When you're itchy, it feels good to scratch – it's a distraction from the discomfort. But when you're not itchy, relentless scratching will hurt. People who struggle with disordered eating might feel itchy all the time. There's a persistent irritation deep inside where they believe that their bodies are flawed. So they restrict food, go on diets, and emotionally eat to get momentary relief from the itch. But, of course, that only leaves the irritation to fester.
People in recovery understand that they can't heal by obsessively scratching that itch. Acting out in any part of a yo-yo dieting cycle only leaves a person spinning in the whole miserable circle. Instead, they have to work at the root of the irritation. They have to face and recover from the experiences and conditioning that caused them to dislike their bodies and distrust their appetites in the first place.
In my book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, I write about my life as a dieter. Back then, I felt itchy all the time. My brain became hungry due to my fear that my body was flawed, the stress of weight-watching, and chronic malnutrition. I was stuck in the yo-yo dieting cycle -- alternating between restricting food and losing control over my eating. And while my size and shape made sense for my frame and genetics, I felt like I was overweight. Back then, I was in such pain because I falsely believed what diet culture promotes -- that if I could get control of my appetite and lose weight, I would be at peace.
But then I walked into a yoga studio, where I started a mindfulness meditation practice. Over time, that practice changed my mind and calmed my overactive nervous system (most dieters suffer from a hostile ego and a nervous system stuck in fight-and-flight, by the way -- we treat this condition with neurofeedback brainwave training). I learned how to let go of the punishing body standards and moral judgments I internalized while marinating in diet culture. I also learned how to be kind and gentle with myself, which helped me develop a sense of worth.
Most surprising to me was that when I changed my mind, the hungry sea inside grew calm. The itch was gone, so I no longer felt compelled to act out in my yo-yo dieting cycle. When we feel good inside, we don't need to use food to soothe emotional pain -- we're already ok. And when we learn how to be alive and connected to the amazing body we have (instead of looming over it with criticism), we naturally stop the weight-watching lifestyle that can ruin our physical and mental health.
This freedom is available to you. You can overcome the profound irritation that personal hurts and scars from living in our conflictual food and diet culture cause. If you want to learn more about the non-dieting road to peace, confidence, and better health, check out my book on Amazon, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture or join an online support group at nondietinghealth.com.
We know that too much sugar is bad for us. But it's challenging to navigate a food culture abundant in this highly-rewarding substance without overusing it. For decades the diet industry and health experts have told us to reduce our sugar intake by willpower. It's insulting we're told to control ourselves while the food industry is free to keep making more sugar and promoting its consumption - but that's a topic for another time. Most of us try to follow this advice with varying degrees of success. But, managing sugar cravings can be a tricky proposition for anyone, especially people who struggle with disordered eating. Many of my clients have found that the more rigidly they seek to control their intake of it, the more readily sugar and other highly-stimulating foods take control of them.
Most of us have gone at least a few rounds with our sugar cravings. And many clients who come to our office are stuck in a miserable tug-of-war with them. We were taught that to be healthier or lose weight; we should put our desire for sugar in a box and close the lid. We should sit willpower on top of that box to keep the unwanted desires safe inside. It's an example of the diet mentality so prevalent in our culture. Sometimes the wish for better health or weight loss fills us with a fresh supply of willpower that makes it easier to keep the lid on that box for a while. We might walk around in Candyland feeling empowered and thinking to ourselves, "I'm done with that old sugar-foe."
But as time goes on, the boxed-up desire becomes like a kitten aptly nicknamed Houdini. It finds a way to break out. Suddenly, we're eating a little dessert because it's the weekend. Or candy, because we've been so "good." We are experiencing the truism that when we can't have it, we only want it more. Soon Houdini becomes a full-on escape artist, and that little kitten grows into a big cat. We keep wagging our fingers at our desire and trying to shove it back into the box. But it keeps escaping as we consume more sweetness.
When clients are exhausted and unwell from trying to box their eating urges, they come to us. We help them see that the restrictive diet mentality and willpower are woefully inadequate tools for navigating our abundant and highly-rewarding food environment. To recover a healthy relationship with food, people need a resilient mind and strong eating regulation skills -- a shift from willpower and the diet mentality into creating the internal conditions necessary for healthy eating in Candyland.
Neurofeedback brainwave training is one of the therapies we offer to support this shift. It is a tool that promotes healing of an over-active nervous system in order to improve eating regulation abilities. Overactivation is common in people who have been taught to hustle for perfection in appearance, their diets, and otherwise. The stressful dieting lifestyle paradoxically contributes to inflated hunger and dependence on highly-stimulating foods for soothing. In other words, stressing about healthy eating creates a hungry drive in the deep brain that can increase unwanted eating urges and dependence on sugar and highly-stimulating food substances! To take back our power over tricky foods, neurofeedback helps to calm that hungry drive in the deep brain.
