Tag Archives: body image

Food for thought

By Laurie Meyers January 25, 2018

With January now behind us, the annual barrage of diet and fitness commercials has started to fade. Many people who made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or “get fit” have already labeled themselves failures for indulging on leftover holiday chocolate and not making it to the gym more than twice per week. Other determined warriors in the fight to attain the perfect size and shape may stick to their resolutions and lose the desired amount of weight, only to find that they’ve gained it all back (and then some) within six months. This cycle of dieting and weight loss, followed by weight gain, is a process that many Americans go through over and over again, often in search of an unattainable or unsustainable ideal.

“The primary message we get from popular culture is that our worth is based on our appearance and the ability to achieve a thin and beautiful cultural ideal,” says Laura H. Choate, editor of the book Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor´s Guide to Treatment and Prevention, published by the American Counseling Association. “When individuals internalize this message — that they are only worthwhile or acceptable if they are able to achieve this ideal — they develop a negative body image, which can lead to dieting and disordered eating behaviors.”

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, in the United States, approximately 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. Experts say that many millions more will engage in disordered eating — patterns of behavior that resemble those of eating disorders but which do not meet clinical criteria. Symptoms of disordered eating may include chronic dieting, frequent weight fluctuations, extremely rigid and unhealthy food and exercise regimens, emotional eating and a preoccupation with food, body and weight issues that causes distress.

Ashamed to eat?

Licensed mental health counselor Tamara Duarte, a private practitioner in the Vancouver, Washington, area who specializes in treating women with eating disorders and body and food issues, says that we live in a culture that has normalized chronic dieting. She refers to this phenomenon as the “dieting roller coaster.”

Women come to Duarte, an ACA member, having spent years pingponging back and forth between restrictive diets and binge eating. After attempting to limit their consumption only to “good” food, these clients have typically fallen off of their diet wagon and ended up in a binge cycle, during which they eat all of the foods they consider “bad,” Duarte explains. Feeling guilty, the women go back to dieting and start the cycle all over again.

Duarte also sees clients who have gained weight as they have aged and want to get their former bodies back — even if it is through unhealthy means. “People come in and tell me that they used to have a restrictive eating disorder and wish they could go back to that time so that they could be thin,” Duarte says.

What all of these clients have in common is a sense of shame about food and their bodies, Duarte says. Fear of being or becoming fat is so prevalent in our society that this shame has become normalized, she says. The irony is that much of the research has found that dieting ultimately leads to weight gain, Duarte notes. Chronic dieting (even at a subclinical level) may even be harmful to the body, and Duarte and other eating disorder experts say that the benefit of weight loss through dieting is unclear.

Like many who study or treat disordered eating and eating disorders, Duarte wants to remove the stigma attached to different-sized bodies. “Fat is just an adjective,” she says.

Part of breaking free of disordered eating — and eating disorders — is learning body acceptance, Duarte says. “Helping a person to accept their body as is can be a very slow, complex process,” she admits.

“I read something posted on Instagram once that said, ‘You cannot obtain recovery while actively trying to change the size and shape of your body,’” Duarte continues. “I really liked that, and I introduce that very early on in the counseling process. Throughout counseling, we look at the beliefs the client has about their body and where those stem from. Typically, thoughts like ‘I’m ugly and unlovable in this body’ stem from society or family members. It’s interesting because none of my clients so far have thought others are unlovable because of their body size, so I question what makes them different. We also look at how screwed up society is for picking one body size as being beautiful and acceptable. With a recovering mind, they are able to recognize how erroneous these thoughts are.”

Duarte also asks clients to get rid of their scales. “Not relying on an arbitrary number to tell them whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ frees them up to connect in with themselves to figure out how they are feeling,” she explains.

Intuitive eating and Health at Every Size

Duarte has personal experience both with eating disorders and the power of that “arbitrary number.” She had been in recovery for more than 10 years when she happened to gain about 45 pounds because of some medication she was taking. Uncomfortable in her new body size, Duarte was ready to put herself on a diet and workout regimen. But then she attended some seminars on intuitive eating, an approach created by dietitian Evelyn Tribole and nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, both of whom specialize in eating disorders. Intuitive eating rejects dieting. Instead, it advocates listening to the body’s signals of hunger and fullness and getting rid of the idea of “good” and “bad” foods, among other principles.

Duarte also learned about Health at Every Size (HAES), a program and social movement inspired by the book written by Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor and researcher. HAES advocates the acceptance of bodies of all sizes, rejects dieting and calls for addressing health concerns directly with healthy behaviors. Both intuitive eating and HAES also encourage physical activity in whatever form a person naturally enjoys.

“I immediately recognized the power of teaching IE [intuitive eating] and HAES to clients,” Duarte says. “Both HAES and IE teach that when you listen to your body and feed it what it wants, when it wants, how much it wants, your body will naturally go to its set point range — the weight range where it works optimally. HAES tells me that I am OK no matter what my body looks like and that I can love and accept it right now.”

After learning about intuitive eating and HAES, Duarte started following the principles found in each approach. “At that point, I had a laundry list of good foods and bad foods, so I did the work to incorporate my ‘bad’ foods back into my diet,” she says. “An incredible thing happened: As I allowed myself to want and have these foods, the power they used to hold went away. Pizza was pizza. In the past, I would not allow myself pizza, and if I did decide to allow it, I would eat like five pieces because it tasted so good and I was telling myself I wouldn’t have it again. When pizza became accessible, I realized I only wanted one or two slices, and then I was able to step away because I knew that the next time I wanted pizza — in 10 minutes or 10 days — I would be able to eat it.”

Duarte also realized that although she enjoyed going to the gym, the activity she loved best was going on walks with her dog. So, instead of carving out time to devote to workouts, she started spending more time walking her dog.

“I really enjoy my walks when I go on them, and I am kind to myself when life gets busy and I can’t or don’t want to fit them in,” she says. “I no longer berate myself because the walks are for self-care, not to manipulate the size and shape of my body. I enjoy the array of foods I eat. I love opening a menu and deciding based on what I want instead of what I ‘should have.’ I never thought I would have this kind of relationship with food or my body.”

