Eating disorder therapist Jenna Daku puts the looking glass on diet-culture, her own body image, and how we can build up the resilience to feel more comfortable in our own skin
As an eating disorder therapist, I often find myself weighing up (no pun intended) the pros and cons of disclosing certain aspects of my own experience with dieting, diet-culture, and disordered eating.
I feel it would be easy for you to assume that because I’m an eating disorder therapist, I must have fabulous body image all the time. Whilst it is true that the experiences, research and tools that I have learned along the way and apply with my clients have also supported me to feel more comfortable in my own skin, this doesn’t mean I’ve got perfect body image. Just like you, I live in diet-culture and I am not immune to the bombardment of images and messages about what I ‘should’ look like.
Diet-culture tells us that we can and should control what our bodies look like, and as such, we are conditioned to project our insecurities on to our bodies when we feel out of control or overwhelmed. For example, if I feel anxious about giving a big presentation and worried about all the things that are out of my control, I might experience negative body image, because unconsciously I am focusing my attention on what I can change about my body in order to experience a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation.
Body image isn’t simply about disliking your appearance – it’s far more complex than that. Research has shown that many things impact our body image, including stress, anxiety, depression, personality traits and engaging in ‘fat talk’. Although there are positives (and negatives) with the current popularity of body positivity, I think the narrative that surrounds it risks communicating that it’s not okay to have negative thoughts about our bodies.
When we place the notion of ‘loving’ our bodies on a pedestal – as something that we all need to achieve to feel happy – it can be shame-provoking when we then have negative thoughts about our appearance. Negative body image is not mutually exclusive from the love that I have for my body. I believe that just as we can love another human being and still feel angry or upset with them sometimes, we can love our bodies and still experience negative body image.
At the end of the day, we as human beings are always changing and developing. Nothing about us, or our experience, is static. As such, if we want to build resilience to our negative thoughts and feelings, we need to acknowledge their existence and find ways of responding to them with kindness, rather than trying to push them away or beat ourselves up for experiencing them. This is why, in my opinion, body image healing and body positivity is not about figuring out how to have ‘perfect’ body image. Rather, it’s about developing acceptance, curiosity and flexibility so that when we are faced with difficult emotions or thoughts we can respond to ourselves with compassion and care.
There are numerous things we can do to express love for ourselves and our bodies that don’t involve trying to change our appearance. Here are a few of the things that I personally do and recommend when I recognise that my body image is low:
- Spend time outside, especially in areas with a lot of trees and greenery
- Talk about it with a friend – shame cannot survive a compassionate environment
- Deep breathing
- Write about it
- Practice Coping Statements: Statements that I repeat to myself which feel soothing and grounding, like “These are just thoughts, they will pass”
- Write a list of all the ways that my body has enabled me to engage in the world
- Listen to music
- Shower, brush my teeth, deep condition my hair and practise other forms of basic self-care
- Hug someone I love
- Put on comfortable clothes and rest
- Practice mindful movement, like going for a slow walk through the park without my phone.
- Practice gratitude for the people and experiences that I appreciate in my life
- Switch off social media for a few hours
Dr. Jenna Daku is a BACP registered psychotherapist and owner of Freedom To Be Therapy, which specialises in supporting folks to find freedom from disordered eating and body image concerns. Find more info at freedomtobetherapy.com