“Our relationship with our appearance goes deep. It affects our life choices, goals, aspirations, relationships, and daily enjoyment,” says Tiffany Stewart, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in body image. “This relationship can often determine our feelings of worth and effectiveness as individuals. We make great—sometimes drastic—efforts to feel better about ourselves…this is ok, but somehow, it doesn’t make a dent in how we ultimately think, feel, and behave. Sometimes, it makes things worse and we escalate to ‘fixing’ our body’s appearance further, rather than ‘fixing’ our body image… which unfortunately results in further suffering.”
OK, first, AMEN. Second, I’m happy to say that not only is Dr. Stewart here today for a Q&A to share some of her body image insights with us, but she’ll be back again tomorrow! She works at a research center that focuses on both obesity and eating disorders and is the co-founder of an amazing project called The Body Image Project.
HealthyGirl: Many women talk about how emotional eating makes them hate their bodies, even if they don’t put on weight. How do you think overeating or bingeing affects women’s body image?
Dr. Stewart: Society values thinness and perfection of body features. Why? Part of the obsession with not only thinness, or perfecting our “flaws”, is control of these things. Society values control. As individuals trying to navigate this society, we feel a lot of pressure to try to control most things surrounding our appearance, like eating, exercise, supplements, plastic surgery. From an eating perspective, foods get labeled good or bad. Some foods even become ‘forbidden.” Nutrition and health become second or third priorities to control and appearance. Often, when individuals attempt to restrict their food intake or the types of foods eaten, they end up with increased preoccupation with the restricted foods and cravings. This can ultimately lend itself to bingeing. Individuals may feel defeated about loss of control. Thus, the vicious cycle begins.
HealthyGirl: We don’t often talk about how societal values influence eating behaviors. Tell us more.
Dr. Stewart: The world is currently on obesity alert. Restrictive eating and exercise are often supported by society as acceptable and even desirable behaviors. The problem is these behaviors can be taken too far and lead to serious health issues. Defining where health improves and where health consequences occur is sometimes a fine line. On the flip side of the coin, binge eating is often viewed as the opposite of control and a health issue, carrying no support from society. As a result, engaging in binge eating can lead to shame and self-consciousness and low self-worth to those who have difficulties with binge eating. They think, “I should be able to stop.” While this is not a fair view of this behavior, it is often the difficult reality.
With body image, as with our eating behaviors, we are attached to many ideas about how things “should” be. These ideas are often based on some standard of how we think we should look or behave, how we think people perceive us, and the consequences of how we present ourselves, etc. We can become obsessed with our outsides and what we believe we should be able to control, and our focus always on what is lacking. When things are not the way we think they should be, we feel like failures on the inside (low self-worth).
In order to conquer binge eating and reclaim self-worth, individuals must genuinely let go of the illusion of control. Our need for control ultimately controls us. If we don’t let it go, we will get dragged through our lives by this need and our efforts surrounding this need. Feelings of failure to maintain control over food and the body can lead to negative thoughts about the self as a person. This can lead to more bingeing.
In fact, the nature of things usually can’t be controlled. What we can control to some degree is our perspective on things. We can’t control circumstances but can learn to navigate them…healthfully and peacefully. Thus, instead of working to “control” things, we work to “meet life where it is” and maintain our peaceful center at the same time.
TOMORROW: Dr. Stewart gives us four key steps to building a better body image for ourselves—and society.
For now, please feel free to talk about anything here that struck a chord with you. I, for one, am going to meditate a bit on “letting go of the illusion of control” that she talked about. xo…Sunny