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In our Chicago groups we have encouraged women, as they feel ready, to sort through old photographs and bring some of them into group to share. Passing around the photographs and talking about their stories clarifies important memories and feelings. The experience also highlights where a woman is on the road to size acceptance, living in the present and learning to respond to herself in a loving and nurturing way.

To elicit memories and feelings we may ask "What do you remember thinking or feeling at that point in your life?" "How does the picture compare with how you remember yourself?" or "What was going on in your life at that time?" Many women automatically report what diet they were on or off at the time the picture was taken. Some women remember the exact amount they weighed at the time and comment "How sad that what I remember about that time in my life is the number of pounds I weighed."

If, as you read more about this "photo-biography" work you are interested in doing it for yourself or with friends, we caution you: Do not use this exercise to beat yourself up! If you think that looking at old pictures will elicit negative feelings that you will not be able to counter, you may want to wait for another time. On the other hand, if you feel ready to take a look at your history in pictures, you may discover some interesting things.

We have found several themes emerge as women share their pictures, stories and feelings. First, an overwhelming number of women find that as they look back at earlier photographs of themselves as children, they see average-sized bodies. "They told me I was fat, and that being fat was bad," Cheryl said as she echoed so many women's feelings. "So I began dieting, gained weight as the result of dieting and felt continuously bad about my body and myself… The difference between how I saw myself then and how I actually appear in the pictures is amazing." Feelings about this discrepancy range from anger to sadness to empathy for the child who grew up with such a distorted body image.

Many women realize that other problems in their families were hidden under a fear of fat and that diets were seen as the solution to these problems. They see that the family's focus on fat was the prototype for the ways they themselves later "translated" all kinds of issues into body issues, e.g., work problems, relationship conflicts and general feelings about themselves.

A second theme which emerges is that of shame. One woman's photographs showed only the size of her hips at various points in her life; i.e., before, during or after diets. No head, no arms and no legs appeared in the pictures. "I was only as good as the size of my hips… and that part of my body was the only one that I learned mattered in being a woman. My face, my brain, my thoughts, my feelings were just not part of the 'picture' in my family. I grew up feeling so ashamed of 'showing' myself as a woman. It was as if only the bottom half of my body was important."

Some women also discover that they felt such shame about their bodies that in most of the pictures they are hiding behind others or absent from photos of important events. The pictures often confirm the importance of the issue of shame in a woman's life—shame about exposing her feelings, sexuality, thoughts and power. Gretchen commented that the shame that made her shy away from being photographed continues to interfere with her efforts to overcome overeating. She still fears, for example, that people will judge her or laugh at her for carrying a food bag. She has learned society's lesson well: Women are not supposed to show their needs in public. Perhaps Gretchen's fear of feeling ashamed for carrying a food bag will eventually turn into excitement and pride. When a woman feels good about carrying a food bag, it seems to give everyone else permission to eat when they want to!

A third theme is the sadness women feel about never having been accepted for who they were. Women who were large as children look back and remember all the judgments about their size and how they were made to feel. "There was nothing wrong with me," Lily stated. "I was a nice kid, a bright kid. I had friends and a reasonably happy family. If only they had let me be the size I was meant to be, I wouldn't have tried to diet down to an unnatural size and then gained so much weight as a result." Marcia commented as she looked at a picture from several years ago, "You know, I wish I could have accepted myself at the size I was then. I probably wouldn't have had to diet to the size I am now." Unfortunately, Marcia is still yelling at herself about her current size. For these women, sharing the photographs highlighted the importance of moving toward loving their bodies at whatever size.

Finally, some women were surprised to find that their bodies now are fairly similar to how they looked in the old photographs. For all the pain and torture of dieting, binging and self-hatred, their bodies have not changed all that much. They brought in pictures of other family members, including parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents and saw how the body shape they had desperately tried to change invariably resembled the body size and shape of a near relative. The photographs underscored how strong the genetic component is in determining body size and shape. Accepting your genetic destiny rather than fighting it gives you the freedom to enjoy your body as it is.

You may find that these or other themes arise as you review your photo-biographies. We would love to hear your reactions! If you decide to look through old photographs, see if you can talk to yourself compassionately about what it has been like to go through much of your life preoccupied by thoughts of food and body hatred. Then imagine 10, 20 or 30 years from now reviewing pictures of yourself in 1994. What would you like to see? We hope that as you overcome your preoccupation with food and body hatred, the "body" you see in today's pictures will meet with your loving appreciation and will no longer be an indicator of your success or failure as a person. Instead, we hope you will be able to:

  • Picture this… the reflection of a person who enjoys how she looks and feels

  • Picture this… the image of a person who feels comfortable in her body

  • Picture this… the snapshot of someone who invests her energy and abilities in many of life's satisfying activities

  • Picture this… as the camera focuses on you, you gently move yourself to be in the photograph that will begin a new chapter in your photo journal.

Wishing you well—

Judith Matz and Carol Coven Grannick

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