More Than Skin Deep

Camille Williams, LCPC, CEDS-S, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls

Most eating disorders are accompanied by concerns and preoccupation with body image. This creates a misunderstanding and stereotype that eating disorders are all about vanity.

Losing weight or being smaller are still a part of the equation at times because our society is body and diet-culture obsessed. As long as thin privilege exists, where those in smaller bodies have advantages over those in larger bodies, there will always be a desire to be thinner to “fit” better in a society that is not body inclusive.

While this topic is incredibly important on its own, there is also another layer to body image struggles with eating disorders that often goes unseen. This layer is deeper than surface level, it reveals more about a person’s relationship with their body.

Beliefs about the body are learned. Family, friends, and social media all send direct and indirect messages about bodies. These messages often shape a person’s own internal perspective of their body.

Growing up in a household that placed significant importance on weight loss and exercise, may result in someone feeling they are only loved or accepted in their family if they are losing weight and exercising. This can easily turn into addictive behaviors because if more love comes from more weight loss, than the behaviors increase. In this example, the individual who is trying to losing weight for love, is not preoccupied with being in a smaller body, they are seeking love and acceptance. This is how body image and self-worth become enmeshed and difficult to separate as they both require care and attention.

Experiences of trauma are also another significant factor in body image distress. Traumatic experiences often include having autonomy and boundaries violated. This can have a significant impact on beliefs about the body and the relationship with the body. Seeking control to have answers for past trauma or to prevent future trauma, may result in viewing the body as “responsible” or “to blame” for what happened.

This can lead those with trauma to believe if they can change their body they may be able to protect themselves from any future occurrences. It makes sense that this connection between the body and trauma is made and that a person would seek understanding and reasons why. If the body takes the blame, this can lead to frequent preoccupation with the body, hatred towards the body, and mistreatment. Addressing the traumatic experiences in therapy and learning to care for the body are essential in navigating a body image relationship that has been affected by trauma.

These are just a couple examples of body image struggles that have very little to do with the body itself. The body becomes a scapegoat for struggles and changing the body becomes the “solution.”

These messages do not exist at birth and are often times the internalized messages from a person’s experiences with others and in the world. To untangle this web, it is important to explore personal beliefs and values about worth and body image. Reject diet culture and ask where self-worth actually comes from. Dig deeper and be curious about the beliefs behind negative body image.

*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*

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