Saturday, March 31, 2012

Series: Self Esteem Sneak Attacks (Part 3)

There are some attacks on our body image and self-esteem that are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them.  They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up.  Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us. The series begins here on 3/28/12.

Today's Sneak Attack:  The "Success" Story

An interesting study showed that the majority of people who viewed pro-ana websites (websites that promote anorexia) restricted how much they ate, with no conscious awareness of doing so, for days to weeks afterwards. When a person in the office loses weight, their co-workers are more likely to experience negative body image issues and depressed mood, even if the same coworker has lost and re-gained the weight before. When a person gets plastic surgery, the friends and family members of the same gender experience increased negative body image.

The world is full of so-called success stories. Generally it's someone who has made a significant physical or financial change in their lives, and sometimes it's an entirely fictional account made up for advertising. Shows like "The Biggest Loser," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Clean House" promote the idea that quick, significant change is not only possible, but can make you into a different person.

Watch out for two things; the "results not typical" disclaimer, and the lack of follow-up. Clean House can take a hoarder's home and restore it to pristine calm in a week. What they don't tell you is that the hoarder then undergoes intensive, long-term cognitive-behavioral therapy to deal with the underlying issue, and often relapses once the cameras are gone. Weight Watchers can flash a celebrity on their commercial, but that celebrity lost weight with the help of extensive wealth, access to personal chefs and trainers, and hours of daily free time to devote to exercise. Do you see the "results not typical" disclaimer at the bottom of the screen? It's in tiny print. What it means is that Weight Watchers has a long-term (i.e. 5 years) success rate of around one twentieth of one percent.

These stories are beguiling. We WANT to believe that instant, long-lasting personal change is possible with little effort. We WANT to believe it is possible to change our insides by changing our outsides. So when we see the smiling poster child, we get down on ourselves for not doing it just like them.

In reality, some change is possible. You may never look like a 16 year old supermodel or an anime figure. You can, however, change your mind. You can look at a "success" story and say to yourself, I can have that happiness without the superficials. I can give myself permission to change inside without waiting to first change outside.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Series: Self Esteem Sneak Attacks (Part 2)

There are some attacks on our body image and self-esteem that are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them.  They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up.  Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us.  The series begins here on 3/28/12.

Today's Sneak Attack:  The Back-Handed Compliment

We've all gotten this before, and it is a verbal attack. Some examples:
"You look so much better in makeup!"
"You would look much younger with that hair color."
"You're so brave to eat like that in public!"
"I wish I could just let myself go, you look so comfortable."
"That suit jacket is really slimming!"
The worst, in my experience is the ubiquitous "You look great, have you lost weight?"

These are phrased as compliments, with all the nonverbal cues that can trick you into thinking that the person is being nice. In fact, the implication of the backhanded compliment is always insulting. It often takes the form of "You have always looked/dressed terrible, which is why I'm so suprised to see you looking presentable on this one occasion (with the implication that it's a fluke). By acting surprised, I am reminding you that I think you generally look terrible."

The ones that presume some change assume that you were fully aware of how terrible you used to look and would naturally want to make some drastic change to your appearance: "You look great, did you change your hair/lose weight/shave differently/start working out". This is even worse when you haven't actually lost weight/changed your hair/started working out. It then implies that you really need to do these things in order to be acceptable.

Because of the confusing nonverbal cues, your brain may not throw up defenses against the insulting implications of the back-handed compliment and they will creep into your self-image. When you hear a compliment that refers negatively to your body in any way (past, present or future) or assumes changes, treat it with the suspicion it deserves. Take a second to really unpack it and respond appropriately. The person may not even be aware that they are really insulting you; they may be expressing some subconscious criticism of themselves and putting it on you.

You can accept the parts of it that actually are complimentary (I look great, these clothes fit me well, I must be feeling confident today and people are noticing).  Consciously affirm these elements and reject/refuse to own the rest.  If you look and feel good right now, the critical elements of what that person said can just roll off you. 

They may also be playing a social game of persecution. They give you a back-handed compliment, you take umbrage at the subtext, they deny the subtext and get to be angry that you're "too sensitive" or "reading things into" what they didn't say. Their anger and feeling of martyrdom when they're "just trying to be nice" is an emotional stimulus for them that reinforces both their self image and their opinion of others.