Along with neurofeedback, we offer support groups and health-focused psychotherapy. These therapies support a shift from reliance on willpower to body-attuned eating and stronger emotion and eating regulation skills. As clients reclaim trust in their ability to regulate their eating, they can navigate Candyland with a new kind of agency over food -- one that involves self-awareness, self-trust, and self-care.
If you're stuck at war with unwanted eating urges, give us a call. Start the journey that ends internal eating battles as you reclaim trust in your natural appetite and eating regulation skills. You'll find that you can be empowered over food, even when navigating our tricky food culture.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
When it comes to body image, it can be overwhelming to tackle the negative feelings we might be experiencing. The way we feel about our bodies is informed by a variety of past and current experiences. From the way our friends discuss weight and dieting to how social media depicts perfection, many of us are battling deep inner pain related to our physicality.
As anyone who struggles with body image will know, it is not enough to simply ‘choose’ to love ourselves more one day. Facing our true feelings about our bodies and how we perceive them can be extremely distressing, and it’s a complex area to unpack. Thankfully, there are some gentle but effective ways we can naturally boost our confidence.
Mirrors are typically a fear-triggering element for those struggling to cope with a difficult body relationship. We might turn away from our mirror image in dislike of what we initially perceive. Store window reflections and bedroom vanity mirrors are just some of the looking glasses that trigger bad body feelings. But did you realize that your mirror could be a source of healing?
Start by introducing positivity to your mirror space. Set aside 20 minutes to write five positive messages on post-it notes that you can stick up around the frame and see clearly each time you look at yourself. Affirmations might include, “I am my own measure of beauty” or, “I am enough.” In the image above, you can get ideas from the messages my clients posted on a mirror in my office. Consider these notes as the love letters your mind and body crave as you gradually adopt them into your consciousness.
Next up—gather meaningful items to place nearby your mirror in order to create a sanctuary of positivity. Perhaps there is a unique scented candle that you adore, some photographs of a trip that always makes you smile, or a shell you collected from the beach on a beautiful day. Put these items near your mirror to help soothe your nervous system when looking into your reflection.
In an increasingly digitalized world of social media and 24/7 advertising it can be frustratingly difficult to avoid toxic diet culture and the pressure that comes with ‘picture perfect’ images in the online space. However, by applying this empowering mirror hack and creating a supportive environment at the mirror, you can take steps toward body positivity.
I hope this mirror hack helps you keep sight of the fact that your value goes far beyond numbers on a scale or the size of your jeans. Who you are deep inside, and this incredible body that carries you through life is worth appreciating.
I’d love to hear from you. Please share in the comments some of the ways that you practice body positivity for yourself and your loved ones.
- Alison Ross, LMFT
My daughter's quarantine, home-school uniform consists of a pair of jeans and her beloved Harry Potter 9 3/4 platform hoodie. The other day, when she walked into the kitchen wearing it, my husband said, "Your shirt says nine and three quarters, but you're a Ten!" My daughter laughed and gave him a big, affectionate shove.
First let me say that when my husband calls her a 10, he's not rating her appearance, and she doesn't take it that way. He's expressing his affection toward his daughter as a whole human being. He has done this in a million ways during her eleven-years of life -- everything from taking her on camping trips, coaching her volleyball team, helping with math and friend-struggles, playing games with her, telling her he loves her "spicy" attitude and repeatedly saying, "Never change. I love you exactly the way you are." He also builds her up by believing in her and urging her to do better. He leans on her to help around the house, read more books, get off screens, and develop her talents.
Their relationship gives me joy because my husband is a natural at giving both our son and daughter the nudges and the unconditional love they need to grow confidently into themselves and their bodies. When parents ask me how to help their kids develop a positive body image, one of the things I think about is how my husband naturally interacts with our kids. I know that when kids have adults in their lives who value them as they are, while encouraging them to grow in the direction of their gifts, and never harping on their weight or appearance, those kids have a very good chance of becoming adults who feel positive about themselves and their bodies.
I love talking to people about the experiences that supported their self-esteem and a positive body image. If you missed it, check out my talk on this topic with my good friend, Dr. Eynav Accortt - IGTV: Where did you get your positive body image?
I'd also love to hear from you. Please share in the comments below your experiences of being supported to believe in yourself and feel comfortable in your body.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
Special thanks to my editor, Barbara Cook.
Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.
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