For those who might wonder whether Duarte lost weight, she responds that it doesn’t matter because her body shape and size have no bearing on her happiness or success.

Combating body hatred

Knowing from personal experience that intuitive eating and HAES can be very effective, Duarte now incorporates the approaches into her counseling work. “Every single client that calls my office for a free consultation ends up telling me that what they want most from counseling is freedom,” she says. “Freedom from the eating disorder, the never-ending thoughts about weight and food, freedom from self-hatred. I know that HAES and IE [are huge pieces] of the puzzle when it comes to freedom.”

“I don’t have to tell my clients about my experience with HAES and IE,” she continues. “I just have it with me when I am helping to guide them through it. It influences the way I feel and think about my clients’ bodies as well. I do not hold judgments about people’s bodies because of what I have learned in my journey, and my clients know I don’t judge them. When I tell my clients that their body is acceptable no matter what it looks like, I mean it, and they know it.”

Duarte discusses how HAES and intuitive eating helped guide her treatment of a teenage client she calls “Sara,” who was restricting her food intake and using exercise and vomiting to purge. “Sara believed that her body was wrong and ugly because it didn’t look like her family members, who were taller and built leaner than she was,” Duarte says. “One of the first things I had Sara do was put her scale away in a place that she wouldn’t have easy access to.”

Duarte introduced Sara to intuitive eating and its philosophy that foods should neither be demonized nor celebrated. Sara was particularly resistant to this concept, but Duarte successfully encouraged Sara to slowly add “forbidden foods” back into her diet.

Duarte also used mindfulness to help Sara with her purging behavior. “We worked on mindfulness, so she was able to identify when the urge to purge was coming on,” Duarte says. “She would write down for me everything that she was thinking — why she wanted to purge and why she didn’t.”

The urges would usually pass, and over time, Sara was able to get through them by using tools she had learned in session. Duarte teaches all of her clients distraction and self-soothing skills drawn from dialectical behavior therapy. Examples of distraction activities include dancing to a favorite song, writing or drawing, calling or texting a friend and going for a walk or a drive. Self-soothing might involve clients taking a shower, painting their fingernails (an activity that Duarte says is great for people with bulimia because they can’t induce vomiting with wet nails) or giving themselves a foot massage.

With time — and the help of the tools she had learned — Sara no longer experienced urges to purge. It took awhile for Sara to grow comfortable with her body, but she began to enjoy the increasing sense of physical strength that came from no longer restricting her food intake, Duarte says. Over time, that physical feeling of strength also became psychological.

“She struggles from time to time with not liking how she looks, but she’s able to identify what’s really going on at those times,” Duarte says. “Typically, Sara is stressed or scared, and instead of feeling [that], she focuses on her body and her need to change it. [But now] she uses the tools we have worked on in session, and she feels her feelings effectively, and most often, the body hatred goes away too.”

Alternatives to emotional eating

Licensed professional counselor Rachael Parkins is a practitioner at the Bucks Eating Support Collaborative in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she currently runs a support and therapy group for emotional eating. The group meets weekly and serves as a place for women to share their challenges, support one another and get professional guidance from Parkins. Group members may be struggling with a variety of concerns, but food is their common method of coping with emotions and issues such as stress, insecurity, self-esteem and body image, Parkins explains. Most of the women are working with a dietitian, and group members also have access to an intuitive eating coach.

The goal of the group is to learn how to handle emotions in a healthy way by working on methods such as distress tolerance. Group participants identify distressing emotions, such as loneliness, and Parkins helps them identify alternative ways to cope with what they’re feeling. Sometimes, this can be as simple as group members going out of their way to be kind to themselves and practice self-care, such as putting on lotion or taking a bubble bath. Other methods are more concrete, such as journaling or completing a decatastrophizing worksheet. In that case, participants write down their worst thoughts, evaluate the worst-case scenario and the likelihood of it happening, and identify other possible outcomes.

Parkins also encourages group members to acknowledge the small victories they experience in pursuit of their personal goals by recording them in a log. For example, a group member might state a goal of practicing better self-care. For this particular group member, an action such as getting out of bed and taking a shower might represent a small victory. Another participant might want to stop procrastinating. Calling to set up a doctor’s visit could be a small victory, even if the group member doesn’t keep the appointment.

Parkins also helps group members break free of comparisons, both with other people and themselves. She explains that participants regularly hold themselves and how they look up not only to the perceived “successes” of others in their lives, but also to their own past selves. Parkins says it is not uncommon for group members to express a desire to go back in time to when they were thinner, even if it was a miserable point in their lives.

“They have this idea in their head that if they get to this size or number on the scale, that’s going to bring happiness,” she says. “Losing weight might be desirable, but as an emotional focus, it’s never enough. I’m helping people accept that losing weight is not the answer.”

Signs of a problem

Although not every client who diets is engaging in disordered eating, counselors should regularly assess for eating and body issues, says Choate, a professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University.

“We know that a large proportion of the population experiences problems related to eating and negative body image, so it is reasonable for counselors to assess for these issues with all of their clients,” she says. “Because clients with eating-related problems might come to counseling with other issues — depression, anxiety, relational problems — asking questions specifically related to eating patterns and body image is a good way to explore to see if these problems are contributing in any way to the client’s presenting issues.”

Choate suggests asking the following questions:

  • Is the disordered eating pattern causing problems in the person’s life?
  • Does the disordered eating pattern interfere with the person’s relationships with others? With the enjoyment of life activities? With completing daily routines?
  • Does the client’s weight, shape or appearance unduly influence self-esteem?
  • Does the client believe that she or he is less acceptable if weighing a few pounds more than in the past or, conversely, that she or he is more acceptable if weighing a few pounds less?

