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  • Writer's pictureCarly Onopa

How to Heal Poor Body Image

How we talk to our body is important. I want you to take inventory of the body thoughts you’ve had the last week.

What beliefs do you have about your body?

What did you say to yourself?

How did you feel after you said those things?

How did you treat yourself before and after you said those things?

Was there something going on that led to you saying those things to yourself?

These are important questions to ask ourselves. They help us understand our relationship with our body, which is ultimately the foundation of our body image (I spend time defining body image in this post here).

When I start working with clients, they often have concerns about their body and can often feel stumped on how to work on body image. Our society tells people to just change their body and they will feel better about themselves…in talking with my clients, that isn’t what happens. They feel that the weight that they lost was never enough. They were never skinny/thin/fit enough. Simply put, they were not enough.

This approach to our bodies is harmful. It perpetuates the lie that our bodies are as changeable as our clothes. This is not the case.

So how do we start to make peace with our body?

A good place to start is to educate yourself on how the body actually responds when you try to manipulate your body weight. I am about to get a little nerdy so hang in there with me!

Our body has a set point range that it functions optimally at – I like to call this a person’s well weight. It’s important to know that a person’s well weight is not a single number, but there is natural fluctuation. It’s also important to remember when talking about well weights that there is natural body diversity so one person’s well weight will differ from another person’s well weight.

When someone is adequately nourishing themselves according to their hunger and fullness cues their body will work much like a thermostat. When we don’t have enough energy coming in, our body will respond by conserving energy and becoming more efficient. On days when maybe we’ve eaten past our comfortable fullness, our body will use that energy by increasing body temperature, increasing repairs, or giving us more energy to use. In short, our body is not the robot, calorie-in-calorie-out machine, scientists have been perpetuating for years.

When someone is actively manipulating their body by eating less and/or exercising more, there are a couple things that happen.

  1. Our body views this state as a “famine state.” The body responds to a famine state by using available glucose. When that runs out, the body then will conserve fat and mobilize proteins to create new glucose to sustain our body’s energy needs.

  2. The body’s metabolism will slow down. Metabolism is a combination of anabolic (building up) reactions and catabolic (breaking down) reactions. Metabolism is determined by many factors, one of which is lean muscle mass (skeletal muscle, organs). The reason the metabolism slows down is related to the loss of protein from the skeletal muscle and organs to support energy metabolism.

  3. The body systems become increasingly compromised as the “famine state” continues. As mentioned above, our body draws on energy from the protein in our organs and skeletal muscle. We may see muscle wasting occur. We may also see other signs and symptoms as the organs are impacted. These may include: a slow heart rate, a slowed respiration rate, feeling dizzy/faint when standing, brain fog, and many more.

This is why our body isn’t the calorie-in-calorie-out robot that we are made to think it is.

Instead of changing your body, I encourage clients to change their thoughts about their body and behaviors around their body.

When I talk with my clients about their body talk, it can feel overwhelming to jump from where they start to a place of body love. This may work for some people, but for others it feels defeating. This is where I will talk with my clients about body respect.

What is body respect?

Let’s start with respect as a general concept before we apply it to the body.

I want you to think if there was someone that you didn’t particularly like but were able to respect. Can you think of someone?

How did you demonstrate respect for this person? Things to consider might be:

  • Did you make eye contact with them?

  • Did you offer a neutral greeting?

  • Did you acknowledge them or completely ignore them?

  • Did you smile at them?

  • Did you use cruel language or considerate language?

  • Did you listen to them when they spoke?

  • Did you behave in a mean way towards them (kicking, hitting, taking something from them, etc)?

All of these are ways that we can demonstrate respect.

Are you starting to see where I may be going with this in terms of respecting your body?

Body respect is a way that we can focus on how we talk and behave towards our body. So while someone may not be able to say “I love my body” they can focus on respectful behaviors.

What are examples of body respectful behaviors?

I’m so glad you asked! There are many, but here are some suggestions:

  • Engage in regular hygienic activities: brushing your teeth, showering, wash hands

  • Engage in basic self-care activities: consistently nourishing your body, move your body (as approved by treatment providers), allow rest, use adaptive coping mechanisms

  • Wear comfortable clothes

  • Stop/reduce body checking behaviors: pinching, grabbing, measuring, mirror gazing

  • Reduce body bashing talk about others

  • Take notice of your body’s capabilities

  • Take notice of your values

Overtime when these different respectful behaviors are layered, I often see an improvement in my client’s approach to their body. They may not be in love with their body, but they often find their brain is able to be filled with more things than just negative body thoughts.

In Summary

Bodies are amazing, adaptable, and diverse. I’m so in awe of the different body sizes and shapes and the beauty found in each. I also recognize that this view is not currently held by mainstream society, which can lead to an increased preoccupation with a person’s body. While many try to change how they feel about their body by changing their body, this approach is not sustainable. We can see real change happen when we use respectful behaviors and language towards our body.

If you find that you need more help in your eating disorder recovery journey, please contact me for individual nutrition counseling.

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