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Body Image Distortion and Related Issues

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? More importantly, WHOM do you see? When gazing at your reflection, do you frown or smile? Do you narrow in on your "flaws" and obsess about improving them? Do you see things in your reflection that really aren't there?

I have suffered from body image distortion for most of my life. It began around the time I entered puberty, and it continues to this day. I'm never sure if what I'm seeing in my reflection is real or not. Sometimes I feel thin, sometimes I feel fat. My mirror image sometimes agrees with what I'm feeling, and sometimes it differs greatly. At times I would have sworn that I was gazing at a monster.

It is clear to me that this distortion is the result of my own self-hatred, my own longing to be something and someone that I am not. It is the illusory manifestation of my own sense of inferiority. It is a rebellion of my inner self, against the unrealistic ideals I place on myself, and against the unrealistic ideals that society places on me.

Our culture is obsessed with thinness. Who can forget the "waif" look so popular a few years ago? You cannot read a typical women's magazine nowadays without being bombarded with page after page featuring skinny, "perfect", airbrushed models. You cannot get through one of those magazines without seeing at least one ad for a weight loss product. Article after article tells us how to get "Thinner Thighs by Summer", or "Fantastic Abs". Diet after diet is hawked in these magazines, telling us how to reduce cellulite, how to lose thirty pounds in thirty days, how to turn our bodies into fat-burning machines.

What message are we sending to the women of our culture? That thin is beautiful. That if you are not thin, you are not perfect, and if you are not perfect, you will not be successful. That if you are not thin, you will not be loved. You will not be attractive. You will be a F-A-I-L-U-R-E. Most of us have been bombarded by these images for our whole lives, and the messages have been sinking into our brains, altering the view we hold of ourselves.

I was about twelve years old when I first started noticing that my body was changing. I was talking with my mother in her bedroom one day, when I glanced to the right, and caught a glimpse of my reflection in her bureau mirror. I didn't recognize myself. After looking more closely, I saw that it was me alright, looking back from the glass. But I was "fatter". My butt jutted out from my body, my stomach as well. My breasts were beginning to grow, two rose buds poking through my shirt. I said, "Mom, I'm getting fat." She said, "You're not getting fat, you're developing." I didn't know exactly what she meant, but I didn't like the sound of it. I didn't want to "develop"! I wanted my body to stay the way it was. I didn't want to be fat.

I started noticing how my mother weighed her meal portions before dinner. I started paying closer attention to what I ate. I started noticing a startling change when I was out in the world. Boys were paying attention to me. Whistles and stares accompanied me when I walked down the street. I didn't like it. It made me feel very vulnerable and exposed.

I started noticing that my friends were all very thin, with lean, boyish figures. I began hating my developing curves, and tried to cover them up. I began wearing a sweater over my shirts, even in warm weather, so my breasts wouldn't be visible, so no one would be able to tell I was wearing a bra. I didn't tell any of my friends when I began menstruating. I hid it, along with the rest of my physical development. I didn't want to be different, I didn't want to be experiencing any of this stuff, and I definitely did not want to "become a woman". That title carried too much responsibility, and I wasn't sure I was ready to handle it. I was terrified by the changes taking place in me, and I resisted it to the best of my ability.

As I developed over the next couple of years, I did put on some weight. I was by no means considered overweight, but I was "rounder" and more curvaceous than I had been as a child. I didn't like it at all, and soon became my mother's dieting partner. (I know for a fact that she didn't realize how deeply this was affecting me, and how seriously I was taking it, otherwise she never would have agreed to let me diet at that age!) We followed a diet of 1200 calories per day. At first it was fun and challenging, trying to come up with healthy, nutritious, low calorie meals. But when I didn't see results as quickly as I wanted to, I started decreasing my caloric intake, drastically. Before long, I was starving myself, and covering it up. I didn't tell my family or friends what I was doing. I fell into a deep depression, and lost thirty pounds that summer, becoming very thin. Too thin. And I loved it. That began a battle I would fight for the next 19 years.

The Female Form in Art

Throughout history, the female form has been portrayed in paintings, sculptures, and carvings.