When assessing clients for signs of an eating disorder, Duarte says, it is essential that counselors not be misled by the stereotypical presentation of extreme thinness. The stigma attached to larger bodies often can obscure the reality that eating disorders may occur in people of all sizes, she says. In part because our society generally expects that people who do not fit into an idealized size range want and need to lose weight, counselors may be less likely scrutinize dieting behavior and weight loss in larger clients. Like Choate, Duarte believes that counselors should assess all clients for signs of disordered eating.

Choate also offers one final caution for counselors. “While there are some eating-related problems that might respond well to counseling alone, it is important to be aware that eating disorders are chronic, and anorexia in particular has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Treatment of these disorders requires specialized knowledge and training, and because eating disorders all involve a medical component, the involvement of a multidisciplinary treatment team is required. This would include, at minimum, a physician or medical professional, a dietitian and the counselor.”

 

****

 

Defining eating disorders: Changes in diagnosis

Laura H. Choate notes that in the past, most individuals with eating disorders fell into the diagnostic criteria of eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS), which led to changes in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The criteria for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa were expanded to include more people. Binge eating disorder was added as a stand-alone disorder (rather than remaining as previously listed as a subcategory under EDNOS). EDNOS was renamed “other specified feeding or eating disorder” and includes issues such as:

  • Atypical anorexia nervosa: All criteria for anorexia nervosa are met; despite significant weight loss, the individual’s weight is within or above the normal range.
  • Bulimia nervosa of low frequency or limited duration
  • Binge eating disorder of low frequency or limited duration
  • Purging disorder
  • Night eating syndrome

 

****

 

Multicultural considerations

Although often perceived as a “white” problem, eating disorders and disordered eating do occur among women and men of color, says Regine Talleyrand, an American Counseling Association member whose research focuses on eating disorders among women of color.

“Counselors should be aware that women of color do experience concerns regarding beauty and body esteem,” she says. “[However], the traditional methods of evaluating these factors — weight, body parts, preoccupation with thin body ideals — may not capture the real body appearance concerns of all women of color.” Talleyrand, an associate professor and coordinator of the counseling and development program at George Mason University in Virginia, says that characteristics such as hair, skin color and facial features may be more relevant when evaluating body image in women of color.

In addition, high rates of obesity and binge eating among Latina and African American women highlight the need to look beyond “traditional” eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia when working with women of color who struggle with eating, weight or body issues, Talleyrand says. Because African American and Latina women are even more likely than white women to display eating disorder symptoms at any size, counselors who are evaluating clients of color for disordered eating should also look beyond the stereotypical underweight image, she emphasizes.

Of course, the factors influencing the risk of eating disorders in all populations go beyond appearance. These factors are often culturally specific. In particular, racism and oppression may play a significant part in eating disorder risk among Latina and African American women, Talleyrand says. In fact, the development of eating disorder symptoms — particularly binge eating — has been linked to racism and oppression experienced by African American women, she adds.

 

****

 

Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor´s Guide to Treatment and Prevention, edited by Laura H. Choate

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Anorexia Nervosa” by Shannon L. Karl

Journal articles (counseling.org/publications/counseling-journals)

  • “Special Section: Assessment, Prevention and Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Role of Professional Counselors,” Journal of Counseling & Development, July 2012

 

****

 

Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org

 

****

 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Girls feeling pressure to be ‘sexy, famous and perfect’

By Laurie Meyers April 5, 2016

In our culture, women receive many messages that can eat away at their self-esteem. For example, self-worth equals youth and beauty. Perfection in all areas of life — professional and personal — is not only achievable, but expected. Women begin to learn these “lessons” as girls, say counseling experts.

American Counseling Association member Laura Hensley Choate says girls are taught that their value is connected solely to what she calls the “three A’s” — appearance, attention and Vgu1RUfKT3WN1ZYxSWaR_14672519443_13d8873062_kaccomplishments. The expectation they take away is that not only must they look their best, but they must also be noticed and popular, all while achieving high grades and earning recognition and awards in sports or other extracurricular activities, Choate explains. In addition, these messages are trickling down to girls at younger and younger ages, so that now even the youngest girls feel the pressure to be, as Choate puts it, “sexy, famous and perfect.”

This pressure has harmful effects on girls’ social and academic development, says Michelle Bruno, a counseling professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania whose research interests include trauma and resiliency in adolescent girls. Bruno had the opportunity to work with girls on these issues through her involvement in an empowerment program designed by the nonprofit organization Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), which began as a research study by counselor educator Lisa Hinkelman at Ohio State University.

ROX programs are designed for elementary, middle and high school girls. The programs target areas such as confidence, self-esteem and body image, healthy relationships, effective communication, social media, cyberbullying, sexual violence prevention, stress and coping, academic and career development, and leadership. Bruno, an ACA member, helped bring ROX to several schools in western Pennsylvania, coordinating with school counselors and serving as one of the onsite supervisors.

“Girls [as young as 9] are navigating peer relationships and beginning to be able to choose more independently their participation in classes and activities in school,” she says. “How they perceive and feel about themselves plays an important role in such tasks. Younger children often display higher levels of confidence than what we see in adolescents. We see younger children believing they can do anything, believing that they are the best at whatever fun activity they are trying out. During the preteen and teen years, many girls experience comprised levels of optimism and decreased healthy risk taking. They value acceptance by others and work hard to achieve it among their peer groups. Girls may not want to try new things for fear of failure or standing out.”

Bruno, like Choate, decries the tremendous pressure placed on girls regarding appearance. “The prominent messages about female beauty depict unrealistic and even unhealthy images,” Bruno explains. “Body image struggles are exacerbated by the sexualization of girls in the media, which teaches girls that their value stems from sexual appeal, to the exclusion of other traits. Young girls may end up engaging in self-objectification to achieve attention from others. How one looks becomes a significant focus for young girls, who of course are also in the midst of physical changes.”

Girls are also constrained by what they learn about “acceptable” female behavior, Bruno continues.

