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The Appetite Episode #06: Body Image: Project versus Relationship Take 2
An Opal: Food+Body Wisdom Podcast
Opal’s co-founders Julie Church RDN, CD, CEDS, Kara Bazzi, LMFT, CEDS, and Lexi Giblin PhD, CEDS, and host Carter Umhau LMHCA, discuss body image through the lens of both eating disorder treatment and their personal stories. They explore what it means to have a healthy body image, shifting away from seeing one’s body as a project to “fix”, and use their own stories to highlight the complexity of moving towards a more embodied relationship.
Carter: Welcome to The Appetite. We’re clinicians from Opal: Food and Body Wisdom and the Eating Disorder Treatment Center in Seattle. I am Carter Umhau, a therapist at Opal, and an artist and writer. I’m joined by Opal’s founders …
Lexi: Dr. Lexi Giblin.
Kara: Kara Bazzi.
Julie: Julie Church.
Carter: That’s them. Today, we’re talking about body image and are giving somewhat of an introduction into the way we think about what healthy body image is. We talk about the difference between body acceptance and body positivity, self care rituals, and what it means to have a relationship with your body rather than treating it as a project to work on. As always, we’re bringing in our expertise and experiences within the eating disorder treatment world as a bridge to all of you. Note that next episode, we’ll be joined by our first guest, Erin Harrop, who will further deepen the topic of body image, bringing in her research around thin privilege, weight stigma, and fatness.
Carter: Okay. So we’re talking about body image today, and as I’ve been thinking about this, one of the main things that I’ve noticed myself thinking is that I sort of assume that most women … maybe even most people … start out with somewhat bad body image, which is sort of a sad assumption to realize I have. But I’m not so sure … because maybe it’s a common assumption or common thing in the world to have negative ideas about your body … that most people have thought about what it means to have a positive body image, or what that would even look like, how they would know the difference between kind of the optimal relationship to self versus just kind of the average, “Yeah, you’re supposed to hate your body,” kind of thing, which is really sad. But, is there a way that we can define what healthy body image is?
Kara: Well, the first thing I think about with the negative body image is then the response to fix it, right? So that’s a much more common mentality of, “I need to change my body.” So we’re operating from a place of seeing our bodies as objects, and one of the main things that we’re doing in treatment with our clients is trying to move away from the fix mindset around body and try to begin to be in a relationship with body. And so, when I think of healthy body image, I think of how does that mirror how we would define as healthy relationships, like thinking of even just two people, two person relationships. So what is in a healthy relationship? And we can speak those things very similar to what that would mean in relationship to ourselves and our body, which is respect, a full range of emotion.
Kara: So in relationship, we have moments that we’re finding a lot of pleasure in people. We have moments that we’re irritated and angry. We have moments that we’re sad. We have moments that we’re just feeling lots of feelings towards another person, and similarly to our bodies. That would be normal. In healthy relationships, I think of attentiveness and care, both kind of physically and just paying attention to, and a sense of knowing. So if we’re close to someone in a healthy relationship, we know them pretty well, right? We ask them questions. We have curiosity. And orienting ourselves like that to our body is also … really can beget more of a healthy relationship of just trying to learn from it, noticing how … Allowing it to look and behave in the way that it’s authentic versus trying to control it, trying to make it something that it’s not. So I get excited about thinking about it in that metaphor of how it mirrors a healthy relationship to humans. And so many people don’t think of relationship to body in that way.
Carter: And as you were saying that, I was thinking, too, “Wow, it actually takes a huge process to be able to accept in yourself that you would feel multiple things towards the same person or towards yourself.”
Carter: So in relationship, that’s hard work.
Kara: Totally. I can’t both be mad and love someone at the same time, right?
Carter: Yeah, so of course we don’t know how to do that, necessarily, with our bodies when there’s all this external pressure as well.
Kara: Right. More often we compartmentalize or just see some … All or none kind of thinking around the emotions. But that’s just not realistic.
Carter: So when we’re thinking about, kind of this body object, or body as object rather than being in relationship to a body, there are a lot of components to what that entails. What do you all think contributes to objectifying the body? Again, another word that’s sort of just like, “Well, duh.” Unfortunately. But what are these factors that lead us to kind of be living in a culture of objectified bodies?
