Dying to be Thin

Jillian Sawers breaks down the myths surrounding diet and beauty and how to break free from the fear of food

In a recent study of high school girls 53% were unhappy with their bodies by age thirteen and  by the age of  eighteen  78% were dissatisfied.  The United Kingdom now has 3.5 million anorexics or bulimics (95% of them female), with 6,000 new cases yearly.  According to the women’s press, at least 50% of British women suffer from disordered eating.  Dr Charles Murkovsky, an eating diseases specialist of Gracie Square Hospital in New York City, says that 20% of American college women binge and purge on a regular basis.  Other statistics show that out of ten young middle class women, two will be anorexic, six will be bulimic, only two will be well.  That means the norm is to suffer some form of eating disease.  40% to 50% of anorexics never recover completely while 5% to 15% of hospitalised anorexics die in treatment, giving the disease one of the highest fatality rates for mental illness.

In our adolescence we are warned of the dangers of taking drugs; doctors’ surgeries are full of posters and leaflets giving detailed accounts of the signs, symptoms and dangers of drug addiction.  And yet it seems that the diseases of compulsive eating, bulimia and anorexia are even more widespread, and starting at increasingly young ages, can haunt an individual through much of their life. There is no way of measuring the damage to the self-esteem, health, success and happiness of millions of people.

The Beauty Myth
It is no coincidence that the number of people affected by some kind of eating disorder is rising sharply and running in parallel to the increase in beauty pornography.  You may not have heard that term, but may have become increasingly aware of its presence.  Remember, not that long ago, when the covers of women’s magazines were decorated with the face of one or another pretty model?  Suddenly it seems, the norm has become not just the upper body of the model, but very often the model is topless.  Just yesterday I was flicking through a magazine in a waiting room, and wondered what product a young model was being used to promote.  In all seven of the pictures there she was almost totally naked.

What was she promoting?   In her milestone book, the Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf captured the essence of the most powerful illusion which has pervaded modern society—if you are not beautiful you cannot be successful or happy.   The beauty myth traps woman in a cycle of self-hatred and self-imposed limitations brought on by the daily consumption of hundreds of images of impossibly beautiful, thin and seemingly happy successful young women.  The myth tells us that we too can ‘have it all’ if only we were to invest enough time, energy, will-power and, of course, money into achieving it.  Each and every beauty product within that magazine was associated with slim, attractive, naked female forms.  For ‘she’ represents the dreams of beauty for millions of women, and the dreams of millions in revenue for the manufacturers of beauty products, diets, plastic surgery and exercise equipment.

There is little point in fighting the irresponsibility of advertisers and manufacturers, for they themselves know not what they do.  Their evasions of the issue can be heard in their clichéd claim, “We are only selling what women really want”.  But in our search for self-esteem, a real sense of identity and purpose in life, we need to acknowledge the powerful influence of the media in shaping our consciousness, desires and behaviour.  Perhaps this is the first step in the healing process.

A journey through a substantial museum or art gallery will reveal a wide range of beauty norms, according to culture and time period.  Within the 20th century alone, we have seen the popularity of the boy-like figure of the 20’s, the voluptuous Marilyn Monroe ideal of the 50’s, followed by the pre-pubescent ideal of Twiggy in the 60’s.  The goal posts keep shifting.  But it seems thinness is here to stay.  And this is a goal which takes more than an application of make-up and new hair-do to achieve.

Public Enemy Number One—the Diet!
Enter stage left—the Diet!  When someone embarks on a diet, it is not as simple, as restricting food intake, losing weight, maintaining weight.  When we enter this mysterious world of dieting we enter into a dream, a promise, maintained by an elaborate set of rituals.

The dieter begins to invest their mental energy in a battle against themselves to attain a weight, which they consciously or subconsciously feel will bring them the confidence, style, love, success and acceptance they desire—a battle that most never win.  Statistics reveal that 97% gain the weight lost from dieting, plus some more.  Of course we would never conclude that the diet doesn’t work, only that the dieter is suffering from severe lack of self-control or will-power.  Just try harder.  Yet there are many reasons why diets will never work, and why, if we are serious about regaining healthy eating habits, we need to say a long overdue goodbye to calorie counting, raw carrots and scales.

As soon as someone decides to start restricting their food intake to lose weight, powerful psychological and physiological forces come into play.   Naomi Wolf recounts a fascinating experiment at the University of Minnesota.  Thirty-six volunteers were placed on an extended low-calorie diet and the psychological and physical effects were carefully documented.  The control group were young and healthy, showing high levels of confidence, strength, emotional stability and good intellectual ability.  They began a six month period in which their food intake was reduced by half—a typical weight reduction technique for women.
Before too long the group began to exhibit classic symptoms of food disorders: collecting recipes, hoarding food, emotional disturbance, binges, vomiting and self-reproach.   Some were terrified to go outside the experiment environment, in case they were tempted by foods they had agreed not to eat.  Interestingly, all the volunteers were men, and they were responding in a perfectly predictable, understandable manner.