“Girls may be oversocialized with regard to expectations around relationships, with a need to please others being paramount over other behaviors,” she says. “This may lead to a perceived need to regulate emotions such as anger, which can result in relational aggression. This is often a result of when girls experience anger or other difficult emotions but mask it because of negative consequences seen as ‘unladylike.’ This creates incongruence and the message that being authentic is not always OK. Taken together, girls in their preteen years are forming all of these ideas around self-worth, how to define it and how to be worthy.”

ROX is a 20-week program that aims to help girls “unlearn” — or not learn in the first place — these “lessons,” Bruno notes. During the course, school counselors or other facilitators work with small groups of girls in what Bruno describes as “interactive psychoeducation” that focuses on building skills such as communication through practice and role-play. The girls also receive homework to work on in between sessions.

Bruno’s involvement with ROX was brief — her role was simply to help introduce the program into Pennsylvania schools — but she remains a big proponent.

“I saw the ROX program as unique and empowering because it is built upon a framework that examines the interrelatedness of all of these factors [appearance, appropriate behavior, etc.] and creates a safe space for girls to examine these topics while building concrete skills,” she says. “The program is highly successful because it addresses the very issues that many women can continue to struggle with throughout their adult lives. Learning these skills at 11 or 12 years old provides opportunities to support girls in defining themselves by internal standards, to help them exercise the ability to communicate feelings in an appropriate manner and to recognize the impact that outside factors can have on them.”

One of the predominant outside factors influencing today’s girls is social media, and Choate is very concerned about its effect. Although she does not view social media as the root of all negative messaging, she is concerned about certain aspects of it.

“Social media is … a new and constant pressure for girls as they feel they must be ‘on’ and perform at all times in order to get noticed and not to miss out on anything,” says Choate, whose book on cultural influences and young girls, Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, was recently published by Oxford University Press. “They tend to measure their worth on their numbers — their number of friends, followers and likes for each picture. This leads to the development of an inauthentic self that is focused on pleasing others instead of what is authentic to her.”

“We have not yet seen the long-term effects of these pressures on girls because they are so new,” she continues. “It will be interesting to see today’s young girls, who have grown up on social media and who experience a lack of face-to-face communication, in terms of their mental health. What we do know is that rates of depression, anxiety, substance use problems, eating disorders and self-injury are all on the rise for adolescent girls and young women. So I am concerned about these trends and how they will affect girls’ future development and mental health.”

Because of these concerns, Choate, a professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University, also wrote a book for mental health professionals, Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Guide for Mental Health Treatment and Prevention, in 2013. In it, she recommends that counselors focus on the following areas when helping adolescent girls navigate cultural pressures:

  • Parenting: Working with parents to improve communication and family support.
  • Authenticity and self-awareness: Encouraging girls to take time for self-reflection to gain a strong understanding of who they are and what they value. Possessing this level of self-awareness can encourage adolescent girls to stand up for who they are and what they believe in rather than giving in to the pressure of meeting cultural expectations.
  • Wellness, spirituality and gratitude: Encouraging girls to maintain balance in all life dimensions, not just the ones valued by culture (such as the physical). In addition, recognizing meaning and purpose in their lives and being grateful for what they have rather than focusing on what they do not have.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills: Promoting problem solving versus ruminating about problems and learning to have the confidence that they can take action to solve their own problems.
  • Coping skills for emotional resolution: Teaching girls how to manage intense emotions without harming themselves or others.
  • Social skills for communication, assertiveness and conflict resolution: Teaching girls how to develop healthy relationships first with peers and then with romantic partners.
  • Cognitive skills for cognitive restructuring and self-regulation: Helping adolescent girls learn to delay gratification and think through the consequences of actions.
  • Body acceptance and positive physical self-concept: Teaching girls to love the changes in their developing bodies and to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, not just for how they look.
  • Media literacy skills: Teaching girls how to critique the cultural messages they receive through the media and to recognize and resist the intent of the messages.
  • Goal-setting skills and perseverance: Encouraging girls to develop goals and a positive outlook for the future.

 

****

 

Related reading: For more on women, body issues and societal pressure, see “Falling short of perfect” in the April issue of Counseling Today

 

****

 

Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@counseling.org

Falling short of perfect

By Laurie Meyers March 28, 2016

This past December, a major pop culture event occurred for which millions of people had been waiting longer than three decades: Star Wars: Episode VII was released. Finally, the story from 1983’s Return of the Jedi was continuing. Many fans reserved tickets two months in advance, while others camped out in line overnight to be part of the audience for the first of the film’s showings. Individuals active on social media reasoned that it was essential to see this latest installment of the Star Wars series as soon as possible to avoid tripping over spoilers.

As with any work of art, people held widely divergent views of the film. In print and online — particularly on social media — passionate discussions were held on virtually every facet of the new movie, but one of the most frequently broached topics involved actress Carrie Fisher. People weren’t usually talking about how Fisher’s character, Princess Leia, was now a general or how great it was to see one of the original characters in the newest film or even the quality of Fisher’s performance though. Instead, the comments most frequently referred to her graying hair and extra weight. The overall sentiment was that Fisher was not aging “well.”

At the same time, no significant accompanying discussion took place about Harrison Ford’s (Han Solo’s) graying hair or Mark Hamill’s (Luke Skywalker’s) prodigiously grizzly beard. Instead, the refrain heard throughout social media was: What happened to the princess in the gold bikini?! (For those who have somehow managed to resist the force of the original Star Wars trilogy, Fisher — as Princess Leia — had two scenes in Return of the Jedi in which she was held prisoner while dressed in a gold-colored leather and metal bikini. The image of Fisher in the costume has become iconic.)

As Fisher herself said in a 2011 blog post discussing her decision to become a spokesperson for the weight loss company Jenny Craig: “You know, I swear when I was shooting those films, I never realized I was signing an invisible contract to stay looking the exact same way for the rest of my existence.”

