Body image. Oh boy, is it everywhere. From TV commercials, to glossy magazines, to walking down the street, and even to children’s classrooms. Classrooms, you guys.
Yep. Kids are affected by what people are saying to their face and behind their back. They are affected by what society states is “beautiful.” They are affected by that long stare, or those rolling eyes when they walk past you.
This is really going to be a tricky topic to navigate, and quite frankly I wasn’t quite sure where to start. So I started thinking about what common body image issues I see my clients facing. I am a child and family therapist, with all of my clients being 17 years and younger. Most of the complaints I hear from my clients are “I don’t like the way I look” or “A kid in my class made fun of me for being fat” or “I weigh too much so I’m going to stop eating”. These food and body image issues are never the presenting issue when they start counseling, they are just something that comes up when we are in the counseling process. These are the issues that so often get swept under the rug by my clients because it feels like the norm for them. Not eating because I feel fat today? That is just what they do! They think this is healthy and a good way to lose that stubborn fat. When they are talking about their bellies or their legs or their arms being too big, I’m just siting across from them and thinking “but you’re perfect! You just don’t realize!”. But I’m guilty of thinking the same things, aren’t I? So who am I to say anything different? I can only validate what they are feeling and discuss healthier options. It’s a very sad reality, one of many that I see every day with my clients. Today I’ll discuss some statistics about eating disorders, and then dive in to some ways to help individuals suffering with body image issues.
According to CNN, 80% of ten year old students are scared of becoming fat (CNN, n.d.). Almost 24 million Americans, across all genders and ages, suffer from some form of an eating disorder, with anorexia nervosa being the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders [ANAD], 2015). Over half of female teens and a third of male teenagers have reported using unhealthy weight control techniques such as fasting, purging, smoking cigarettes, or taking laxatives. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate than any other mental illness, although these deaths are hard to accurately define as individuals may die from heart failure, malnutrition, suicide, or organ failure (ANAD, 2015; Eating Disorder Hope, 2015). Lastly, the “ideal body standard” (think thin and modelesque) is only possessed naturally by 5% of American females, yet 47% of females between 5th and 12th grade reported wanting to lose weight based on magazine pictures and 69% of girls in that same age range reported that magazines influenced what they believed was their ideal body shape (ANAD, 2015).
(For more sobering statistics, check out CNN’s neat info-graphic, the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders [ANAD] stats page, and Eating Disorder Hope’s stat page. I only pulled a few statistics that really caught my eye but the numbers are really staggering to read.)
So we know the numbers, now what? Obviously I can’t change what the media is portraying to all those very impressionable young people. If I could, I totally would. I love the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and I recently discovered Dear Kate, which is a underwear company that has real women modeling their underwear lines. These thing are great, but I can guarantee you the average 8th grader doesn’t know about these things or doesn’t pay attention to them. She’s watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and reading Cosmopolitan Magazine and dreaming of looking like Taylor Swift. How do I know? Because I work with these girls. I’m not saying I don’t occasionally have the young female who screams “screw it!” to the world and loves her body for all it’s glory – I do have those girls, but it’s definitely not the norm. Especially when life is awkward already (puberty and hormones and acne), why add crazy, unrealistic body image standards on top of all that?!
One thing I emphasize when I work with anyone experiencing negative body image issues is self esteem. These kids need a self esteem boost! (I mean, really, who doesn’t occasionally need a little self love?!) I have lots of activities I like to do for self esteem, but my favorite is probably an art therapy technique I utilize often. I have a client take a piece of paper and draw a flower on it, putting their name in the middle. On each petal, I ask them to write down something positive they like about themselves. It has to be something positive, it can not be negative. A lot of times, they need a suggestion to get them started – I usually help them with their first petal. (Note: I don’t ever tell them how many petals to put on the flower, but I make them put something in each petal. A lot of times they draw 5 petals, but sometimes it can be a lot more!) I always do this activity with them, and we will listen to music or talk while drawing. After we have filled in our petals, we’ll share with each other what we wrote down. Then, we’ll process. What was it like to write down positive thoughts about yourself? What was easy for you to put down and what was difficult? How did you feel as you were doing it, and how do you feel now that you’ve emphasized your strengths? It can open up a lot of discussion and also serves as a visual representation of the things they like about themselves. Plus, coloring is therapeutic in itself!
Here’s an example of one I did for myself:
I also like to have clients write down all the negative things they think or have been told about themselves (this is great for bullying, too!). We process all the hurt, then I have the client rip it up. After we have purged ourselves of the negative, then I instruct the client to write down all their strengths and likes, which we then process and they keep.
Yoga plays a big part in self esteem and self confidence, as well. I know from personal experience the effects yoga has on improving positive body image. Christine Ristow recommends gentle forms of yoga to help individuals focus on their internal thoughts and feelings rather than external looks (Ristow, 2013). I would recommend focusing on confidence boosting mantras and meditations that will help individuals focus on their strengths and emphasize their internal beauty. These can be guided meditations, and a counselor and client could brainstorm positive mantras together that the client can use on their own.
Some asanas to consider are:
(DIY Health, n.d.)
I hope this is helpful for anybody working with individuals who suffer from eating disorders or for yourself. I think we all have issues with food and our bodies. We are all a work in progress and can all benefit from working on ourselves.
I’m going to leave you with a quote by the great Seane Corn:
“For me, beauty is a process of being that radiates from the inside out and is in direct relationship with our capacity for love. I am glad that I am one representation of beauty, but beauty isn’t, nor will it ever be, limited to color, size, gender, age, ability, or culture. Beauty is who we are in relationship to spirit, not our outward appearance as determined by society (2014, p. 146).”
Happy OM’ing and namaste. ❤
P.S. If you are suffering from an eating disorder and need help, please seek a professional. The tips and techniques in this post are not replacement for talking to your doctor or going to a counselor. Please check out the National Eating Disorder Association’s treatment page for information on getting help or call their hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
CNN. (n.d.). Going to extremes: eating disorders. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2012/03/health/infographic.eating.disorders/
Corne, S. (2014). Power, privilege, and the beauty myth. In M. Klein & A. Guest-Jelley (Eds.), Yoga and body image (pp. 91-98). Woodbury, MN: Llewllyn Publications.
DIY Health. (n.d.). 5 yoga asanas for anorexia. Retrieved from http://diyhealth.com/5-yoga-asanas-anorexia.html
Eating Disorder Hope. (2015). Eating disorder statistics and research. Retrieved from http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/statistics-studies
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2015). Eating disorders statistics. Retrieved from http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
Ristow, C. (2013). Using yoga to recover from an eating disorder. Retrieved from http://www.eatingdisordersonline.com/lifestyle/recovery/using-yoga-to-recover-from-an-eating-disorder