Kara: Well, the main thing … I’ll start, and then you guys … I’d love to hear what you think. But I think a main one is just the thin ideal, that there is this perception of what is beautiful, and then all the attachment to what the thin ideal is, and think of. I mean, most people would be aware this, the mass marketing around the desirable external appearance and what it is connected to, which is often love, sense of belonging, connection, which everybody wants. So of course we want that. Of course if the belief is, “If my body looks a particular way, I will gain love and care,” then … I mean, that’s why a lot of people are willing to go great lengths to change their body because they want … I mean, ultimately, I think there’s the desire for connection.
Julie: I do think, though, within that, too … Kind of take the step back, ’cause when you say this in terms of media or culture and like, where does that thin ideal come from. And I think for so many people, it can be within a relationship that they felt that that thin ideal was idealized, right? So this particular ideal was there, and then they’re like, “Oh, well this person, to be in a relationship with this particular person I wanna be in a relationship with, I need to look a certain way.” But I think one of the things that is so helpful, I guess, in when somebody’s really trying to understand this better is to kind of take the step back and go, “Okay, well how did that person come to think that that was the ideal?” Because they started to have that ideal from what? And it could have been somebody in their life that communicated the ideal to them, and where’d that person get it/ And it could be all relationally and then you kind of have to start to think about images and media and advertising and the things that contribute to that and definitely objectify all human bodies, really.
Julie: But I think it’s a good thing to stop and pause and go like … People in body image want to talk about media and the images that we see and how we’re bombarded by those things, but I think it’s so important to recognize that usually it’s because there’s a relationship that mattered to them and that relationship was impacted by the ideals that are in our society about appearance.
Kara: And we can’t lose sight of the historical context, because that’s also … It contributes to the thin … Or what the ideal is at any given moment in time. So, I mean, if we do the body image history lesson, the quick and short of it is that it’s changed over time, and the ideal has changed and the thin ideal didn’t really come onto the scene until the 1960s with Twiggy, and before that Marilyn Monroe was the icon of beauty. And if you go all the way back to Renaissance era, women with a large rolls and fat and big bodies were considered the beautiful image and it was a sign of wealth. And so it’s socially constructed. These things change over time. And of course there’s the research about countries who have been without TV, and then they get introduced into TV and then they start to adopt the thin ideal. There was the study in Fiji where that happened. So there’s the historical side of things.
Lexi: It’s when the ideal runs in conflict with who we actually are as women. That there’s … That why isn’t the ideal a reflection of who we actually are, and why would that be? Why would it be that there would be an ideal that isn’t reflective of real women in the world. I mean, what’s that about? That’s interesting, right? Folks can tie that in with social justice concerns. But sitting with that dissonance as women is where, I think … One place that body image dissatisfaction is born with seeing, “Gosh, I’m not measuring up to this standard that’s being presented in all these different ways.” The conflict and inadequacy that’s born of that dissonance.
Kara: Yeah, I’ve thought more about just the role of something being familiar in relation to how you feel about your body, and if you’re … Like what you’re saying, Lexi, if you’re not around different shapes or sizes or diversity, what can be familiar can be the thing that can become ideal because it’s more comfortable. Like I think of even with my own kids, I’ve been aware of … Just sort of we come from a more thin family, genetically, where we’re all on the tall side and thin. And so of course there’s gonna be a comfort for my girls with our body shapes, ’cause they get to see them every day. They get to see them all the time. They get tons of exposure to it. So then they see something that’s different and often the different is more scary because it’s something they haven’t seen. And so how do we help people kind of reconcile something that’s different and not go to interpretations that are so negative, I guess.
Carter: I’m thinking about this on so many levels, because now if we’re talking about familiarity, I think that we then get into this conversation around tribalism potentially, too, and kind of how we recognize and identify if we belong … so back to the acceptance piece … by knowing if we are okay, if we can see someone and recognize, “Okay yes, they look like part of my tribe. Yes, they’re acting like my tribe. Okay. I’m safe. I’m good. Yep.” And so the craziness of having one type of body, one race, one performance of gender, et cetera, all out in the open is that then when we are not necessarily seeing that in ourselves or maybe even in people around us, I think it does turn into not just fear, but also potentially hatred as well. So hatred of the other that doesn’t look like this ideal or doesn’t look like yourself, maybe, if it’s you. Or then hatred of yourself, too, because you’re internalizing, “Oh, I’m not supposed to look like that. This is what the world is supposed to be. I know that I’m not safe now.”
