Body Image and Weight Loss Part 1: Awareness

body image and weight loss: awarenessMy definition of the word “overweight” may be different than yours. We can probably agree that the word “overweight” immediately brings up a judgment such as, “No!” or “Ick!” or “I don’t want that,” or some idea that being “thin” is better than being “overweight.” After all, the idea that thin = good and fat = bad is probably a message you have received your whole life. Body Image and Weight Loss are a concern for many, so if you struggle with either, you are not alone.

Listen to the audio version of Dr. Bando’s article.

It certainly doesn’t help that you are constantly bombarded with society’s opinion of how the ideal body should look. We even have the term “plus-sized” for people who require larger clothing, indicating that they are not a “normal size” in society’s eyes. Conversely, we do not frequently use a term such as, “under-sized” for people who are under average weight, because society does not have the same harsh judgment for this situation.

Receiving these messages over and over in your life – from your family, school peers, and the media – creates a breeding ground for shame. Regardless of what you weigh or your body shape and size, it is common to feel embarrassed and shameful, to some degree, about your weight and your body.

You may know that feeling ashamed of how you look makes you feel miserable. Do you also know that shame significantly contributes to your weight and size? You can think of shame like a subtle, poisonous bacteria, worming its way throughout your cells and influencing not only the decisions you make about your health, such as what you eat, how you exercise, and the quality of your rest, but also how your body metabolizes, what you crave, and how quickly you feel satiated. Often, the people I work with in regard to managing their weight or body image are not aware of the extent of shame they feel, and so do not have any agency over how this shame is influencing their bodies.

If you are interested in learning more about your relationship with your body and building skills to improve that connection, read (or listen) on.

The first skill imperative for a healthy, happy relationship with your body is:

Awareness

However you view your weight (e.g., overweight, underweight, ideal), cultivating awareness of your physical body is key in not only maintaining a weight that supports your health and well-being, but also fosters feelings of calm, peace, and feeling comfortably at home in your own skin. You may use your actual, physical home as an example, and imagine having harsh, stiff furniture that you don’t like to look at and feels uncomfortable when trying to sit and relax. This is what it feels like to be disconnected from your body. In contrast, imagine your ideal home where you feel like you can exhale, kick your feet up and be completely embraced and supported by comfort. This is what it feels like to have awareness and connection to yourself.

Let’s think about the link between awareness, and body image and weight loss. Even if being overweight is not a problem you have experienced, we all know that feeling of eating too much during the holidays. That Thanksgiving food hangover is all too real: your stomach hurts, your clothes feel tight, you feel lethargic, and your physical activity is limited. Who wants to move, dance, walk, be sexually active, or just physically engage in life when feeling over-full? Now, imagine eating this way on a regular basis. In order to overstuff ourselves the next day and the next, we must be numb to what we are feeling in our body, or we wouldn’t be able to tolerate the discomfort and would change our eating habits. Eating becomes a way of tuning out instead of tuning in.

When you reach a point of being overweight as a result of eating, and not because of health problems outside of your control, it tends to be easy to become unaware of your situation which in turn cuts you off from the emotions you should be feeling as a result.

To continue to overeat, we have to dissociate from our experience of feeling. When we pay attention, it feels horrible to eat too much. Painful, even. Think about being as extremely overweight as you can imagine and how uncomfortable that would feel. You would have to have to have no awareness and dissociate from your emotions to continue down your current path of gaining more or sustaining a weight that is physically painful.

Frequently, when I see patients who are significantly overweight, feel stuck, and cannot lose that weight, lack of awareness is an issue we attack first and foremost. There’s usually a correlation: the more overweight and stuck the person is, the more they tell me they are “fine,” “good,” “great,” and can’t figure out why the weight is staying on and they are struggling. This equation equals severe LACK OF AWARENESS. If I step on the scale and it says 350 lbs. (and I am a woman standing 5’5” tall), everything is not fine! Yet, I hear this report time and time again. Our weekly session time comes, and my client can’t think of anything to work on or anything difficult that happened during the week to bring up. I see this as a habitual state of dissociating/zoning/tuning out of how their body feels until they don’t know what is going on, what they are feeling, or what they are struggling with. In fact, at first, they may also not know how much they are tuned out.

If you see yourself in this description and it brings up shame, you are not alone. It is so common to feel shameful about this process of eating and lack of awareness and then turn away and not be able to face it. If you feel this, I encourage you: take a deep, slow breath (maybe three), and keep reading. You do not have to continue to suffer in this way. This does not have to be a life sentence.

Why and how does this happen?

