Woman looking in the mirror
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When you're overweight, a swimsuit is the enemy. Women, Food and God author Geneen Roth explains how to look in the mirror and make peace with your body.
Hot weather is here.

Time to lighten up on clothes. Time for shorts, sleeveless tops, swimsuits.

Translation: Time for bare thighs, bare arms, bare back.


I have a friend who dreads summer because of what she calls the unveiling of her body. Peeling off her clothes, she says, reveals "the horror of it all." The back fat. The cellulite. All the new cellulite that mysteriously appeared over the winter. The belly bulge that makes people ask, "Hey, are you pregnant?"

Do you share my friend's dread of summer? If so, I am here to tell you something: What you say to yourself about the shape of your body shapes your feelings about yourself. Be careful what you tell yourself, because you will believe it. Be sure you're telling the whole truth. Be sure you're letting yourself see the whole truth.

Let me explain.

During one particularly crazy year of my 20s, I decided that I was going to be cliff-hanger thin. I'd had it with being fat. Had it with the multiple folds in my thighs and the upper-arm fat that almost reached the muffin top above my waist. Had it with hating myself for being overweight. So I followed the program in a book someone gave me. On what I called the Breatharian Diet, I ate 150 calories a day (raw vegetables only), jogged 4 miles every evening and fasted on water for three weeks at the turn of each season. The ultimate goal was to detoxify and purify my body to the point where it would no longer need food. Instead, I would be able to eat sunlight, drink silence and metabolize air. (I told you I was crazy that year. You probably thought I was exaggerating.) Truthfully, I wasn't so interested in the clear or pure part. I figured that anyone who ate sunlight and drank silence was going to be thin. Very, very thin.

I was right. I lost a lot of weight—quickly. I got down to 80 pounds, wore a size 0 and was finally as thin as anyone could dream of. At least, that's what my friends said. But here's the catch: When I looked at myself, I saw the same body I'd always seen—the thunder thighs, the sagging arms, the moon face. Whether my body weighed 80 pounds or 180, to me, it always seemed fat.

If you look at the world through shattered glasses, the world looks shattered. If you look at your body through "fat eyes," you see fat everywhere. To change how you see yourself, you must change the eyes with which you see.

You're probably thinking, "Yeah, right, now what about all my cellulite?" Well, what about it? It's there. You're not perfect—so what?

Being well is different from being perfect. It's important to take care of yourself, to eat in a way that gives you the energy to live your life exactly as you want to live it. But being well isn't the same as being thin. This is important: You can be well—yes, you can be happy—even if, in short sleeves, your arms don't look anything like Madonna's.

Do you criticize your body? Here's how you should talk to yourself
Think about how you talk to yourself. Imagine what it would be like to be with a friend who always criticized your body. "Oh, my God," she'd say, "Have you actually taken a good look at yourself recently? Next thing you know, you'll need two seats on an airplane.

"Oh, and I just noticed the eyelid droop. Can't you fix that? Get some work done...in Brazil, maybe.

"Is that a french fry in your hand? Do yourself a favor and stop eating for a year or two."

If a friend spoke this way, what do you think you would do? Ask her to lunch? Thank her for being so honest? Or kick her out of your life? And yet we talk to ourselves in exactly this way, and it hurts.

This kind of talk makes us feel small and hopeless and ugly. It doesn't take into account the things about us that cannot be weighed or measured—and yet these are the most important things, the things that matter most.

Talking to yourself like this doesn't lead to change; it leads to feeling so awful that you have to eat a pint of ice cream to feel better.

Talking to yourself like this needs to stop. Today. Right now.

How do you stop? Sometimes, when I'm teaching a small workshop, I ask each person to come up to a mirror, look at herself and tell the group what she sees. The responses are always similar: fat face, mountainous thighs, stringy hair, saggy boobs, thick fingers. Nary a positive thing is said. Then I ask the person who is speaking to turn away from the mirror and notice how it feels to say those things to herself. When she stands back for even a moment, she is shocked at the level of cruelty she directs at her body.

I ask if she would ever let anyone talk to her like this. She says no.

I ask if being cruel to herself ever helped her lose weight. She says no.

Then I ask her to turn to the mirror again and tell me what she sees when she looks at herself with her heart instead of her "fat eyes."

Most often, she says something like this: "I see a mother, a wife, a person who is trying hard to do her best. I see clean hair. I see a fleshy belly left over from having kids. I see wonder in my eyes. I see what I saw in myself as a child. I see possibility, even after all these years."

And to that I say, "Wow...yes!"

This summer, try looking at yourself a new way. See your real self. And don't forget to kick that inner critic in her big old sassy butt.

Geneen Roth's books were among the first to link compulsive eating and perpetual dieting with deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image. She believes that we eat the way we live and that our relationships to food, money and love are exact reflections of our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the amount of joy, abundance, pain and scarcity we believe we have (or are allowed) to have in our lives.

Geneen has appeared on many national television shows, including
The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, The NBC Nightly News, The View and Good Morning America. Articles about Roth and her work have appeared in numerous publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Time, Elle, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has written a monthly column in Good Housekeeping magazine since 2007. Roth is the author of eight books, including The New York Times best-seller When Food Is Love and a memoir about love and loss, The Craggy Hole in My Heart. Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything is her newest book. 

Read More from Geneen Roth:
How to respond to your cravings
Women just like you share their food confessions
Get Geneen's 7 eating guidelines


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