It is believed that thousands of years ago, in many of the ancient, Goddess-worshipping religions, a woman's body was revered and celebrated within the tribes. Sacred rites were performed when a girl reached maturity and became a woman (started menstruating). Likewise, fertility ceremonies were held in the spring, celebrating the rebirth of the earth's bounties of nature. Femininity and fertility, in all of their forms, were celebrated, not discouraged. It is also believed that men of that time, when seeking a mate, were more likely (consciously or unconsciously) to choose a woman with larger breasts and hips, ensuring lush fertility and therefore a large family. Feminine features (breasts, hips, buttocks, stomach) were all exaggerated in art forms, which symbolized fertility, as well as being a symbol of Mother Earth/Goddess, She who gave life to all of us. As time goes on, the portrayal of the female form is shrinking, becoming more slender and less voluptuous. This, of course, can't even compare to the emaciated-looking models in many of today's magazines and other publications.

When exactly did starvation become attractive? When did men and women start believing that the female form should more closely resemble the body of a pre-pubescent boy? Narrow hips, concave tummy, ribs, spines and hip bones poking through the skin -- when did this become the ideal body build?

Please understand that I am NOT picking on women who are naturally slender in body shape and build! I am NOT saying that thin is bad. I AM saying that no one has the right to tell us that our bodies are not "good enough", or that we need to measure up to a sociably accepted ideal of body size and build. ALL body types, shapes and builds are beautiful, in my opinion. If a woman is naturally slender and thin, she should flaunt that, celebrate that, and accentuate her best features. Likewise, if a woman is naturally voluptuous and curvy, she should flaunt THAT. We should all be proud of our bodies, exactly as they are.

However, that is not what is happening in our society today. Instead, young women are starving themselves down to mere skeletons, trying to make themselves look like the "perfect", airbrushed models they see portrayed in the media as the "ideal woman". They are forcing themselves to vomit after every meal, believing that calories are the enemy. Calories -- which they NEED for survival. They are committing a slow, painful form of suicide, trying to fit into someone else's ideal of "perfection", an ideal that few women on this planet can achieve. Women are diminishing themselves, hating themselves, purging themselves, hurting themselves, denying themselves and killing themselves.

WHEN WILL IT STOP?

On the other end of the spectrum, women are bingeing and stuffing themselves, in an effort to shove down their feelings of worthlessness and inferiority, self-hatred and low self-esteem. Women are abusing and mistreating their own bodies, punishing themselves for something that is beyond their control. With every pound gained, we often believe that we are becoming invisible, our "faults and flaws" vanishing before the eyes of those who would condemn us. Our bodies become our rebellion against the "ideal" that society tries to place on us.

We believe (often unconsciously) that if we can't measure up to the physical ideal, we might as well go in the opposite direction, becoming so large that people won't be able to see us, the "true" us, lurking beneath the fat. Our fat makes us "unattractive", and therefore unnoticeable to the general public. Our fat becomes our shield, our rebellion.

We as women need to remove the blinders from our eyes! We need to reconnect with our feminine Source, with our higher selves, with the Goddess within each of us. We need to stop paying attention to what society says we should be, and start deciding what WE want to be. We need to rediscover our authentic selves, our TRUE selves, and reclaim the beautiful women that we are, deep inside. We need to express our beauty, our INNER BEAUTY, in any way we can, and refuse to accept the constraints that modern society tries to impose upon us. WE have the final say in what we believe. WE are strong, WE are capable, WE are intelligent enough to not buy into this garbage any longer! Alright, this goes for men too, not just women.

We as a society need to stop focusing so much on our external appearances, and to start focusing on a person's character, on their spirit, on their contributions to society, on their inner beauty, and on their potential as a human being. Since when does a person's girth determine their worth? Since when does a person's body size determine their level of attraction?

Health and Fitness

Many medical researchers are beginning to discover that being thin does not necessarily make a person healthy. Body weight and size rarely determine a person's level of health, except in extreme cases. What determines a person's health is their level of fitness: diet and exercise. All of us, large or small, should be eating nutritious, delicious foods, and being sure to get enough exercise. But we should be doing that NOT because we are trying to "measure up" or "slim down". We should be doing that to honor our bodies, to care for our bodies as they deserve to be cared for: with love, respect and kindness. Our bodies are temples, the houses for our spirits. We owe it to ourselves to take good care of our bodies.

But how do we know what's "good"? Nowadays we hear so many conflicting reports on what we should and shouldn't eat. "Fat is bad for us", "carbohydrates are bad", "red meat is bad", "salt is bad", there are pesticides on vegetables, impurities in water, etc. On and on it goes, the news reports are never ending. How do we know what's healthful anymore?

