By Sarah Smith from Bayside Dietetics
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I’m going to take you through the story of one of my clients, let’s call her Ella. Ella’s story is important because it’s common.
When I met Ella, she was very aware of her body shape and needed constant reassurance about it. She would dress herself in front of the mirror so she could check her naked body. As she walked she thought about whether her thighs were touching. During the day at school she would pinch the skin sitting on her stomach to check how thick it felt. These habits are known as body checking and were keeping Ella focussed on her area of concern: her body.
Most of us can relate to becoming focussed on a worry just like Ella. There are so many different reasons that we might become distracted by a worry but here is a great one to show why humans have evolved to still be doing it. On the weekend I had to heat the entrée for a family meal. My niece is only two years old and was running her delightful smile around the house. I was completely obsessed with keeping her and the hot oven separate. I kept looking to reassure myself she wasn’t touching it and found myself completely distracted from the conversation I was trying to have.
For Ella, the preoccupation with her body developed over a strongly positive reaction to accidental weight loss when she was unwell. This is common, although negative reactions can have the same impact. Ella lost weight and lots of people commented on how good she looked. Yes that’s right. Ella was so sick she lost weight and people around her thought that was great.
Ella had never worried much about her weight before then. However, the more the positive comments rolled in, the more Ella felt stuck. She could go back to her normal weight, but she wondered if people thought it was so great that she’d lost weight, then it mustn’t be okay to put it back on again. However, to maintain her low weight, Ella had to keep eating like she was sick.
Let’s reflect on the judgement our society puts on weight by comparing it to the other thing that happened to Ella while she was sick: she took some medicine. But no-one cared about the medicine. No-one judged that.
Let’s break down what happened to Ella with two simple statements:
“When I was sick I lost weight.”
“When I was sick I took medicine.”
Now let’s add the information Ella received from others to those statements:
“When I was sick I lost weight and that was good.”
“When I was sick I took medicine. End of story.”
After several months, let’s see how these statements now sit in Ella’s head:
“If I don’t keep a skinny figure, others will notice. I don’t stay skinny others will reject me.”
“If I have medicine when I’m sick that’s okay.”
So now I see Ella to help her from starving herself.
I have seen many people of all ages in similar situations, where they are fixed on an outcome around weight that is not healthy. It isn’t realistic, nor healthy to stop looking in a mirror altogether. Checking the mirror after putting on make-up for example, is a wonderful thing. I work with clients to reduce excessive levels of body checking, particularly body checks that have negative outcomes, like not eating enough.
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