Kara: And so much of this goes underground, so silent. A lot of it’s silent. I just think of all the ways that people … I think, especially, with kids in this way, just with the development side. How much just gets buried in their thoughts and there’s not conversation about it. And that’s sadly that things just get more and more internalized.
Lexi: Right. And I used to … My research back in graduate school was in body image dissatisfaction, and the thin ideal internalization is the most potent factor in contribution to body image dissatisfaction. So believing thinness is ideal is what really can get us in trouble. ‘Cause it’s not just that it’s there in our culture. It’s that we ourselves would take it in as our ideal, as our own personal ideal as well.
Julie: It makes me wonder, too, for my own self, because I am a woman of the world I always say, and so I have to figure out every day how to love my body and eat the way I want to. But I think in that though, “Okay, what contributed to my journey leading to the fact that I never got to a place of having body dissatisfaction or negative body image to a point that I would harm my body with an eating disorder or other means.” But I would say it’s ebbed and flowed. And so I just kind of wonder, like, “What?” And I think of places like the YMCA where I grew up going and seeing the diverse body sizes and shapes, and even within my own family and my close friends and the community that I was a part of, I didn’t see one universal body. I was really … When I think back on that, I’m like, “Interesting. I do really see that.” And within my genetic pool I see diversity, actually, in sizes.
Julie: So that’s interesting and I wonder how much that was protective for me because maybe I didn’t internalize that. And I was pretty into the things that were cool, I guess you would say. I think of all the teenybopper magazines …
Kara: Cheerleader Julie.
Julie: Yes. But I liked all those things, which I am scared for my kids. I wanna reject those things for my kids. I wouldn’t want them to see the Men’s Health magazines because I’ve already made it clear to them that that’s PhotoShopped. Very small amount of people look that way. And it’s probably edited to look that way, even if that body sort of looks like that in real life. Anyways, so, it’s interesting, ’cause I looked at all that stuff for sure. And so just curious to wonder what were the protective factors for me when something comes to my mind.
Carter: What about for either of you in terms of your, kind of, relationship to your body growing up or the context that you were in that got you thinking about these things?
Kara: Well, I went down the road of an eating disorder. I think that’s already been outed in the earlier podcast. But I think, interesting … I’ve been reflecting a little bit about this given that we’re doing this podcast, and just thinking about … Like I said, my family, we’re all genetically on that thin side, tall, so I think I just lived with thin privilege growing up. Didn’t realize it, but didn’t think much about my body. I don’t think I was that … I don’t remember having much body dissatisfaction, but I remember the main focus of my body was in athletics, and it was what it could do, how it could perform. It was less about the aesthetic, but I also think I didn’t have a lot of negative comments towards me.
Kara: And my family didn’t comment much about body, either. So I was a little insulated but also didn’t have much awareness about it, and so I think that was actually … didn’t help me in the future. But anyways, I pushed myself through sport, and then that was really where the entry of my eating disorder came in. It was more from a performance standpoint of this desire … or losing weight and desire to be more thin for sport performance. But then once my eating disorder changed and I started binging and restricting and overexercising, my body changed and I started … My body gained weight, and that’s where I would say the more, kind of what you assume to be with an eating disorder, came online where there was just a lot more hatred. And I think that’s where the idealized kind of thin ideal came to the surface. I remember … We talk about this with OC and UC … but just sort of that very hyper-focused objective eyes on my body and other people’s bodies of nitpicking every single thing that I didn’t like, wanting it to change, and feeling less than in all comparisons. Even though, you would still … If you looked at me, I would still be somebody in the big picture, privileged by thin ideal. I was also … What’s the word? I don’t want to use the word “victim,” but a victim of it in the sense that that’s where that was what was fueling my body hatred. And so it was interesting to have that be … I was recognizing how I was affected by thin privilege even though I benefited from it. And what that then led to in my recovery process of facing some of that fat prejudice and asking those questions for the first time, of what defines beauty, why have I even come to believe what I believed. I mean, I never had asked those questions until I went through the recovery process, so I see the recovery process as a really big gift even though it was painful and so challenging.
Carter: So in a way, once there was some sort of change, even in your body … Especially in your body, maybe … That was the point at which you were … even realized the water you were swimming in, kind of?
