Body Image Series: Behind the Curtain of Control
After a teary eyed episode last week, I'm finally here for part 4, the last instalment of our body image series (at least for the time being). We've gone through so many aspects of our struggles with body image in the series. In part 1 I told you all about my rock bottom moment when it comes to body image and the fantastic tools that pulled me out of that place. In part 2 we discussed what the research is now showing when it comes to body image, body image resilience, and using the low points as jumping off points to slowly improve your relationship with your body. We also talked about self care (not self control or focusing on changing our bodies in order to love, appreciate and look after them). To me, acts of self care were one of the secrets to coming to a new relationship with my body and with food. In part 3, we talked about what happens when we have a different body, either due to illness, disability or circumstance, and I again told you about a painful/joyful part of my life, where I learned so much about what it means to navigate this beauty obsessed world.
Today we're going even deeper.
Today we're going deeper because our issues with body image and our relationship to food are like big juicy onions. Once you start peeling back the layers, you start to notice there is usually something at the core of these issues, something we try to keep hidden away below the surface, distracting ourselves with calorie counts, miles measured in apps on our phones, trying to control, tweak and change our bodies, and speaking negatively about our outside image instead of looking inward.
Today we're peeling back the layers of the onion.
The Core of Control
The tricky part of living in the dieting/weight obsessed narrative we live in these days, is that it latches on to our belief that if we could just get a handle on our weight, our bodies, and fitting into the thin ideal, everything else would come into a blissful balanced place. In spite of how much I personally struggled with food and my body, and the hard work it took to get out of that space, the truth is that there was something much more difficult I was trying to cover up by having this intense focus on trying to be perfect. There was something at the core of my life that I wasn't ready to look into. In my case it was a double edged sword. If you read or listened to last week's episode you probably know what that is, on the one hand I was trying hard to distract myself from the pain of losing my mother, on the other, I was battling something much deeper: my addiction to control.
When you grow up in a situation like the one I grew up in, a childhood that was full of love and magical experiences (thanks to that rockin' mamma of mine), but also a lot of fear and pain, you develop a very strange view of reality. As a child I was simply not equipped to handle the rug being pulled out from under me at a moment's notice, no warning at all. We could be having fun at the park and one tiny mishap while playing tag could mean months in a hospital. We could be comfortably at home watching a movie and suddenly, in a second, be in emergency situations in which I had to act quickly, not knowing what to do, and being extremely scared of losing everything that made up my life. It drove me deep into the thralls of perfectionism.
If I was a very good girl I wouldn't give my mother any additional things to worry about. We had enough problems.
If I got good grades at school my mom would be proud of me and all her suffering would have been worth it.
If I was very careful with the things we did and how we played or where we went, I could prevent accidents from happening and I could keep my mother safe.
If I was a very good girl, a pretty girl, a thin girl, an athletic girl, a smart girl, a sweet girl, everyone who said my mother couldn't do this (by this I meant having a kid on her own) would have to eat their words.
If I was perfect, I wouldn't stand out anymore. I would finally fit in in spite of how different my life was.
As I write these sentences now, I realize how silly and off base these beliefs were, but at the time I felt them so deeply. They weren't even thoughts, they were the pillars at the core of my belief systems. They guided every action and every choice. The true base of all of these was fear, and not feeling I had the space to actually feel my feelings, but to me the problem was, well... me. I had to tune, tweak, change and perfect in the hopes that doing that would make me feel better and more in control, in a life that was handing me situations that were completely out of my control.
The problem when these issues happen so early on in life is that they get seared into our being. It's taken me years to be able to acknowledge this and let go.
