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.
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.
Dr. Oz makes his intermittent fasting diet seem so easy. "Eat what you want!" he says (minus sugar, carbs, white flour, processed and fried foods, and certain meats and cheeses), "and stop eating at sunset."
There are so many ways this diet would go wrong for people who struggle with disordered eating (or who want to avoid it). But let's start with this --sunset comes at 5:05 pm. So, Dr. Oz is advocating for the end of dinner with friends and family?! Maybe this would work for a robot, but not for a human who is wired by years of evolution to communal eating.
Make no mistake. You won't fail this trendy diet, it will fail you.
In a recent blog, I explain why I think diets like these should come with warning labels. What you think? Let us know in the comments below.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
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In the past, when people lost weight, I envied them. I wanted to know how they did it and emulate them. Today, as a recovered yo-yo dieter, I feel concerned about them. I remember how great it once felt to lose pounds. Diet culture supports it as a significant accomplishment. The people around us chime in to tell us how good we look and to ask about our strategies. But I also remember the cost to my physical and mental health of pushing my body toward an unhealthy weight. So, when people proudly post those weight loss after-photos, I feel concerned that they've set themselves up for a health disaster.
Only a person who loses weight knows whether they sacrificed their health for it. And, sometimes, weight loss is a result of efforts I consider healthy. Some of my clients lose weight when they ditch the stressful dieting mindset in favor of self-respect and self-care, put more nutrition and pleasure into meals, and hone their emotion and eating regulation skills. Even when these efforts don't result in weight loss, they are likely to affect health positively. But too many people have been made to feel that their worth depends on their weight and size. They seek weight loss feverishly, the "lose 41 pounds in 28 days" way promoted by this First For Women cover. They push their bodies by restricting food, overexercising, abusing medication, and waging a mental war on themselves -- the way I once did. When people lose weight that way, it's never healthy.
This magazine wants you to believe that you can lose 41 pounds in 28 days on the diet they promote and then ride off into a sunset with your health intact. I consider this a big, fat lie. No one could engage in such extreme weight loss without harmful side effects. Even a lesser amount of weight loss could come at a cost to health.
Here's what I know, any effort to push your weight below your healthy range will trigger survival responses as your brain does its powerful background work to adapt to the stressful dieting lifestyle and the threat of malnutrition. My clients and I are familiar with the grand spectrum of suffering triggered by hating our bodies, engaging in trendy diets, and the predictable yo-yo dieting cycles that ensue. Our diets have triggered obsessive thinking, constant weighing, fear of regaining, isolation, low-self esteem, feelings of failure, body image distortion, excessive hunger and cravings, disordered eating patterns, bounce-back weight gain, and even chronic illness. I think diets should come with warning labels.
If diets are dangerous to our health, where can we turn when we dislike our bodies, struggle with body image, or need to improve our eating habits for the sake of our health? My book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, will be available on Amazon soon. In it, I offer research about how dieting can actually make us heavier, hungrier, and sick. I also share what I wish someone told me when I started to dislike my body, develop unhealthy eating habits, and began dieting at the age of twelve. I needed someone to explain that health, confidence, and the sense of worth I sought would not come from chasing an unrealistic body. It would come from the realization that my weight was not the most important thing about me. Later, this discovery would free me to focus on my strengths and develop them into a meaningful life. And it would enable me to recover from the stressful dieting lifestyle that had triggered disordered eating patterns and a negative body image. Ditching the diet lifestyle was the best thing I ever did for my health. If you want to learn about getting healthy on the non-dieting path, join my email list. You'll be among the first to know when the book is available.
Take a moment to reflect on how dieting has affected your health. Do your experiences align with mine? Please share with me in the comments below.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
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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