In this classic mind game, the only winning move is not to play.* Deny them the stimulus and reinforcement they're looking for.  Respond "thank you," and walk away or change the subject.  You are blocking their attempts to make you play, and that makes you the winner in this exchange.  If they want to keep attacking, make them do so openly where you can legitimately defend yourself.

*Bonus points to anyone who read that last bit in the little tinny computer voice from Wargames.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Series: Self Esteem Sneak Attacks

A comment yesterday inspired me to do a blog series on the very subtle attacks on your self-esteem and body image that you encounter every day.  These attacks are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them.  They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up.  Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us.

Today's Sneak Attack:  The Poison Image

Studies show that people of all genders score significantly worse on body image and self-esteem markers after viewing a fashion magazine aimed at their gender for as little as thirty minutes. They're often not even aware of the change, but express more negative comparisons between their body and the bodies in the pictures, exhibit depressed mood, and increase negative thinking.

The images in these magazines aren't real. The bodies represented are generally 2% or less of the population to begin with, then are digitally edited to alter their size, shape, bone structure, skin clarity and texture, hair, and teeth. In fact one company got so tired searching for the "perfect" body that they created a computer generated image of what they saw as the perfect body for their clothes and use different models' faces on the same body in the catalog.

The easy solution is to avoid fashion magazines, especially those that use idealized, trendy, altered images. Read magazines that involve your interests or hobbies instead. If you're shopping for plus-size clothes, give preference (or at least equal time) to the lines that use plus-size models to show them. 

If you must have your Vogue or GQ, try to be aware of the effect it has on your self-esteem. Stop and affirm to yourself that these aren't real images and that you are okay as you are.  Check in with your emotional state, and if it is starting to drop, put the magazine down and do something affirming and/or creative for a little while.  Flip through some Adipositivity pics to balance the effect. 

Check in with yourself also when watching television.  Many shows depict only the 2% of men and women that match the currently fashionable body types, and/or have characters that constantly reinforce poor body image or fatphobia.  Is the rest of the show really worth it to you?  If so, then make sure your guard is up against the toxic elements of it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Stop and Admire the View

There’s a term in the field of psychology called disavowal, which means that you know something – but at the same time, you don’t let yourself know that you know it. In other words, you disavow the thing that’s too hard to consciously acknowledge.

I see this frequently when it comes to body acceptance. It is almost a distinct stage. Once you come to terms with the idea that body acceptance is a good thing, you become stuck on the idea that it is only a good thing for other people. You strongly believe that your friends, family and everyone else you care about should love and accept their bodies as strong, beautiful and just right how they are. But when it comes to your own body, somehow, it's different. There has to be some fundamental flaw that makes your body not okay, even if it's the only body in the world that isn't.

Let me just tell you, and ask you to repeat to yourself over and over again: There is nothing different about your body. You are not an exception. You deserve to love yourself every single bit as much as your friends and family deserve to love themselves, right now, just as you are.

Disavowal is a tough thing to work through because it involves shifting your own paradigm. Your brain and body like things how they are. It's called homeostasis. It's why you return to the same weight range if you try to stray too far out of it. It's why we cling to old ideas far more tenaciously than we embrace new ones. Change translates to stress in our physical bodies, because they must physically adapt to new ideas and circumstances.

It's also hard to outsmart yourself. Sometimes it's beneficial to "fake it 'till you make it," and see if it becomes a part of you after a while. Sometimes you just have to take the tiny voices firmly in hand and make that leap, which is only possible if circumstances are just right.

But, importantly, you are not alone if you are in this phase of FA. I have met very few people who were not where you are at some point in their journey. It is okay to be where you are. It is okay to stop and take a breather and re-assess where you are.

I can get into a pattern where I am driving myself so hard that I never stop to count accomplishments. I fall into scarcity thinking where I feel that if I lose momentum I will never get going again. But while I can't quite shake this belief in the moment (disavowal again) I inevitably find it to be false when I trust myself enough to stop. That's when I find that the mountain doesn't look so high from halfway up, and the view is already pretty good.

So let yourself be where you are on your journey to self-acceptance. Count your accomplishments so far, and enjoy the view. Later, you can take a deep breath and decide the next step from a less pressured position. In the meantime, you may find that you like yourself a little bit more for the steps you've already taken.