A handful of my clients are quarantining right now to see their families for Christmas, and a common thread among them (as they deal with the stress that tends to arise during isolation) is anxiety and shame about having gained weight this year.
This is especially true for those folks whose families were the original source of body shaming, fatphobia, diet culture, and objectification in their lives.
So many women I’ve worked report their parents commenting on their bodies as children—calling them fat, shaming them for having such a big appetite, putting them on diets, taking them to Weight Watchers, obsessing over their “health,” or telling them that nobody will ever love a “big girl” so she needs to be careful.
So many mothers disparaged their own bodies in front of their daughters, pinching and grabbing and criticizing their normal legs, butt, hips, breasts, and bellies—normalizing this kind of behavior and teaching her that hating your body is a mandatory part of being a woman.
So many parents engaged in assessment, judgement, and criticism of other people’s bodies and appearances in front of their children, sending both the message that people’s bodies (especially women’s bodies) are constantly up for public scrutiny and debate, and also the message that women owe it to the world to try to always look as attractive as possible. This is often done by saying things like “ew she shouldn’t be wearing that with her legs” or “so-and-so got fat, poor thing has totally given up on herself” or “she’d look so much more beautiful if only she wore a little makeup.”
As you can imagine, many of these kids grew up to be adults with some super deep, complex, and painful body image issues.
In my coaching practice, I often see these folks put in extraordinary amounts of work and courage to overcome their own negative conditioning about food, exercise, bodies, and beauty. I see them give up dieting and the diet mentality, accept their bodies as they are, and embrace themselves as worthy of love and belonging no matter how they look. I see them first access, then shift into, body neutrality over time.
But each person has their own unique body image story, and each person has their own unique triggers for falling back into old conditioning, old body-negative thoughts and feelings, and old patterns of behavior around body checking, scale-checking, self-presentation, food, exercise, and body control.
Being around family is often one of those triggers, especially when someone’s family is still engaged in fat-shaming, diet culture, and commenting on other people’s bodies and appearances.
It’s totally normal to have “body image triggers” even once you’ve gotten to a point of being mostly body neutral, and handling them requires a certain set of skills that I help my clients build: naming the feeling, grounding or soothing yourself, identifying the belief(s) that feeling was/is based on, exploring and unpacking those beliefs, tapping into your authentic values and desires, and facing any fears (aka breaking any rules) that align with your old conditioning and not your authentic values and desires.
Today I want to share one very specific tool I use for my clients when they’re in a position of feeling shame about recent weight gain, and/or heading into a situation that is likely to trigger body shame.
The basic point of this tool is to bring more specificity, agency, and nuance to your concept of “everyone.”
In short, it’s been shown that we can only really hold the perspective of about five people on any topic in our minds at a time. Which is kind of strange to think about, since we tend to think and speak in broad strokes and generalizations, especially when we feel insecure, anxious, or triggered.
We say things like “everyone will judge me” and “nobody will love me” and it all feels very life-or-death.
Last week one of my clients was telling me how uncomfortable she was in her body right now, in the middle of a big dysmorphic episode that came after months of feeling pretty body-neutral, as she prepared to see her family.
I asked her to tell me what she was thinking about, and she reported that the thought bouncing around her head was “everyone is going to laugh at me.”
Anytime I hear the word “everyone” I try to catch it and apply this tool. I explained how we can only hold the perspective of about five people on any given topic, and asked who the five people in her mind might be when it comes to her body and weight.
After thinking about it for a moment, she named the following people: her mom, her dad, her sister, her high school gym teacher who publicly shamed her for being lazy, and that one old boyfriend who said he wished she was thinner. (Oof.)
Next I asked her if she respected the opinion of her mom, dad, sister, gym teacher, and that one old boyfriend. Would she call them for advice, or recommend their advice to a close friend? She laughed immediately and said “I mean I ask my family for plenty of advice. But about this kind of stuff?? Hell no.”
Having grown up in a small conservative town, my client had gone through years of anti-diet-culture and body neutrality work when she moved to a big city, and her social views and politics had become more progressive and focused around intersectional feminism and anti-oppression. She realized that asking theseparticular five people for advice on her body or appearance would be like a doctor asking a teenager for medical advice, or a sex worker asking a priest for sex advice.
They could be good, respectable people in many ways. But that particular situation just doesn’t make sense.
This is how this tool works. Once you identify whose perspectives you have collected to make up your collective sense of “everyone” on a topic like your weight or body, you get to challenge whether or not you actually respect the opinion of those particular people on this particular topic. And most of the time, once you start to approach this with a critical thinking mind, the answer is hell no.
Do you want to know who made up my “everybody” when it came to shame about my breasts in my early twenties?
I was convinced that “everyone” would be disgusted and revolted if they saw my breasts in their natural form instead of hoisted up into a pushup bra, and would think I was disgusting, matronly, and frumpy. Granted nobody who had ever seen me naked ever said any such thing, and I had actually received a lot of positive feedback over the years. But I still felt revolted and disgusted by my own body, and hated my breasts in a powerful way.
When I applied this tool to that feeling, I discovered that my “everyone” for this topic was (embarrassingly) made up of exactly three boys I went to middle school with.
One had commented on a classmate’s breasts as being “like a National Geographic cover,” one had said he would “throw up” if he ever saw a pair of saggy boobs naked, and the last one had tried to compliment me by saying I was lucky my “titties stood up on their own” unlike other girls who had “old lady titties,” while I was wearing a pushup bra.
Realizing that a massive source of body shame was made up by the opinions of a small handful of adolescent boys just coping with their own weirdness around sex and bodies was jarring. Obviously I would never, ever seek out the advice of an adolescent boy for literally anything, and I definitely don’t respect the opinion of those kids. So then WTF??
This tool helped my healing process with my relationship with that part of my body, just as it helped my client feel more comfortable in her body this week.
If you want to try this tool for yourself, start by simply identifying the thought, belief, or “rule” you’re operating under with regard to your body (or body part) that includes the words “everybody” or “everyone.”
Then identify exactly who makes up your particular set of “everyone,” and challenge for yourself whether these are people whose opinions on this topic you actually respect.
Don’t stop there though!
Once you’ve identified and discredited your “everybody,” it’s time to come up with a new set of “everybody” to combat the old automatic version with—and this time you get to choose five people whose opinion on this topic you most respect.
When I asked my client to name five people whose opinions on her body and appearance she really respected, she named the following: her best friend, her husband, her six year old son, the author of her favorite feminist body positive book, and me (her body image coach).
When I asked how it felt to imagine the five of us approving of her and her body as she goes and visits her judgemental family, she said it felt incredibly validating and like a huge relief.
Once you’ve done the first part of this exercise, go ahead and name five people who you really respect with regard to your body and appearance. (And importantly—who would respect and approve of you!)
Pro tip: use your favorite authors, coaches, TED talk speakers, and body positivity advocates if you can’t think of five IRL people whose opinions you actually admire, trust, respect, and align with your values. 😉
Feel free to try this exercise and let me know how it goes, this holiday season or any other time it’s useful for you!
Sending festive and body-neutral cheer,