Fisher’s “invisible contract” is representative of the expectations that women face in American society today: to remain young and beautiful forever, to work harder to be considered equal to men (and yet be paid less) and to be a perfect daughter, mother and wife or partner — all while doing the majority of the housework, child rearing and caregiving. Despite the significant strides women continue to make toward equality, societal expectations still lead many women to think that they can (and should) “have it all.” But that picture is acutely unrealistic, say counselors.

“Having it all means being able to fulfill multiple expectations simultaneously — the perfect appearance, perfect relationships, perfect mother and perfect career,” says Laura Hensley Choate, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who has written extensively about women’s and girls’ issues. “It means being perfect according to societal standards for each of these roles, but even if this were possible, it also means achieving them all simultaneously.”

The problem, counselors say, is that these standards are perniciously presented to women not just as goals that can be achieved but as expectations that must be met. And when women fall short of these standards, they often view their unsuccessful attempts as personal failures rather than as an understandable inability to meet unreasonable expectations. This perspective can cause feelings of frustration, inadequacy and shame and, in some cases, lead to more serious problems.

“These expectations are so unreasonable and unattainable, and much of it is out of an individual’s control,” comments Vanessa McLean, an LPC from Richmond, Virginia, whose specialties include women’s issues. “It is easy to see how women become plagued with anxiety, self-doubt and negative cognitions that can easily spiral into anxiety disorders or depression.”

By identifying and countering these harmful societal influences, counselors want to help women separate self-image from societal expectations — and perhaps even start changing and setting the expectations themselves.

Chasing eternal youth and beauty 

Throughout much of history, women were valued only for their beauty and fertility, says Choate, a member of the American Counseling Association. Although these qualities are no longer the sole sources of a woman’s worth, youth and beauty are still the most valued, she continues, and once a woman ages and those qualities are diminished, she loses value. In contrast, Choate says, research has shown that the characteristics most prized in men — wealth, power and status — increase with age, meaning that men generally gain value as they age. This disparity is evident in popular culture, particularly in films, which frequently pair young women with much older men, but not vice versa, she notes.

In society at large, this translates into an internalized mandate for women to fight against aging by any means necessary: products, diets, surgery and so on, says Choate, a professor of counseling education at Louisiana State University. Although we live in a youth-obsessed society, the pressure Branding-Images_Falling-Shortis mostly one-sided, she notes. “Men do not feel this same pressure. Certainly not to the same extent that women do,” Choate says.

The youthful ideal that women are supposed to maintain is in itself unrealistic, McLean says. “It isn’t just attractiveness that is the ideal but an obsession with physical perfection,” she explains. “Perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect body, perfect teeth. … And the message is not only geared to young single women but to all women.”

“Women now have equal rights and opportunities to pursue education and careers,” McLean continues, “but if you consider the message that mainstream media send, both overtly and covertly, the message is still that women’s primary value is sex, [which equals] physical attractiveness.”

Working more for less

Women have largely seized the opportunity to pursue advanced education and careers, but on a societal level, their contributions in the workplace are not as highly valued as those of men — not just symbolically but also literally, experts contend.

According to a 2014 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual salary for women is 79 percent that of the median annual salary for men. That’s 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. A 2015 comparison by the U.S. Department of Labor measuring weekly salaries found that women make 81 cents for every dollar that men make. “Women often feel more pressure in the workplace to perform, simply to get equitable recognition and pay,” McLean says.

Many women’s wages are affected by factors such as maternity leave and child care, as are their career trajectories, which are often linked to making better wages, says Nadine Hartig, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education at Radford University in Virginia. Beyond the physical demands of pregnancy, giving birth and raising children, women are often confronted with choices related to balancing their work and life roles. These are choices that men generally do not have to make, Hartig points out. Even if a woman’s husband or partner assumes some of the child-rearing and household responsibilities, the bulk of those responsibilities will typically still fall on the woman, says Hartig, a member of ACA.

Hartig notes that she made a career choice herself because of the demands of motherhood. “I chose not to go into a tenure track right away mostly because I thought it would kill me to do that at the same time as raising children,” she says.

Many women wrestle with the challenge of how or if to try balancing motherhood and work, knowing that the decisions they make could mean delaying or even derailing a career. Women are sometimes judged negatively for taking time away from work, even for maternity leave, but they are also susceptible to being judged for returning to work as quickly as possible and continuing to pursue their careers, note Hartig and Choate.

When a woman who is a mother seeks a promotion, her dedication to her children may be questioned, along with her ability to get the work done, says Hartig, an LPC who also maintains a small private practice. “This can be done in really insidious ways, with comments such as, ‘I’m concerned you won’t have enough time for your family [if given the promotion].’ Generally, men do not face this same kind of judgment. No one questions a man’s commitment as a father if he takes a promotion.”

McLean says that when parenting and household duties are factored in, research has shown that women perform 50 percent more daily work than men.

“The reality is that working mothers still tend to serve as ‘managers’ of the home,” agrees Choate. “They are the ones who keep up with the schedules, the tasks that keep the household running, the doctor’s appointments, the school needs. And while research shows that fathers do help out, it is the mothers who tend to assign the tasks to keep everything on schedule.”

“So, the mothers have to manage the home tasks — which of course take a great deal of mental energy for planning and can lead to worrying — while fathers tend not to carry this burden with them,” Choate continues. “And the societal expectation is that a good mother will keep the family’s schedule flowing seamlessly. If things don’t run well in the home, the expectation is that the mother is not doing her part well. And for single mothers, this pressure is even greater because they are not only the managers of the home, but they also have to carry out all of the tasks with very little help or support.”

Sadly, for many women, the harshest critics they face are themselves, Choate says. They try to have it all and then feel like failures when they can’t achieve the impossible. In essence, she says, “having it all” boils down to “figuring out a way to look young, thin and beautiful, be home with the kids as much as possible, be a superstar at work, have lots of successful friendships, have a blissful romantic relationship, have a perfectly decorated, always clean home [and] cook fresh, organic meals daily.”

