“I’m not restricting anymore….but I still hate my body.” “I’m in recovery….but I still hate my body.” “I’m resisting engaging in the eating disorder behaviors….but I still hate my body.” As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, I must hear a variation of this phrase from at least one person a day. And to be honest, this was also a refrain that I found myself saying aloud, to my partner, to my therapist, to anyone who would listen for years-years into my own recovery journey. So luckily, I have a pretty much unending well of empathy for anyone who struggles with negative body image that feels chronic in nature.
One response to this that we hear often in the eating disorder recovery space is-“Well, that’s because body image takes the longest.” Eating disorder professionals tend to talk about how physical symptoms are usually “the first to go.” The body heals before the mind and all that. And yes- this can be true-thought patterns can certainly be more persistent and trickier to change than some physical ailments (Anyone who has been to inpatient treatment who has had an eating disorder that required some weight restoration can likely empathize with the experience of leaving treatment weight restored, but feeling absolutely raw and riddled with thoughts of wanting to go back to the ED.) But I think the response, “body image takes the longest” can be a little bit is a misnomer. What I mean by this is that this places a faux endpoint on what is often more of a life-long journey for many of us.
Body Image Struggles Are Complicated
Because what is body image exactly? It can be defined as a person’s subjective picture or mental image of their own body. But it truly is SO much more than this. There is affective body image- how you feel towards your body. There is cognitive body image- how you think about your body. There is physiological body image- how your body literally feels in space to you. Research shows that body image isn’t static- it ebbs and flows throughout different life seasons, and even minute to minute throughout the day for some. It is influenced by external, cultural, familial, sociological, and other environmental factors. There are truly so many facets of the experience of body image, that it would be inaccurate to say that there will ever be an endpoint where it will be “healed” for most.
Body Image Tip: Address With Compassion And Curiosity
I would argue that body image, then, is something that is worth addressing continually throughout the recovery process, and beyond. It would behoove us all to think of processing and sitting with our own body image as more of a lifelong journey- one in which we will all inevitably have low points and high points. Perhaps we should begin to think about body image in the same way that we conceptualize physical health. We all travel along a continuum of physical health throughout our lives. Some people have baseline lower physical health that they have to navigate (and potentially create accommodations as needed). Some people will find themselves with a baseline higher-than-average physical health. (And yet, those people will still get sick. And the people with lower baseline health will still have periods where they feel better.) The string that ties us together here is that we will all travel along the continuum and health will ebb and flow. I deeply believe that body image is an experience similar to this. It will ebb and flow throughout one’s life.
At different periods, we may struggle with seemingly prolonged negative body image. Different circumstances may impact our body image (like pregnancy, ageing, weight fluctuations, and more.) My belief is that the real work comes from a daily practice of getting curious about these thoughts. This might come in the form of pausing when you have the thought “I still hate my body” and asking yourself, “Well. What does losing weight mean to me in this moment? What does weight loss represent to me? What am I searching for?” Yes, eating disorders are about more than weight, but weight can certainly be a common thread throughout the illness. After all, research shows that the biggest risk factor for an eating disorder is starting a diet. Hence if the disorder was triggered for many by a quest for weight loss, it makes sense that body dissatisfaction may be a vexingly persistent experience well into recovery. It seems important, then, to get extra curious about these thoughts.
Another Body Image Tip: Gentle Acceptance
Another tip when it comes to navigating negative body image is trying to foster a gentle acceptance of the continuum-nature of body image. This means allowing yourself to lean into the idea that there is no “end point” for healing body image. In some sense, this may sound bleak and tiring. Because it means that the work will never be “finished.” But a way to reframe that is to look at the continuum theory of body image as freeing. There is no “perfect goal” to strive for. No final destination. No race to the finish line. And struggling with body image means NOTHING about your recovery status, good feminist card, good mom card, cognitive capabilities, intellect, or anything else for that matter. It is simply a product of being human in this exceptionally fat-phobic and appearance-obsessed society. So try to have some compassion for yourself.
Truth be Told…
Truth be told, body acceptance flies in the face of every message that our society tries to send us. In this sense, it is no wonder that so many people continue to struggle with that same all-consuming thought “I STILL hate my body,” even when putting in the hard work of recovery. It is no wonder that body image ebbs and flows based on environmental experiences and circumstances. Recognizing that you still idealize weight loss and struggle with negative thoughts about your body does not take away from how far you have come. In fact, it is just the opposite. Acknowledging these feelings is incredibly courageous and shows that you are determined to be honest with yourself no matter how painful the truth. So have compassion with yourself. You are incredible for doing this work.
By: Colleen Reichmann, clinical psychologist, founder of Wildflower Therapy
How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?
If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the complex set of emotions you may experience during eating disorder recovery, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help! In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.
Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA:
Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services. We offer in-person therapy in Philadelphia, and also offer virtual therapy to anyone in PA, NJ, DE, or VA!
We offer services for eating disorder therapy, body image struggles, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health , maternal mental health, therapy for college students and athletes. We also celebrate that we offer LGBTQIA+ affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office.
Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health, so please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions you may have! We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!