We need to reframe our thoughts, not change our bodies

What does that mean… reframe our thoughts?

woman, nude, body image, self-portrait

Reframe this image – is she pregnant? Is she overweight? Is she in pain? Is she honoring her body just the way it is…?

I asked Google this question:  “Are eating disorders mental illnesses?” and this is highly representative of the responses I found:

Eating Disorders have been recognized by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) since the 1980’s.  The current DSM, edition 5, now recognizes 8 categories of feeding and eating disorders. The tricky thing about eating disorders, is that they also are very medical in nature.

Many of the behaviors associated with each of the eating disorder diagnoses can have dangerous impacts on both physical and psychological well-being. As such, it is important that anyone living with an eating disorder receives care from a full team of multi-disciplinary professionals including a therapist, dietitian, medical doctor and/or a prescriber if necessary.

While I don’t disagree with any of this, my major beef (yes, this really pisses me off) is that less than one third of people suffering from eating disorders actually get treatment, whether it be for binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, orthorexia and everything else in between. “Treatment teams” sound fabulous, but they are not available to everyone, and it is usually a question of money.

So, if we agree that we need to get healthier, mentally, to better accept and eventually love our bodies, just how do we do that without a “treatment team”?

Well, your treatment team might just be your mother, your neighbor, and your best friend. They absolutely count. The less we isolate around food issues and body dissatisfaction or shame, the better a chance we have at crawling out of the chasm of self-hate. I speak from personal experience with this, but also from a place of compassion for everyone  who suffers. Learning to be gentle with yourself can go a long, long way in helping you find some peace.

Reframing thoughts is basically a movement from judgement to compassion and could look something like this:

“OMG I’ve gained 15 pounds since the beginning of the pandemic and I don’t fit into my clothes any more. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. Everyone else is so fit, they’re all showing off their muscles on Instagram.

Reframed: “I’m not happy that I’ve put on weight because my clothes feel tighter and I’m not moving enough. Apparently I am not alone in this situation. Many people have found lockdown extremely difficult and I guess one of my ways of coping has been to comfort myself with food.”

The reframe is more truthful and objective. There is some drama in the first statement, as if we secretly love to hurt ourselves with blame and shame, just like we hurt ourselves by restricting food or overeating. I know it is much more complicated than that… but I am in the process of recognizing that the dramatic thinking has come back, and I am the only one that can correct these thoughts rather than feeding them and making them my truth.

If you were objective, how would you describe your body? And your relationship with it? If you were your mother, your neighbor, your best friend, what would you tell yourself?

Have you ever heard the expression “Be impeccable with your word“?

It’s one of four spiritual agreements of the Toltec people. Worth reading about if you have any judgements about yourself that need to be reframed or outright debunked, forever.

 

Our bodies are constantly morphing creatures that need our love

The only certainty is uncertainty” (a quote attributed to many philosophers…)

When it comes to our bodies, clearly the uncertainties are different for everyone; women’s bodies change in ways that men’s bodies don’t, and yet everyone’s body, different from the start, changes with age and rides waves of well-being and illness that sometimes include disability or disease.

nude woman self-portrait body image

I love to read books that follow characters closely over their lifetime, to get a sense of who they were, what drove them, where they shone and what brought them to their knees. How they felt, how they looked, how they navigated the world.

The only lifetime we really get to know intimately is our own, because we only actually live in one body; ours. And change is the only certainty, even for our bodies. In my fifties now, I am fortunate to have known the joys and pains of pregnancy and childbirth, but also the despair of disordered eating and the discomfort of being both overweight and underweight. I navigated as best I could the awkward stages of puberty and the bumpy road into menopause; the irresistible bliss of sex and now, a strong sense that my creative energy must be poured into pursuits that go beyond me to reach out to others.

At some point, I discovered that the more loving attention I pay to my body by eating well and moving in joyful ways, the better I feel, and yet food and exercise can easily fall under unhealthy, unconscious control. Hunger, emotions, and anxiety still take over sometimes and affect my food choices. I can’t be too rigid or too relaxed about it. It’s been years of trial and error to find out how much control is enough and how much is too much; a constant moving cycle of listening, starting over, going too far and making my way back. It’s the dance of being me, in all the different forms this pushes my body to take, and being okay with myself at every stage has been the biggest challenge of all.

One of the gifts of self-portraiture is gaining the distance that a drawing or a photograph allows – that step back that offers a new perspective. Having taken that step back repeatedly over twenty years, I can see all the changes in my body as inevitable, telling, but also, so natural! We grow, we change, we fall, we pick ourselves up. I try not to be so hard on myself; it’s all just a part of the cycle that is life. We are so fortunate to experience this life through our bodies.