The Rebel Within
Firstly the body is magnificently equipped to avoid starvation, and at the first signs of impending famine, will slow down the metabolism in order to store fat longer.  After some time, the appetite will increase dramatically in order to prompt the food consumption needed to sustain life.  Thus the dieter has to work harder and harder against the body’s natural mechanisms in order to lose and maintain weight lost.

On a psychological level also, I can only ignore my appetite, in order to attain the acceptable ideal, for a restricted period of time.  Eventually a wonderful psychological magic takes place.  The rebel within me, which tires of conforming, which wants to be accepted for who I really am, not an imposed ideal, begins to wreak havoc with my best laid plans for slimming down.  Like a child which needs a deeper motive to be good, rather than just fear or reward from the parents to avoid the bad, my deeper inner self rebels against the shallowness of my motivation.  It will no longer put up with starvation to look good for the world.  It stands its ground, and you head for the fridge.

Normally, heading back to food doesn’t mean adjusting back to normal eating habits; more often it’s a binge, followed by another retribution diet, binge, diet, binge.  When you tell someone they can’t have something which is in front of them it produces an unnaturally strong desire for that thing.  This is why a dieting mentality produces food obsessions, and eventually when the will is overcome, bingeing.  Every time a diet is resumed, it becomes harder to lose weight, because the metabolism becomes less and less efficient.

Although the futility of dieting may be obvious, it’s not so easy to renounce its powerful lure.  For years it has held within it the promise of a bright future, and an avoidance of present pains.  And although diets have kept us in a pattern of being in tight control and then completely out of control, we fear that if we were to give up trying to control ourselves, then we would be out of control forever, and who knows how fat we might become as a result.

Letting go of the diet
It is important to keep in mind that eventually once your mind and body are convinced that deprivation doesn’t lie around the next corner, they will begin to relax and find their own natural rhythm.  So the first step is to give yourself full permission to eat and enjoy whatever food you desire.  If the very thought strikes fear into your heart, then this is definitely the advice for you.  The longer we fear food, the longer it will control us. We have to face that fear by keeping a wide range of foods available to us all the time, more than we could eat in one or even two sittings.  This helps convince our mind that the food isn’t going to run out, so you don’t need to eat everything while you still can.  If this still sounds illogical, think of the last time you binged on chocolate or ice cream.  Did you eat half a bar, fold the wrapper over neatly and return it to the cupboard for a later date?  More than likely you finished the whole thing, plus anything else sweet you could find.  Now imagine you are faced with a cupboard so full that you could never finish it, at some point you would have to say ‘enough!’  And you could, for you know that it will still be there later.  You may at first find yourself eating huge amounts of food, but eventually you will begin to say enough, much more frequently and sooner.  If you find your bingeing doesn’t start to diminish after quite a long period, it may be that you are treating this new approach as yet another diet, and if it doesn’t work, you will go back on a ‘real diet’.  If this is the case, your subconscious won’t believe that famine is not around the corner, and it will still want to feast just in case.

It is thoroughly recommended that you throw or at least pack away your scales, so that you don’t panic and rush back to the comfort of a diet, or equally important, if you do begin to lose weight, it is fatal to base your happiness on that.  You need to break free from having your happiness dictated by those little numbers on the machine.

It is also important that you start doing all those things you dream of doing when you reach your perfect dress size.  Whether swimming, wearing nice clothes, applying for a new job, or creating new relationships, if you postpone living till you are slim then you will never be slim and you will never start living.

Avoid reading women’s magazines for a while.  They only trigger comparisons, low-esteem and yet another diet.

Eating to overcome over-eating.
Obviously you can’t expect to eat everything in sight and lose weight.  But the first scary step in the process of healing is to start accepting your body as it is now, understanding the reasons behind your inability to lose weight, and to ease up on yourself.  To relax at last.

Eventually we have to heal negative eating patterns by replacing them with good ones.  This involves listening carefully internally to distinguish whether the urge to eat is a healthy physical hunger or a spiritual, emotional or mental hunger.  It can take some practice to clearly make the distinction, because for those whom hunger is often the last reason for eating, the signal for genuine hunger can be very subtle.  Once you have recognised that your body needs food, you need to ask your intuition what would satisfy the hunger.  Lists of special foods and calorie requirements have often put us out of touch with our body’s own incredible wisdom for knowing what it actually needs.  If we don’t satisfy that need, we may eat much more than we require in order to fulfil it.  The act of respecting hunger, rather than denying or suppressing it, and then eating what is required, is a great act of self-love.  The pleasure of eating from a real appetite and eating what the body really requires, contains a care and sweetness which eventually makes the mechanical, addictive eating experience, where one doesn’t even taste the food whilst eating, seem an empty experience in comparison.