Kara: Totally. Exactly. Before that I think I was just kind of in la la land. I was just like, “Whatever.” The only thing I remember having negative body image in high school is I had a really flat chest. I didn’t develop breasts. And so basketball games, I remember being very self conscious about my sports bra and boys watching me play basketball. That was the only area of body consciousness I had, and other than that, I was just kind of living in a bubble until my eating disorder developed and then it was like, “Whoa, here’s this whole world of hatred” and such a way to just really harm myself and harm other people by my fat prejudice and my mentality. It just really came to the surface.
Kara: It’s really sad thinking about even … Yeah, just how … Kind of even the eyes I had, of just how I would look at people and myself.
Lexi: How critical you were?
Kara: How critical. So critical. And to think now how … I can’t even describe. It’s just so different. It’s like I have different eyes.
Carter: That’s amazing.
Kara: It really is. It’s hard to even imagine being back in … I can’t. Like, I almost can’t imagine seeing that way anymore.
Carter: Well, now I wanna ask about the process that kind of changed that. You say you have different eyes. I mean, that’s a pretty huge deal.
Kara: Yeah. People have asked me … I’ve gotten that question a lot, especially in my role as a therapist, and it’s hard to describe the process. I think it’s hard to lay it out. But I think there’s a lot of work involved in having my eyesight change, but I think one of the big things was exposure and doing a lot of hard experiential work and being more aware of what’s going on with thin privilege and just … Yeah. I lost my train of thought.
Carter: Well that’s good, ’cause I was gonna ask you a question.
Kara: Great. I totally just lost my train of thought.
Carter: That’s okay. I was gonna ask you what the experiential work looked like. What does that mean?
Kara: Yeah, I think … Some of it is really tangible and practical of facing some of the things that I avoided. I mean, there was a lot of ways I was making my life smaller because of my body image avoidance. Some of it was … I remember a specific example. I might have even said this in an earlier podcast. But going to a beach, having a friend down in California see … I knew I had body image distortion. I mean, I think I knew I had it. And so just making myself vulnerable, letting my friend say what she said on the beach and have her describe bodies and really highlight the way that my eyes were distorted. I feel like there was something really powerful in that exchange because I trusted her eyesight, essentially.
Kara: And then I exposed myself to lots of images. I looked at women in larger bodies. I did some of my own kind of … I worked with some photography of my own body.
Kara: I think I just faced a lot of fears and really … In some ways, it aligned with a lot of the values I have around empowerment and social justice, so as the more I exposed, the more it got me kind of, I guess, excited about seeing things differently. And then I don’t know how the eyesight changed, but the eyesight started to change and I really … It’s almost hard. I think in some ways, I went through this phase where I thought, “Gosh, my body doesn’t even matter,” ’cause my eyesight had changed so much. And so then I had to get to a stage or reconciling that my body did matter with the help of Lexi and Julie.
Carter: Mattered in what way? Like, mattered in taking care of, or …
Kara: Mattered to other people. Because we are in a world where there is this thin ideal, and I couldn’t deny that my body meant something in the world even though, for me, I don’t feel like the thin ideal dominates my life to the same degree. But I think that’s where I was sort of missing the boat in the other kind of extreme of pretending like my body size didn’t matter and that my external appearance has an impact on relationships with people, especially in the higher level of care eating disorder setting where I’m being objectified all the time.
Kara: I think Julie and Lexi have been an incredible, incredible relationships for change, and I feel very, just, in debt … I mean, I just feel like it was a really incredible experience for them to kind of gently confront me on that. And I also think about the first co-leader in our body image group at Opal six years ago who also challenged me a lot in some of the ways that I still needed some growth around what my body meant in the world. Especially being in a thinner body and doing this work and holding my privilege responsibly.
Carter: It sounds like you moved from kind of objectifying yourself and everybody else in this really crippling, really paralyzing, stifling way and then having kind of like, this awakening of … Kind of casting that aside and being beyond the body in a way.
Kara: Kind of.
Carter: Being beyond the body, but I also imagine you could sort of like … Looking at these beautiful books, and the fear that you might have had looking at a larger body and then being able to be exposed and say, “Okay.” I mean, I don’t know what you would have been thinking, but, “Okay, yes. Yes. That is another body. Okay I can look at that without having this huge reaction.”
Carter: “I can look at someone that’s different than me and not be worried or the fear of the unknown.”
