Bodies - canít live with them, canít live without them. They are what
give us life and yet they drive us crazy. Low body-esteem is a big issue
for people with eating disorders. In my practice as a psychologist
specializing in weight management and eating disorders, almost everyone I
work with who has an eating problem has a body-image (how you see your
body) and body-esteem (how you feel about your body) problem. In this
article, I am using body-image and body-esteem interchangeably.
Many people tend to see their bodies and body-esteem as
separate from themselves and their self-esteem, "My self-esteem is fine,
itís just this disgusting body thatís the problem." It can be hard to
believe that the disgusting body is really an aspect of self-esteem.
Everyone wants better self-esteem. Does everyone want better
Not necessarily. It can depend on how much you hate
your body. For many people with an eating disorder, there seems to be very
little reason to work on liking their bodies. After all, why work on
liking something that is disgusting and hateful? Why work on something
that needs to be fixed by dieting or other measures? Why work on that ugly
body; isnít it better to just hate it and punish it? Of course not, but
this kind of eating disordered thinking comes into play when people
contemplate working to improve body-image. "Improve my body-image? You
donít understand. My bodyís awful! My body needs improving, not its
Herein lies the dilemma and here also is a unique
opportunity for healing. The healing of body image can proceed in many
different ways. I find it can be helpful for people to work on hating
their bodies a little less, but hating them none the less. What?
Yes, you can improve your
body-image while still hating your body. For many, this is a relief. But
is also seems impossible. "How can I hate it and still work on liking
it? It doesnít make sense."
It does make sense if
you imagine an eight inch ruler which is the low body-esteem/high
body-esteem ruler, illustrated below. It is a long continuum with many
positions. At one end is the idea that "I hate this disgusting body" and
at the other that "I love this wonderful crucible of goodness." In between
are degrees of hate, neutrality and like. Some people are clear that they
donít hate their bodies, they only mildly dislike them. Others describe
themselves as alternating between hating their bodies a lot and thinking
their bodies are O.K. The ruler has room for them all.
The Body-Esteem Ruler
I hate my body a lot. In fact, I detest it. Itís hard to describe how
much I detest it.
I donít like my body; itís gross, and I somewhat and sometimes detest
I dislike my body. I wonít go so far as to say I hate or detest it.
Itís not great. Itís not awful. It just is. I suppose it could be
better, but I donít really think about it that much.
My body is OK . I canít say I like it, but I do feel OK with it.
I like my body at times. There are things about it I donít like, but
those donít bother me much at all.
I like my body most of the time. Iím actually glad itís mine.
8" I have really good and
positive feelings about my body. I deeply respect and like it.
At the outer end of
body-hate, at 1" or less, lies a territory that is rough and rugged in
terrain. Here there is constant torture of the body, constant insults
hurled at oneís looks, constant beating up of the body. This is real bad
body hate. It is vicious. It is "let me spend the next two hours telling
myself how bad I look" body hate. And it really hurts. It may, for some,
be an attempt to punish the bad body by hurting it (with insults) and to
get it to behave (i.e., transform into the good body) which one could then
love. Whatever the cause, it lowers body-esteem and keeps it beaten down.
Since body-esteem is a part of self-esteem, it also lowers self-esteem and
keeps it beaten down. Wherever you are on the ruler, to work on healing
low body-image, your object is to slowly move towards a higher number,
but, and here is the key, just by a fraction of an inch.
When the topic of body
image arises, my patient is very frustrated. She asks, "Are you saying I
have to like my body?" She doesnít realize that I would never say that.
Thatís going too far. To go from vicious body-hate to "I like my body" is
not a possibility. To go from vicious body-hate to just plain body-hate,
that works. As I describe the ruler to my patient, she mulls it over.
"Ah," she looks at me amazed, "you think I should hate my body just a
little bit?" She believes I have lost my mind. "Exactly my point," I say.
"How about hating your body just little tiny bit less?" I use my hands to
show a little tiny bit of air. "You hate your body this much," I gesture
to a whole lot of air, "and I donít expect you to like it or even not hate
it, but how about lessening the self-hate a mite? Even a little
lessening goes a long way to making you feel better about yourself."
My patient is stunned by
my seemingly insane thought pattern, but something about its crazy logic
is making sense. Also, though my patient feels justified in hating her
body, she really doesnít want to have low self-esteem, so she is willing
to entertain my notion.
" Thatís the way Iíve
seen people recover from body-hate and low body-esteem," I persist, "just
a bit less starts the process. The hate lessens by a smidgen, it feels
pretty good, and it creates a beginning, a first step in healing
body-esteem. The bits add up over time and changes occur." Often the
patient is shocked. She hates her body but not as much. How did this
happen? Itís weird. "Where did that intense body-hate go?" It can be a
I warn my patient, "As
you work on hating your body a little less, it will test you. It will
try to win you back, try to get you in the swing of the old
self-punishment, self-humiliation cycle. "Please, please," body-hate will
beg, "come and play with me. Just call yourself a fat pig and Iíll call
you that too, and we can play." Or it may just call you a fat pig, or
something equally unflattering, and see if you bite. You will bite at
first. But gradually, your response will be firmer. "I am tired of hating
my body. It takes too much time. I donít want to spend my energy this
Time goes on. My patient
is working on decreasing body-hate. One day, I hear the magic words. "Of
course my bodyís disgusting, but I just donít care if it is or not. I want
to live my life. I canít think about it so much."
When I hear a patient
say those words I am jubilant. I know sheís getting better. It makes
me happy when she says she doesnít care about hating her disgusting body.
I know that sounds funny, but itís because I know she is improving. She is
picking up stakes and moving out of the body hate-camp. She is leaving
behind years of body-hatred, of endless insults and mirror terror. She is
leaving a vicious kind of inner abuse. It is so good for her. It will help
her in many ways. Her body-esteem will rise and with it, her self-esteem.
The energy tied up in the vicious self-hate will be released and, after
she gets her bearings and gets used to this new state, she will feel proud
to have made this change.
So you see, as crazy
as it sounds, you really can greatly improve your body-image while still
hating your body. You just need to use a ruler.