By BodyMatters therapist Sarah McMahon
What informs how we approach supporting people with body image or eating issues? This photo blog is a visual illustration of six key principles we have recently showcased on our facebook page– a “charter of peer support” for family & friends to consider. Please add any further suggestions of principles that may support people in recovery & please feel welcome to share this post with people who may benefit from this knowledge.
Model a healthy relationship with food
For someone experiencing eating & body image issues, having peers engage in dieting or fad eating is extremely triggering- often this is one of the most difficult and confusing things for someone in recovery. Conversely, one of the most helpful things is to have healthy, consistent eating modeled. What does this look like? In practice, it includes a balanced diet of “everyday”, “sometimes” & “occasional” food, as well as honoring & responding to physiological cues such as hunger & satiety in terms of food decisions. If a loved one struggles with eating & body image issues we really encourage you to examine your own relationship with food. How can you improve it so that it is healthy & sending a clear message to your loved one about what healthy eating actually is? What messages might you inadvertently be sending about food by your behaviour? Do you send the message that “you are what you eat” (eg “I’ve been naughty today- Ive eaten X)? Do you similarly send the message that your moral worth lies in what you have just eaten- or not eaten?
Discuss food in a neutral & positive way
Be mindful of how you talk about food. Most people with disordered eating have internalised a very rigid and narrow view about food that fuels both restriction and binge eating. You need to send the message that it is OK to eat any foods, that no food is off limits or is forbidden. Consider the following: Do you normalise dieting by having a hierarchy of “good food” and “bad food”, in much the same way that someone with an eating disorder does? Do you distill a food’s value down to its calorie or fat content, rather than considering other important attributes such as flavour and texture? Do you use moral language when you discuss food itself? These comments, however common they might be, are really unhelpful for someone who is experiencing eating & body image issues. Discussing the “positives” of food tends to be far more helpful. Most foods have some good qualities about them. Do they contain vital micro nutrients? Is there an important social function associated with eating the food (such as eating a birthday cake)? Are they simply delicious? These are all good things and, if you are going to talk food (which isn’t always appropriate- in fact, sometimes it can actually reinforce the eating disorder), consider these sort of positives.
Don’t engage in “Fat Talk”
“Fat talk” is that familiar self disparaging body talk regarding size, weight, appearance & food. It can range from comments you make about yourself and comments you make about another person. It can be as minimal as a simple remark and as broad as a long conversation about these issues. Examples include “she really shouldn’t wear that skirt” and “I am so disgusting, I really need to diet”. This type of talk is toxic as it promotes body surveillancing & fat shaming. People who suffer from disordered eating and body shame usually already do too much body surveillancing & fat shaming- of themselves and others. Your engagement in “fat talk” simply normalises this. Research consistently indicates that fat talk is highly associated with body dissatisfaction which is one of the biggest risk factors for eating pathology Be mindful of the various ways in which you might be engaging in fat talk: “compliment-fishing” fat talk; “comparative” fat talk; “cant-take-a-compliment” fat talk; “competitive” fat talk; “silent” fat talk; and so forth. Whilst some theorists propose that “fat talk” may facilitate bonding to protect against social rejection, studies actually indicate it is people who make positive body statements who are actually perceived as being more likable.
Embrace size and shape diversity
That old meme that “every body’s different” is so important for us to promote. People who experience disordered eating & body image issues usually struggle to believe this. They experience a very rigid, narrow ideal of beauty that only a fraction of the population have the genetics and environmental opportunities meet. Most people who meet that ideal only do so for a fraction of time because other factors such as aging set in! But there is actually tremendous beauty in diversity and this is one point we really need to remember. More than that, it is something we need to celebrate.
Trust your body’s internal wisdom
Marvel at The Wonder of The Body! Contrary to some of the messages peddled by the merchants of body hatred such as the dieting industry, unless we have a medical issue that indicates otherwise, our bodies have amazing capacity to do so many amazing things- including maintain our body weight. Think about some of the other wonders of the body- from digesting food, producing blood, healing wounds and regulating our body temperature. Basic physiological functions such as regulating our metabolism and appetite are things we really should take for granted in the same way that we can trust our body to do all the other marvelous things it does. Think twice about the messages you are sending your loved one with disordered eating or body image issues. For example: Are you sending them the message that your or their body is defective in some way? Most people do not need “help” burning fat or suppressing appetite.
Adopt healthy lifestyle habits
Often the hallmark of an eating disorder is extremity/ lack of moderation in one capacity or another. Second to food, this pertains most specifically to ones relationship with excercise. Yet restoring a positive relationship with your body, particularly in the context of moving it regularly is *so* important. Modelling this relationship is vital to help your loved one understand balance & derive pleasure from “being healthy”. What healthy lifestyle habits do you enage in? Do you move your body for pleasure and because it feels good, or to lose weight? If it is to lose weight, I urge you: park the weight loss agenda. Healthy lifestyle habits are important for maintaining your own physical and emotional health. In the same way that sustainable excercise is not about weight loss, excercise should also not be about pain or punishment: simply find and pursue physical activity that you enjoy. Fitness & regular healthy engagement in physical activity is the very best predictor of health.