Kara: Yeah, the fear connection had really been broken.
Carter: And then you moved into, again, realizing that, “Okay, yes. We still have bodies. They still matter in the world.”
Kara: Yes, and I’m a part of this society and I can’t just be off in a different island with it.
Carter: There’s a responsibility in a way to that.
Kara: Right. Which then, sometimes, I don’t feel a sense of belonging ’cause I do feel some of that vulnerability of not feeling like I might be in the same places as other people with it. And not in a … Yeah, I’m concerned it could come off there’s some better than, which is not how it feels. But anyways, there’s a vulnerability in that.
Carter: Lexi, what about you?
Lexi: Yeah, I listened to Kara and I’m going like, “Gosh, that sounds amazing.” In that, I think my experience is maybe more normative than Kara’s in the sense that I would like to see differently. And my beliefs and values are aligned with … I guess with … What would we say? I mean … With feminist ideas.
Julie: And you would want to see your own body differently, or other bodies differently, or …
Lexi: It’s probably more applied to myself. So that I feel more stuck in it. ‘Cause I would like to think different. I would like to experience my body differently. That is something I would love. And I would love to be able to do experiential … I’ve done a lot of that work, but my sense of my physical self or my emotional experience of my physical self doesn’t necessarily shift despite the life I’m living and the people I’m around, the different ways, the exposure I’m getting to different ideas. It feels almost like it’s a rigid discontent. It’s a place where I don’t feel as much flexibility in my life.
Lexi: In talking to women in all these many years, I think I’ve always resonated with their experiences. This is what I hear from them too, is just this … We’re of this normative discontent and this frustration that different ways of thinking simply can’t change how we feel or experience, necessarily.
Julie: Would you also … That also was similar to our clients, often, right? Is that they can have those eyes for other people and have appreciation of beauty in a lot of different shapes and sizes and different presentations, but then being able to internalize that for their own selves is the challenge. Would you say that that’s similar to what you’re saying, too?
Lexi: Yeah. It’s more in my own experience. And it seems like my body image satisfaction has taken a nosedive over the life course. Which I don’t … You know, I think often it’s more in adolescence and in our 20s that body image satisfaction is more prevalent. I don’t know if that’s true.
Carter: Yeah, I know you’re saying that and I’m sort of like, well, but there are plenty of things in adolescence where your body is changing a ton and you’re kind of getting to know yourself as a sexual being during that time, or kind of coming into your own and whatever that means for each individual. But as an adult, your body is changing drastically as well in maybe similar ways. But the aging process, I know, is just difficult. And people … Their lifestyles change or they have children. There’s so many different factors, so it sounds like there’s something on either side that’s hard.
Julie: The naivete, kind of, in the early stages of life though could allow for you to breeze through, right? And it feels like … In the reality, I mean, Lexi, you’re such a smart, thoughtful person that does self-inquiry around everything. So it’s almost like, are you thinking about it too much? And it’s not really …
Lexi: Right. And I feel some resistance around body image conversations in general, ’cause I often just think, “Is body image actually the problem?” Because I just … I think a basic assumption I make about myself and others is that if something’s up with how I’m feeling about my body, that this is signaling to me that there’s something to learn from, potentially, so that the disregulation I feel in my body is maybe more of an opportunity for growth than having anything to do about my actual body.
Julie: Yeah. It moves you toward your emotional world, your psychological, social, emotional.
Lexi: Yeah. And I think I make that assumption with clients as well, is that in our time and our culture, it’s a way that we have of communicating our pain as women and as men as well. But it’s a way of saying, “I don’t feel okay,” more generally. And so I often just think, “Is it really about your body?” So shifting that conversation away from the body. ‘Cause if you think it’s about your body, then the solution is in changing your body. And we all know where that goes. It just takes you down a path that maybe not be fruitful in terms of growth and learning. You might just stay on a wheel of project-ness and repair.
Carter: Yeah, I love that you’ve brought that up because … I don’t know. I’m someone that’s always thought in metaphors so much so. Kind of came into my own psychological health, probably through poetry first and thinking about the world through metaphor. And I think about bodies in that way too, that whatever our struggle is with our body probably has something to do metaphorically with something more psychological or something more relational.
