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Hold That Bad Body Thought
by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter
Lori, an old hand at the Overcoming Overeating approach, recounted the following bad body thought story.
"I really don't have so many bad body thoughts anymore. But recently, when I get out of bed in the morning, I immediately check out the size of my stomach and feel distressed. I tell myself what so many of us tell ourselves about our stomachs: 'I can't stand how it sticks out.' I've figured out that my upset about my stomach is my response to what's been happening for me professionally. I've just been promoted and I've received quite a bit of commendation at work. I'm thrilled, but I also know that I'm feeling unsettled by all the recognition. As soon as I remember that it's not my stomach sticking out that's really bothering me, I let go of the bad body thought, but by the next morning it's back. I guess I'm not dealing with my unsettled feeling about sticking out at work in an effective way."
Probably many of you have had similar experiences with a recurring bad body thought. You understand where the thought is coming from, you apologize to yourself, challenge the thought (Who says stomachs should be flat?), and set it aside, but the next morning or the next day, the same bad body thought returns. If simply naming the conflict beneath your bad body thought is not enough, how do you go further?
We asked Lori to tell us if she understood why sticking out at work made her so uncomfortable. She thought for a moment and told us that two things occurred to her. First, she reminded us that her father is a Holocaust survivor. Understandably, for him, sticking out has always been associated with danger, stemming from the danger of being known as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Lori added that her mother has always been a shy person, resentful of other women who are more self-confident, who relate to people easily. According to Lori, her mother has always been quick to find fault with women who speak up and draw attention to themselves. So as a child, in two major ways, Lori learned that sticking out and getting attention have negative implications.
"But I've known all of that for a long time," Lori said, "and I'm still afraid of calling attention to myself. I don't know how to move beyond my fear."
We suggested to Lori that she think through this situation in much the way she has challenged and thought through her old ideas about her body and her eating. Lori seemed most afraid of her mother's possible envy of her success. So she might ask herself, "Will modifying my behavior in accord with my mother's anxiety and shyness help me?"
First, would an inhibited, anxious Lori make her mother feel any better? Second, is it really true that Lori's mother would want her to suffer feeling insecure in the way she herself apparently has? Would she truly want Lori to hold herself back? Yes, there is such a thing as ill will, but most parents derive certain satisfactions from their children accomplishing more in life than they, themselves, have been able to do. After all, one's children are a part of oneself; it is extremely pleasurable to feel a part of their accomplishments. If a parent proves unable to enjoy a child in this way, that is clearly a problem the child cannot solve, no matter what she does or doesn't do.
"I can feel myself relax a little as we talk about this," Lori responded. "Just thinking it through rather than responding automatically with anxiety or bad body thoughts in itself is very liberating. What you say makes a lot of sense. I think you're right that when it comes to me, my mother probably experiences more pleasure and less envy than I imagine. And it's certainly true that my holding myself back won't do a thing for her insecurity."
Then Lori paused. "But what about my sister?" she asked. "My sister's certainly not happy about my accomplishments. What benefit does she derive from my success?"
Everyone in the group smiled in response to the new challenge Lori was posing; no sooner does one explanation bring us relief, than we think of some exception to the rule and start worrying again. And we could all identify with Lori's concern about the envy of other women.
One woman in the group responded, "Gee, I get pleasure when my brothers and sisters do well. I may feel envious, but I have a family connection to their successes."
"That's a good point," someone else chimed in. "As women, it would make sense for all of us to take pleasure in one another's accomplishments. But I think what gets in the way is this belief that there's only room for one. It's true that in some situations, there's only one winner, but most of the time, there's plenty of opportunity for many to succeed, albeit in different ways. The idea that if she gets something, I don't, is lethal. If Lori does well at work, it doesn't take anything away from her sister. Well, I guess once upon a time, when Lori was born, her sister did lose the limelight, but don't we all have to come to terms with never being able to have it all?"
"I used to worry a lot that other women would resent me for doing well and having a lot," someone else added, "but I decided to treat envy as a form of admiration. I think we all need to learn how to admire other women and be inspired by them without putting ourselves down in the process."
Certainly, there is no single answer to the problem of envy and competition among women. We all need to work at being able to admire and support other women's growth along with our own and to be admired by them in turn. One thing is sure. The "fairest of them all" contest will cease to control us when we are no longer dependent on men for access to money, power, and esteem.
What this discussion demonstrates, however, is that when a bad body thought is particularly tenacious, just naming the problem is not enough. Thinking through the underlying issue—in this case envy—helps dissipate the bad body thought and makes each of us more able to handle our real concerns.