“I have poor body image and my eating is out of control! What can I do?”
In psychology, we talk about characteristics which are based on both nature – what we are born with, and nurture – influences from the environment. Something in your environment at a certain milestone or developmental stage in your life has influenced your body image, whether positively or negatively. As a Psychologist in Calgary, I know this after having worked with hundred’s of women who struggle with their body image.
Below are some of the key factors that play a role in the development of your body image.
1. Sociocultural – external influences
Images you see or read about in the media will influence how you view yourself. They could be magazines, television, billboards, radio, pod casts, Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media.
Articles on how you should obtain the “right” woman’s body, the softest skin, a tight tummy or buttocks give you messages of how to change your body. Often times these advertisements have a subliminal message which will influence your sense of self as well.
You get messages from your peers about how you should look at different ages in your life, such as a young girl, teenager, childbearing age, menopause or over 60.
2. Physical Influences
Just like everyone else you will experience physical changes during puberty, childbearing age and menopause. These changes occur naturally with age. How you experience these changes in your body will depend on how you have treated your body during these stages.
Set point theory also plays a role in your body size and shape. According to this theory your body will fight to maintain that weight. Your set point is the range that your body functions optimally. If you lose 15-20 lbs you may regain that weight because your body is fighting to go back to its set point.
A traumatic event that you have experienced will impact on your body image. It will impact you differently depending on what age you were when the trauma occurred. You may have experienced one acute traumatic event in your life or several chronic events.
An example of a traumatic event may be the first time you had a babysitter and you felt abandoned when mom and dad left you. You may not have been able to process the traumatic event because you didn’t have the support available at the time or you didn’t have the internal resources to work through the abandonment issue.
You may have grown up in a chaotic family environment, witnessed abuse, or experienced abuse yourself.
4. Familial Influences
You may have learned from your parents, your siblings, or entended family how to relate to food, weight and your body. Did your parents or siblings obsess about food, weight or their body? What was it like for you growing up in that environment? What did you learn from them?
The messages that you’ve internalized have formed the unhealthy core beliefs that you are now struggling to let go of. Sally’s story below will likely resonate with you. You will see yourself in much of what she has experienced.
At the end of this article is a section titled What Can Sally Do Now? Look for my next article which will be an in-depth list of ways to overcome negative body image .
An interview with Sally
Sally is in her mid 50’s. She has experienced all of the same challenges described above. Sally’s body image issues started at age 13. Years later she still struggles with her relationship to her body, food and weight.
She has an increased awareness of the issues that contribute to her poor body image and disordered eating. She has really just begun to try to resolve these issues. Her issues with food, her body, and her weight has been a survival strategy for many years. She has dabbled in therapy but has not engaged fully to get full recovery.
Sally does want recovery!
Sally doesn’t want to live this way anymore!
When I asked Sally “When did your challenges with your body image begin?” she replied with “my mother influenced it a lot”. They began around 13 years of age when her mom bought her a girdle because she thought that her bottom was too big.
When she hit puberty, her mother accused her of being promiscuous which she says is absolutely untrue.
Sociocultural & Physical Issues
Sally wanted to fit in.
As she entered puberty her body changed in ways that were unfamiliar to her. What should I do now?
She thought that running would be a way to make herself stronger. This became an obsession at the tender age of 13. She then wanted to get strong so she began lifting weights at 15 years of age.
She wanted to be loved and accepted.
Things changed. She thought that if she was more attractive then she would get more attention.
Sally developed two core beliefs: “I should be fit and thin” and “I should be strong and tough” which were opposite in her mind.
Her weight was critical to her sense of self. She doesn’t remember it ever being any different.
When she graduated from High School she was only 108 Ibs which she thought was too high. When she was in College she felt she had to keep her weight under 108 Ibs.
She became even more obsessed with food, her weight and exercise after this one particular incident at the gym. This was the catalyst to more self-loathing.
This was devastating to Sally. A woman who had known her said that she had always been envious of Sally’s legs but when she saw her at the gym she told Sally that “I wouldn’t want your legs now that I actually see them”.
She then decided that she had to lose more weight thinking that this would change her heavy ankles. She went to Weight Watchers at 106 Ibs and of course they didn’t accept her. Then she went to a plastic surgeon to change the way her legs looked. But that didn’t happen either.
She continued to fight with these negative self beliefs. A strong, capable woman or the thin, dainty girl?
When she was 100 Ibs weight wasn’t an issue for her but as soon as she would gain weight, she would become depressed and weight would become central in her life again.
The trauma didn’t stop there
A boyfriend wanted her to look different. When they ended the relationship, she was 98 Ibs. She was so devastated by the experience that when it ended she felt safe spending time alone, working or exercising.
And there is more! She met her ex-husband who openly told her that he didn’t desire her at all. She attributed that to her physical appearance. She tanned, obsessed about her weight and began exercising more again.
After having her children, she was in a tragic car accident. She gained weight again. When her children were born she weighed 116 Ibs and after the car accident she went up to 180 Ibs.
Finally, a positive relationship came her way. She wanted to look good for him. So, she started another diet eating watermelon and tomatoes and exercised a lot. Her self-loathing became worse at this point.
Sally recognizes the challenges that her obsession with food, her weight, and her body brings to her life. She knows that when she doesn’t eat all day that her thinking is not clear. And she is currently in a difficult situation but she knows that isn’t the reason for her weight, food, and body struggles. She knows that it may contribute to her struggles but is not the whole reason.
What Can Sally Do Now?
- Talk to someone in her life that she trusts. Share with them her struggles. She will be surprised by the support she will get.
- Go to a support group where the women will understand her obsession with food, weight and her body.
- Find new ways of coping with stress. There are books, blogs and counseling that can help.
- Make a timeline to map out when her struggles began. Were they socio-cultural, familial, developmental or was trauma a significant factor?
- Seek help from a therapist.
If you struggle with a preoccupation of food, your body, and your weight I would recommend that you start with these strategies as well. Watch for my next article! An in-depth discussion of ways to be more in your body and begin to eliminate that internal battle.
If you need help with your body image or disordered eating go to the Book Now button below and schedule a Free 15-minute phone consultation or a 60-minute counseling session. I also offer online counseling which you can book as well. Take a look at my schedule to see what will work for you.