I have never heard a man complain about the size of his butt. Women, on the other hand, seem to scrutinize almost every inch of their bodies. Their hips are too big, their tummy too fat, their arms jiggle too much. Their neck is getting saggy and so are their breasts. We just can’t win in the body image world (or sometimes it seems). With eating disorders awareness week coming up, and without a week going by when I don’t hear at least one complaint from someone about their physical body, I thought it might be good to write about it. In particular, I was remembering a handout I used to use with my eating disordered patients called “The Theory of Expando Thighs” by Karin Kratina, PhD, RD. She is one of the most respected among the eating disorder and body image experts, so check out her website and the resources she provides (and she has a new book coming out soon).
I do want to be clear that although in my work and life I tend to hear more body image complaints from females, males are not immune. Body image concerns are not discriminatory. I bet we all know a man who complains about his abs. But for the purpose of this post, I am going to focus on women.
Anyway, I loved this handout because it was a great visual explanation of what is really going on when we look down at our thighs and it seems they have grown overnight. Sometimes our eyes don’t see the reality. Can a body part truly change overnight? No. So why is it that sometimes we feel that way? We look in the mirror and feel good. Then, we go to get ready for work, take another look and see something totally different. How does this hijacking of our mind, this total takeover happen?
The reality for most of us is we have so much going on in our lives. Stress at work, children to deal with, families, careers, school, and so many other things to think about. Yet, somehow, the size of our thighs (butt, arms, tummy) take center stage. The need to diet, count calories, lose weight, get these thighs back to normal becomes a priority. You should be trying to figure out what to do when your senior year ends. You should be filling out applications for that new job. You should really call that marriage counselor because for once, you told yourself you were determined to make your marriage better….or to end it.
None of these challenges sound like fun. Who enjoys worrying about getting a job? Who wants to think about the future? And who in the world really wants to see a therapist and delve into something that has the potential to turn your world upside down?
That’s where those thighs come in. And the calorie counting. And the gradual obsession with numbers and food. When you see your thighs as a sudden problem, you get to stress about it. Suddenly, you conveniently have something else to worry about. This is awful, these suddenly huge thighs! Time to diet, count calories, plan menus, etc, etc, etc. Who has time to think about the “real” (difficult, painful) issue. It works. As torturous as it may sound to have your thighs grow overnight, it is much easier to deal with than the real issues.
So, instead of seeing what is actually there, our eyes just might be seeing what is going to enable us to avoid “something”.
I don’t consider myself a body image expert by any means, however I have had the privilege to be educated over the years by my former patients who often had extreme body image distortion. There was no way for me to ever understand how someone who appeared emaciated to me could look in a mirror and see themselves as someone who needed to lose weight. One day, over 20 years ago, one of my patients, a very intelligent professional woman who had suffered for several years with an eating disorder was in for a weekly visit. Her weight was dangerously low and she had been in and out of the hospital. She told me she had had an amazing thing happen. She was in the process of applying for a new job and had to go shopping for a business suit. She first went into a department store at the mall, and no matter how small of a size she tried on, the suits just were too big. She figured it was just the brand, so she went to a different store. The same thing happened. Still, she told herself, it was the store, their clothes just ran big. After several stores, she was finally in the last one, a very expensive store that she was confident would have accurate sizing. She put on a suit jacket and looked in the mirror, and for a second, she said, she saw this emaciated woman swimming in a giant coat…..which was a size double zero. She left the store. This was the first time, she said, that she had ever seen herself as others see her. She said to me, “but, the eating disorder will not allow me to see myself as I truly am because then I would have to eat”. I will never forget that woman and the story she told me. For once, it kind of made sense.
Of course, someone with a clinically diagnosed eating disorder may suffer from the extreme as far as body image. Anyone, however, can get sucked into focusing too much on their bodies and end up wasting a lot of precious time. Whether you are having body image concerns or not, if there is something in your life you are not happy with (job, relationship, etc.) I always recommend getting some help. Life is too short to not be happy. Some things we just can’t control, but if we can, why not try? Even if you are in the worst of positions, and feel stuck and immobile, making that phone call is a step. It counts. You did something. You are moving in a better direction.
So next time you glance in the mirror, and something appears vastly different than the day before, don’t beat yourself up. And please, don’t take any drastic action. Instead, ask if there might be something in your life you could be avoiding….make a vow to work on your health (a very positive and rewarding goal). If you happen to be going through a difficult time, ask yourself if you can do it alone. With Eating Disorder Awareness Week starting tomorrow, make a pledge to start with yourself by loving and appreciating the body you have.
For more resources on body image check out:
Pursuing Perfection: Eating Disorders. Body Myths, and Women at Midlife and Beyond (with Joe Kelly) (Routledge, 2016)
Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies (Gurze, 2000)
The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect, with Joe Kelly (John Wiley, 2005)