Carter: And so it is and it isn’t about the body almost always. And yet, at the same time, we can’t escape our bodies and we’re in them, and it’s important to be embodied. I think that we believe that as well. But I think it’s the objectification that is, I think, really at the root of maybe why we’d … I don’t know what I’m saying.
Lexi: Why it would be manifested through our body, the objectification in our culture.
Lexi: There’s a reason it’s …
Julie: It’s in the mind.
Lexi: … manifested in our physical selves.
Carter: Exactly. And as a woman, I think that my identity has definitely … I’ve become kind of more accepting of myself in my body the more that I understood that I was being objectified and that I was white and that I was female and that there were expectations around what that looked like and what I was supposed to act like or how I was supposed to dress to sort of play out these things in my life. And if you’re aware of those things or you’re aware of expectations familially around what your body should look like or whatnot, suddenly you start realizing, “I can’t really fit into that.” Or “There’s a part of me that doesn’t. What the hell do I do now?” And a lot of people can wind up really harming themselves to just change their body rather than really reconcile …
Lexi: Withdrawing from the beauty contest.
Carter: Yeah, exactly.
Kara: And I think that’s the fun opportunity we have with people coming into treatment, is they’ve paused their life. They’ve put their life on hold to do that work and that we’re a part of the process with them to walk down an alternative path rather than spending all their energies on fixing their body. So now we’re starting with the basics of having them be more … helping support them be more nourished again and the basics of taking care of their body, and then being able to unravel some of these things while they’re taking care of their body.
Kara: Which is so fun and hard and long term.
Julie: Yeah, long term work.
Kara: Long term work.
Julie: Yeah. That speaks to sort of that embodiment, ’cause you can’t take care of your body unless you’re actually connected to your body …
Kara: Right, the relationship part.
Julie: … which means you then you have to … Yeah. Back to the things you said at the very beginning about relationship with the body requires that you are embodied and that you notice that, “This is part of who I am in this world and therefore I will interact with it and care for it and nurture it and have all the range of emotions about it.”
Carter: Yeah, and I think that that feeds into this idea about body acceptance versus being like, 100# body obsessed. In love with your body. Body love is, I think, a big phrase these days. But to actually be able to embrace that range of emotion. It’s about realizing and accepting what is and what emotion is present, what feeling is there, and then still going on and taking care, taking care of your body.
Lexi: And I guess I want to speak to that a bit more, because I think I have a little bristle that comes up as I listen to that, ’cause I guess I don’t assume that body image dissatisfaction and a lack of attunement to body would necessarily get in the way of living a full life and taking care of your body. I think you can feel body image dissatisfaction and not be fully attuned to your body every day and live pretty fully.
Lexi: And I guess I …
Julie: The idealization of some of that can get a little …
Lexi: Yeah, I guess … And I also … That’s just not my experience. I feel like I’ve lived a different experience than that. And I also see that people in treatment will often wait until … You know, “I’m gonna wait to start my life until I feel a particular way about my body,” or certainly we hear, looking a particular way. But even feeling a particular way, feeling a sense of freedom in the body before living fully. And I just … I think that that’s an assumption that maybe is not always experienced. That we can live fully, have strong connections in our relationships, do what we want to do in life, eat the foods we want to eat, and feel really crappy about our bodies.
Kara: Well, within that full range of emotion, I think someone can be like … not like it. That can be more of maybe a consistent feeling towards the body, and I think the work that we’re doing, especially more directly in body image group is … Then how are you doing … How are you … What’s the action, the behavior side of how you’re relation to your body and food and relationship and all of that amidst all that emotion. And I think that’s the … I mean, that’s where … I don’t think we’re going for an ideal of having particular emotions around the body, but living with those emotions.
Kara: And a lot of times, people are just avoiding all the emotions ’cause they’re avoiding the relationship part of when they’re objectifying their body and just putting in the energy towards fixing.
Lexi: Yeah, right. I love the radically open dialectical behavioral therapy work when it comes to body image. Thinking about it as dysregulation that could be opportunity for growth and learning versus it a problem of the body necessarily.
Kara: Could I speak to some of the things we’ve done with …
Carter: Please, yeah.
Kara: … in group. So some of this could be … I think one question could be, “How do you start moving towards more of a relationship with your body than a project rather than objectifying.” And one of the ways we think about it … Again, going back to the very beginning of this podcast episode with thinking about the mirror to healthy relationships and getting to know and having two-way communication.