Rules for eating

  1. Forget the rules.  At least the rules that had you counting every morsel, and feeling guilty for breaking them.
  2. Check to see whether you are really hungry.
  3. If hungry ask yourself what you really feel like eating.
  4. If you realise you are not hungry, but you still want to eat, acknowledge you are comfort eating, and ask yourself what you would really like to eat.
  5. Make an occasion out of the meal, enjoy each mouthful.
  6. If you do comfort eat, don’t feel guilty afterwards.
  7. Try and discover what triggered the need to comfort eat and see if you can find a more appropriate way of dealing with it in the future.

Facing the feelings
There are numerous triggers which can send a compulsive eater to the fridge.   Loneliness, boredom, excitement, celebrations, nervousness, rejection, and so on.  We can misuse eating to block out these unpleasant feeling in two ways.   First, while eating, our occupied mind is given a break from feeling the feelings.  And second, after the binge, I can then occupy my mind with bad feelings towards my self, and the weight I am gaining.  The original fear or problem which was concerning me has now been transferred to my eating and weight problem.  And I feel if only I could have victory over my weight, everything in my life would be perfect.  People are often disappointed upon losing weight, to find that their lives haven’t improved greatly.  As part of the healing of negative eating patterns, it is vital that we become more sensitive and sympathetic to the state of our emotions.  Keeping a diary of your emotions and eating patterns can be useful for this, as can observing your feelings at different times with different people.  For instance visits back to old family homes can trigger old feelings and eating patterns because of unresolved anxiety or memories around our childhood or parents.  Breathing deeply, consciously relaxing and eating slowly can help us face rather than run from feelings.

Satisfying Spiritual Hunger
Ultimately overcoming overeating is a process for which we need to draw deeply on our inner stock of patience and self-love.  Instead of putting a dummy, in the form of food, in our mouths, we must keep asking ourselves, what is the real need, what do I really want?  The desire to overeat is simply our inner child crying out for some quality attention.   That quality attention can involve asking our inner self questions such as, “How am I feeling? What do I want?  Will food give me what I want?  Is this emotional or physical hunger?  What does the soul need?  What do I the soul need to experience or express?”

The search to satisfy this real inner hunger is a spiritual one and the hidden blessing of any addiction is that it ultimately forces us to rediscover our inner self, our true identity and our true inner beauty. This is especially pertinent to eating disorders because of their obsessiveness with body image and food sensation.

The practice of meditation is extremely vital in learning to love and understand the self and ultimately transform negative conditioning.  One of the discoveries that one makes in meditation is the difference between the spiritual ‘I’, the inner being, and the body which I inhabit, rather like a costume.  Instead of needing external beauty to make me feel valuable, I experience my real inner beauty and strength, and develop a stronger sense of self worth.  I find myself maintaining my body out of a sense of love and responsibility for myself, rather than using the body to seek attention and satisfaction.  Meditation can also help us discover a deeper sense of our purpose in life, freeing us from more mundane concerns and worries.

Writing affirmations based on the concept of the spiritual self, loving and caring for the physical body, can work wonders, reprogramming old subconscious thought patterns with minimal effort.  You can write them, speak them or do both simultaneously.  I would suggest twenty-five in the morning and twenty-five in the evening—experiment for yourself.  The following affirmations are some of my favourites.

  • I have a healthy vibrant body which I treat respectfully.
  • I treat my precious body with love and care.
  • I am a content soul who treats my body with gentleness and respect.
  • I am a goddess residing in my sacred temple with dignity and peace.

Long Term Success
The journey back to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being is a lifelong one, and a great test of patience for those of us addicted to the crash-diet experience.  As a survival kit, you may like to keep the following reminders handy.

What can help? 

  • Understanding that we aren’t abnormal or crazy, only compulsive. 
  • Finding new ways to express ourselves. 
  • Giving up sugar—yes, sugar is an addictive substance and giving it up can often reduce bingeing by 90%! 
  • Learning more about the interaction between food, the body and emotions. 
  • Learning new ways to nurture ourselves that don’t involve eating.  
  • Moderate exercise. 
  • Wearing comfortable clothes which you feel good in. 
  • Developing a support system for yourself. 
  • Keeping a daily diary. 
  • Doing affirmations daily and meditating regularly.

What doesn’t help? 

  • Going to doctors, therapists and counsellors who aren’t specialised in the area of eating disorders. 
  • Dieting, vomiting, diet pills, drinks, laxatives. 
  • Worrying constantly about your weight or food.
  • Weighing yourself. 
  • Reading the monthly glossies. 
  • And giving yourself a hard time about anything!

Jillian Sawers is a facilitator, coach, trainer and writer assisting organisations in Europe and Asia to bring out the best in people.


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