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How to Turn Negative Body Image Feelings Upside Down

with Lesley Paterson

Here’s a newsflash: Feeling fat bears almost no relation to actually being fat. So the next time your Size 2 friend moans about feeling chunky, try to avoid stating the obvious. Not only does this not help, research suggests it actually makes things worse. The more we “fat talk” (or participate in conversations where we put talk negatively about our own bodies), the more we think, plan, and act on unrealistic strategies to try and change our weight, and the more we start yo-yo-ing.

Most women and many men have days of feeling a little chunky – I’m certainly no exception. I’m 5’2”, weigh 103lbs, have 12% body fat, and am a professional triathlete. By all objective standards, I’m not fat. Yet, I still have days where I can’t bear to look at certain parts of myself in the mirror or I’m convinced that the sole reason for the seemingly new lumps on my upper thighs are because of the cashew butter I inhaled last night. Factually speaking, I know this is utter nonsense. I even know logically that my lumps and bumps are normal contours of legs belonging to – err – a human.

However, feelings aren’t fueled by our logical brains. Feelings come from our primitive limbic system, a chimp brain that thinks emotionally and catastrophically, with little regard for facts and logic. Emotions are important; they work by compelling us to make a decision and therefore act in a certain way that gives us a better chance of survival. The problem is that our survival is so rarely at stake these days, and so feeling depressed about perceived upper thigh cellulite or arm jiggle almost certainly leads to wrong decisions and bad behavior.

Even before 8 am you might find yourself thinking the following:

Not only are these decisions fueled by feelings that aren’t logical, they can also sometimes be dangerous. We let these thought gremlins squat in our heads and give us hours, days, and even weeks of grumpy, self-loathing, misery. Because the human brain is wired to restore peaceful order, it looks to behaviors that will offer immediate relief of our negative feelings. We eat. We drink. We over exercise. We shop. No sooner do we numb ourselves with these habits, we get hit by a second wave of emotion: guilt, frustration (at not being able to control it), or anger at the realization that we’ve just made things worse, not better. And so the cycle continues.

What’s a girl (or boy) to do? Here are 6 ways to get out of that “feeling fat” funk:

  1. Fat isn’t a feeling, it’s a thought pattern that’s a smokescreen for other feelings. Take time to think about what the underlying feeling is and think through why you feel this way. Are you feeling guilty? Ashamed? Scared? Vulnerable? Lonely? Why? Accurately identifying and solving these emotional conundrums is an important first step in tackling fat feelings.
  2. Stop the fat-talk. When you find yourself talking to your partner or friend about feeling fat, STOP IT. If someone does it to you, refuse to play the game. Acknowledge the feelings, but don’t indulge the wacko conclusions that follow it. Fat-talk is like scratching a mosquito bite. 10 seconds of pleasure for hours of irritation that follows it. It ain’t worth it.
  3. Accentuate the positive. Instead of moaning about things you don’t like about your body, switch your focus to things that your body can do (actions) that make you feel kick-ass and strong. As Kristin Mayer of Betty Designs says, “Remember, your body can do Epic Sh*t.” Yeah, focus on that.
  4. Know thy fat triggers. A fat trigger is simply the circumstance or event that prompted you to think or feel fat. If you happen to catch yourself in the mirror a certain way which leads to feelings of fatness, then the glance in the mirror would be the trigger. If you sit down in a certain way and notice a muffin top fresh out of the jeans-oven, then sitting down a certain way would be the trigger, and so on. Many triggers are unavoidable, but you can look for patterns and (a) try to reduce your exposure to them (e.g., avoid compulsively weighing yourself), and (b) develop pre-determined mantras that you say to yourself when the trigger hits you. Get armed with alternative thoughts to crowd out the noise. “I do Epic Sh*t.” “I am enough.”
  5. Work on self-acceptance skills. Every. Single. Day. Self-acceptance isn’t about pretending you’re a flawless hunk of awesomeness, it’s about recognizing that it’s normal to like certain aspects of ourselves more than other aspects. Importantly, this awareness shouldn’t get in the way of accepting yourself. Here I am, flawed. Just like you. And, you know what? That’s ok!
  6. If it’s more serious than that, talk to someone about it. Don’t know what “serious” means? If you’re having distressing thoughts about your body or your eating habits daily (or even more frequently), a trained professional can help you develop healthy ways to work through those issues, resulting in fewer negative thoughts and feelings. There are so now many fantastic therapists trained in body and eating disorders and who understand an athlete’s mindset, that you will be spoiled for choice. Get your Google on to find a local professional in your area.   

Lesley Paterson is a Liv ambassador, a 3-time World Champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.” (VeloPress).  Available from www.braveheartcoach.com.

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