Kara: One of the exercises we do is doing letter writing. So writing a letter to the body and having the body write a letter to yourself. And then sometimes we add in a third letter of having … Let’s see, writing a letter from our younger self to our current self. And it’s usually a very … We cycle through this group every couple months and it’s usually a really powerful experience to get at the full range of emotion and the tone of the letters are always just … They’re kind of all over the place. Sometimes they’re massive, just letters of hatred where people are just … The pen is pulling through the paper. And some letters are those of grief, some have a tone of forgiveness, some have anger and then a little bit of opening for compassion.
Kara: But you see, especially when someone’s been through treatment, they go through different iterations of writing the letter. You can see changes between the time where people are working … Like in a relationship where there’s a change process and different emotions come out. That part, to be a witness to as a body image leader, it’s really powerful to see that process go through. And I thought it could be a cool thing to bring in a letter that one of the clients has written to their body.
Carter: Yes, I love that.
Kara: Okay, so …
Julie: Read it.
Kara: Should I read it? Yeah.
Kara: “Dear body, I don’t really want to write this letter to you. I felt like things had been going pretty well between us, like we had started to work together, but now I’m angry again. I guess the problem is that I want a relationship with you, but I still want it on my own terms. Actually, that isn’t exactly true. I don’t really want a relationship. I just don’t want to have to think about you at all. I want you to do, be what I want and quit changing. I don’t want to feel scared or angry. I don’t want to accept that your weight or size will go up and down. I really am sorry for all the hurt I’ve caused. I can see now that so many of the anger and judgments I had about you were my fault. I don’t know. Maybe they were my eating disorder’s fault. Either way, I try to act all superior, but I look at all the decisions I have made that hurt you and realize how cruel I’ve been. So many of the things I hate about you, you did to protect me. I don’t know why I keep blaming you for everything. It is not your fault. I feel kind of funny writing that. I’ve been told that exact thing. Life would just be so much easier if we could just blame ourselves for all our mess and hurt. Then we would deserve it. That is simple. That is what I know. Problem is, I can’t just blame myself anymore. I guess that’s why I just can’t blame you either. Doesn’t it make it much easier to like you, though? I can’t make any promises. I’m still extremely uncomfortable with you. But I do know I want a life. A real life. I want to be present with my kids to teach them the joy of moving in their bodies. I want to enjoy holding my husband’s hand or having a family snuggle on the couch. I know I need you for any of those things. Maybe right now, that is enough.”
Carter: It’s so fun to hear that. I particularly love that last bit, just kind of around actually having some appreciation for the things that we do enjoy in our bodies. I think that’s so much … As we’ve been talking about, the body gets objectified as something that’s supposed to look a certain way or do certain things for us, but in reality there really are a lot of things that … like snuggling or holding someone’s hand or petting a cat or whatever … that bring us massive amounts of pleasure or comfort or whatever else, and there’s no way of escaping some of that, too.
Julie: I know I hear the pain around the uncertainty, too, and kind of the process that she sounds like she’s in the middle of. Of just being, “Okay, you will change over time. Up and down in terms of weight,” or “I don’t know what our relationship’s looking like.” So much uncertainty in that, and I think the myth so much with using our body as a project is that therefore we can get to an end and it would be then certain. And I know where I’m going and it will look this way or be this way or do this. I think that feels something that we hold so often and bring so often to the conversation around body image work with our clients.
Carter: Yeah. It reminds me a ton of our conversation around forgiveness, actually. This idea of really being in a place of having to accept and forgive maybe where your body as gone and where it’s been and the fact that you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. Grieving the changes and grieving the “I don’t knows” and being willing to still show up. And the ambiguity of what’s next, that feels really true of just being in a relationship to oneself, but also just being in a relationship to life as we all know it. It’s being unpredictable and needing to grieve constantly things changing.
Kara: Totally. What I’ve seen in the last six years as we’ve done this letters is it does give a place to really express that grief and the anger and by giving that time and emotion, it does break open and gives a little bit more room for self-compassion. Typically, I’ve noticed that happening when people get in touch with that.
Carter: So I wanted to ask you guys about different things that you all do in terms of self-care, or different things that you do to establish relationship with your body. Whether that’s actually in terms of something that’s help you built a stronger relationship to your body, that’s allowed you to love different parts of your body that maybe you didn’t love before, or, Lexi, like you were speaking to, just different things that allow you to just keep moving and really still engaging in life in a way, even if you’re not necessarily feeling a particular way about your body that day.
