Step Forward, Step Back for a Better Body Image
“You are not as fat as you think you are.”
That is my favorite line from a wise essay written by Mary Schmich called Wear Sunscreen, because it’s true. Most of us hold an image of our bodies that is quite distorted, even if we’re otherwise healthy-minded.
I realized that my body image was distorted in a yoga class some years ago. We were asked to stand with our feet “hips-width” apart. The instructor who was standing near me said, “Sweetie, your hips are NOT that wide!” Then she looked around and marveled as she remarked at how many women had spread their legs much beyond the width of their hips.
Indeed, research shows that nearly fifty-percent of normal weight females and twenty-five percent of normal weight males think they’re overweight. In studies at the University College London, Matthew R. Longo discovered that in healthy adults the brain has a distorted body model. The healthy subjects in his research estimated that their hands were about two-thirds wider and one-third shorter than actual measurements. It’s possible that the brain makes the same mistake with other parts of the body.
It’s clear that so many of us struggle to see our bodies objectively. Not only do healthy brains make perceptual mistakes, but we tend to see our bodies through the lens of our experience. Many of us look at our bodies through the lens of well-meaning relatives who micromanaged our eating and weight. Or we view it in comparison to the manipulated female images put out by advertisers in the fashion, food, beauty and diet industries. Our brain can only process so many “bodies by Photoshop” and take in so many misguided food and body comments by relatives before we start to believe that our skin is not smooth and tight enough, our bodies are not as toned and svelte as they should be, and our curves are not acceptable.
The pressure causes us to take on the perceptions of those who made us feel flawed. We aim them at our bodies, engaging in battle every time we step up to the mirror. Our brains distort the reflection by regurgitating misguided cultural ideals at our bodies, causing us to see ourselves as too hungry, too fat, too marked by scars, too dimpled, too old, too emotional, too needy and not-enough.
A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog about the side effects of bullying your body. It literally increases your hunger and food cravings. Many of us consume mountains of extra food each year just to calm ourselves down from the stress that bad body perceptions and self-talk will cause. It’s a disturbing paradox. But how can we change the lens we look through when we’ve been wearing those old glasses for so long?
Start by trying a simple technique that I call, “step forward-step back”. It changes the way you see yourself by changing your proximity to the mirror and correcting a common mistake many people make when looking in the mirror. We tend to look at the part that disturbs us most. The part that draws your eye when you look in the mirror is probably a part that drew negative attention. It’s usually the breasts, abs, hips, buttocks and/or thighs. (It is rare for a person to scrutinize their thumb or big toe because the media doesn’t attend to those parts. They simply haven’t given us a lot of unrealistic (Photoshop) images to which we would compare a digit.) We might also focus on a part that was targeted by a bully in our family, our peer group or our community.
When I was young, a bully in my family used to grab my sides and call me fat. For years, when I looked in the mirror, I looked directly at that part of my abdomen. I kept checking it, and scrutinizing it, to see if it was good enough to prevent me from being hurt again.
When you focus on a single body part, the brain takes it out of context. Instead of seeing the part as it relates to other body parts and contributes to a balanced whole, you view a distorted image of that part. This phenomenon can be seen in people with body dysmorphic disorder who experience extreme distress about body parts and features because they have abnormalities in the way they process visual information that cause them to see only minute details of their appearance instead of the bigger picture. Even if we don’t have body dysmorphic disorder, we are likely to make the same distressing mistake of focusing too closely on the body parts that we learned to scrutinize.
Step forward-step back can help us clear up the distortion. Here’s how it works: When in front of a mirror, step forward. Closer…closer…get as close to the mirror as possible and look directly into your eyes. Yes, I realize that the eyes are a part, but they are unique because they provide a window to your soul. Get quiet and notice that it is difficult to bully your body and distort your reflection when you are gazing into the part that naturally expresses emotion and inner truth. Step forward helps us to develop compassion and a whole new way to see ourselves when we look in the mirror.
Next, step back. Farther, farther….go back as far as you can without crashing into your dresser or bed. Then, say to yourself “look at the whole self, not at the parts”. This gentle reminder will guide your eyes to take in the totality of your image, letting the parts fall into a natural balance and putting them into the context by which others more objectively view you.
We hope that this simple technique will help you to see the body you really have instead of the bad body double that’s been troubling you.
Want help making the shift into a healthier mindset and body? Join us at Center for Eating Recovery for an 8-Week Eating Psychotherapy Group, Heal the Hungry Brain, or for Repair Your Reflection, our monthly, body image workshop where you will update the lens through which your see your body and start to build body esteem.
Alison Ross is the founder of Center for Eating Recovery in Agoura Hills, California. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in eating and body image. Alison was inspired to start the Center after healing her relationship with food and her body. Her mission is to help others rise above the obsessive and self-hating diet mentality in our culture to find true health through empowerment, awareness, love and self-care. The Center offers treatment for eating and body image problems across the spectrum including food addiction, binge-eating, emotional overeating, yo-yo dieting, bulimia and anorexia.