I gave a little talk last month, over and over, to groups of middle school students, grades 6 – 8, and it was eye-opening. I wasn’t surprised to see that when I asked a question like: “How real are the images of models and actresses that we see in magazines and on the web?” lots of hands shot up and words like “fake!” and “PhotoShop!” came up in group after group. Everyone, boys and girls, in all three grades, seemed to understand quite clearly that what we see doesn’t always represent reality.
But when I asked a follow-up question: “Do people judge you on your weight?” There were big differences. The 6th graders didn’t react much, and the 7th graders were mixed, though still fairly neutral. But the 8th graders reacted strongly: Girls’ hands went up all over the room. “The boys call me fat!” “They tease us!” …and the boys in the room mostly laughed. I should qualify that, however: the girls raising their hands and speaking up were the slim ones and the average-weight ones. The heavier girls dropped their eyes and said nothing — and that said it all.
I’m sure that if they had all been a little older, the reactions would have been even more intense. I also suspect that there would be more overweight young people in the room, most of them girls. As girls get older, those 8th grade pressures become much stronger, and the judgments harsher. They go on diets (sometimes just because their friends do) and when the weight comes back on, who do they blame? Themselves of course! (By the way, if you’ve done this yourself, just stop. The weight almost always comes back–85% of the time, anyway, and often extra weight too. So you’re simply human. Give yourself a break!)
When we start to judge ourselves by external measures, comparing our bodies and faces to “perfect” images, seeing ourselves through the eyes and comments of others, we start down a slippery slope — because we’re usually even harsher on ourselves than they would be, and because we will never achieve the perfection we desire: the kind of perfection that will protect us from negative judgment. That kind of perfection isn’t possible. Even the slim girls got teased, after all!
The best defenses against those sorts of judgment are Self-Respect and Self-Confidence. Some people seem to come by them naturally, but many of us don’t (or we lost ours over time to criticism, ridicule and self-blame). We can re-build them, but that takes time and, especially, it takes awareness: Awareness of when those judgments are sneaking into our heads, awareness that they’re not true, and biggest of all: awareness that it’s actually possible to change our thought patterns.
The best thing is to not lose yourself in the first place, and the way to do that is two-fold: Protect Your Mind and Honor Your Body.
Protect Your Mind by challenging negative judgments, both their accuracy and the right of anyone else to make them. Your body is your business, and so is your weight. When people say negative things (even in seemingly helpful ways) there’s an underlying judgment that the way you are right now is “not OK”. That actually does not help the situation–it only makes you feel worse (there’s research on this: Self-Acceptance leads to lower weight. Self-criticism does not).
When those judgments are coming from inside you (those negative thoughts that pop into your head again and again), write them down, think of a way to shift them to something more positive, and practice each follow-up thought so you’ll be ready with it the next time the negative thought intrudes. (This really works–and having one single follow-up thought works better than having three, according to the research.) So, if you often think: “my thighs are so fat”, follow it up with something like “and they’re really strong–they carry me wherever I need to go”. Don’t reject the first thought, just shift it a bit. It’s much easier and more effective at making the negative thought just give up and fade away.
Honor Your Body by paying attention to it! Not just when you’re sick or in pain, but treat it with respect and nurture it. That does not mean following every crazy fad that comes down the social media stream, and it definitely does not mean going on a diet. Diets set us up for failure because they put us in conflict with our bodies — our bodies react to calorie restriction as if we were actually going to starve, and they fight back, HARD. (Research on this too.) That’s why diets require so much willpower! There’s probably a perfectly acceptable weight that is genetically normal for you, and that’s where your body wants to be–you can help it get there and stay there!
First, recognize hunger when it occurs (do let it occur). Notice it, and appreciate that your body is communicating with you, then feed that hunger — calmly, with attention and enjoyment, with real food that you like. You’ll be more satisfied if you eat slowly and savor each bite, and you’ll eat less as a result. And, whatever you eat, however much, don’t guilt yourself! Human beings eat for lots of reasons: if you’re not eating for hunger, pull out your magnifying glass and play Sherlock: Why do you want food? What’s going on? Curiosity leads to understanding, which is the foundation of positive change! (Judgment just keeps us stuck in the spin cycle.)
Over time, as you listen to your own body’s wisdom (it knows what it needs) and learn to quiet the negative self-talk, your self-trust will steadily grow. And as you act on that, your Self-Confidence and Self-Respect will grow stronger by the day. You’ll be in integrity with yourself, unshakeable and powerful in the face of “Perfect Models”, “Ideal Weights”, and Internet Trolls!