Growing up with this need to be perfect and not cause any trouble made me need an outlet, and if you've ever read my story, the only release I found was turning to food as a coping mechanism. After years of having an unbalanced relationship to food, overeating to the point of being sick, and feeling out of control, I found dieting, the ultimate illusion of control. I was hooked! I was hooked on the distraction, I was hooked on the initial changes I saw my body go through, I was hooked on the rush that counting, measuring, and having a little "project" gave me. It was the ultimate distraction, and it was the tool I "needed" for what I thought was the only out of control area in my life: my relationship with food. I didn't know then what I know now, that restriction actually pulls you away from being in tune with your body. It pulls you away from improving your relationship with food. It pulls you away from finding balance with food. It took me further and further down the rabbit hole, and very far away from the place I needed to go to. All in the pursuit of body perfection. I also hadn't realized that this was not the area I needed to look into and find peace with in my life. My relationship to food was the aftermath, a symptom. What I had to do was pull back the curtain and go into what was hiding behind it.
I wish someone had told me that no matter how hard I tried, there were circumstances in my life that I would never be able to control. I wish someone had told me that my body was perfectly fine just the way it was. I wish someone had told me that perfectionism would be the biggest hurdle I would have to overcome and that it takes you to the opposite direction of well being. I wish someone had told me that in order to heal my relationship to food, I had to go into that place I was trying so hard to hide from, the one where there was all that pain and grief I didn't want to see, that was causing me to binge, overeat, and then diet as punishment. I wish someone had told me that it was ok to feel scared and out of control under my circumstances, but that there was another way to find peace, accepting that life was going to throw me some curveballs no matter how much I tried to impose self-control.
I was addicted to control, and to me that came in the form of trying to change the shape of my body and my eating, but control was the only coping mechanism I found as a child, and many years later, I would find a way to start letting go.
That place I was so desperately trying to hide from, was the fear of losing my family, the fear I wouldn't be able to survive on my own. The fear of not being able to react in time in emergencies and help my mother, and the fear that once she was gone (because I knew from a very early age our time together would be limited), I wouldn't be ok.
I've always told you that my relationship to food is one of the biggest hurdles I've had to overcome in my life, and that's certainly true, but what has been even harder (and also the reason behind my ups and downs with food), has been letting myself feel my grief and acknowledging that constant fear I felt as a child. My biggest challenge now isn't being able to eat French fries without guilt, it's dealing with what I call the scanner, that constant need to scan my life to see if there are any possible dangers on the horizon. Mentally going through a checklist to see if my dogs are ok or if I need to do something to ensure that they're ok, if my relationship with Carlos is ok or if I need to change anything in me to make sure it stays ok. If there's anything going on with work, my friends, my health, my home. I scan for trouble like a nosy neighbour eavesdrops on other people's conversations, and I'm stuck in the trap of control. What would happen 8 times out of 10 when I did this in the past, is that I would find food or my body as the main problem, translation: something easy to control and work on that only required me and my willpower. It has taken me a lot of work, and I'm still working on it, to let go of this scanner, and with it, let go of control. The first step on this mission was actually to let go of the automatic impulse to tweak my body, and this allowed me to peel off the layers of the onion, and finally deal with my sorrow, and start loving and living my life.
For me it was wanting a distraction from my grief and my fear. I wanted to feel in control because I felt so out of control and couldn't deal with it. I wanted something to be guaranteed, that if I did A I would get B. For other people it was feeling unsafe in their bodies as a child after going through trauma. For others it's having been abused and wanting to protect their bodies against further assault. For some people it's trying to deal with being in unhealthy or abusive relationships. For others it's never having learnt healthy coping mechanisms or an outlet for their feelings. It wasn't until I started to heal what was at the core of my issues with food and my body that I truly found peace within it.
This took a lot of work with the many tools I've taught you about throughout this series, and for me it also took professional help in the form of EMDR therapy, but the main thing it took was practice. Practice with the parts of myself I found, as I dared to look in. I call these the voices between the layers.