Breaking free of the mold 

Choate says counselors can help their female clients uncover the unrealistic expectations they are operating under. “What are the actual standards they hold up for themselves in order to feel they are a success? Actually putting these expectations into words is the first step in helping to change them,” she says. “Where did they learn these expectations? How did they come to internalize these expectations? Did they learn them from parents? Teachers? Coaches? Popular media? Whose approval are they seeking?”

Once a client realizes she is responding to outside forces rather than considering options that might be right for her, the counselor can help her identify ways of creating a healthy balance that fits her life, Choate says. The counselor should have the client ask herself what makes sense for her given her personal strengths and resources.

“This will look different for everyone,” Choate says. “What are realistic and meaningful goals that respect self-care and balance versus living up to a never-ending treadmill of others’ expectations? Helping our clients separate the difference between societal ‘shoulds’ versus what each client actually wants for herself will be very freeing for her.”

In Choate’s book Girls’ and Women’s Wellness: Contemporary Counseling Issues and Interventions, published by ACA, she talks about strategies couples can use to strike a balance in household duties. Rather than trying to decide how to divide tasks exactly 50-50, she suggests that couples talk about particular duties that each partner prefers. For instance, one might prefer folding laundry to vacuuming, or washing dishes rather than taking the trash out. Couples should also talk about who will keep track of items such as bill paying, appointments and other deadlines. The most important goal is for both partners to be satisfied with the division of labor, Choate says. It is also important for partners to be flexible enough to temporarily take on more or less responsibility when needed, she adds, such as one partner tackling extra household tasks when the other partner has a project that requires extra hours.

Hartig also helps her clients re-examine the stereotypes they have been taught, particularly as they relate to body image. “I believe the first step is assessing where clients’ narratives about their bodies began,” she explains. “For example, was the client told she was fat by a parent, or did the client gain a significant amount of weight and feel differently about his or her body? Identifying the struggles a client has about his or her body is important to begin working toward self-acceptance. Often, a negative body image is indicative of feelings of inadequacy and shame. Working on these feelings can lead clients to finding peace with their bodies.”

“Some of the ways that we work with clients on self-acceptance is to explore the negative self-talk they experience and where this self-talk originated,” Hartig continues. “Coaches, parents, teachers and friends all can have an immense impact on self-talk. Counteracting this self-talk with CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] can be very helpful. Creating a new narrative about the client’s self and body is also helpful. For example, a client who can say ‘My body is strong and my body helped me escape some pretty hard situations’ is on the road to appreciating her body.”

Hartig also notes the importance of counselors being aware that negative societal messages about appearance and body image are even greater for women who are not white or heterosexual. “Women of color face even greater assaults on a positive body image [because] our culture has an ideal that is rarely inclusive of all women — or people,” she says. “Women who identify as lesbian or bisexual are also often marginalized and misunderstood with regard to body image.”

“Internalized self-loathing is a natural consequence of media and other outlets that do not embrace the beauty of diversity and realness of people,” Hartig says. “Understanding these issues specific to different cultural groups is key to helping clients with body image issues.”

McLean uses brain-based psychoeducation to help women understand why they feel they need to meet society’s unrealistic expectations. For instance, she explains that humans are hard-wired to seek social approval, so it is normal for people to want to conform. McLean then helps clients to understand their own expectations and fears and to recognize and reframe cognitive distortion. She encourages women to explore how to balance their lives around their personal values rather than around social expectations.

Hartig likes to use narrative therapy to examine her clients’ struggles with the expectations they feel they need to meet. As she listens to clients’ stories, she finds it particularly important to note losses — for example, dreams or plans a woman may have had to let go of in one part of her life, such as her career, to attend to an aspect in another domain, such as family.

For instance, Hartig had a client who had decided not to have a second baby because she wanted to pursue tenure. However, after achieving tenure, she didn’t find it particularly satisfying and felt that she had given up the chance to have another child for nothing. It was important for the woman to grieve this loss, Hartig says.

Hartig encourages clients to grieve such losses by helping them develop rituals for letting go. This might involve a client writing a letter to herself and then burning or shredding it, releasing balloons, journaling or even holding a “funeral” for what was lost. The funeral ritual might include gathering pictures or symbols of what the woman lost, putting them in a box and burying them.

Once the client is ready, Hartig helps her to “reimagine and recreate,” building a narrative around what she wants her life to be going forward and how she can make that happen.

“For some, writing this plan down makes sense and is helpful,” Hartig says. “This can take the form of a ‘letter from your future self’ or free writing/journaling about hopes for the future. This process can also be done in the therapy session, as some clients do not respond well to written homework. I think the crucial element is to gently invite the client to envision a life that looks different than what … she originally planned, once the grief has dissipated.”

Until society rejects the picture of perfection that is “having it all,” counselors can play an important role in helping women strike a balance that allows them to have what they need.

 

****

 

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

 

****

Related reading:

See Laurie Meyers’ companion article to this piece, “Girls feeling pressure to be ‘sexy, famous and perfect’,” for more on how counselors can help young girls defy societal stereotypes and pressures.

 

****

Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

The powerful perspective of body satisfaction

By Juleen K. Buser and Rachael A. Parkins December 22, 2014

Every January, right as the new year begins, we are saturated by commercials for diets, advertisements for exercise machines and stories of people whose lives were transformed upon Branding-Box-body-satisfactionattaining the elusive goals of slimness and fitness. This message is an undercurrent throughout the entire year, of course; it just becomes especially blatant and constant in the days leading up to and immediately after New Year’s resolutions.

But the messages about being thinner, fitter, sleeker and more attractive are rarely absent — particularly for women. In fact, in a quite alarming example of the consistency and doggedness of this message, a few years ago I (Juleen Buser) watched a newscaster comment on National Eating Disorders Awareness week. This alert about the annual marking of a week to increase awareness of the agony and perils of eating disorders was almost immediately followed by a commercial on the latest weight loss tool promising to help women shed those extra pounds of flab and fat.