Carter: Can you all think of different things or rituals that you all have in that category?
Kara: Shall I start?
Kara: Get it?
Carter: Go for it.
Kara: Well, I just was thinking of even this letter from this gal. I think what I realize a lot of rituals are actually around my kids and their touch. I love it when my kids brush my hair and braid my hair and scratch my arm and scratch my back. I have a lot of … When I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious, there’s a lot of things, touch, that feels really like self care with them.
Kara: Also, sports continue to be such a place of self care. And I think being alone is a big deal to take care of my body and calm down. Slowing down and being alone. Also, yeah, I love a good facial.
Carter: Facials are my favorite.
Kara: Yes. I love massages. I discovered Thai massage. That’s amazing. I like showering. And there’s times I’m not attuned to my body, so to that point, too, of just like … There is times I push my body … I’m an achiever. I’m competitive, and there’s times I definitely push my body past lots of limits. I mean, that’s just reality and I’m not tuning in and I’m not responding to what it might want. So that happens, too. And it always … It does. It feels like it’s happy when I take care of it.
Julie: It’s interesting. I don’t … Self care is not my strength. But I think it’s interesting when I think about … This is gonna sound so cliché coming from the dietician in the room. I don’t wanna say it.
Carter: Say it.
Julie: But yeah. I think my appetite cues and the way that my body works has always been very, very clear. And so I eat. I make sure to take care of myself with that, and there’s just … It’s such clear evidence when I don’t feed myself well. Just out of busyness or whatever it is, and that is one thing … I think back to when we opened Opal and that was when I was going back to work full time and I was nursing my second child at the time and doing a lot of the meals with the clients. And we just, as owners, we decided, “Yeah, we’re gonna allow the lunch at Opal to be also a part of our compensation.” And so we would always, and we still do, have whatever the meal is that the clients and the staff are having. We also go out and get our portion.
Julie: I just think about that, like, “Oh, yes.” Such a big thing to be able to have that. That was a way to sort of be continually, easily nourished with such a wide variety of yummy food and regularly, easily accessible. So I think of that time and I just have always known that about my genetics. It’s similar to my father. We know we’re gonna get the headache when we don’t do it. So I’ve just always had clear … So, yeah, that is something that’s never compromised in my way of caring for myself. I think the weaning of my third child is still a difficulty probably because it’s gonna be going down for like … One of my most pleasurable things in life is nursing my children. So, he just still wants a little bit of mama’s milk, and I’m like, “Okay! Please please.” So I think that those are things that come to my mind. But it’s so cliché to have the dietician talk about food. I’m so sorry.
Carter: I appreciate it.
Kara: Own it, Julie. Own it. Own it.
Julie: I can’t do anything without it.
Carter: That’s okay. I like it.
Carter: What about you, Lexi?
Lexi: Cuddling with Ila.
Carter: Your daughter.
Lexi: Yeah, my daughter. And sports, I would say, as well. If I really think about what actually happens on the ground when I’m having a harder time with my body, I think I do move into more of a self inquiry about it ’cause I just assume that there’s … “What’s going on? What does this mean about who I am in the world? How is it that I’m arriving here in this moment today with my body? What does that mean? What can I learn?” And I think I’m strongly in that now. I guess I feel like that’s a way of taking care of myself.
Carter: I love that.
Lexi: It’s probably my most powerful self care strategy.
Carter: Yeah. I love that you’re defining self care in that way. I think that all three of you just defined it in different ways with a lot of nuance, and I think that it’s not just about doing something that’s … I don’t know, relaxing or indulgent or something like that. Sometimes it’s the parenting work or it’s the intellectual work or it’s the connection work as well as being relational, both with others and with ourselves, too.
Carter: Thanks so much for joining us today. And thank you to Jack Straw Cultural Center for sound engineering. To Aaron Davidson for writing our music. If you like what you’re hearing and you want to hear more, please subscribe on iTunes. You can connect with Opal: Food + Body Wisdom on Facebook, Twitter, or www.opalfoodandbody.com. Also, Opal is having our annual Health at Every Size training on January 24th in Seattle. If you have become intrigued by HAES since listening to the podcast, go to our website and register for the event. It’s free and open to the general public.