But not a deal for a new refrigerator or a Florida vacation. Let’s make a deal to stop trash-talking ourselves.
A study done at the University of Arizona found that men and women whose self-talk is negative (such as “My butt is so big,” “I’m so ugly”, or “I just can’t stop overeating”) experience more depression and lower self-esteem than those who don’t indulge in self-denigration. That kind of self-talk adds to your sense of helplessness, not just in eating but in every aspect of your life.
Trash-talk is hard to avoid in a society that deifies thin celebrities whose weight is often higher than their IQ (Aach, Jean! Talk about trash talk!). I don’t know about men, but conversation amongst women tends to stray into fat talk all too often. I know I've commiserated with friends who’ve gained enough weight that they can’t fit into most of their wardrobe…a problem I've faced myself many times, both before and after weight loss surgery. We could moan about that kind of thing for hours, time that would be better spent on coming up with a solid action plan to deal with weight gain, and end the trash talk with a pep talk.
In my job as a bra fit specialist, I hear women slam their own bodies day in and day out. Their breasts are too big, too small, and/or one is bigger than the other. Their breasts sag from weight loss, weight gain, pregnancy, nursing, aging – all perfectly ordinary life events that somehow end up damaging the woman’s self-esteem even if everything else in her life is going well. From time to time I’ve heard briskly myself tell an unhappy customer, “OK, now that I know what you don’t like about your girls, let’s talk about what we can do to make them look better,” because I just couldn’t bear hearing another word of self-hatred.
Maybe you feel as helpless to change your thinking as you feel about changing your eating behavior. The field of cognitive behavioral psychology is based on changing maladaptive thinking in order to change your behavior. Maladaptive thinking is thinking that seems to help you adjust to a problem. So if your 42DDD bra is too small, you think, “There’s nothing I can do about it, it’s all because of having those three babies in just three years.” Cognition is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding (about yourself, your world, other people, events) through thought, experience, and your senses. If you can shift the way you interpret all that data, you can begin to change the way you react to it (your behavior).
That’s different from the good ol’ Freudian psychodynamic approach that places blame (or gives credit) to your unconscious mind and personality for the things (dysfunctional or not) going on in and around you. I’m not against that psychodynamic model, per se, but it seems to me that changing the way I interpret data has got to be easier and more successful in the long run than trying to change the innermost, essential Jean. I’m not sure I even want to change her, and I don’t have the time or money to spend 130,000 minutes a year (50 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 10 years) musing about the meaning of a random dream. That weird dream could be full of important symbolism, sure, but it could also be the random result of tired and jangly nerve endings as my tired old brain tosses a mixed dream salad (ask me for the recipe!) out of disparate moments of the day that just ended.
In the context of weight and eating management, the difference between these two psychological approaches is that the cognitive behavioral one asks, “How do I eat?” while the psychodynamic one asks, “Why do I eat?” I’ve benefited from psychodynamic therapy in the past, but none of the insights I gained about why I eat has done much to change how I eat. In other words, you can change your behavior without knowing all the why’s and wherefores that led to that behavior. They’re interesting, even fascinating, to know, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily make the work of behavioral change easier or more effective or longer-lasting.
First, here’s a short example of cognitive change. In my fat days, I loved to eat. Eating gave me great pleasure; all too often, it was my only pleasure. Nowadays, I love to eat. The food still tastes good (my experience of it), but the way I think about that food (my cognition of it) has changed. Now it is only one of many pleasures in my world. The change in my cognition of food has changed my behavior around it. I’m less likely to overeat it because it’s competing with so many other good things for my time and attention, things that are also important to me and interest me and are often healthier for me.
Now I’ll give you a different example, ever so slightly exaggerated for the purpose of making my point crystal clear. After 9 years of intensive, twice-weekly psychodynamic therapy, you come to understand that you overeat candy because your mother spanked you for wetting your pants at church during Easter service when you were 5 years old, thus shaming you and sending you right straight to the delights of your Easter basket, all of it consumed in just 15 minutes as soon as you got home and raced into your bedroom closet to suffer and gorge in peace, which of course made your sore bottom feel sooo much better. Of course, since then you’ve several times been tempted to smack your own child for misbehaving in public, and you’ve come to see that your own mother was actually a saint compared to your evil sister-in-law, but here you are on Good Friday evening, gazing with rapt delight at the contents of your children’s Easter baskets and wondering if they’ll notice that all the chocolate crème eggs are gone come Sunday morning. Is thinking about your mean mommy going to stop you from unwrapping one of those yummylicious treats and popping it into your mouth while you remind yourself that crème eggs only come once a year and how can you possibly survive a whole year without eating at least one?
So in conclusion to an article on a topic that pretty much has no end, I will paraphrase Camilla Mager, a clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in the psychology of women and eating disorders. Mager suggests the following steps for improving body image and self-esteem:
1. Avoid reading magazines or looking at images (on television, online, billboards, etc.) that reinforce your body image problem.
2. Pay attention to the tone you use when talking to or about yourself. Would you talk that way to anyone else? Probably not. Try to be less critical of yourself. That doesn't mean you should pat yourself on the head, say, "There, there, honey," and dish yourself up a gallon of ice cream. That means something more like, "Try, try again."
3. Focus on what your body is capable of - your strengths - instead of weaknesses (often more perceived than real) or what it's not doing.
4. When you find yourself in a fat talk conversation with friends, commit to not engaging in that kind of discussion. Change the subject, give a friend a pep talk, or announce that it's time for you to head over to the gym.