The problem of body dissatisfaction among women is pervasive and persistent. In a 2014 study published in the scientific journal Eating Behaviors, Elizabeth Fallon, Brandonn Harris and Paige Johnson reported that 13.4 percent to 31.8 percent of adult women experience body displeasure. Moreover, these authors noted that young, middle-aged and older women all reported body dissatisfaction.

A prominent strand in the literature is the role that the media play in fostering and maintaining this rampant, steadfast body dissatisfaction. A meta-analysis conducted by researchers Lisa Groesz, Michael Levine and Sarah Murnen in 2002 pointed clearly to the detrimental impact of the media as it relates to female body image.

As counselors, we are bound at some point to encounter a client who has dealt with the negative impact of the media’s obsession with body size and shape. Ruth Striegel-Moore, Lisa Silberstein and Judith Rodin wrote a seminal article in 1986 (“Toward an understanding of risk factors for bulimia”) that discussed how incredibly common it is for women in Western society to struggle with body dissatisfaction. The concern is so typical, in fact, that it may actually be unusual to identify a woman who expresses happiness and satisfaction with her body.

We, the authors of this article, wanted to hear the perspectives of women who expressed the uncharacteristic view of body satisfaction. We thought that much could be learned about mental Body image authorshealth from women in college who were able to assert satisfaction with their bodies despite the many media messages lauding the ideal of thinness. Thus, we embarked on a research project in which we interviewed nine college women about their experiences of body satisfaction.

We asked these women questions about their emotions and cognitions regarding their body size and shape, their history of body image attitudes and views, and how they cope with the external pressures for thinness. In what was often viewed as an unexpected inquiry, we also asked them questions about the connection between their spirituality and body image. We chose women who specifically expressed having both body satisfaction and a spiritual belief system because we were curious about the ways in which spiritual beliefs might play a role in body satisfaction. The full empirical findings of this study are available in an article we published in the April 2013 Adultspan Journal, “‘Made this way for a reason’: Body satisfaction and spirituality.” This Counseling Today article is an adaptation of that article; here, we focus more closely on the practical counseling implications of our findings.

The importance of the body

Our findings uncovered a striking contradiction. Many of the women we spoke with felt that their bodies were both more important and less important than the societal messages about female physical appearance.

They viewed their bodies as more important than the societal narratives in that the media images of thinness did not disrupt their core belief in personal beauty. Some women talked about Photoshopped images and the erroneousness of the media’s idea of beauty, explaining that they were able to distance themselves from the models by recognizing that their bodies were simply different than the ones in the media. To these women, their bodies and the bodies in the media were incomparable.

On the other hand, they also placed less importance on their bodies in that many of these women did not emphasize physical size and shape over other significant areas of life. Media narratives often would have us believe that a physically fit, attractive body should be a primary value for women. Some of the women we interviewed communicated aspects of their lives that they felt were more valuable than their physical bodies. For example, one participant said: “I mean, your weight compared to, like, the time you could spend with your family. … Why are you wasting your time staring in the mirror for an hour?” 

These findings around the importance of the body have potentially powerful implications for counseling. When working with women who express body dissatisfaction (that common, persistent displeasure counselors are bound to encounter in clients), the views of these women who were able to hold onto body happiness could be helpful. Counselors may be able to pair the beliefs that many of the participants of this study possessed with different therapeutic methodologies. For example, counselors might use cognitive therapy techniques that help clients alter distorted thoughts by replacing them with more rational beliefs. A client who found she was frequently comparing her body with the bodies often seen in the media may be able to use thought replacement, for instance. She could substitute thoughts that engender body comparison with a statement such as: “My body is incomparable to that image because it is falsified, making it unattainable.”   

Counselors can also work with clients to shift their focus and priorities. Clients may benefit from focusing less on their body shape and size and focusing more on other aspects of life. For example, clients might come to counseling with the identified problem of a distorted body image and a self-image closely tied to body size and shape. A counseling session may be the ideal opportunity for a counselor to help shift these common distortions by pointing out the dissimilarity between the client’s long-term goals and the value the client is placing on her body image. For example, counselors can draw from principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) when working with clients struggling with body dissatisfaction.

Adria Pearson, Michelle Heffner and Victoria Follette, authors of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Body Image Dissatisfaction, applied ACT to the treatment of body displeasure and noted the benefits of helping clients move beyond a focus on body size and shape to live a life in tune with personal values. For example, a counselor might ask a client to create a list of morals, values and attributes that she would like to work toward having or may currently see in herself. This would be a crucial opportunity to point out to the client the incongruence between her morals/values and the concentration she may be placing on her outward appearance.

Spirituality and the body

Initially, almost all of the participants in our research project were a bit staggered by the notion of a connection between their spirituality and their body image. Yet, despite early confusion over or even rejection of this connection, many were able to see and give examples of how their body image and spiritual beliefs could be correlated.

One way in which these two components were tied together for some participants involved the idea of spiritual control over one’s body. Specifically, these women accepted certain limitations concerning their ability to control their physical bodies. They gave ownership of these limitations to a higher power, noting that God “made me how I am” and “I just feel like maybe I am a certain way for a reason, and God wants me to be happy with myself.”

Again, these findings are rich with potential counseling implications. First of all, the participants’ initial surprise, confusion and hesitation concerning a potential connection between their spirituality and body image suggests that counselors may have to take the initiative in broaching these topics. Although such a connection may be relevant, clients simply may not think about the intersection of these two domains and, consequently, could miss a very salient and therapeutically beneficial exploration.

Counselors can begin the conversation with open questions that give the client a chance to think about (likely for the first time) possible connections between spirituality and body image. Potential questions and comments include:

  • “You mentioned having a spiritual faith a few sessions ago. I am curious about ways in which your spiritual beliefs might play a role in how you feel about your body.”
  • “Tell me about your spiritual practices (for example, prayer, meditation). What things do you focus on during those times? Do your feelings about your body relate to these spiritual practices?”
  • “Are there ways that God or a higher power influences the way you feel about your body? Tell me more about this connection.”
  • “What aspects of your spiritual faith are relevant to body image concerns? Are there certain [theological principles, sacred texts, underlying philosophies, etc.] that discuss the physical body?”

