An interview with Connie Sobczak about her work, Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!)
A number of personal experiences came together to inspire your book, Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!). Can you please share some of these contributing factors?
My reasons for writing Embody come from difficult personal experiences, and what I did with my life because of them. I suffered from bulimia during my teen years and into early adulthood. My oldest sister Stephanie developed bulimia as well, but she never recovered. In her early twenties she also got breast implants. One of them was faulty, and the silicone that leaked into her blood stream caused lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease that caused her great suffering and contributed to her death at the age of thirty-six. Malnutrition was also listed on her death certificate. My daughter, Carmen, was just over a year old when Stephanie died. Though I had recovered from my own eating disorder long before I gave birth to my daughter, and knew I wouldn’t pass it on to her, losing Stephanie ignited my passion to ensure that Carmen would grow up loving her body. Ultimately, The Body Positive was born out of my grief and my desire to change the world for Carmen. Embody was written to share my own story of healing as well as the work that The Body Positive’s co-founder Elizabeth Scott, LCSW, and I have been doing for nearly two decades to help people love and care for their uniquely beautiful bodies.
What is the message of the Be Body Positive Model?
The overarching message of the Be Body Positive Model is that we all have the right to love our whole selves, bodies included, and that we possess the wisdom necessary to care for ourselves to the best of our ability, taking into consideration our life circumstances. The model includes five Competencies—skills—that, when practiced throughout life, lead to a more peaceful relationship with our bodies and much more fun! Why more fun? Because when we do the work to turn our compassionate, loving voice towards our fearful selves (instead of only giving that gentle part to others), we can learn what our fears are doing in our lives in the first place, and give them the loving attention they need to quiet down. Additionally, when we are willing to start our definition of beauty with ourselves, “flaws” and all, then we remove ourselves from the need for competition or comparison with others, and there is more than enough beauty for all. From a place of confidence and self-love, not conceit, we can step away from letting anyone else tell us what beauty is, and choose to see it in our magnificent human selves. In doing this practice, there is so much beauty we can experience in the world! I find my life is a lot more fun when I am kind to myself, recognize and appreciate my beauty and value, and get on with the task of living fully.
The message is that there is no place of perfection we get to—and stay—with our beauty or our health. Instead, we do our best each day to love and care for our bodies, find forgiveness when we blunder, and keep learning about what leads us to having more joy and contentment in our lives. I think because I lost my sister when she was so young, I have a heightened sense of life being incredibly precious, so I choose not to waste it beating myself up for any perceived imperfections. I still suffer, that is the human condition, but I don’t add to my suffering by being unkind to myself. Everyone deserves help if they can’t make peace with themselves on his or her own. Embody offers wonderful tools and inspiration for getting to this place, but I strongly urge anyone reading this to reach out for help if you are in pain and need support.
You encourage people to become their own health expert. Please tell us more.
I’d be happy to share more. Becoming your own health expert means you are in tune with your physical self on a level that allows you to sense what works best for your own unique body. This doesn’t mean we don’t listen to the advice of doctors or other health professionals, but what we do is use trial and error to see how this advice is working in our bodies.
Let me give you an example. I recently had a dark, rough patch of skin on my chest that resulted from too much sun in my youth. A dermatologist said it was pre-cancerous or possibly cancerous tissue, and gave me a prescription for a cream to put on it every day for six weeks. With the first application, my tongue started to tingle, my throat felt thick, and I tasted an odd flavor in my mouth. Being afraid of cancer, I continued to use the medication for several treatments, until I realized that it was affecting me in a harmful way. My family is extra sensitive to chemicals, and I could tell this medication was not okay for my particular body, even though the doctor said it was safe. I went back and asked if there was another way to treat the spot, and she said she would be happy to cut it off. She said she gave me the cream because she didn’t want me to have a scar on my chest. Since I don’t care about scars, I opted for cutting off the skin. What I learned from the experience is that it’s important for me to ask about options when a doctor prescribes pills or chemicals that my body probably won’t like, instead of just trusting what is offered.
You can try out different foods and types of movement that health “experts” may suggest, but it’s important to always do the research to see how your own unique bodies respond. Does this food or particular movement make you feel good? If yes is the answer, then great. Keep at it. If you feel like you’re fighting your body, then something is wrong. This practice of being your own expert means being honest with yourself on a deep level. You have to be aware of your motivation for wanting to follow someone else’s advice. If you’re prone to believing that weight loss will make you healthier or more beautiful, it’s easy to take advice that will lead only to short-term changes and eventually to poorer health. Being the expert of your body means using all of your physical senses, in combination with your brain and your intuition, to learn from every experience what is best for you. You do this through practice—learning from what doesn’t work along with what goes well. You learn to trust that your body has wisdom and is giving you feedback about everything you do.
You devote some sections of your book chapters to explain “Body Positive Practices.” What feedback have you received on these areas?
