"Now, I want you to take the string and make it the size that you think your waist is ... put it in a circle on the ground and adjust it until you think you've made it your size."
"Great," I thought, "she's making me think more about how big I look. I don't want to see that!"
I put the string on the ground in a circle that I thought represented my waist.
"Next," directed the counselor, "put down a piece of string that represents a desirable waist size."
I did as I was told.
"Ok, good!" she said, too cheerily. "Now, actually put another piece of string around your waist and cut it when the ends meet. This will be your true measure of your waist. Put that on the ground next to your first two strings."
I was so completely, irrationally nervous about this. What if I thought I was much, much smaller than I was? I would have to face the fact that I was, in reality, bigger than I thought!
I put the third string down on the ground, in an oval representing my true waist size. To my astonishment, that third measurement was smaller! In reality, I was MUCH smaller than I thought I was. We're talking almost six inches! What?! And even more strange, I was also a couple of inches smaller than what I considered to be an ideal waist. Something was wrong here ... was this a trick exercise?
My counselor told me that this is what eating disorders do to people - and not just eating disorders, but unhealthy thinking about the self - it takes away our ability to see ourselves for what we really look like. You want to talk about scary... THAT is scary! I could look at myself and essentially see a different physical person. It's called distorted body image, or body-image distortion.
Body-image distortion is different than body dissatisfaction. Body dissatisfaction is just that - someone who is dissatisfied or unhappy with their body's appearance. Body-image distortion is when you see your body falsely; you don't see it for how it actually appears, either all parts of your body or particular parts of your body. According to Janet Leichty, a professor of social work and medicine at University of Illinois, 50-80% of women have body dissatisfaction. SAD! Based on my experience and conversations with many people over quite a few years, I bet it's more toward that 80%. Even more shocking to me is that more than half of those women who are dissatisfied with their bodies are experiencing body-image distortion. What is happening?! Why can't we see ourselves?!
Last night, a friend said to me, "Cherie, it's difficult to know where you're coming from because the things you've experienced are so far from reality. It's hard to see why you've thought these things about yourself, and why you have to continually fight off these thoughts, because it's so far from the truth."
While I appreciate and love comments like that now, because they affirm my victory over eating disorders and help to keep me in check, I used to loathe those conversations. I would think, "You just have no idea. It's not important to you. You could never know what it's like to hate yourself the way that I do, to be dissatisfied with yourself the way that I am, to want to change everything..."
I used to look in the mirror and see a different person than who another person might see. The girl I saw had a rounder face, a chubby stomach, bigger thighs, round-shaped shoulders and untoned arms. The girl someone else saw had bony elbows, sunken eyes, sharp cheekbones, ribs sticking out, veins. Sometimes, I still see lots of negative, untrue things when I look in the mirror. But I'm learning to shake my head and walk away. If I don't like what I see, I walk away and consider who I am and Who made me. I go hug my husband or my son. I pray. I tell myself that I am a role model for a classroom full of 7th graders, and an avid encourager to a team full of young cross country runners. I ignore the reality that is distorted and focus on the reality of TRUTH.
But I've learned that now ... it took me 11 years to learn that. Some of you, or your daughters, or your friends, or your family members aren't there yet. They still see something that is a lie, believe the lie, live in the lie, and carry out drastic actions to fight what the lie has told them (that is, they try to lose weight, or they yell at themselves in their heads, they feel sad, they cry themselves to sleep). What do you do if this is you? What do you do if your family member or friend is going through this? I have many suggestions and some insight... I'll name a few today.
1) If you are a parent, or ever want to be a parent, listen up! What we say about ourselves and about our children MATTERS. Duh. It's earth-shattering importance here. Moms, if we put yourselves down, our daughters will learn to put themselves down. Pinch the fat on our stomachs, so will our daughters. Dads, tell your wife she's gained weight, needs to work out, etc., your daughter will think she is ugly to you, too. If you look at media images with desire, your daughter will think that she needs to look like that in order for a man to love her. Likewise, our sons will learn to love whatever images of "beauty"we deem as worthy of attention. Moms, if the most important part of ourselves is how we look on the outside, our sons will learn to value women mostly for how they look. Dads, if you're looking lustfully at images and/or women who are not your wife, your sons will look to physical satisfaction as total satisfaction to fulfill his desires.
