Managing a negative body image – expert interview



There is a large number of factors. First, there are the ones internal to you: genetics, personality, upbringing, the kind of role models your parents were, etc. There is a study called the Adverse Childhood Experience that was conducted in the 90s in the US where they looked at a wide range of traumas children can go through like violence and emotional abuse to other types of household dysfunction. They found that people with a lot of ACEs would develop a lot of unhealthy behaviors as adults – eating disorders, addictions, putting yourself in complicated situations, bad relationships. And they also looked at health markers and saw that these adults also had for example a much higher rate of auto-immune issues.


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Managing a negative body image – expert interview



Today, we will be tackling a pretty serious topic that affects a large number of people – especially women: body image. More specifically, why do so many women spend so much time, money, effort and thought trying to change their bodies? Is it for health? Is it for vanity? Will exercising a lot and eating squeaky clean make you healthier than the average person? Will being slim make you happier or more successful? Will it make you love and respect yourself more?

Having gone through a restrictive eating phase myself and being a total fitness fan, these questions have been buried somewhere in my consciousness for years. In fact, I only really started acknowledging after turning 40 – the age where you either get depressed, fight against nature or begin to accept yourself.

So when I met Florence Gilet, a Dubai-based Eating Psychology coach certified with The Institute Psychology of Eating, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was secretly scared she’d diagnose me with some form of disorder but the other part of me was thrilled because she is a fountain of knowledge, inspiration and support when it comes to all things related to this complex subject. In fact, I wish I could do a podcast with her because she had so much information to share…and one day I hope to. For now, I leave you with her interview and insightful story.

WM: What is an Eating Psychology coach? What made you want to specialize in this?

FG: I use strategies from nutrition science and eating psychology to help individuals restore a happy, healthy relationship with food and their body. What got me into this has a lot to do with my own story. I was long-time chronic dieter and over-exerciser and in the end, found myself with an eating disorder. At the time, I didn’t realize I had a problem because these behaviors are morally valued in our society. I was slim, fit, had a lot of will power, was “disciplined” and “healthy”. In fact, I would often get positive comments about it. Now, I know that one in four dieters end up developing an eating disorder, but back then, I just wanted to feel good about myself and be healthy.

WM: Were you diagnosed with anything at the time?

FG: No, I wasn’t diagnosed with anything like anorexia or bulimia, but I didn’t have a healthy relationship with food at all: I was restrictive, would ignore my hunger, carefully watched my diet during the week so I could binge on weekends, calculated everything that I put into my body and so on in the name of health and feeling good. But when we decided to have children and got off birth control, realized I had Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. In other words, I had lost my period. This is a condition mostly believed to be present in athletes but I wasn’t doing massive amounts of sport and wasn’t severely underweight. As far as I was concerned, I was a slim healthy version of myself. But really, I was doing too much exercise for my body and under-fueling it. That’s when I met Dr Nicola Rinaldi, a doctor specialized in this. She guided me through recovery and the method was simple: eat as much as you want – at least 2500 calories a day – and stop exercising. No restrictions, no food rules, just eat what makes you feel good. It took me 6 months and I gained 8 kgs. It was really difficult psychologically but I was motivated, my cycle came back and we went on to have two wonderful children.

WM: Is that when you decided to become a coach?

FG: Sadly, no. After the kids were born, I eventually went back into the exercise and restrictive eating cycle. My main motivation the second time was to heal chronic acne issues I was having. So I went dairy free, gluten free and did everything else suggested in my readings. Fast-forward a few years, I was still experiencing skin problems and my immune system was actually getting worst. Also, my obsession with healthy eating was affecting different areas of my life: my kids noticed I wasn’t having the same meals as them, I avoided restaurants and missed out on a lot of things. Eating just became stressful. It was also around that time that I began reading about body positivity and acceptance and recognized this was a problem for me. And I wanted out. So I returned to Dr Rinaldi, but this time, also coupled it with therapy to learn how to overcome my body psychology issues for good.

