Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Can Really Hurt Me
By Nancy Logue, PhD, and Jill Shaffer, RD, CEDRD
Science tells us that our body’s shape, size, and appearance are determined to a significant extent by our genes. Our culture tells us that with the correct diet, exercise regimen, surgery, or products the way we look can be perfected. The endless pursuit of impossible goals is painful, frustrating, and harmful. In recent decades, appearance ideals have become increasingly unrealistic in spite of evidence identifying the ill effects. Body image anxiety is now prevalent in children, teens, and adults of all genders. (Calzo, J.P. et al., 2015; Maine, M. and Kelly, J., 2005)
A positive connection with one’s body is a foundation for a strong sense of self. Body dissatisfaction is a common source of unhappiness and has been linked to unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors. (Bucchianeri, M.M. and Neumark-Sztainer, 2013; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006) In over three decades working to help people struggling with every different kind of eating problem, we have observed that healthy self-care is best sustained in the context of a loving, caring relationship with one’s body and self, rather than one of taming or shaming the body.
A growing body of research confirms our clinical observations that body image distress develops from one or more of the following four sources in varying combinations:
Media consumption has been shown to be a powerful contributor to body negativity. The average North American spends numerous hours a day receiving media input, much of which consists of visual images of idealized bodies. Estimates of media exposure range from hundreds to thousands of images per day. Various forms of media thus provide more impressions of what people look like or should look like than a person’s life experience of real humans in their home or community. Media images convey rigid, narrow standards of beauty that are unattainable for almost everyone. Too often, people judge themselves in comparison to these unhealthy images and feel badly about the bodies they are living in. (Kilbourne, J., 2000; López-Guimeràa, G. et al., 2010)
Social environments also contribute to body negativity. BadBodyTalk is a common topic of conversation. Commentary associating worth with pounds, shape, and size has become a dominant shared value system. The idealization of thinness for females and muscularity for males develops as early as grade school and escalates through adolescence and beyond. (Bacon, L. and Aphramor, L. 2014; Smolak, L. and Thompson, J., 2009)
Women are judged more by appearance than men and are more likely to have harsh and distorted body self-evaluations. “Increasing numbers of normal, attractive women, with no weight problems or clinical psychological disorders, look at themselves in the mirror and see ugliness and fat.” (Fox, K. 1997) Males are not exempt, feeling pressure to achieve unrealistic proportions and muscularity.
Family relationships are especially influential in shaping a person’s evolving sense of body image and self. The conversations, opinions, and behaviors observed and absorbed in the home environment convey messages about how important appearance is and how much fitness matters in relation to other values. Surveys indicate that children are affected not only by direct parental comments and attitudes toward the child’s body, but also by their role models’ body images. Thus, a parent’s body image distress may have a negative impact even if they scrupulously avoid commenting on a child’s eating or weight. (Neumark-Sztainer, D. et al., 2010)
Individual factors also contribute to BadBodyTalk. Experiences of early maturation, body-focused teasing, and trauma, such as sexual abuse, are associated with the development of body dissatisfaction. Personal characteristics like high levels of anxiety, perfectionism, or social comparison also increase the risk. (Keel, P.K. and Forney, K.J., 2013; Smolak, L. and Thompson, J.K. 2009)
In a culture such as our own in which the thin ideal is a widely shared value, BadBodyTalk can be a way of organizing and coping with other painful struggles. BadBodyTalk shifts attention from conflicts, losses, painful feelings, and challenging issues that cannot be controlled, to the illusion that the body is the problem and can be fixed.
For those who are vulnerable, the body negativity absorbed from media, social environments, and family life becomes so routine and familiar that it goes unnoticed and unchallenged, yet it grows stronger with multiple repetitions over time. The voice of the inner critic is often the most harshly judgmental.
Years of listening to the painful stories of our clients, struggling with all kinds of eating disorders, we felt the need to reach out to our communities and offer education, eating disorders prevention, and health promotion. We founded Change the Message, a campaign to empower individuals and communities to resist the culture of body negativity. Our workshops, professional presentations, and products are designed to support active practices to transform the messages we give ourselves and others. We want to empower everyone to challenge and transform harmful BadBodyTalk and strengthen the messages that sustain good health.
What to do:
Freedom from BadBodyTalk is possible but there is no single solution to the complex issue of improving body image. Helpful strategies include: minimizing exposure to media with unrealistic images, refusing to participate in BadBodyTalk, and reconnecting the mind and body through experiential activities such as yoga, sports, and dancing. If negative body image is severe or interfering with health, an experienced professional can help explore the origins and meanings of BadBodyTalk and work toward a healthier relationship with the body.