Let me give you a real-life example of how this works. My maternal grandfather used to limit my grandmother's serving sizes at the dinner table. He wasn't subtle about it - my mom and my aunt knew he was telling her how much she could eat because he cared about her "getting fat." My mom and my aunt have both told me about times when my grandmother would come dancing down the staircase in a beautiful outfit, happy with how she looked, and my grandfather would tell her to go back upstairs and change because she looked "fat" in what she was wearing.
And what do you think my beautiful mom and beautiful aunt thought about their own images? They thought that "fat" was bad, and started scrutinizing their own bodies. The messages my grandfather sent to my mom and aunt have lasted them their whole lives. And my grandmother, aunt, and mom are all extremely gorgeous Norwegian women - women that men get googly-eyed for, and yet they have all doubted their own beauty at one time or another, or more. :(
MOMS AND DADS, WE NEED A WAKE-UP CALL! Our responsibility to prevent our daughters (or sons!) from experiencing body dissatisfaction is two-fold: love yourself/spouse for WHO you/they are, and love your daughter for who she is. Both loving is to be done outside of any regard for the body's image.
On ac-journal.org, I read this:
Krcmar, Giles, and Helme (2008) noted that parental comments about children’s physical appearance convey body image norms that could lead to negative associations with body shape. It has been suggested that parental influence is a primary influence on body dissatisfaction.For example, Levine, Smolak, Moodey, Shuman, and Hessen (1994) observed that parents who place an importance on dieting and other weight control behaviors can have a negative impact on body satisfaction. If parental attitudes toward body shape and weight resonate with those of the media, they may also be linked to internalization of the thin ideal. [emphasis mine]
How do we want our daughters to think of themselves? How do we want our sons to choose their future spouse? Then we must examine what messages we're sending either implicitly or explicitly about what's beautiful. And for God's sake, we should limit their media exposure! Please...
2) Lies about ideal image and beauty are portrayed vastly in the media. Did you know that only about 5% of women can actually achieve what media is portraying as the "ideal" body type? 5% !!! But how much do we and our children view media images? Ohhh, only about nearly every hour of our waking day. If you combine all various media (computer, phone, tv, ads, etc.), it's found that the average child or teenager is getting 6-7 hours PER DAY of media exposure. That's just gross in and of itself (we ought to turn off the TV/computer, if for no other reason than to be creative and active!).
And guess what? Multiple studies have found that the biggest pressure exerted on them to be thin is from the media. Soooo, more hours per day exposed to media, the more likely you or your kid is to be dissatisfied with what the Lord gave them. And if you read my other blog posts, and those to come, you know just what kind of agony a person endures because of distorted body image, self-loathing, etc.
"..Exposure to unrealistic and often unhealthy body images can influence young people’s perceptions of their own body shape and size as well as their own sense of body satisfaction. The effect of the media may also extend to the development of specific, and possibly harmful, weight losing behaviors." (Pediatric Child Health 2003)
If we're honest with ourselves, we know that whatever consumes our thoughts controls our lives. With so many media messages being sent to us and our children, how can we not see that whatever is in the media can at least partially control our lives? As long as ads can communicate to us that there is "something" we are missing (mind you, that something is a thing they're trying to sell us!), we are slaves to a system in which we buy and/or attain our own satisfaction through things and through status.
If we can limit our own and our children's access to media influences, we can limit our family's vulnerability to our culture's LIES about beauty and worth. If you are alone in this, the first step to healing is cutting off lies from the enemy. Fight the images and fight the voices. Say a prayer, go for a walk, take a hike. Seriously. If you're a parent, turn off the TV, computer, phone, and talk to your child. Just talk. Just listen. Just...be. Let's promise ourselves that we and our sons and daughters will see attractive souls as more worthy than "attractive" bodies. Lies should not win.
3. If you are struggling with this, pray about it and talk about it. Pray and offer it up and let go of that life-threatening control. If you seek someone to talk with, find someone who has been through this. That is going to be the most difficult part about it - few people will understand on the same level. They won't know why your mind and heart are obsessing over certain things; they won't understand that you can't see what they see; they may even lose patience. That's why most people go to counselors, and one must hope that the counselor has been through what you're enduring. If you feel comfortable, e-mail me, call me, whatever. I know what it's like... I know. I know what you're going through, and I will pray for God's strength to help me show you the truth about who you are and what you're worth. Until you are open and honest with yourself about what's really going on behind your thinking, you can't fully heal. You can only begin the healing process, but you can't finish it. Be honest. Be real. Be raw. Be redeemed.
Girls, women, we are in this together. We need reality to stop being distorted. It starts now. It starts with us. Let's fight for what's ours - the revelation of true beauty.