The Voices Between the Layers
That little cartoon of the devil and the angel on top of our shoulders telling us what to do is the perfect visual for what I found when I started peeling back the layers. When I was trying to let go of the control, I found different sides of me that wanted different things. I found the controlling side of me, which would tell me to eat less, exercise more, control more. It would tell me my body wasn't good enough, that if I fixed it it would help me feel more confident and that would solve all my other problems. If you remember from part 1 of this series, this is not what I found at the end of the dieting "rainbow". I also had a rebellious side of me. One that after feeling full and realizing I had had enough to eat and was perfectly content, kept me going, eating and eating until I felt numb, because she felt it was unfair. She wanted no rules, no limitations, and she was created of course as a natural response to the one with all the rules. Then there was that side of me that I started to develop over time, that true intuition that wants to keep you safe and protected.
I call it the guardian.
It's that voice that pops up when you're tired and are forcing yourself to exercise more and more, but a part of you tells you that it's time to rest. It's that voice that tells you you're full after you've had enough to eat, and that you're hungry and it's time to eat. It's also that side of you that pops up when you let it, telling you your body is alright just the way it is, and that you are loveable and enough, just the way you are.
The problem is that in today's world, everything from the media to conversations with friends is reminding us to quiet down that guardian and raise the other two. We're either on scarcity and control mode, or on rebellious, excess and numbing mode, two sides of us that were created to help us cope with certain things, but which might not be serving us anymore as adults.
In the cartoon of our body image and relationship to food and exercise reality, the restrictive perfectionistic voice is the little "angel" that promises purity and perfection if you do things just right, the rebellious voice is the little devil that promises bliss and pleasure, and the guardian is you. Your intuition, that deep voice you know to be true but you just haven't practiced listening to. The one that wants to keep you safe and happy.
Which one wins? The one you practice listening to, and trust me, it's a practice. It's about rebuilding trust within yourself, trust that you'll provide tender loving care to yourself even as your body changes, and regardless of the shape and size it is now. Trust that you'll keep it well fed and well rested. Trust that you'll also listen to its signals of when it's hungry and it's full. Trust that you'll give it the movement our bodies desire without taking it to the brink of perfection or exhaustion.
There's an old Cherokee Indian story I love, in which a boy comes up to his grandfather asking for advice after he has felt anger towards someone else. To which the grandfather replies:
"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
"One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
"The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
"This same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
"Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied,
"The one you feed."
I have found that every meal, every exercise routine and every time I look at myself in the mirror are opportunities to practice kindness towards myself, even in the presence of the perfectionistic voices, the rebellious voices, the angry voices. You can see these pop up, and you can start building trust by listening and acting upon that care giving side of you and ignoring the rest. The more I listened, the more the others quieted down for me and left space for the healing to begin. I found these between the layers as I was peeling back my onion, and I learned strategies to keep them at bay, so I could get to the deep end and then start climbing out the other side.
Letting Go and Finding other Outlets
When we get to the bottom of our desire to change our bodies, or to the bottom of our relationship to food, exercise and self care, then the work begins. In my quest of finally beginning to heal what was below the surface, I had a few things that really helped. The tools I mentioned in part 1 were the first and most important steps for me, having plenty of patience (this is a process that takes time), I needed compassion for the little girl that found these coping mechanisms as a child, I needed practice, and I needed to find other outlets. When we're hiding behind the curtain of control, as I did for so many years, we can feel naked without it, and we need new outlets and space to feel our feelings, we need to connect with the joy we can find in other activities, and we need to find new coping skills to ease the anxiety that might come up.
It helped me tremendously to find other people who had gone through these issues, it helped me to read books on these topics, it helped me to find friends who I could confide in about this, it helped me to journal, to knit, to bake pies, to go on a hike, t0 watch a good movie, to go to a therapist and do the hard work, to read about new perspectives on the topics of bodies and self care, to start questioning the pro-dieting messaging that was everywhere. It helped me to ride my bike, it helped me to try new recipes I loved, it helped me to spend time with the people I loved. Soon, in my efforts to find other outlets for the spaces and emotions that had been occupied by control, I was living, and it was amazing.
