This blog post was written by Dr. Sarah Pegrum, author of Break the Binds of Weight Stigma: Free Yourself from Body Image Struggles Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

The day begins with the usual “fashion show”. The trying on of clothing to wear for the day only to look in the mirror to see the muffin top, the belly, or some other part of the body that doesn’t look right. Take it off, move to the next outfit, hoping that one will fit and hide everything. All the while the mind races, thoughts of “I’m fat” and feelings of disgust, cascade into thoughts of being not good enough, a failure, unlovable, and worthless. These thoughts and feelings then collide with worries about other people’s perceptions and judgments. More fear. More shame. The spiral continues. The bigger the spiral the more tone is set for the day, dictating what actions should be. Often actions to hide or “fix” the body.

A glimmer appears of “you should love your body no matter what”. The sentiment seems noble and kind, but so out of reach. Unattainable. Another flurry of judgment whirrs in the mind “How shallow! What a hypocrite! What happened to body positivity and body acceptance? You can’t even do that right. What is wrong with you?!”

Sound familiar? This tirade of thoughts and feelings many people experience when trying on clothes, getting on the scale, or looking in the mirror is not about just weight or body or appearance. It is more than that. It sinks deeper into how we see ourselves, and how we think others may perceive and treat us. We see ourselves (body and mind) as not good enough, broken, and a problem in need of fixing.

When we step back and look at the world we live in, it is not surprising that we have these thoughts and feelings. From a young age, we have been surrounded by experiences that convey the narrative of to be thin or fit is good and something you should strive for.  While to be bigger or fat is bad, and something you should strive to avoid, or bad things will happen to you. As time passes, more and more become attached to the body size (such as health, desirability, popularity, worth, success, belonging, and control). The body becomes a representation of many things.

It makes sense that when we look at our own bodies we try to figure out where they fall in society’s weight narrative. Do I pass? Am I good enough? Can I belong? But it is a very narrow and ever-changing window of what is accepted.  Many never find themselves in the window, while others may be in the window briefly, but inevitably fall out of it. When we find ourselves existing outside that narrow window, we blame ourselves. We must be doing something wrong. Again, a convenient narrative sold to us by society.

We may respond by frantically seeking to “fix” the body, and several billion-dollar industries step in line to take our money for the so-called “fix”. Much of what they sell are false promises, but we throw our money and time at them. When they don’t work, we blame ourselves and again throw more money and time at the next thing. Alternatively, we may seek to hide away. The world is telling us that our body doesn’t fit, so we hide to protect ourselves from the harshness of the world and the judgment.

Yet whether we respond with “fixing” our bodies or hiding away, we are often pulled away from that which is meaningful to us. Opportunities for memories and connection are missed while we hide in the shadows or are distracted by the latest diet or wellness fad. Time isn’t paused while we wait for our weight. It passes, and it passes fast.

But what if it doesn’t have to be this way? What happens when we flip the script, and say “Society, it’s not me, it’s you”. We are normal human beings, having normal reactions to a problematic world full of weight stigma and weight discrimination. It is not our bodies, nor our minds, that are the problem that needs fixing, it is the world we live in.

When we take the problem out of ourselves and put it into the world, space is created. We can begin to see our thoughts and feelings about our weight and bodies differently. They are messages we have absorbed because we have been surrounded by them for so long. Just because they have been there for so long doesn’t mean they are helpful and doesn’t mean they have to direct our actions. There are many messages we encounter in society that we may not agree with or act upon. There are many messages in society that are long past their use-by date and are not helpful in guiding our actions. Maybe some of the thoughts we have about weight are based on societal messages that are past their use-by date and are not helpful anymore. When we stand in this space, we can explore other ways of responding or directing our actions. Ways that are more connected to what is important to us.

The journey of looking at and responding to our bodies, our minds, and the world around us differently is not easy and can be scary and daunting. Break the Binds of Weight Stigma explores the weight-related messages we have come to absorb and their impact, before delving into how we can break free from their constraint and build a life that is connected to what we want (not what we weigh). A life where we don’t have to hide because of, or wait for, weight. Break the Binds of Weight Stigma also calls for us to take action against weight stigma and weight discrimination. To take steps to build a world where we can feel safe to step forward and shine, regardless of what we weigh.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we often use metaphors and analogies because they can be powerful tools for breaking free from common thinking traps. In Break the Binds of Weight Stigma, the reader is introduced to the body image forest, and throughout the book, we explore the trees of the forest and different ways we can traverse through the forest.

We can think of body-related thoughts, such as “I’m fat”, or “I can’t do that till I lose weight” as towering trees in the forest. They loom over us, casting shadows of doubt and self-criticism. Alternatively, these thoughts can be like thorny bushes or vines, entangling us, making it hard to move forward. In response to these trees or vines, we may try to contort or change our bodies to fit the narrow spaces of the forest, mirroring our attempts to meet society’s standards of what is considered “good”.

But no matter how much we do this, it never seems to be enough. Another common response is to hide, seeking refuge in the shadows so we don’t run into trees or get caught up in vines. Hiding in the real world involves hiding our bodies away to protect ourselves from judgment. Unfortunately, both of these responses tend to pull us away from what truly matters to us, preventing others from seeing our authentic selves and the unique gifts we possess. We get stuck in the forest.

Yet we can traverse through the forest differently. We can learn to respond to the messages around us, and internal experiences differently, reducing their power and building our ability to connect with what is meaningful to us.

Just like a forest is shaped by broader climate factors, our body image forest is also shaped by broader forces. We are not personally responsible for the existence of our body image forest. When we step back and see all the experiences that shape how we feel about weight, we can see that we are not broken or shallow for having these thoughts and feelings, but rather we are having normal human reactions to living in a world where we have been bombarded with messages about weight from a young age. We can take steps to change the climate, shaping how the forest grows in the future. Thus, helping others navigate the forest differently, and maybe preventing them from experiencing the struggles with the body and weight that many of us have experienced.

Break the Binds of Weight Stigma by Dr. Sarah Pegrum is available October 10, 2023.

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