We know from clinical experience that body image issues are profound and exploring them provokes a variety of feelings, many which are painful. The “Change the Message” campaign was developed to apply the cognitive behavioral approach of disputing and revising dysfunctional thinking to break the grip of BadBodyTalk. The Stop BadBodyTalk Change the Message button and challenge card were designed to facilitate this important work. A visual cue and instructional prompts apply a cognitive shift in 5 steps (see below).
We call it the Stop BadBodyTalk…Change the Message Challenge. Learning and practicing these steps during our workshops is fun and often brings levity to a sensitive topic. The techniques introduced on the card and in the workshop are meant to become an ongoing practice of self-care.
Step 1: Paying attention to all BodyTalk.
Changing the message begins with a gentle observance of the thoughts, feelings, and judgments that arise when engaging in BodyTalk. Paying attention throughout the day helps bring awareness to the content and frequency of BodyTalk as well as the physical and emotional responses to these messages. This is a crucial step in beginning the process of changing the mindset.
Step 2: Consider the impact that BadBodyTalk has on self, and others.
How does it feel when the body is criticized by self, other people, or the media? Asking this question can illuminate how deep and hurtful these judgments can be. When people recognize the unnecessary pain and risks to self-esteem they are suffering, they want to revise their thinking to feel better about themselves and also to reduce the chance of harming others.
Step 3: Take action.
The next step is taking action to change the message. Honest and accurate statements often contradict negative assumptions we have been holding onto for years.
There are many ways to construct new statements that are fair, respectful, and reasonable. New messages may focus on the inner experience of the body instead of appearance, as in “I am fit and strong and have lots of energy.” Healthy BodyTalk may negate BadBodyTalk as in “My self-worth is not determined by my size or the number on the scale.” New statements may affirm the self without referencing the body, for example, “It’s a blessing to be alive”. The pivotal moment is stopping and becoming aware of how the new message feels in the mind and the body. At first, it may seem odd and unfamiliar but our workshop participants often say the new message helps them feel more comfortable with themselves.
Sometimes, a more objective view leads to self-acceptance. Emotional health requires coming to terms with the inevitability of body imperfections and the reality that certain characteristics of one’s physical appearance cannot be changed, such as a genetic predisposition to a particular body shape or healthy weight range outside the “ideal.” Accepting those aspects of yourself is central to improving body image and embracing your uniqueness.
Step 4: Practice new messages.
Because changing the message is an active process, we encourage people to practice the new messages every day. The new messages must be repeated and absorbed many times. Speaking new messages aloud makes them more powerful. The Stop BadBodyTalk buttons, challenge cards, and images on the “Real Beauty” and “Sticks and Stones” posters all serve to visually prompt the practice of changing the message. Healthy messages generate many emotional and behavioral rewards.
Step 5: Share your Change the Message story.
Let your friends and family know that you are developing more positive BodyTalk. Shifting your mindset, changing your social conversations, and engaging in dialogues inspired by the Stop BadBodyTalk button or CTM posters are all ways to resist the culture of body negativity.
We invite you to share your experiences by posting on our website. (https://changethemessage.com/bad-body-talk/share-your-story/) Reading the stories of others who have taken the challenge and sharing your own can be a grounding and inspiring experience.
The rewards of changing the message are self-reinforcing. From improving self-esteem, to possessing more body confidence and yes, eventually loving your body, are some of the many benefits of positive BodyTalk. We know that body acceptance is part of a good relationship with oneself and promotes self-care behaviors. Respectful BodyTalk makes it easier to follow through with healthy intentions like eating well and being physically active.
Equally significant is the energy and other personal resources freed up from BadBodyTalk that can be invested in things that have more meaning and a better payoff for well-being. With a foundation of a healthy relationship with the body, people can fulfill their dreams and potential in relationships, career, spirituality and creativity. When we feel at ease with our body it translates to all areas of our lives.
We are making the workshop available by offering the new Stop BadBodyTalk Change the Message Workshop Provider Guide.
About the authors –
Nutrition therapist Jill Shafer, RD, CEDRD, and psychologist Nancy Logue, PH.D. began their work together on a treatment team helping individuals in their recovery from eating disorders at The Renfrew Center, Yardley Pennsylvania in 1998. Their collaboration continued working with individuals and co-facilitating groups for participants with compulsive eating and other behavioral and emotional excesses. In recent years, their teamwork has expanded from clinical work to community outreach, education, and prevention efforts.
Jill Shaffer RD, CEDRD, practices in Lawrenceville and specializes in treating children, teens and adults with disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders. She serves on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of IAEDP.
Nancy Logue Ph.D, practices psychotherapy in Yardley, Pennsylvania, supporting men, women and couples who want to take better care of themselves and their relationships. She serves on the board of the Philadelphia Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy.
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