In our society, problems with body image and weight typically come with shame. Lots of it. Thinking about how emotions work: one thing learned from DBT (a therapy developed to help regulate emotions) is that all emotions have what is called an “action urge” associated with them. In other words, emotions propel us to want to do something:

  • anger = attack
  • guilt = apologize/fix it/repair
  • love = get closer
  • shame = hide

Imagine a situation where you might feel completely ashamed or embarrassed. Maybe you’ve had a dream where you were naked in a crowd – what did you do? You tried to hide. Now, think about being criticized or made fun of for your weight. Even if you were never directly ridiculed, you probably have witnessed others being criticized for their body weight. Either way, no one is oblivious to our society’s values in regard to body shape and weight.

The fact that we have the term “plus sized” for people who wear a certain size of clothes is a subtle indicator that this is more than the average and not okay. We receive subtle messages all the time that thin is good and fat is bad, and if we don’t fit the mold of what society says we should look like, we feel shame.

The feeling of shame can lead to hiding behaviors, such as not eating certain types of food in front of people for fear of judgment, lying about your weight on your driver’s license, wearing clothes that look “slimming,” avoiding full-body pictures, and many other behaviors. Think about how subtle behaviors like these can seep their way into your daily life, and how as a result, you are getting a daily dose of shame. Little by little, if these behaviors of hiding increase as they often do with weight gain (eating “bad” foods in secret, going shopping alone so nobody knows your size, minimizing physical pains and discomfort that are related to your weight), shame increases. Remember shame = the urge to hide. If you are unaware (and therefore, unable to make an intentional choice) and are giving in to this urge to hide day after day, eventually, hiding is what you do. When hiding becomes your go-to, it is easy to trick yourself into pretending that everything is okay when in reality, you feel far from okay.

The Remedy

The remedy is a ton of mindful awareness practice. I don’t mean sitting on a cushion and meditating for hours, although if someone chooses, that may help increase awareness. We do need to repeatedly turn on the lights, look around the room, and notice the clutter if we are going to organize it and clean it up. There are many techniques for raising our awareness in this way. Here is a guided practice you can listen to as often as you want to help increase your awareness of your body and your experience:

Listen to Dr. Bando’s Guided Meditation

Take a moment to feel the bottom of your feet. Can you feel the surface of the bottom of your feet? Notice. What do they feel like? Are they touching something soft, hard, cold, warm? Do you feel the air on the bottom of your feet? Notice and place your awareness there.

Can you feel your clothes on your body? Notice what this feels like. Where do you feel your clothes the most? Is it everywhere or a particular location on your body? See if you can describe to yourself what your clothes feel like on your body. Is there a temperature, weight or lightness, or other sensations? Can you notice with curiosity and put judgments aside? Taking a stance of: Hmmm, what does this feel like on my body?

Now, can you notice that you are breathing in and out? Notice where does your attention go as you are placing your awareness on your breath in this moment. Keep noticing your breath and see where your attention goes at the very end of your inhalation? Where in your body do you place your awareness at the end of your inhalation? Some people say this is a place where they find Wisdom. Does it feel like that to you? Or does that not resonate or feel confusing to hear. Notice your experience.

Now, ask yourself: How hungry am I in this moment? If you had to rate your level of hunger on a scale of 0 (no hunger at all) to 10 (the most hungry you have ever felt), how hungry are you in this moment? Now, ask yourself how do you know? Is your mind telling you how hungry you “should” be or are you noticing particular sensations in your physical body? Where are you picking up on hunger cues? Where are you looking?

Now, ask yourself: How full am I in this moment? If you had to rate your level of fullness on a scale of 0 (not full at all) to 10 (the most full you have ever felt in your life), how full are you right now? What do you notice when you ask yourself this question? How is it similar or different to what you noticed when asking yourself about your level of hunger?

You have just spent quite a bit of effort noticing your physical body. Now, take a moment to offer yourself some compassion. Place a hand on your heart or over your other hand as a reminder that you are bringing not only awareness but kind and compassionate awareness to yourself, your body, and your experience. Take a nice, deep, slow breath. And now say a compassionate phrase to yourself: May I be kind to myself, May I be patient with myself, May I accept myself as I am, or May I learn to accept myself as I am. Choose a compassionate phrase to say to yourself in this moment.

If you have been in therapy with me, or you have access to tools, such as the Model of Emotions, recording emotions, urges, and behaviors on a diary card, Wise Mind practice, or other Mindfulness skills, you can also use these. The important point is to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and then, when you think you have practiced enough, PRACTICE some more. My Zen teacher says that we cannot change who we are. What we can do is practice, practice, practice every day until one day, what we have practiced becomes us.

If you have found yourself in a position where you feel you are stuck, and you would like to make changes in your life so that you can be healthier and happier, contact me today to get started on a path to a new you.

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Dr. Amanda Gale-Bando

Dr. Amanda Gale-Bando