Wardenburg Health Center, 303-492-5101
Counseling and Psychological Services, 303-492-6766
La Luna Center, 720-470-0010
Dr. Janean Anderson, 970-430-5697
Modern culture may have taken the moral of myth of Narcissus too much to heart. Granted, wasting away because you’re too in love with your own reflection to move is not an advisable life choice, but neither is the increasingly common opposite: wasting your time, energy and self-esteem staring at your reflection with hatred.
“Body image is the subjective perception of how you look to other people, and we know from research that most people, women especially, have negative body images, meaning that they think they’re less than average in attractiveness,” says Janean Anderson. “In a lot of cases, that means feeling they’re too heavy or that something is wrong with their body size or shape.”
Anderson is a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, or ED, of which the University of Colorado has double the average among students nationwide. In 2011, Gallup-Healthways reported a 2 percent prevalence of anorexia at CU versus a 0.9 percent national average and 1.6 percent versus 0.9 percent for bulimia.
Wait, what? But we pride ourselves on being healthy in Boulder.
“I actually feel sometimes like Boulder is eating disorder-genic,” says Malia Sperry of the La Luna Center. The center houses a team of therapists, psychologists and nutritionists focused on ED education and recovery. She says Boulder’s celebration of fitness and thinness can turn into unhealthy social pressures, especially for young people. It’s difficult to tell when restricting foods, dieting or extreme exercise are expressions of Boulder culture, signs of disordered eating or both.
“People are often like, ‘Good for you for exercising all day.’ It’s socially acceptable, but it can get out of control,” Sperry says. She believes the same can be true of extreme diets, like raw veganism or allergen-free diets. “For some, that’s a completely true allergy and they have a good relationship with food, but for others, it’s just a way to have a socially acceptable, negative relationship with food.”
Full-blown eating disorders are diagnosable, but unhealthy body-image issues, while more subtle, are still of concern and seem more widespread than ever. Our local lifestyle is only one minor trigger for such issues in a culture that seems designed to make us hate ourselves. Whether in TV, magazines, movies, web sites or anywhere an ad can be plastered, themes of weight can’t be escaped.
“Women even get together to complain about body parts,” Sperry adds. “That’s part of our culture, at any age, for the conversation to be about comparing thighs.”
The good news is that the contagious nature of culture works both ways. You can shape your environment into one that’s body positive instead of negative.
Find the root of the problem
Sometimes the first step is waking up to the fact that the problem is a culture that actively makes you hate your body, rather than your body itself being problematic.
“It is just a big norm in our culture to want to be thinner and to be negative about our bodies,” says Anderson. “Once you realize the cultural and social pressures behind that, I think it’s easier to stand up to pressure and to like your body. You realize that every day you’re told your body is wrong so you can be sold stuff.”
That stuff includes everything from diet pills and ab rollers to mascara, hair products and whitening toothpaste. People make money from your insecurity.
“If you think about how often you see not necessarily negative but altered images of what bodies look like, think about how much you see on TV or magazines or on the internet, looking at ‘fitspo’ and ‘thinspo,'” says Anderson, using the common slang for fitness or thinness inspiration, “I think it’s good to daily involve yourself in the opposite. Take same amount of time looking at body-affirming things.”
She curates a body-positive Pinterest board, for instance, and points Facebookers toward a group called End Fat Talk.
No more ‘fat talk’
“I feel fat.”
“Do I look fat in these pants?”
“I shouldn’t have dessert. It will go straight to my belly!”
These are but a few examples of fat talk, which is pervasive.
“You can’t go to meal without getting a lecture about what someone can and can’t eat and grams of fat per serving,” says local nutritionist Donna Feldman. “That kind of person does not have a healthy relationship with food. They want you to join and affirm that attitude, and they don’t make the best dinner guests.”
Fat talk is obviously not necessarily a sign of an eating disorder, but it does contribute to an environment in which one can flourish.
“It’s hard to fight it on your own and shrug it off when everyone is obsessed about a pound this way or that,” Feldman says, adding that you’ll likely get positive responses if you bring up banning fat talk amongst your friends and family.
There is no bad, only mindfulness
“One of the things we talk about (at La Luna) is trying to have a relationship with food where all foods are legal, not putting foods in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories,” Sperry advises.
“Try to be mindful of hunger and fullness and really honor your body’s cues. That sometimes means we have half a cookie and feel satisfied with that. Sometimes that means we have two cookies. It depends on your body’s cues. It sounds so simple, but when dealing with disordered eating, it can feel so far away.”
If you are eating to lose weight — in a manner healthful for your body and your mind — focus on portion size instead of good/bad delineations, says nutritionist Feldman, who also advocates mindfulness.
“Just eat real food. Eat normal, real food and make a point to taste it,” she says. “That makes you slow down and appreciate, so your relationship with food becomes one of enjoyment or appreciation rather than punishment and reward.”
Watch for compulsions
This is especially true of exercising, which is in generally a very healthy thing but can become a harmful compulsion.
“Now we’ve got something called exercise bulimia where the purging mechanism is exercise,” says Feldman. “You eat a pretzel, so you feel a need to go run for an hour to burn off those calories. Again, eating is a guilty thing you need to do penance for.”
Anderson adds, “If you’re feeling very upset that something is preventing you from exercise, if you can’t stand not to go for your run, that can be a sign.” A compulsion to weigh yourself — once a day, more than once a day — can also be a signal that your body image is negatively affecting your life.
Get and give help
“I’ve never heard a patient say, ‘I came in for treatment too soon.’ I have heard tons say, ‘I wish I had come in sooner,'” says Anderson, who advises that anyone (really, anyone who believes their body image is at all negatively affecting them) to seek help.
“If as a young adult you have any suspicion or concern that your eating or exercise might be a little problematic, go get it checked out by a mental health professional. Go to Wardenburg or CAPS. It’s better to go see professional and know you’re OK versus going without help.”
She explains that eating disorders can become very serious very quickly, and that anorexia is the most deadly mental illness, percentage wise. More anorexics die — of starvation, complications or suicide — than patients who are depressed, bipolar or schizophrenic.
“I see women in their 30s that say it started their freshman year of college,” Sperry says. “(Body image) is hard for all of us in this culture, but it’s especially hard for young adults. They’re just finding their identity. Feeling not-OK in your skin may be more of a challenge at that age and stage of life.”
And if you suspect someone you care about might benefit from help, approach them from a perspective of love and concern rather than criticism, and try not to let it devolve into yet another, “No, I’m the fat one,” thigh-comparison conversation.