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Working Through Bad Body ThoughtsNotes From Chicago

Carol Coven Grannick
Judith Matz

Directors, Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating

Women from around the country call us with an important request: please write about the real details of the work you do so we can see the process in action. "We love the discussions of Overcoming Overeating, but it would be so helpful to hear the details of how one person goes through her own process with a particular issue."

In this column we will share more details of the process of the Overcoming Overeating work we do. We'll begin with the issue of bad body thoughts. First we'll briefly discuss some theory and then show you, step-by-step, how one member of our group worked on the issue over a four-week period.

You've heard it before: bad body thoughts are never, ever about your body. Yet, as one person recently told us, "The thing about a bad body thought is that it includes believing that it's about your body." It is difficult to develop and hold onto the capacity to step outside yourself when you are in pain. At that moment, it's hard to accept that your bad body thoughts could be a disguise for some other issue. You may need to listen to other people decode their bad body thoughts just to begin your own process.

Even women experienced with the Overcoming Overeating approach find themselves immersed in bad body thoughts without questioning them. "Are you sure it's not about my body, even when it's about my disgusting cellulite?" We're sure! As we say in Chicago, a city with wonderful ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, women learn FSL (Fat as a Second Language) early in life, without ever having to take it in school. That's why bad body thoughts seem so believable.

Katherine is one of our group members. She works hard to integrate Overcoming Overeating into her life and consistently faces and overturns a number of internal and external obstacles to stocking and demand feeding. She approaches her work with determination and humor.

As Katherine had more stomach hunger experiences and struggled to feed herself on demand, she also became more aware of her bad body thoughts. She gained some weight during her initial period of legalizing and, as a result, found herself having to counter her negative feelings about her larger body. Although Katherine had trouble intercepting her bad body thoughts, she told us that nevertheless she was trying to shop for new clothes that would fit, feel comfortable and reflect her own style and color preferences. As Katherine spoke, we noticed that she used words we thought could be manifestations of bad body thoughts. In other words, she took her bad body thoughts shopping with her!

"I need a sleek look," she said. "I don't like pants that have pleats in the front."

"Oh, yes," a group member agreed. "I don't like that 'round' look either."

"Is 'round' a bad thing?" we asked.

"Oh, well, you know…" Katherine laughed.

"No, tell us," someone else chimed in.

"Look I know we try to challenge the notion of fat as bad—but why shouldn't I want to look as sleek and flat as I can?" Katherine asked. "It's just a thing I have—I don't think it's just about thinking my fat is bad. It's a certain way I want to look."

We hypothesized that somehow "sleek" and "flat" were important words for Katherine, perhaps body descriptions that concealed other issues. When we asked Katherine if she had any other associations to those words or whether they described anything else in her life, she replied, "No, not really." Soon after, she felt finished with the discussion.

For Katherine this initial discussion established only that feeling sleek and flat has certain meaning for her. Her focus remained on the hard work of permitting herself to buy larger sized, lovely clothing. In fact, brief comments about clothing and shopping peppered the next session as well. Katherine continued to use the words "I need a sleek look, a nice flat feeling in my clothes."

At the third meeting, Katherine described a social eating experience in which she felt unable to respond to her own needs. "I was playing with my little granddaughter on the floor, and that was just where I wanted to be. I had everything I really needed right there. But my son and the rest of the family made comments about me not being at the table. So I brought the baby to the table and started to eat, even though I wasn't hungry. I felt that they were telling me I had to share myself and the baby with them, and I didn't want to."

Katherine felt very disappointed in herself for not being able to hold her ground. We encouraged her to be compassionate about what had happened, and her need to eat from mouth hunger. We noticed that she kept talking about her experience with the child. She was fascinated with the unique qualities of an infant enjoying her playtime with Grandma. Katherine described her relationship with the child in a wistful, longing tone.

Katherine is going through many changes in her life—developing new work, building and rebuilding relationships with her husband, friends and children—and her granddaughter provides a special experience that feels dependable and joyful for her. "She's so terrific!" Katherine smiled as she reflected on that dinner and the baby's eagerness to explore with a mind and body uncluttered by adult concerns. She had not wanted to remove herself from the experience or to share her granddaughter with anyone at the table.

At the next session, we did a visualization imagining ourselves at a smaller body size. Katherine said she lost track of what she was "supposed" to do in the visualization and instead had recalled a photograph that she keeps at home. "There I am in the picture," she said, "two or three years old, standing completely naked, smiling, straight and flat, full of pride. I had so much pride in myself!"

The image of Katherine the child, straight, sleek and flat, jolted us. Katherine confused "flat" with "proud!" She translated her loss of pride in herself during her growing-up years into a loss of flatness and she berated herself for her round, "bumpy" body.

"You are looking for your pride," we said, "not your flatness!"

She was quiet. We all now clearly understood the meaning of her bad body thoughts of the previous weeks. "Yes," she finally replied, "I had so much pride in myself."

"As I grew up, my father kept telling me, 'You're just like your mother. You have a body like your mother.' My mother was not someone I wanted to be like. As far as I was concerned she was indecisive and powerless and I associated that with the size and shape of her body, a woman's body. Gradually, without much validation from my parents for the spirit I exhibited, I lost the pride I had in myself. I developed a tremendous sense of shame about my body, always fearing it would turn into my mother's. Now it has."

Understanding her bad body thought frees Katherine to pursue her search—not for clothing that gives her a "sleek" look, but for the lost pride in herself. She knows that her response to the front-pleated pants that give her a round and "yucky" look is not about clothing styles, but about a long-lost feeling of despair about the meaning of being female in her family. This insight may not result in immediate or drastic changes in Katherine's ability to self-demand feed or to assert herself, but as she continues her work with Overcoming Overeating, she probably will learn to express her needs more easily. She looks forward to a time when she will feel more comfortable asserting her needs in self-demand feeding as well as in other areas of her life.

As Katherine strives to develop creativity in her work and to negotiate new ways of being in relationships with her husband, friends and children, she will probably continue to translate some of her feelings into bad body thoughts. She may even find herself focusing on wanting to feel "flat" or "sleek." But no matter what size her body ultimately settles at, chances are that it will reflect the natural and lovely roundness of an adult woman's body.

And chances are that the real treasure she seeks—her child's pride in herself—will never again be quite so disguised.

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