Student calendars conspire to make us all the more prone to lofty New Year’s resolutions. After all, we had a full month to recover from the fall term. And those languishing weeks happened to include New Year’s Eve with all of the high hopes and new leaves young imaginations can come up with. In the last piece I wrote before we left for winter break, I asked who among us has not tried to remake themselves. None of us are immune to wanting to be different or better in some way.
Last fall one of our fellow students at Mills died from complications related to her severe struggle with anorexia nervosa. And while her death is unusual and frightening, the road that brought her there is far too much like the roads that many of us walk on to this day. I had asked the question, where do we go from here? How do we work on developing healthy and robust ways of knowing and loving ourselves? How do we move away from obsessive and dark thoughts that chain our body image, food consumption, and self esteem together in a tangled drowning mess? And what do we do for those around us when we see them struggling?
We all need to do our part to discourage the idea that a particular diet, weight, or body size will automatically lead to happiness and fulfillment. When you look out for them, it’s astounding how prevalent false beliefs about thinness are. Weight loss is touted at great length while body fat and weight gain are horrible or indicate laziness, worthlessness, or immorality according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Be critical of social and media messages relating to self-esteem and body image. Pay attention to and protest attitudes, advertisements, and images that make us feel bad about ourselves and our bodies. Remember, diet and beauty industries get rich because of those bad feelings. NEDA suggests talking back to the television when you hear a comment or see an image that promotes thinness at all costs. They also suggest ripping out and/or writing to the editor about advertisements or articles in your magazines that make you feel bad about your body shape or size.
We can also be more proactive when it comes to the voices in our heads. Our thoughts do not have to master us. We can overpower negative internal voices that tell us we aren’t good enough, that our bodies aren’t right, and that we won’t experience love or success if we don’t look differently. When you start to tear yourself down, be rude, interrupt, and offer up positive self affirmations.
Stay away from parceling out foods into categories of good and bad, safe and dangerous. We should exercise in order to be healthy and strong and for the joy that movement brings. Watch out for exercise that revolves around losing weight, purging fat from our bodies, or “making up” for calories consumed. Spend less time in front of the mirror, especially if it’s making you uncomfortable and self-conscious.
Be sensitive to warning signs of eating disorders. Watch for: skipping out on group socializing that includes eating, skipping meals, comments about self and others such as “I’m too fat,” stress brought on by shopping for clothes, withdrawal from friends, irritability and depression, and any signs of extreme dieting, binging, or purging (NEDA). If someone you are close to exhibits signs of an eating disorder, share your concerns in a caring, honest way. Be firm with your encouragement for them to seek trained professional help. Offer to help your friend find support services and offer to go with them to their first appointment. The Office of Student Life has access to resources, referrals, and counselors. If you’re not sure how to approach someone or what to do if you are met with anger and denial, the counselors can help you navigate those waters.
Finally, we can all strive to be models of healthy body image and self esteem, People pay attention and learn from how we talk and feel about ourselves. We don’t have to let our feelings about body weight and shape become paramount. Instead, we can base our feelings on things that truly are important like our goals, accomplishments, strengths, character, and heart. We can treat ourselves with respect and put our time and energy to better use. Because there are bigger and better things to do than worry about food, calories, and our weight.