For certain clients, this connection between spirituality and body image may be personally meaningful and significant. In such instances, counseling can delve more fully into a discussion of the ways that a client’s spiritual beliefs could foster body satisfaction. When discussing the spiritual belief systems of clients, however, counselors will want to be cautious not to offer spiritual guidance or instruction to the client. Rather, counselors can remain in an encouraging role, asking open questions and fostering client exploration of spiritual and body beliefs.

For example, a client struggling with body displeasure may believe in her complete ability to control her body size and shape. Disordered eating behaviors may result in part from this belief in personal agency over weight and shape. Yet, this client may possess a spiritual belief system that contains theology about the sovereignty of a higher power.

In such a case, a counselor could help the client explore the ways in which her spiritual views (of little control) might relate to or inform her body image views (of complete control). A client may then begin to apply her spiritual beliefs about divine power to her body size and shape. She may ultimately see her physical body as created by a higher power and thus not fully within her control to manage through a strict diet and exercise regimen. This spiritual belief system may give her the relief of accepting her body.

Conclusion

Inundated by media images of thinness, many women are vulnerable to the ensuing effects of body dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Yet, for some women, attitudes of body satisfaction persist despite these external pressures and societal mores. As counselors, we can learn from these women. The factors that allow them to hold onto a belief in the beauty of their bodies can help us in our work with clients who are struggling with beliefs about the inadequacy and unattractiveness of their bodies.

****

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Juleen K. Buser is an assistant professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and a past president of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors. Her research focuses on both adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies such as eating disorders, nonsuicidal self-injury and spiritual coping styles. Contact her at jbuser@rider.edu.

Rachael A. Parkins is a primary therapist at the Renfrew Center in Radnor, Pennsylvania. She received her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Rider University. Her research includes emphases on eating disorders, body image, coping and spirituality.

Letters to the editor:  ct@counseling.org

Disordered eating and body bashing

By Kiphany Hof March 17, 2014

Today I ate a piece of chocolate cake, and I survived. This sounds silly, I know. But not too long ago, there were countless days in a row when I truly thought my life was measured by the number on the scale, the size of my jeans, the number of calories I ate or my ability to refuse chocolate cake.

Sadly, this is no exaggeration, and many of you know this because you too are dealing with or have dealt with living in a self-made prison where the bars are made of supermodel standards, fear of rejection, endless exercising, obsession with body image, overeating, undereating, laxatives, diuretics, self-induced vomiting and self-loathing. Would you be able to tell, just by knowing someone, if they are one of the inmates in this prison of torment that destroys both body and soul? Are you one of these people who secretly hope that your warden of self-criticism will unlock the door and free you?

eatingdisorder

I am writing this article because I am a former inmate in the jail of disordered eating and body bashing. I was stunned at the number of people I met, both men and women, who were cellmates of mine, although I did not know it at the time. You too might be surprised at the number of occupants.

This article is not a forum for me to tell my story, however, because my story is really the story of thousands of other men and women across the nation who are locked up and rotting in that same prison. Rather, I hope to catch your attention, even if for the briefest of moments, and remind you that freedom to live freely in a world made up of self-acceptance and contentment is possible, even when you eat chocolate cake.

The etymology of the word disorder is “dis” — meaning “not” — plus the verb, “order.” Translation: not ordered. Ironic, isn’t it, when we consider how much time and effort we expend to “order” ourselves around eating, exercising and the attainment of an acceptable and attractive body?

Even the term “body awareness” is somewhat ambiguous in interpretation. In its positive context, awareness of the way our bodies are uniquely created and the multiple miracles our bodies perform each day is cause for celebration. In its negative context, awareness of how much we hate our bodies and fantasize about them being different is awareness I am sure most people would rather not have.

Personally, I do not think the term “eating disorder” is an accurate description of what happens when someone’s behaviors become so ordered that she or he is more consumed with appearance than with consuming a required, life-sustaining substance: food. It is not about the eating, the calories, the fat grams or even about the food.

What is it about then? When and how did the detailed “order” of it all cross into the “disordered” spectrum?

There are many theories and possible explanations behind the hows and whys of eating disorders and negative body image. Some blame the media for saturating our visual world with unrealistic expectations about the perfect body. Others focus on the influence of societal pressures to look, behave or speak a certain way. Still others believe familial influences contribute to disordered eating and negative thinking.

All of the above may contribute to either a positive/negative, healthy/unhealthy or rational/irrational image of our bodies. Although the roots of our body perceptions may differ, we share a common thread of wanting to be accepted, recognized, admired and wanted by someone at some point in time. Sadly, everyone is painfully aware that physical appearance can either deliver or deny these desires. However, physical appearance is not the only route to fulfillment; it is just the most visible and advertised journey to get there. And that journey is oftentimes costly.

Take a few moments to venture on your own body image journey this week. Are you walking the path of freedom, or are you an inmate in the prison of body hate? Are you visiting someone who is locked up in his or her own fear, guilt and shame? Have you been a person who contributes to the building of those prison walls? Will you choose to celebrate your body this week, without judgment, as you become more aware of its impact on your life? Will you choose to help others unlock the cell door? Will you ask for help in being freed? Will you look beyond the body and see the simultaneous pain and beauty of a human soul? Will you question the meaning of “ideal” and expand your field of vision?

I encourage you to reflect on your own thoughts and feelings about your body and notice who defines them: Is it you or others? As you ponder, challenge yourself and others to find their own personal freedom; it is there, waiting for you to embrace it.

 

****

 

Kiphany Hof, a provisionally licensed mental health practitioner, works as a counselor at University of Nebraska Kearney Counseling Care, a mental health clinic that offers personal counseling to students. Contact her at hofkj@unk.edu.

 

****

 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.