and off diets, throwing my poor body into a tailspin. (Years later I realized that God doesn’t even categorize foods as good and bad. So if he doesn’t, why should I?)

During high school, my family moved once again (we moved about every two years, so I never had the chance to establish roots)and I became good friends with Diane. She had a lot of friends and had been elected ASB president. Diane was athletic and brilliant, but she continued to get gnawed on by the Body Image Bandit because her brother and sister were models. Not long after we met, she did some number crunching and informed me that I should weigh 105, based on a chart she had discovered in one of her beauty and fashion magazines. Because I had been brainwashed by the fashion and beauty magazines, I believed she was right. And so I hyper focused on food, fat, and my fanny. Day in and day out, I thought, read, and studied about food, calories, and how to look good. I started to believe that my value was mostly in my packaging, and based my value on whether or not I could weigh 105. I had a new formula for a perfect life- 105. The magic number.

© Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC and Fannies:  Reflections on Cookie Dough, Life, and Your Derriere and Fannies:  Reclaiming the Plunder of the Body Image Bandit, 2007 – 2047. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC and Fannies:  Reflections on Cookie Dough, Life, and Your Derriere with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Body Image and Dieting: Why Diets Don’t Work

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Note:  This article is for people who need to lose weight for health reasons – not those who want to “get skinny” so they will have perfect lives.  We will address that later. 

Face it.  You are more likely to get run over by a truck full of PMSing women going on a Dairy Queen binge than losing weight – and keeping it off – on a diet.  Statistics show that when you go on a diet, you will most likely gain all the weight back – plus more. It may take months or a few years, but that is what almost always happens.
The reason for this is that food issues are about our hearts and stories. So whenever you go on a diet, you are treating the symptoms only. This is somewhat like having an injury and treating only the pain without finding out what is causing it.

A few years ago I ran into a former client at a grocery store.  I did a double-take because I didn’t recognize her.  She told me she had lost eighty pounds, and I asked how she did it (nobody was around, or else I would not have done so).  She said it was mostly from the counseling we did.  “I’m no longer self-medicating with food because you really helped me work through my issues.  And now whenever something is bothering me, I let myself feel it and then work through it instead of running to the fridge.”  We had worked on some difficult events in her life, and I had asked her when she first started to gain weight.  The last time she walked out the door of my office, she had a whole bag of tricks to help her deal with the difficulties in life.  Plus, she had worked through many of the important events that had caused her to use food to feel better.  (Of course, this side of heaven, we will all have issues to some extent.  But I imagine you’ve already figured that one out.  And if you think you have no issues, then we really need to talk!)

“When did you first start to gain weight?” is the million-dollar question that most people never address.  Usually something of significance happened at that time, such as a parent’s divorce, moving, the loss of a relationship, sexual abuse (defined as anything a child experiences which is inappropriate, even if no touching or penetration is involved), a death, the rejection of a good friend, etc.  In other words, just about anything that made you sad or changed your world.   If you can’t figure out what that is, look harder and get professional help.

After we worked through this particular issue, we continued to work on her other issues of the heart.  Essentially, many of the other bumps in the road of her life, from early childhood on throughout her life.  I had noticed that it looked as though she was losing weight at the time, but did not focus on it.  Then she finished her therapy, and I hadn’t seen her in a few years.

If you continue to go on and off diets, you will continue to treat the symptom and not the actual problem.  If you truly have a problem, you are facing an addiction.  Yes – a food addiction.  You are self-medicating with food, just as many people self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, pornography, shopping, reading (if you use reading to escape and to avoid your problems), computer addiction, exercise addiction, etc.

And the cherry on top is that the more diets you go on, the more weight you will gain in the long run unless you are one of the tiny percentage of people who actually lose weight and keep it off.  Hmmmm…I wonder how many of those people actually dealt with the issues that brought them through the door of food addiction?  I’ll bet you a hot fudge sundae that most of them did.

© Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC and Fannies:  Reflections on Cookie Dough, Life, and Your Derriere and Fannies:  Reclaiming the Plunder of the Body Image Bandit, 2007 – 2047. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC and Fannies:  Reflections on Cookie Dough, Life, and Your Derriere with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.