What I like the most about this self-portrait – this moment in time captured on film – is the highly expressive gesture of my right hand pressing into the soft area under my ribcage, just above my belly button. I don’t remember how I was feeling the day I took the photo, but while drawing I understood this gesture to be pointing at where it hurts, yet at the same time offering reassuring touch to a vulnerable place. While disordered eating is without a doubt an act of seeking comfort from the outside, this gentle, tender, albeit tentative gesture seems like a move towards self-love and self-comfort… a doorway to liberation often found in this simple process of drawing exactly what I see.

Take your body image offline for a minute

Last night I watched a documentary about people living off the grid in Northern Canada, in regions so far away from cities that they need solar power or other means to generate electricity. These people are by necessity very handy, and lead gloriously simple lives close to nature.  While many aspects of their lifestyle appeal to me, I know that I am too social  to  thrive so far from other humans. But it made me wonder how living so far away would change the way we relate to our physical appearance.

body image nude woman drawing

Just try to imagine a life without social media. No influencers or outside influence other than geography and the weather. No shopping malls, magazines, make-up ads or fashion, no spas, hairdressers or microblading technicians to be found.

A life where you dress to be comfortable for outdoor work, and rarely look in a mirror, because the only other human you’ll see for days is your spouse/partner, who may be so busy fixing the pump to maintain your water supply from the nearby spring that he/she/they won’t even notice if you’re having a skin breakout or a bad hair day. They look up and they just see you, as you, no matter what your appearance.

Imagine if your own relationship to your body was based solely on how it allows you to move around and complete the tasks you need to do to survive, rather than worrying about how your body looks, weighs, or performs. Imagine that all you need to do is show up every day, no matter how you  look. Just you, doing you.

No comparisons to others’ bodies, no jugements, no concerns about aging or sagging or shapes that you wished were shaped otherwise. Just a functional, healthy body that gets you through the day and lets you sleep at night. A well-oiled machine that does its job. So many of us already have this perfectly functional machine, and yet we spend  hours rearranging it to meet unattainable, unnecessary standards.

I’m not trying to take away anyone’s joy in grooming themselves to feel as beautiful as they possibly can.

What I do wish I could take away, or rather bring back, are the countless hours, weeks,  even years of our lives that we lose trying to be, feel and look better when we are already absolutely okay, just the way we are.

Reclaiming convictions over criticism

I remember this photoshoot well.  A safe space to dare with a kind, supportive friend behind the camera.

I hadn’t been photographed in many years. I had of course aged, and gained weight and I didn’t even want to look at myself, let alone be photographed or draw myself anymore. Inside, I felt pushed down, boxed in, folded over, unacceptable and left out of “the game” (whatever that means!). Uncomfortable with myself. I’d stopped caring. I’d stopped fighting. I’d stopped really paying attention to, or taking care of my body because it didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t live up to my own unrealistic standards. Again.

nude woman squatting during photo shoot to accept her body

But the photoshoot opened something in me, again. And the drawings, done much later, brought acceptance, again. And so we start over, again. What’s true is sometimes so far from our day-to-day thinking and knee-jerk self-judgements that it slips away and we start believing the negative mind chatter, that rattles out lies, over and over until we believe it. And so we have to correct that distorted vision and come back to reality, again and again.

I am convinced that we can change the way we see our bodies, and all bodies. I am convinced that a change in perspective changes our happiness, our health, and our vitality. I am convinced that none of us need plastic surgery or a makeover or a new wardrobe to “look” better. I am convinced that we can change the way we “look” and see, and learn to perceive our bodies differently, to recognize and embrace a simple beauty that was always right there.

I am convinced that the invisible suffering of many, many people who are unhappy with how their body looks is as insidious as a pandemic and as destructive as wildfires. The suffering is too often silent and it has ruined too many lives.

We can change our perspectives and be freed from self-loathing. It is like waking up from a nightmare of devastation and discovering that you are okay, just the way you are. It can be done, and, once you touch this truth, you will never want to go back.

Who would you be?

“Who would you be without your self-judgements?”

Another favourite quote, this one by author Byron Katie. This simple question blows my mind wide open. It makes me want to stop judging myself right now, and forever. And it makes me wish I had done so a long, long time ago!