A lot of the time, when we have these kind of behaviors, we tell ourselves “if I could just fix this – the cellulite, the extra baby weight, those last few pounds, etc – I will feel better about myself and be happier”, but the reality is that you cannot fix your self-image by fixing your body, you need to do deeper personal work, that’s why therapy is critical.

For a few years, during and after my recovery, I changed a lot of things in my life and eventually knew I wanted to help other women who were experiencing the same issues as I had had. That’s when I began studying with the Institute for the Psychology of Eating where I got trained to look not only at nutrition but also on how emotions, thoughts, feelings and how you eat can influence your hormones, metabolism, digestion and gut health. Today I coach alongside Dr Rinaldi – she focuses on the physiological aspects of patients such as identifying the hormones that are out of balance, advising them on how to regain their cycle, etc and I help them regain a more positive, realistic and healthy attitude towards their body.

WM: Everyone wants to look their best. At what point does it become a problem? And at what stage do people come to see you?

FL: It is perfectly normal and healthy to want to look good. It becomes problematic when it starts affecting other aspects of your life.

Often people come to me when their body image issues are having big repercussions on their life like not being able to get pregnant, getting unexplained panic attacks, etc. Other times, a person will reach out to me because they realize that they have a terrible relationship with food and want to address it. I also work with parents who are worried because their children are adopting behaviors associated with a negative body image.

WM: Where does negative self-body image stem from?

FG: There is a large number of factors. First, there are the ones internal to you: genetics, personality, upbringing, the kind of role models your parents were, etc. There is a study called the Adverse Childhood Experience that was conducted in the 90s in the US where they looked at a wide range of traumas children can go through like violence and emotional abuse to other types of household dysfunction. They found that people with a lot of ACEs would develop a lot of unhealthy behaviors as adults – eating disorders, addictions, putting yourself in complicated situations, bad relationships. And they also looked at health markers and saw that these adults also had for example a much higher rate of auto-immune issues.

Then there are the learned behaviors related to body image – and that is where you need to look at the culture and values you adopt from the environment. Today for example, we live in a diet culture, which values thinness and associates it with health, success, desirability, positive attention, etc. This keeps us believing that our self-worth is related to how thin we are but really, thin does not equate any of the things I just mentioned.

WM: Many of us exercise and try to eat low carb, gluten or sugar free also for health reasons. How much do you think is vanity versus the desire to be healthy?

FG: I will turn that question around a little. The values around diet culture make us believe that health depends on food and exercise. And that’s not the reality. But because these two things have always been at the forefront of our mindset, we still believe that if we want to be healthy we need to eat less, exercise more and lose weight. And when people follow this, I don’t blame them – we see the stigma that fat people go through and we don’t want to live that way. For example, I work with a lot of parents who have overweight children and they are concerned because they don’t want their kids to go through the discrimination that “fat” people do – because this “privilege” of thinness is real, it happens all the time. Having said that, if people are really concerned with their health, they should also look at other determinants of health like sleeping more, their relationships, their social, family and work environment, the quality of their healthcare, etc It is too simplistic to say that health depends solely on food and fitness. But again, this is our culture and we’ve been told being thin is the right thing to do, it will bring us success, happiness, love, relationships, etc. And you know – again I am not blaming anyone for trying to get there – but what you hear when people say they want to be healthy is that they want to be happy. We’ve internalized fat phobia so much that we cannot be happy if we don’t have the right body, as if it will unlock this perfect life. But in reality, you will not get your best life if you don’t accept yourself. That’s why a lot of the work I do is around this self-acceptance. I believe in the The Health At Every Size® Approach. This rests on the idea that you can nurture your health without being weight-centric as long as you follow certain practices. Dr Linda Bacon, who developed this concept, actually conducted a 1-year study on 78 obese women where they formed 2 groups. One group followed a classic calorie-restricted diet and exercise route with the help of a nutritionist. The other group was told to work on accepting body diversity, not weighing themselves, reconnecting to their natural hunger and fullness cues without following a meal plan. They were also told to introduce movement to their life – not for the sake of exercise but for enjoyment. They measured all their health markers before and after. In the 1st group, 40% had dropped out – which is typical of class dieting – and though the remaining had lost a bit of weight initially, most gained it back. The 2nd group also kept the same weight, but their health markers such as cholesterol and blood pressure were better. They were also more active. So yes, diet and exercise have an impact, but having a healthy and reasonable mindset is also critical.

