women's health

When Body Positivity Doesn’t Feel So Positive

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When it comes to the topic of body image and eating disorder recovery, much conversation occurs around the concept of body positivity. In recent years, a movement has erupted from beneath the rigid body image expectations perpetuated by our culture to declare that “health” should no longer be automatically synonymized with “thin,” and we have begun to see a greater celebration of the various ways that bodies take size and shape. Instead of enslaving our bodies to harsh diets and punishing workout routines, an alternative approach has been offered to tell us that we can indeed celebrate the feats our bodies are capable of and honor them with nourishing foods and movement that we enjoy.

Many of the leaders in this movement are women who have been brave enough to push back against the unreasonable body image standards to which they have long been held hostage, and often in my work in the field of eating disorder treatment, I have suggested that the rest of us must join the work our sisters have started and begin to cultivate body positivity movements for men, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community, as well.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge, however, that for those of us who have spent significant amounts of time at war with our bodies, the idea of such personal body positivity can seem nearly impossible. The notion may be good in theory, but after years of wrestling with body disgust and hatred, the concept of celebrating and loving our physical selves can feel like nothing more than a pipe dream. To you, my friend, I simply say: I get it. Body positivity does not always feel good and positive, and I know well that the way we feel about our physical selves does not always consist of celebration, warmth, or acceptance. If anything, the expectation that body positivity must be defined by these experiences can lead us into deeper guilt and shame about the actual, darker emotions we sometimes feel when we look in the mirror. The truth is, for some of us, practicing body positivity will at times be the most difficult, and least positive-feeling, thing we ever do.

I recently went through a difficult season in my life, and honestly, I did not feel very positive about my body during any of it. It was a season of hardship, filled with struggle, scarcity, hurt, and grief, and in an attempt to alleviate some of the pain, I turned back to a few of my most reliable and damaging numbing techniques. My body, in turn, adjusted with them.

I am well-practiced at criticizing my body for not being good enough and for changing in ways that I deem to be undesirable and unacceptable, and during this season, it took a lot of my energy to refrain from berating my body and myself for being human and imperfect every time I got dressed in the morning. It took additional energy to then refrain from engaging in even more damaging practices to compensate for its changes. The only body positivity I could muster during that time was an acknowledgement of the ways my body had agreed to hold my pain when the rest of me could not and choose not to actively criticize it or punish it for the way it had done so.      

In reality, body positivity doesn’t always, or sometimes ever, look like a celebration for all of the wonderful things our bodies allow us to do. Some days, body positivity instead looks like whispering to our physical selves through gritted teeth and tear-stained cheeks that despite the pain, the fear, or the disgust, we will choose not to do anything we know will cause them harm. Some days, it looks like nothing more than putting in the fight to ride out the wave of body distress without engaging in destructive, quick-fix ways out of the emotion, even if we know those ways will temporarily dull the pain. Some days, body positivity is desperately seeking out a glimmer of gratitude, no matter how small, that our bodies have endured our mistreatment, made space for our pain, and have kept us alive. And on those days, my friend, that is enough. 

Body positivity, in its truest form, is not always pretty, and it is certainly not always connected to any actual positive feeling. For some of us, loving our physical selves may feel futile or impossible, and yet, if there is even one small act of physical kindness that can get us through the difficult days, if there is even one time we can show our bodies appreciation instead of harm, the hope that inspires body positivity remains.

My dear friend, if you are afraid that celebrating your physical self is out of reach, I feel you. However, if you are also tired of waging a constant war against your body, I am with you. Let us begin the hard work of making peace with our flesh and bones together, and in doing so, discover that in the moments when we feel like celebrating our bodies least, even the smallest acts of physical kindness are cause for celebration, too.           

 

About the Author:

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Zach Verwey, MA, LPC, NCC holds a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from a CACREP accredited program and is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Colorado. In his clinical practice, Zach has worked extensively with LGBTQ+ concerns, eating disorders, holistic sexual health, values and identity, and grief and loss, and he is Prepare/Enrich certified in working with couples. He is especially passionate about addressing the ways in which body image difficulties impact the LGBTQ+ community and regularly works with clients and provides education through writing and public speaking on this topic. Zach believes deeply in the power of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationship work in the therapeutic process, and offers a holistic and integrative approach that honors the mind, body, and spirit. In his spare time, Zach enjoys reading the memoirs of female comedians, experimenting with new bread recipes, and exploring Denver’s latest hot spots with a friend or two. 

 

Is “Fitspiration” Worthy of Aspiration?

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Are you constantly looking in the mirror to see if you have lost that five pounds yet? Or always thinking about your next meal and whether it will fit in your diet regimen? Do you feel anxious if you haven’t completed your exercise routine? You are certainly not alone. Many women everyday wrestle with body image and obsessive patterns concerning food and exercise. Disordered eating is a very common issue for women.

There is a new trend on social media called “Fitspiration.” Many women will tag themselves after their workout or eating a healthy meal and tag #fitspiration on sites like Instagram and Facebook. Studies have shown that there are over 5.2 million pictures on Instagram with this hashtag (Holland & Tiggemann, 2017). This hashtag highlights women with a certain body type, which is unattainable for lots of women. It also does not highlight the health benefits of diet and exercise, but rather obtaining a certain appearance. This can lead to discouragement for women who don’t feel like they match these women's images and it can send them spiraling into unhealthy eating behaviors.

One study compared a group of women who posted photos of fitspiration with a group of women who posted pictures of travel who were both tested for behaviors of disordered eating and compulsive exercise. Even though the women who posted fitness pictures appeared healthier, they scored higher for patterns of disordered eating (Holland & Tiggemann, 2017). The women posting fitspiration photos also scored higher for compulsive exercise, which is associated with more extreme levels of exercise that can lead to fatigue, injury proneness and social withdrawal (Holland & Tiggemann, 2017). It appears that the women posting about fitness are motivated more by perfectionism (Goodwin, Haycraft, Willis, & Meyer, 2011) and the drive to obtain the ‘socially acceptable’ body image  rather for the benefits of health (Holland & Tiggemann, 2017).

Images like these and many other factors in life can encourage unhealthy behaviors of eating and working out. Changing these behaviors is not as simple as finding the will power. There are multiple levels of thought, will, and heart all at play. It takes time to determine where the depths of insecurity have originated and how to work through it. Please check in again as we continue to unpack this complex topic of disordered eating and ways that lead towards true healing and freedom.

 

continuing the conversation

 

There is a much needed conversation around women and disordered eating, where the questions of “how do I know when I am falling into patterns of disordered eating?” or “what drives me to habits of disorder eating?

If you or someone you know would like more help to navigate through your relationship with food, I would encourage you to check out our group called “Navigating Your Relationship with Food: From Disordered Eating Towards Recovery.” There will also be a part two of this blog that will delve deeper into the underlying dynamics behind eating disorders.

About The Author:

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Amy McCann, RP, Apprentice, is earning her Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Denver Seminary. She is open to seeing many types of clients of all age ranges. She is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and desires to help couples strengthen their relationship. Amy earned her Bachelor of Science in Exercise and Movement Science from the University of Vermont, and desires to help her clients in a holistic way. She is passionate about people finding true freedom and healing in every area of life. Amy also has rich cultural experiences with living overseas and enjoys cross-cultural work with clients. Amy is originally from Boston, but loves living in Colorado with her husband. They enjoy hiking, fly fishing, playing games with friends, and eating ice cream. 

 

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