Who would we be without the self-judgements that feed our struggles, obsessions, addictions, disordered eating, negative  body image and self-loathing? We would be free! We deserve to be free. We all truly do, and it is only our own mind that holds the power over this freedom. We need to decide we are worthy and useful and lovable and valuable, and live like that is true, and it will become our truth. The path may be long, but in freeing ourselves we open doors for others.

self-portrait nude

This drawing is based on an image from a recent photoshoot with a friend (a socially distanced one!) where I was acting out my frustrations, mostly with myself, and this pose reminded me of that fed up, “fuck it” feeling I sometimes have before doing something unhelpful like overeating or self-isolating. I am getting much, much better at taking care of myself, but I can’t let it slide. I won’t let myself slide anymore…

I still find it much easier to take care of others than to take care of myself. And there is some sanity in that, since isolation seems to be the single worst symptom of the mental health fragility that so many are having to face while learning to live through a pandemic. When we’re encouraged to isolate, we have to get better at making connections, both inside and out.

How has it been for you?

Dragon slaying in confinement

drawing of nude woman

Have lockdown, confinement and now, social and physical distancing brought out the best in you too, or just the worst? Watching the rising numbers of people falling ill, fearing for loved ones and living with the ongoing threat of contracting this virus has certainly shaken us all up, even if we have not yet been directly affected.

It’s pushing us to simplify, accept, embrace, and reject parts of ourselves that we perhaps weren’t even aware of. Whether it be the empty pain of solitude or the overwhelm of intense family interaction, it’s hard to escape like we used to.  Everything seems to be in our face.

We can kiss the dragon or run from it. But we can’t run from ourselves, because sometime we ARE the dragon. Peacemaking becomes vital, inevitable, urgent and consistently the only sane choice. We can only embrace the practice and accept the process. One daring move at a time.

This self-portrait is more disarming than most; I see myself at 50 and as an innocent 5 year-old in the same posture. I am older, I have learned so many things, and I want to continue to grow, but I never want to lose the curiosity and joy of a child. And to do that, I must continue to accept the insecurities, the discomforts and the fears that come up in order to access the spontaneous moments of sweetly, simply being me.

Virus or no virus.

Vulnerability reconnects us

Vulnerability is not weakness; it brings us closer to ourselves and to each other.

If you have not yet discovered the writings of Brené Brown, please do! The short description is that she is a university professor, author and mother, who has done years of research on shame. At first discovery, I thought: someone actually studies shame? She did and she does, and the discoveries she shares are ground-breaking. Google her name and you will find a list of her books, podcasts, lectures, and many quotes that resonate with many people.

One of my favourite Brené Brown quotes is: “Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you“.

woman bent over crying

Early on, I learned to act like everything was cool and to make the best of things, even if I was falling apart. To never show weakness or fear; to just push on through with a smile. I’m getting better at being more authentic, which means I cannot always hide my distress anymore. It’s uncomfortable, but rather than sharing and trusting that it will pass, I tend to beat myself up and be angry with myself. Which ends up pushing people away, because ultimately I come off as snobby or rude when refusing to show my true state.

And yet, when I’m not feeling my best, that’s when I most need to feel close to people!

Years ago I ran into a friend of a friend, someone whose path I crossed often, but who I wasn’t really sure I liked. Every time I saw her, her demeanor was light and bubbly and happy and it put me off, I guess because it felt like a show. Her behaviour mirrored my own, and irritated me because I felt like I never got to see her true self.

This time, when I asked how she was doing, she admitted she was having a rough day, and went on to share concerns about things happening in her life. My heart immediately grew twenty times bigger in my chest and I just wanted to hug her! The mask had fallen, and she’d let me in by sharing her truth. A truth that I could relate to with empathy. I think of her and this meeting often when I’m feeling down and not wanting to admit it or show my darker side to anyone.

Observing, photographing and drawing the body, your own or a diversity of different human forms, is another way to access this vulnerability and compassion, and it makes us stronger and more caring towards ourselves and towards others. As it’s often been said before, “in our vulnerability lies our strength”. And in our vulnerability also lies the very gentleness of our souls.

Bonding over body image distress in confinement

Nobody needs to be reminded that we’re swimming through a pandemic since the onset of the coronavirus. As of mid-June in Canada, we are more focused on re-opening and getting out than we were two months ago, but our usual liberties and activities remain limited. The mental toll of “watching and waiting”, being without work, or doubled down working from home either alone, with kids or teenagers, or watching your business fall apart creates all kinds of anxieties, even if there are some positives. It’s safe to say that for everyone, life is challenging in new ways.

On the outside, first, the toilet paper drama, then, talk of the “quarantine-15”, an assumption that with people at home doing more cooking and baking, we’re going to gain weight. Studies say that isn’t really the case, but the fear is real. For people with disordered eating, severe food allergies and other health challenges, being at home around food all day is uncomfortable… only an abundance of self-love and self-care can protect us from these issues. Easy to say…

drawing, nude woman in distress

On the inside, the distress comes in many forms, often in waves. Some are living with grief for what or whom they’ve lost or may lose, for others, panic in the midst of illness or despair in the isolation of lockdown. We’re all having our down days, and all of this takes a toll on our bodies as well as our minds. We see you, we hear you, we feel you!!!