My opinion is that we each need to find what works best for US. We are individuals and what works for one may not work for another. But I believe there should be five key elements to any health and fitness regime:

Whole Foods

Organic, if possible. I feel it is beneficial to avoid highly processed foods and instead try to eat foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Fresh vegetables and fruit, fresh meat and fish (or alternative protein foods such as soy), nuts, seeds, small amounts of whole grains, etc. Our bodies don't need all the preservatives, additives and dyes they put in processed foods. Another thing our bodies don't need is refined SUGAR. It is nutritionally worthless. It simply gets converted to fat if our bodies can't burn off the quantities being consumed. (And the average Amercian consumes MUCH more sugar than could possibly be burned off in one day!) It is true that our bodies do need carbohydrates, but in my opinion, we need only a fraction of the carbohydrates the average American consumes in a typical day, and it's also vital to look at the source of those carbohydrates. Instead of loading up on sugar and nutritionally worthless starches (such as white bread, pasta, potatoes, white rice, etc.), consider trying to get most of your carbohydrates from small amounts of whole grains, nuts and plenty of fresh vegetables -- the greener the better. Dark green vegetables (such as spinach, broccoli, asparagus, etc.) are excellent sources of carbohydrates, as well as FIBER, something our bodies need and most people don't get enough of.

Of course this doesn't mean we can't EVER enjoy a sweet treat now and then, but moderation is the key! The bulk of our diet should be healthful, life-giving foods, rather than highly processed "junk". We really ARE what we eat.

Water, Water, Water

Drinking an adequate amount of water is essential for good health. Most of us drink only a bare amount of water, instead choosing to drink coffee, tea, soda and other sugar-filled beverages. Our bodies NEED water to function properly. Sixty-four ounces per day is the recommended amount, but I drink even more than that. Most weight-loss experts recommend drinking 64 ounces per day, plus an additional 8 ounces for every 25 pounds you are overweight. Replacing even half of your other beverage intake with water would be beneficial. A fully hydrated body results in healthier skin and hair, more energy, and better sleep. Also try to limit beverages containing caffiene or alcohol, as they actually dehydrate you.

Exercise

I know, I know, no one likes to hear that dreaded "E" word. Too many of us think of exercise as a chore, something we "have" to do if we want to be healthy. But it can be alot more fun than simply lifting weights or running laps! Most importantly, first check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program! Once that's done and you have approval, take some time thinking about activities that you would enjoy doing. There is a wide range of sports that can be alot of fun, and get us moving. Exercise is so good for us. It gets the blood flowing, increases lung capacity, improves our cardiovascular strength and endurance, and releases endorphins in our brains, which are natural painkillers. I always feel so good after physical activity, and then wonder why I don't do it more often! The most important thing is to find something that you really enjoy - rather than making exercise into a chore. And don't do it obsessively -- do it as often as you can, but if you can't, don't beat yourself up over it. Exercise should be FUN, and it should be something that we do because we want to, because it makes us feel good, not because we have to.

Breathe

Did you know that many of us don't breathe properly? I know it sounds funny - how is it possible to breathe "improperly"? But it's true. We're supposed to be breathing "abdominally". Most of us breathe from the chest up, using only a portion of our lung capacity. This results in decreased oxygen intake. Try a little experiment now. Exhale until your lungs are deflated, and then begin inhaling slowly through your nose. But inhale from the abdomen, feeling your tummy expand, and then your chest, as your lungs fill. Pause for a moment, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Do it again, using the same technique. This is the way we should be breathing all the time. Deep slow breaths. Doing so should make you feel calmer, think more clearly, sleep better and have more energy.

Meditation/Prayer/Quiet Time

Nurturing the spirit is as important as nuturing the body. Make it a point to spend time in quiet solitude each day, doing things that nuture your spirit. Prayer, meditation, journaling and reading uplifting material are all good ways to reconnect with your Source. Hobbies can also be another form of meditation. Gardening, woodworking, knitting or crocheting, needlework, painting; there are so many activities you could use to quiet your mind. Think of things you've always wanted to learn and go about doing just that!

Positive Reinforcement

It takes time, hard work and patience to change old habits - both physical and mental. It won't be accomplished overnight. We need to believe in ourselves, and learn to treat ourselves kindly. It's a journey, this life, and as long as we keep trying, we cannot fail.

Visit my Body Image Links page for resources that may help you on your journey. :-)

Disclaimer - I am not a doctor, nor a mental health professional. The information contained within these pages should not be construed as medical advice or professional advice. This information is simply my own opinion, based upon my thoughts and experiences regarding the subject of weight and body image. If you believe that you or a loved one may have an eating-related disorder or a mental health disorder, I urge you to seek professional help immediately. See my Links section (below) for a listing of Eating Disorder links, or call your local hospital or mental health center for referrals.

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