The feedback on the Body Positive practices has been wonderful. I’ve received emails from many people thanking me for including the practices in the book, saying that they make it possible to bring the information into their own lives. I’ve had people attend my daylong workshops who have done the practices on their own while reading, but then wanted to expand the experience by doing them with me. All of the activities offered are ones that Elizabeth and I have been doing in group settings for years. I’ve also heard from therapists and dietitians that they use the practices with their clients.
As I mentioned earlier, we emphasize that the work to make peace with our bodies is a practice. It’s not something we do once and then we’re “fixed” for life. I use the practices in my own life. In fact, while editing Embody I used them regularly, especially the self-love practices. Editing is a tough process. There were days when I heard my critical voice start to speak, so I’d stop writing, pick whatever activity I knew I needed to quiet my fearful voice in the moment, and then would get back to work with a lot more joy. I want readers to know that everything we offer in Embody we use in our own lives.
What are your thoughts on where “that critical voice” comes from?
I don’t believe anyone is born with a critical voice. I believe it comes from the experiences we have as children. Our critical voices are fear speaking; they are trying to keep us safe. They think that if we can perfect ourselves then we will be immune from harm, humiliation, or whatever it is in a particular circumstance that is causing fear. In my own life, my critics are so much easier to work with when I recognize them simply as fear speaking.
Can you please briefly describe some of the tools you suggest to “quiet that critical voice?”
One of the best things I’ve learned since I realized my critics were just my fears speaking, is that when I turn to face them instead of trying to run from them or banish them from my brain, I can see them for what they are—my childhood fears. When I run from them they turn into giant monsters that are capable of consuming me from behind. When I turn towards my fears, I see them as little children who just need love and attention, which is why they are making so much noise! I have a vision of cradling them in my arms and letting them know they are protected and loved, even when they are not very nice. I think about what I did as a mother when my daughter was afraid and acting out. I would hold her and let her rant and cry until she was able to get to the place where she could talk about what had happened. Then we were able to problem solve and learn together, and growth occurred. I have learned to do this with myself and it has made my life a lot easier. As my self-love has grown, my ability to protect the little hurt parts of me has expanded exponentially. I also want to say that it’s much easier for me to face my fears when I can share them with people in my Body Positive community. If a person has had major trauma in their lives, then it’s important to get help from an outside source to deal with their fears. They may not be capable of facing their fears on their own and need a trusted professional to help.
The primary path to quieting our critical voices is mindfulness. When we can use the nasty voice as a meditation bell signaling us to pay attention, then we can use the experience to look at what is going on in our lives that might be causing us fear. I find that if I’m attacking myself, it’s generally because I’m extremely tired, or something has happened to me, usually at the hands of another person, that has made me unhappy or uncomfortable. My childhood pattern was to try to “fix” myself in some way so others wouldn’t say mean things to me. When I was unconscious of what was actually happening, I followed the mean voice, which led me into self-destructive behaviors that nearly killed me. When I learned to be mindful of the voice and its purpose, I was then able to use it as a wake up call to be extra kind to myself and to work through whatever had happened to me from outside sources.
One of the tools I offer in Embody is to simply say the word “love” over and over again in your head when you hear your critical voice start to speak. It is an easy way to change the energy into a more loving, useful space. Each time the voice takes over your brain, keep saying “love” out loud or to yourself. If that isn’t possible or doesn’t feel right, then try concentrating on how it feels to be loved by another person, someone who offers you unconditional love. Stay with that feeling, letting it fill your brain and become louder than your voice of fear. Elizabeth and I recommend the work of Buddhist neuroscientist Rick Hanson, who has wonderful meditations that allow us to “bring in the good.” He also shares wonderful information about why our brains hold on to the experiences that cause us fear instead of the ones that make us happy. It’s definitely worth checking out his work, which I discovered after writing Embody.
You have experienced and hence passed on the healing aspect of “community.” What have you learned?
What we know from our current research project with Stanford University on our college leadership program is that the students did much better in their relationships with their bodies while they were participating in the eight-week student-led Body Positive groups. The study isn’t over yet, but these early results make it clear to me that having community makes it much easier to deal with the pressures one is faced with to look and act in a certain way—pressures that come not only from media, but also from family, partners, friends, etc. Doing Body Positive practices, and having discussions about topics that are rarely discussed, helped the students take better care of themselves and feel better about their bodies. We’re excited for the results to be published later this year.
Community, especially what we call “Body Positive” community, makes life a lot more fun and easier to manage. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who are doing the work to love their bodies and whole selves, who choose to put aside talk of weight loss and diets, and, instead, talk about food, movement, and living in their bodies in joyful ways. One of my favorite things is to hear from my friends about new recipes they are trying out or a new movement class they are taking that gives them joy. The other part that I love about Body Positive communities is that when someone is suffering over their body, the response from the community is not to try to “fix” them by giving them tips on how to change their physical selves, but to address the underlying cause of their attack on their body. When everyone involved in the community is willing to see their own beauty and value, there is no need for comparison or competition, which leaves huge amounts of space for true friendship and love—and support that makes a difference!