Call it tough love. But if you hate your body, now is the time to do something radical: Get over it. Especially if there's a daughter in the house.
The truth is, many of us are in abusive relationships with our bodies, internally beating ourselves up every time we gain a few pounds, externally jeopardizing our health with crash diets, binge eating, even serious surgeries. Poor body image is passed on like a computer virus from mother to daughter, its disadvantages well documented: low self-esteem, sexual promiscuity, smoking (weight control being a major factor in the rise of smoking among teenage girls), and eating disorders—which can kill. LLuminari, O's team of 15 doctors and health experts (most of them female, many with daughters and body issues of their own), urges you to break the cycle.
No one's saying it's easy. Our culture, with its fixation on subzero supermodels and the invasion of Botox, clearly belongs to the young and the fleshless. (Do we really need a movie to remind people that real women have curves?) But Madison Avenue isn't going to fix the warp. Men don't seem headed for sudden indifference to Gisele and Maxim covers. The diet industry will no doubt keep us jonesing for ultralean as long as Americans spend more on weight-loss products than some countries' entire gross national products. The whole media machine is not going to change course: When magazines use plus-size fashion models with some meat on them, most women turn the page.
Our mothers, often unwittingly, have driven these messages home—if not by harping on our weight or looks, then by their own grapefruit-and-cottage-cheese diets or anxieties about physical inadequacies. "Kids are sponges," says Nancy Snyderman, MD, author of Girl in the Mirror: Mothers and Daughters in the Years of Adolescence. "A daughter sees that her mother is beautiful and doesn't like herself, and thinks, 'What does that mean for me?'"
"The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages," Virginia Woolf once wrote. It's up to us to escape with our self-esteem intact. If we don't, we and our daughters will remain hostage to our culture's belittling messages.
Next: Take the first step: Cut out your junk thoughts!
Step 1: Think Twice
Pick a day and write down all the negative things you say to yourself about your body. For example, "I'm so fat, I'm disgusting," or "Why can't I look like I did ten years ago?" Then challenge each thought with three questions:
- Does the thought contribute to your stress?
- Where does it come from?
- Is your thought a logical one?
(Surely the ones above do.)
When you were young, did your father say, "Aren't you getting a little pudgy?" Was your mother obese, and did that embarrass you? Was she hyper about her weight and self-critical when it crept up? Are you bombarded with images of women on TV and in movies who never seem to age?
Okay, it may be accurate to say that you weigh more than is healthy for you, or more than you'd like. But how about the emotional tags—disgusting, unlovable, old? "Some people concentrate on hating their bodies because they can't bear to deal with the real issues that are troubling them," says Marianne Legato, MD, a professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the author of Eve's Rib. Whether or not that's the case for you, Domar points out that there's a huge leap of logic between overweight and disgusting. If you saw a woman your size, would you feel ill or think she should look the way she did ten years ago? "We don't use the same kind of language about ourselves that we do about others," she says. "We're much kinder to others."
Next: Step Two: Cultivate self-respect
Try writing out this list and taping it somewhere you'll see it all the time—your full-length mirror, perhaps, or your refrigerator or desk.
Several of the LLuminari experts agree that to cultivate self-respect, it's helpful to define some guidelines. You may want to declare in writing what you won't say and won't hear about the female body, yours included:
1. I will refrain from speaking disparagingly about my own body and weight, even during female-bonding moments. ("I can't believe I ate all that," "I look like a pig.")
2. I will avoid making negative remarks about the appearance of others. ("She shouldn't be wearing those pants," "She's porked out lately.")
3. I will consider ending a relationship with any man or woman who causes me to feel terrible about my body or tries to control me with comments about my looks.
Other tactics to try:
Arm yourself with comebacks to negative remarks about your weight, Domar suggests, like: "Why do you feel it's necessary to say that? Is it your business?" Or "How would you feel if somebody said that to you?" Or "I'm very aware of that fact. I'm trying to do something about it—and your comment isn't helping."
For one week, try not to mention appearance at all when you greet or refer to other women. Identify them by something they do.
Watch the adjectives you use when describing women you admire, especially in front of girls. "Dainty. Elegant. Petite. Delicate. Those were the deadly words for me," says nutrition and metabolism expert Pamela Peeke, MD. "When I was young, my mother would point to Audrey Hepburn and say how delicate and gorgeous she was. I was tall and athletic—throw me a ball and I'd shoot hoops. But all I could think was, 'Why couldn't I have been born delicate?' Audrey Hepburn? She was my birthweight."
Focus on developing and celebrating your own unique style. In a study by the Melpomene Institute, which does research on women and physical activity, 52 percent of girls with a poor body image almost always compared their appearance to others; only 4 percent of girls with a healthy body image did.
Next: Confronting your body itself: Learning to love eating right and and exercising
If you want a shortcut to positive body image, start moving.
"Experience the absolute joy of trusting your body and the knowledge that it works beautifully with all your muscles fully developed," urges M. Ellen Mahoney, MD, a breast cancer surgeon in Palo Alto, California. "And pass that gift on to your daughter." Mahoney excelled at sports until a questionable spinal operation after high school stopped her in her tracks. "Today I'm a crooked little dumpling," she says. But inside she's still that fierce athlete, which has gotten her through years of chronic pain and disability. "When you have athleticism, it's more than keeping a body healthy. It's a state of mind, a self-image, a way to overcome the inevitable things that happen with aging and the extraordinary things that come with bad luck."
Rather than changing what you eat, try to change your relationship with food. "Think about some of the messages you got from your mother," Domar says. Did she love to eat and cook? Or was she counting every calorie? Were meals a way to share affection? Or times of tension and arguments? Try to separate your mother's issues and hang-ups from yours. Take the following steps:
- "Eating may be your way of rebelling, handling stress, squelching anger, finding comfort," Domar says. Keeping a diary may help: Every time you put something in your mouth, record what you were doing before that moment and how you were feeling both physically and psychologically. After a week or two, look for patterns. Can you determine the triggers, other than hunger, that prompt you to eat?
- Once you recognize what pushes your emotional hunger buttons, start devising alternate responses, like taking a walk around the block, listening to a relaxation tape, or jumping into a hot shower.
- Make meals more social. Sit down to dinner with family, a friend, a partner—no TV, no reading material. Sharing a good, healthy meal is nourishing both physically and emotionally, leaving you fully satisfied—and it sets a good example for children. "In our house, this is nonnegotiable," Snyderman says. "It's not just about the food; it's also about community, bringing people to the table."
- Try to remember that food is what fuels your body, and your dreams. "Many women are afraid of 'bad' foods," Domar says. "There are no bad foods. Food is not the enemy. And the more you can stop beating yourself up for eating, the easier time you'll have controlling your weight."