Dena Cabrera, Psy.D., CEDS, co-author, with Emily T. Wierenga, of Mom in the Mirror: body image, beauty, and life after pregnancy joined us for a book interview. What follows are our questions in italics, and Dena’s thoughtful responses.
In mom in the Mirror: body image, beauty, and life after pregnancy, you remark on a troubling situation. Some mothers in their disconnected relationship with food and their bodies also feel disconnected from their children and husbands. Can you please elaborate?
Food, exercise, dieting, body image issues can become all-consuming and these issues distract and alienate them from others, including their children and husbands. In my experience in working with women with disordered eating, body image issues, and weight and shape struggles, I have come to understand that women who have these struggles vacillate between being overcontrolled and undercontrolled and so their ability to eat mindfully and intuitively is disrupted. The constant yo-yo dieting, restriction, bingeing, purging, and/or exercise obsession becomes a way to numb the emotions and avoid, but the cost is that they become disconnected from themselves, as well as from others. Individuals with these struggles can become alexithymic in that they are emotionally and physically cut off from their bodies. Thus, they lose that soul-to-soul connection with others.
It can work both ways in the sense that some women give of themselves and attend to others at the expense of their own self-care. This type of woman may be numb to her emotions and cut off from her body. Other women are so consumed with food, weight and shape, and dieting, that it becomes an obsession. In either situation, they are not living in the present and connecting to themselves and others in a healthy way. Our relationships with others is central to restoring and having well being. Also, when we are truly connected to ourselves and not consumed with outer appearance, we can began to feel and experience what truly is important – the connection of souls.
Your book opens a window to view some of the fears, thoughts, and challenges inside the mind and heart of someone with an eating disorder. Who do you recommend read this book?
This book is geared toward mothers who in the midst of parenting, struggle with weight related issues, such as dieting, restricting, binging, or overeating, as well as body image issues, eating disorders, and self-esteem. I have had fathers tell me that the book has been beneficial to them as it gives insight and understanding into the pressures and struggles that mothers face and experience. Overall, it can be inspiring for women who want to restore a positive body image and to overcome the insecurities that arise when pregnancy is over and child-rearing begins.
You introduce the experience of spiritual support for mothers. Can you please offer some suggestions on how one would receive this type of support?
Spirituality or spiritual support is unique and different for everyone. Spiritual support is when a person experiences a connection to a higher power (i.e., God or other spiritual force) that provides them hope, support, guidance, helping, healing, and safety. For many people, a higher power provides individuals with psychological and physical well being. Some researchers have shown that having a spiritual support translates into a strong spirituality-health connection. It can reduce isolation, improve functioning, and provide healing and help. It also gives people a sense of belonging and connection. I have seen this very strongly in the AA community.
An eating disordered mother may have a great deal of anxiety around feeding her children. Can you propose some tools for your readers?
It’s incredibly important to seek the help of a professional to discern between disordered eating thoughts and behaviors and healthy/“normal” eating. It all gets confusing and muddled sometimes. This is especially exacerbated by the confusing messages we hear in our culture about being “healthy.” The definition of healthy can be skewed and narrowly defined. So, you need someone to help you sort out your thoughts and behaviors and how they impact feeding your children.
Model and Inspire a Positive Relationship with Food: Our children are watching, so it’s important to model balance, variety, and moderation in our approach to food. Children will follow our lead.
Ask Others for Support: Delegate the cooking or shopping to your husband or partner until you feel safe and equipped to be involved in this process.
Reframe Food: Food has no power. It only has the power we give it. Remember to reframe our thoughts around food – it is to nourish our bodies and give us energy. It is not meant to create fear and to harm us.
Structure and Guidance: Make lists that help you plan meals, shop, and cook. Utilizing online support can provide guidance that assists you with easy meal planning and nutritious meals that will ease your burden and anxiety.
Be Compassionate with Yourself: We are not all meant to be gourmet cooks. Setting realistic goals and expectations will allow you to be free and less anxious. Setting goals like having to cook a homemade balanced meal every night is only setting yourself up for failure. Be compassionate and gentle with yourself.
In your writing, you regularly mention the impact of love of self, “God’s”love for you, love for spouse, love for your children. How does love aid recovery?
Awe Love! Ask 100 people and you will get a 1,000 different answers on what love is and how it aided them in their recovery. The key is allowing love to penetrate us and touch our souls. I have spoken to countless people in recovery and over and over they tell me that it was the love of others that healed them. Our focus on food, appearance, and bodies are often vehicles to achieve love. People put on different masks and often find themselves feeling lonely and empty. Love works if people are willing to take off the mask and show their authentic self, be vulnerable, and be willing to take a risk to accept and feel love. In return, they will be able to give love and connect to what gives them meaning.
At the start of Chapter 10, entitled “Being the Mirror: How to Inspire Beauty in Our Children,” you quote Gloria Steinem with, “Every time a woman passes a mirror and criticizes herself, there’s a girl watching.” What can we do?
How we live and conduct ourselves as parents sets the tone and is the grass roots. It’s important to live in a way that inspires beauty, confidence, well being and healthy body image. It begins with us modeling for our children and teaching them the tools so that they are equipped to handle the world.
The following “Tools” are condensed from mom in the Mirror: body image, beauty, and life after pregnancy.
Promote a Healthy Environment
Talk openly, be active, challenge negativity, and be positive.
Teach Media Literacy
Don’t diet! All foods fit. No “good” foods, and no “bad” foods. Balance, variety and moderation.
Improve Body Image and Positive Self-Image
Monitor and curb talk about your own body and the bodies of others.
Challenge beliefs about thinness, exercise, “healthy,” dieting, beauty, and so on.
Promote Overall Self-Esteem
Engage in healthy and valuable relationships.
Develop talents, hobbies, and interests that make you feel good about yourself.
You share your thoughts on what “being recovered” means. Can you please share this definition and why you chose it?
Those who have experienced an eating disorder and no longer meet criteria or identify with having an eating disorder use various terms – “recovered,” “in recovery,” and “cured.” There have been debates in the field about the different terms and on what constitutes recovery.
I have discovered that each person has to decide for himself or herself where they are in their journey. Some feel that they are “always in recovery” and they have to be mindful and aware of triggers or that they can relapse and spiral out of control. Some individuals feel that they are truly recovered and that is the way they live life. Some feel cured and don’t identify with either of those terms. It’s unique and individualized.
I use “recovered” to define individuals who no longer struggle with being held hostage by food, weight, and shape. “Recovered” is having freedom with food and the relationship with food is a nonthreatening, pleasurable experience. I describe “recovered” individuals who define their identity apart from their appearance, weight, shape, and size. They have well being and a sense of self, connecting them to their soul and relationships.
About the author –
Dr. Dena Cabrera is a licensed psychologist and serves as the executive clinical director for Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders. She is involved in program development, staff training, and supervision throughout the Rosewood system. Dr. Cabrera is the author of “The Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty and Life After Pregnancy.” She presents nationally and internationally on eating disorder and mental health issues.