She is 17 and she walks into my office with a depressed look on her face. She says, "this is going to be a bad summer for me." I ask her why and she says, "because I'm going to have to lose weight before I go to the beach with my friends." My heart sinks and I feel a lump in my throat. I look at this amazing young woman who is bright, funny and energetic and I'm sad because I've heard versions of her story all of my life. This is just the beginning of her avoiding life's pleasures because she thinks she has to lose weight.
She's no different than the twenty-something client who keeps adding exercise classes to her day to maintain her very thin shape; the 45-year-old mother of three who gets up so early to exercise that she has trouble functioning for the rest of the day; or the 56-year old senior executive who tells me that she hates herself because of her body. She is no different from so many women who are giving up on fun adventures, new challenges and joyful events because they have decided that they can't do these things if they don't lose weight.
I can tell my client that she is responding to body images from the media that are unattainable for the majority of women, yet I know that she won't believe me. I can tell her that our society focuses on the appearance of women more than our achievements, so that from a young age we are programmed to value the way we look more than anything else. I can tell her some tired old story that she's beautiful on the inside, but this only seems to suggest that she is somehow lacking on the outside. No, even though all of this is true, none of it will convince her to go to the beach.
What I will tell her, and what I tirelessly tell all women, is that we must accept, even love, our bodies exactly as they are right now. Otherwise, our lives will be wasted seeking that impossible "perfect body," while missing out on all of the joy and adventure that life can bring regardless of our weight. There is no weight limit at the beach, no sign that says we can't enter if we weigh over a certain amount. That sign is in our head and in our fear of the judgment of others. When we dump the sign and we ignore the judgments, we can enjoy our lives at any weight. This doesn't mean we won't work on being healthy, it means we won't hold ourselves back based on some societal definition of what it means to be beautiful.
I will teach my client to change the voice in her head that says, "you aren't thin enough" into the voice that says, "how can I live my life to its fullest?" We will work on looking in the mirror without judgment and looking at others without comparison. We will talk about being happy and fulfilled right this moment and not when she "loses the weight." We will change the focus away from her appearance and onto her dreams, goals and achievements. We will talk about how she can put some space between herself and the people, including her mother, who tell her, "you'd be so much prettier if you lost a few pounds." We will know that they mean well, but they are really just making us feel worse about ourselves.
My client will practice living her life without talking or thinking about her weight. She will go to the beach with her friends and do what teenagers do at the beach. She won't cover up her body because how can she enjoy the water if she is all covered up? My client will head into adulthood confident of herself, honoring and valuing her body, but not obsessing about it. None of this will be easy because she's already adopted the belief that her value lies in her appearance. It will be hard for her to change that message and to realize how it keeps her from living a fuller, more complete life.
I'll tell her how women twice her age are still struggling with these issues and that making that mind shift now will save her from years of self-hate, frustration and a life partially lived. I will help her believe so fully in herself that no amount of weight loss or gain, judgment from others or pictures in magazines can shake her confidence. I'll gather my strength, ignore my sadness that we even have to do this work and I will look at this amazing young woman who lights up a room and work to convince her that she is perfectly wonderful just how she is. Wish me luck.
Lisa Kaplin is a psychologist and life coach at www.smartwomeninspiredlives.com. You can reach her at Lisa@smartwomeninspiredlives.com and get her blog and newsletter updates at http://smartwomeninspiredlives.com/updates.