WM: Earlier, you mention the effect of thoughts and feelings on digestive health. How so?

FG: Your thoughts affect your stress levels and chronic stress causes havoc in your body. You have to understand that our body doesn’t know the difference between the stress from being a chased by a lion or from thinking negative thoughts all the time. In both cases, it will get into a stress response, which can affect your digestion and many other things. It reduces the amount of good bacteria in your gut, all your blood goes to your limbs, which means you have less available energy to digest and assimilate nutrients, it increases your cortisol, which over time decreases your metabolism. It’s also related to thyroid conditions, higher cholesterol, poor breathing so less oxygen intake, even the mitochondria – the energy of the cell – gets affected.

WM: How can someone change a negative self-image?
What advice would you give?

FG: You need therapy to really change – the best kind in my opinion for these types of issues is cognitive behavior therapy. It really dissociates your thoughts from your behaviors and helps you stop the behavior and rebuild your thought and value system.

But there are a lot of additional things people can start doing.

The first thing for me is to make sure you are eating enough. If you are being restrictive, your body will be in starvation mode and your mind will be fixated on food. In fact, that is one of the main reasons people binge. And over time your metabolism will go down. Also, we encourage people to eat a variety of food.

Reconnect to hunger and fullness
We are born with the innate ability to know when we are hungry or full. But something along the way makes us believe like we have to control what we eat and manage our weight. If you let your body do the work though, eat when you are hungry and listen to what you feel like having, there is no reason why you will be outside your normal weight. However, that might not be the weight that pleases you if you have an unrealistic ideal body image you aspire to. But if you trust your body, your body knows exactly what you need – and your metabolism will normalize. I also use intuitive eating a lot in my work, but I would never start with that, it is something people can start looking at once they have normalized their eating.

Look at your body for function not for appearance
This might be hard for the gym and fitness junkies or anyone who uses sport as a means to lose weight, have a certain image, etc. We suggest you opt for sports or movement they enjoy vs sports that will make me look like this or that.

Holding a list of gratitudes on a daily basis
This might sound a little tedious but practicing this every day helps remind us what is important in life and puts things in perspective.

Practice mindfulness, meditation or deep breathing
Body issues come as coping mechanism. For example, some people might use food restrictions because it is their way of regaining control in their life so it’s psychologically very hard to stop without initially feeling anxiety and malaise. Practices like deep breathing and meditation help ease that.

Review what you are consuming on social media
If your feed is filled with fitspo or seemingly perfect people, consider cleaning it up and involve more body-diverse people. It’s proven that the more you look at different bodies, the more you will see beauty in those bodies. But if all you see are thin, pretty, young profiles, then you will only see beauty in that. There are many body-positive social media accounts.

Finding activities that you enjoy to get your mind off things
This is a form of mindfulness. Doing activities and things you enjoy with or without people can help take your focus off things like food, weight and how you look. Instead, you focus on doing, creating or building something that is more beneficial to you.

Stay away from toxic people in your environment
For example, if you have someone who is always gossiping and criticizing other people’s bodies, or a parent/friend who puts you down, take a break from them.

WM: What if a parent suspects their child has an eating disorder?

FG: I do a lot of work with parents to help them raise body positive children. Some parents are worried because their kids are gaining weight – others come because their children start having behavior that could lead an eating disorder. Generally, if you want to raise a body positive child you first need to be a role model. If you were dieting, stop. If you are restricting them food, stop. All foods can fit into their life and your kid will be exposed to them at some point. Don’t talk about people’s bodies – “she’s fat, he’s out of shape, look she lost weight and looks great, etc” – they might interpret that the way you look makes you a better/worst person and feed stigmas.

However, if I suspect a child is anorexic or bulimic, I immediately direct them to a specialist doctor.



About Author

Islam and Eating Disorders founded in 2012 – run by Maha Khan, the blog creates awareness of Eating Disorders in the Muslim world, offers information and support for sufferers and their loved ones.

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