Making Friends with Your Body

Young women these days are faced with a deluge of images through every form of media and sometime through friends and family. These images consistently portray the ideal body as thin and muscular. In addition, there is also a flood of often contradictory information about what is healthy and what is not in relation to weight loss and general health.

With conflicting information about what is healthy for their body combined with the goal of the largely unattainable thin muscular ideal, some young women become driven to punish and discipline their bodies with possible dangerous side effects. In order to meet the thin muscular ideal young women may skip breakfast, eat only one meal a day, use laxatives etc. If their behaviour becomes extreme they may be at risk of developing an eating disorder.

The pressure may be so strong to meet the thin muscular ideal that young women may practice physical exercises and develop eating habits that have nothing to do with their body’s true needs Within this harmful climate, young women need tools and strategies to identify their own unique body’s ever-evolving needs. Prevention programs need to encourage adolescents to flip their focus from external referents and social influences and learn techniques and strategies to tap into their body’s own wisdom rather than treating their body as a machine.

One strategy is a psychotherapeutic technique called Focusing. Focusing is a body-centred psychotherapeutic practice that turns our attention inward and through a series of steps we can arrive at a felt body sense about an issue. This deep inner knowing is beyond thoughts and feelings and has been demonstrated to decrease depression and anxiety, and enhance the connection to the body.

The basic premise of Focusing is acceptance of what is present in the body and allowing it to change in its own way and time. This is being and allowing rather than doing and fixing which assumes that all change occurs through action. This shift in attention to the body from the outside to the inside can provide an authentic sense of control.

It also teaches young women that their body is not their enemy. It will help them trust their bodies rather than control and manage them. In the interviews for this study, the young women viewed their bodies like machines to be managed. There was no sense of the body as sacred. This experiential knowledge is the foundation for healthy self –functioning.

Prevention programs must address this social deception which leads young women that all bodies can be the same shape. There are other methods of tapping into the body’s inner wisdom. Some ancient practices calm the body so that individuals can hear what the body is saying. Among these practices are yoga, tai chi, Qi gong and meditation. A Harvard professor (Kabat Zinn) has developed a series of meditation tapes which can be very helpful in calming the body and finding your inner healer. His program is called the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction Program. (See Resources section)

Susan Freeman uses the word “grungies’ to describe negative things that we say about ourselves. Young women in this study talked about the pressure not to talk positively about their bodies. Negative feelings about our bodies makes us vulnerable to spending enormous amounts of time trying to improve our bodies or meet the often unattainable thin and muscular ideal. Feeling bad about our bodies and engaging in excessive exercising and dieting is a precursor to developing an eating disorder.

Other strategies to connect to our bodies can be developed by a group. Simple relaxation techniques or practices that put us in touch with our “Inner healer” can be identified. Reiki or Therapeutic Touch are just two examples. This deeper connection with the body and its wisdom will increase awareness of the amount of energy, effort and time devoted to managing the body most likely in pursuit of an allusive ideal. Young women will become more present and aware of what the body is experiencing. This will make it more difficult to continue punishing and draining the body since fatigue and discomfort will be felt more deeply.

What this powerful social norm of the homogenous goal of being muscular and thin ignores is that healthy is different for everyone. People come in all shapes and sizes. Size diversity has not yet found popular acceptance. Young women must figure out what is healthy for them. Making friends with your body may mean accepting larger images than we see in the media.

Health at every size (HAES) is an emerging concept to food and weight loss issues. HAES focuses on self-acceptance and healthy nurturance of the body on a daily basis whether weight loss occurs or not. The process of body management must become personal and conscious. Eventually, young women might ask, “How much time do I want to spend on this area of my life?”

The long-term goal is to eliminate a standard that is externally derived and applies to everyone. Prevention programs can make it more socially acceptable to know one’s body well and follow its lead in terms of needs. The influence of the media will always be there but prevention programs can place social influences in a context where an individual can figure out what is right for her—her lifestyle and her priorities, without feeling shame about not living up to a standard.