The very first time I heard the statement “The problem is not your body, the problem is society,” I was listening to a podcast. The guest talked passionately about helping women heal their relationships with food and body. The hair on my arms stood up and chills ran through my body the moment I heard those words. What did she just say?
The problem is not your body. The problem is society.
I was not new to the arena of self-help or recovering from eating disorders. With a Master’s degree in Psychology and almost a decade of experience counseling others, I knew all about confronting cognitive distortions, implementing behavioral modification plans, and talking about your feelings. I also had been to treatment for anorexia and bulimia twice. Visits with therapists, psychiatrists, and nutritionists filled my 20’s and 30’s.
But not once in my education, work experience, or personal treatment had I truly examined the weight society’s expectations have on a person’s shoulders.
An Individual Problem
I hadn’t considered the effect the rules, values, and rituals of a society may have on a person’s mental health. Instead I’d learned to put the weight (and the blame) of a problem on an individual in order to “fix” it. If a person had anxiety or depression, we taught them to challenge irrational thoughts and implement coping mechanisms. When I attempted to overcome a lifelong eating disorder, I carried the responsibility of my own recovery heavily on my own shoulders. Almost as if wearing blinders, I ignored the collective society a person grows up and develops in.
As an introverted and anxious teen I mindlessly consumed the media bombarded at me. (I am just thankful there was no social media during my teen-aged years). The magazines, barbies, movies, and television I ingested all sent me the same dangerous messages. My value as a woman was to be attractive, agreeable, likable, and thin. The thinner, the better. There is no such thing as being too rich or to thin. I even cut that line out of a magazine and posted it on my wall.
We’ve Got It All Wrong
We live in a society that tells us our worth is determined by our size. That we are supposed to fight the laws of nature. And to override our natural instinct to feed ourselves. Society praises us for ignoring our hunger and our bodies.
Our society tells us we are in control and responsible ultimately for our own destiny and our pants size. Not only is this way of thinking harmful, it is also absurd.
Research shows that the vast majority of people are not able to control their body size. Dieting simply does not work, and instead only predicts weight gain and eating disorders. And for those of us who are able to successfully manipulate our bodies- this leads us to a miserable life. It ends us in treatment centers, doctor offices, and searching for hope online. Desperately trying to find some way to break free from the hell of an eating disorder. And find our way back to ourselves.
When You Think The Problem Is You
When you grow up blind to the impact that society has on your thoughts, beliefs, and actions- you blame yourself for anything less than the best. We take full responsibility for any and all failures. While ignoring the messages we’re given from the time we are born about how to be “good” how to be “loved” and how to be accepted.
As a well educated person born into an intact family afforded many privileges, I felt awful that I ended up with an eating disorder. How could I put my loving family through such pain and hardship? The answer in my sick mind was simple- I had messed up. Something was wrong with me. This type of thinking ignores the weight and image obsessed culture that we are all swimming in.
A Radical New Perspective on My Body Being the Problem
Placing the blame back in the correct spot is empowering and freeing.
When we recognize bodies are supposed to come in different shapes and sizes and body diversity is a natural phenomenon, it relieves us of the added pressure to make our bodies into something they are not meant to be.
Stepping into our God given body and allowing her to thrive in her natural state is liberating. It is bold, energizing, and blissful. And it is also terrifying. Because loving and accepting your body at it’s natural size is counter culture. Letting go of trying to fit your body into a size it was not mean to be goes against all the messages we’re bombarded with. From the media, the medical community, and even our well meaning mothers and fathers.
I spent decades fighting with and controlling my body size and shape. Like it was a problem I had to solve, I poured my time, energy, and attention into keeping my body small.
The truth is- there was never anything wrong with my body. The problem was the society that told me there was.
Living by a new mantra
There was so much power in the realization that my struggles with food, weight, and body were not 100% my fault. The fact that I still struggle with body image, long into recovery, also is not my fault.
And because the problem is NOT my body, also the solution is NOT to control my body.
So “the problem is not your body, the problem is society” became my new mantra. I wrote it on my mirrors in dry erase markers. And I scribbled it on post-it notes and placed them throughout my house. Every time I caught a glimpse of my round belly or my expanding thighs in the mirror I shouted it in my head.