If you have the time and the energy to move more, exercise longer, build strength and resilience in your body, I’m convinced it helps. If that’s possible for you under the circumstances.

Being among those who find it REALLY difficult to self-motivate and excercise, I share your pain… the pain of not moving enough, slowing down and feeling disgruntled with yourself and your physique. That’s when the mind games begin, the daily sigh standing on the scale (even if the numbers aren’t moving!), the conviction of unattractiveness, the sinking realization that your clothes feel tighter. These disappointments can quickly lead to self-judgement and self-disgust.

You may also feel angry or despondent… like, why bother? Our lives have changed, and more now that ever, the only thing under our control is our thoughts, and that’s where the negativity and the “self-bashing” comes from.

As hard as we may try, we can’t fix ourselves, or learn to change our thoughts, completely on our own. In spite of social distancing, we have to reach out. Telling a friend about your fear of gaining weight or that you’re bingeing on sugar, drinking too much, or feeling desperate always helps. Together, we have to call out our minds and all the negative thoughts that pull us towards self-hate and self-destructive actions. Because the truth is we’re fine, in fact we’re awesome, just the way we are.

We need our bodies to carry us through this pandemic and the rest of our lives. Together, we can honour our bodies for their beauty and their strength.  How else can we better support each other in taking on this new perspective, not just for ourselves, but for everyone who suffers?

If walking and jogging and yoga and light meals aren’t happening, there are other ways… we can start with our thoughts. Call out the BS and feed the gentleness, but do it with a friend.

When your body can’t move because your mind has been too cruel, listen to Lizzo’s music, she’ll tell you where it’s at with unconditional body love, and dancing does wonders for body acceptance.

How are you feeling in your own skin lately?

 

Anastasia (series) – I

Anastasia and I were roommates only for a few months, but a close friendship grew from sharing about our food and weight issues.

Somehow, we quickly managed to breach a huge taboo by admitting that we both turned compulsively to food whenever we felt overwhelmed by the stress in our lives, and that authenticity created an instant bond between us.

Anastasia1

” We carry a terrible wound: alienation from our embodied life.

Your flesh shall become a great poem. “

                    – Walt Whitman

It was self-loathing that led me to self portraiture

Funny how pain and suffering are sometimes the only things that push us to move beyond the paralysis of our comfort zones. I certainly never set out to draw self portraits, and much less to to share them on the internet.

There is no quick fix to learning to love yourself when you have made a habit of hating yourself.  The negative self-talk some of us know too well is the mother or all partypoopers to any human psyche. And it self-perpetuates. But it’s never true! It’s a very deeply ingrained bad practice that needs to be replaced by a good practice, and drawing is a very strong positive mantra that is based in reality, not just on ideas.

self-loathing, body image, body hate, art therapy

Often when I draw, or guide groups to draw on the subject of body image, I invite people to write what pops in their minds as they work. Our minds are stimulated differently while concentrating on lines, curves, light and shadows. Drawing is contemplative, and gives us  time to make connections, or more clearly identify memories and beliefs that we would otherwise be unaware of. Putting those thoughts down on paper allows us to see them with a bit more distance , and then choose what we want to believe, or not.

While this image has French words, you don’t really need to understand them other than to know I was writing all the mean thoughts that came up in my mind about my body as I drew a photo I’d judged as ugly – wait, no  –  it was my body I was judging, the photo itself was just fine! I can make fun about this now because I don’t live in that self-loathing as constantly as I used to. Thanks to this practice, my head is more often above the waters of self-hate, and when those thoughts come up, it is easier for me to recognize that they are not true, and to push them away. But it took practice, practice, practice…

For self portraiture, the first part of the practice is to dare… and I mean really DARE! to photograph the vulnerability of your own body, or ask someone you trust to photograph you. I will share more about this process in my next article, because it has always been the hardest part for me. If that seems impossible for you to fathom now, you can start with photos of your face or of others’ bodies, perhaps those with a size and shape similar to yours.

Then, you trace. It’s a simple process, no performance, no stress, you’re just copying contours (better with a light box so you can see the lines of the photo clearly under the paper you’re tracing to). Then you can work with the photo nearby for reference and shade, color, or paint the silhouette of the face or body you have traced. If that’s too hard, we can supply silhouettes for you to draw; we have prepared many for our workshops. Then write what comes up.

Remember – it’s a practice – results do not matter. Wanting nice or good results is hard to avoid. Many of us, including me, seem to be hard-wired to think that art requires magical talents and is something you sell or hang on a wall. For some people, it is that, and that’s okay! But art is also transformative and therapeutic, because it teaches us to really see.