There is no magic key, there isn't just one thing I can tell you that will flip a switch and help you release control and start having a better relationship with food and your body. We have to do the work. What's on the other side though, is a life free from restrictions and feelings of unworthiness. It isn't a perfect ride, or a smooth straight line, and it takes practice, but it's worth it, and I hope this series was an inspiring way to get you started on this journey. Know that you are not alone, and that you always have a space here to come back to, as you go through the journey that has changed my life, and that of so many others. It's possible and it's there for you, all you need is to pull back the curtain, and start walking that road with the biggest dose of self-compassion you can muster, even when it's hard at first. The only way through it is through it.
Today's TED Talks
Here's the wonderful Jessi Kneeland talking about what she found behind the curtain, and why it doesn't help to simply decide you're going to start loving your body. We have to do the work to look deeper and we need to rebuild trust:
Last but certainly not least, I leave you with one of my idols/favorite people on this planet, Taryn Brumfitt:
Taken from the wonderful words of Taryn herself, I want you to take a moment right now to close your eyes, and picture yourself as an old woman or man. See yourself in these golden years of life, sitting comfy next to a fireplace, or in a rocking chair on your front porch, and try to think of what your answer might be to this question:
"What would you have changed about your life?"
I'm willing to bet that there won't be a single answer about the extra fat in your belly, or the stretch marks on your sides or cellulite in your bum. I also bet your answers won't be akin to "I wish I had done those extra burpees in that crossfit class", or "I wish I hadn't had that second piece of cake at my birthday party". I'm pretty sure your answers will be more about the experiences you wish you had had, or spending more time with the people that are no longer around. I'm sure it will be about the small pleasures that brought you joy, and the time you wish you hadn't missed worrying about things that didn't matter.
Don't wait until you're 90 to start living, get to your golden years happy that you lived a life that was worth living.
For Emma and all our readers and listeners
To our dearest Emma, the inspiration behind this series, I hope these episodes and posts have helped in getting you further along on your quest to a better body image. A better body image doesn't come from changing your body until it matches what society now deems as beautiful. Body image is entirely in you and comes through you. you can choose to step down from the comparison train, from the expectations of society. You can decide right here and right now that you will live your beautiful life with your body as a vessel, and that your body is enough for you right now because it goes with you on all your adventures. You can decide right now to start letting go of perfectionism. Let go of the worry that even if you love your body there will be others that won't agree on its beauty. Let go of the worry of what others are saying. Let go of the belief that your worth is in your beauty. Start seeing that beauty comes from being yourself, there's nothing more beautiful than a woman or man who is happy and joyful in their own skin, and if you want to take this even further, become that body image pioneer you would have liked your inner child to meet, the one you would choose as a role model for your daughter, your son, your niece, your nephew, your friend. Indulge in wonderful self care knowing that you are definitely worth it, and that that worthiness is not dependent on your shape or size. If we want to have a better world, we need to start with us. Here's a little quote to tide you over until next time:
"The message that we grow up with is that other people have the ability and the right to determine whether we're good or bad, whether we're valuable, whether we're lovable, whether we're worthy, and how we deserve to be treated all based just on looking at us... and since we live in this environment in which there are so many ways to mess that up, that means that no matter who we are, no matter what we do, no matter what we look like, we are constantly getting poked, and that is why it is so important to learn how to love your own body. It's about reclaiming your autonomy, and your self worth from a world that is always going to passionately disagree about how you should look. It's about deciding that your experience of yourself is more important than anyone else's experience of you."
"If you want to achieve a positive body image, you can't get it by just changing your body, and you can't get it by just deciding one day to love your curves. You have to heal your personal relationship to feeling unsafe. You have to shine a light on the deepest, darkest stories that you believe about yourself, and expose shame for the impostor that it is. You have to find trust, and forgiveness... and you have to recognize that your body has always been fighting for you and not against you. When you do that, then, and only then, do you have the option to truly, love your body"
. - Jessi Kneeland
Thank you so much for being brave and willing to go through this journey with me these past 4 weeks as we bring January, national dieting/feel bad about your body month to a close. There is another way, and it starts with healing, trust, and finding support in one another as we navigate this very flawed world, with the wonderful bodies we have now, no matter what they look like.