The words in the blue box below are from a song I wrote a few years ago, inspired by my counseling sessions with adolescent and adults struggling with body image. Summer was approaching, and for many, this meant heightened worry about their bodies ‘being seen’.
After acknowledging that winter and spring provide ‘protection’ through layers of clothing, the fear of summer could no longer be ignored. This worry, and the anxiety and sadness that often accompanied it resulted in disordered eating practices, isolation, and a cycle of negative thoughts.
Our relationship with food is unique compared to relationships we have with other substances we put in our bodies. Because food is a requirement to sustain life, we can’t always apply similar behavioral changes that would be appropriate for other addictions. We can, however, practice helpful behaviors including avoiding trigger-foods, keeping mood journals connected to food intake (or lack thereof), eating mindfully, using affirmations of positive body image, etc., but we have to learn what the relationship between food and our body MEANS before we can address it. In my clinical work, I have found that, typically, eating and body image are intricately connected.
With my theoretical lens of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I focus on the student’s upsetting and/or distorted thought(s) that underlie and fuel negative feelings. These distorted thoughts and negative feelings can, in turn, lead to unhealthy behaviors including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. Exploring a student’s memories often produces recollections of other girls (and women) who expressed negative thoughts related to food and about their own bodies, inadvertently modeling a lack of self-acceptance, or even worse, self-hatred. The negative messages received through experiences and memories related to other people’s physical performance, height, weight, looks, sexuality or cultural ideals are the deep-seated roots of a negative body image.
All of us consume media that depicts ‘beauty’, and I have yet to meet a person that perfectly meets that standard. I, myself, am guilty of falling prey to cultural messages about body ideals. Although I like to believe I have a healthy body image, I still ask my Photoshop-expert husband to ‘make me look 5 years younger and like I just returned from vacation’ when he takes a photo of me that we share with others.
Regardless of the event, or events, that contributed to negative body image, the results are the same powerful, negative beliefs such as:
I am not enough
I am ugly
My body is hateful
I am not lovable
I am shameful
I am different
I am worthless
When I address body image with a student, I explore how being physically more ‘ideal’ (thinner, taller, shorter, lighter, darker, younger-looking, older-looking, etc.) would impact the thoughts and feelings she has about herself. Then we can start to challenge the irrational thoughts and consider greater acceptance of a body we will spend every moment in until we die. An example of this conversation is:
Kim: What would being thin mean about you?
Student: That I am lovable; I am smart and capable instead of dumb and lazy.
Kim: In what ways are you already lovable and capable right now?
Student: I have friends and family who love me at home. I have been a strong hiker in the group. And I connect to a couple of the girls here who say I understand them.
Kim: So, it sounds like, without any physical changes, just as you are, you already have those qualities.
Student: I guess I do.
The impact of wilderness therapy on the issue of body image is powerful and profound. The absence of mirrors forces a person to start to see her body through the eyes of others, to experience her body from the inside out, and to understand food as a necessary part of being strong, healthy and capable.
In the Open Sky Wilderness Student Pathway, food is framed as medicine. Education about carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is part of the process, so students know what nutrients foods provide and when/how to use different foods to meet the body’s needs. Students learn to see food as a member of their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness team, rather than as an enemy.
Other Student Pathway tools used to help connect students to their bodies include breathing exercises, mindfulness, journaling assignments, meditation, yoga, and introspection. These exercises identify values that contribute to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In addition to the above actions an adolescent can personally practice, I encourage the use of the following actions for anyone supporting a child who is struggling with body image or disordered eating:
CLICK HERE to learn more about Adolescent Girls Therapist, Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC.