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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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25 Jan

How to Celebrate Love Your Body Month When You Don’t

Current Events 1 Comment by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

loveyourbody

{image via @yourbeautifullife}

For most of us, the thought of spending an entire month in a love-fest for our bodies is a little daunting. Heck, an hour of doing so might be a little daunting. Both research and talking to anybodyanywhere confirms that the majority of us are pretty uncomfortable in our own skin, and going from that to loving our bodies feels like quite a stretch. And who wants to spend an entire month stretching? Besides yoga teachers and gymnasts, of course…

I’ll be honest: when I first heard about February’s Love Your Body Month, I cringed a bit. I’m a believer that you don’t have to love your body to treat it well. And I believe that, for some, trying to love your body can actually detract from the process of treating it well.

Sound strange?

It’s because so many people get frustrated with what feels like an impossible goal — loving a body they’ve been conditioned to hate — that they throw in the towel altogether. Love my <insert derogatory remarks about said body> body? Pffsh… never. I might as well <insert self-destructive or unkind behavior> forever.

[Hear me out in more detail on why you don’t need to love your body in this post.]

 So I was ready to ignore Love Your Body Month when I realized… maybe there’s another way of thinking about this.

Hear me out.

Rather than thinking of the month like a command of your feelings (“You must feel love toward your body in February!”), think of it like a suggestion of action (“Hey, how about trying to treat your body as if you loved it?” or, “Let’s practice showing loving kindness toward our bodies, no matter how we actually feel about them.”).

Does it feel any different?

To me, there’s a huge difference. You can probably come up with a few people in your life that you didn’t necessarily love, or perhaps even like all that much, but you treated them with respect and dignity. You would never talk disrespectfully to them or take actions that would harm them in any way. You didn’t love them, but you could co-exist peacefully and treat them kindly.

So maybe you can’t get on board with the idea of loving your body just yet – or maybe you never will (that’s actually okay!) – but I do urge you to participate in Love Your Body Month anyway. And if you choose to do so, here are five ways that you can act lovingly towards your body (no matter what emotions about it you may have):

1.      Watch your language. Notice how you’re talking about your body to both others and  yourself. If you tend to complain to your girlfriends about your flabby arms or your ears that stick out, try dropping it this month. This doesn’t mean you won’t think about how upset you are about certain traits, but fight the urge to vocalize them. Fat and other body shaming talk is cyclical. Stopping the negative noise can really alter the environment and, ultimately, lead to healthier perspectives on our bodies.

2.      Challenge your body to try one new thing. I’m not talking about P90X (that’s still a thing, right? No?) or anything that pushes you beyond your limits. It could be taking on a new yoga pose, allowing your body to try a food you always assumed you’d hate, or getting a massage for the first time.

3.      Develop a self-care ritual. I know things are too chaotic in my life when I start to skip parts of my morning or evening routine. Taking care of our bodies – even through “simple” things like rubbing lotion on each morning or flossing each night – can be the first things to go when we’re feeling stressed. But that’s when we need to be treating our bodies the best – if we expect them to operate well for us. Creating a routine or ritual is a great way of combating the urge to put everything else before you and your body.

4.      Sit with your body (and no one or nothing else) for three minutes every day. Meditation and mindfulness are good for your brain, but they’re also great for your body. It can decrease cortisol levels (a hormone that’s basically toxic for your body when in excess), improves sleep and eating, and even reduce cold symptoms!

5.      Write a letter to your body. Okay, I know. It sounds cheesy, but give it a try. Take ten minutes and share with your body anything you feel grateful for, what your hopes and dreams are, and, maybe, how sorry you are for talking such trash about it all the time. Only write what feels genuine in the moment. The idea isn’t a love letter to your body (you can imagine how I feel about those), but rather to open up a dialogue between your mind and your body. You’d be amazed – once you start writing to your body as another being, it becomes much harder to be cruel. It might take a while, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

If you’re participating in Love Your Body Month in some way, I’d love to hear about it.

03 Nov

Newsflash, Facebook: Fat is Not a Feeling

Advocacy 4 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

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Various studies have been published and are underway to better understand the impact of Facebook on our perceptions of and feelings about our bodies and selves. But apparently Facebook itself has decided that you might just need to express how “fat” you feel while using the site, and they’ve added it as an option to their list of emoticons under the heading of “feeling.”

This is how that makes me feel:

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Because, after all, FAT IS NOT A FEELING!

I never expected that it would take a graduate degree in psychology to understand this point (it obviously doesn’t, actually), but the world still seems to insist on putting the idea of fatness in the category of emotion.

There are two issues that emerge here. The first is that we as a society are so acutely emotionally unaware. We fail to teach our children — and ourselves — a lexicon of emotions. This doesn’t just make us sound less articulate — it actually hurts us.

When we don’t have the words to express the way that we feel, it limits our ability to communicate about and connect around those feelings. We tend to internalize the experience and, as many of us know, it can grow and fester if left unattended. Sharing our emotional pain — and joy, for that matter — is such an important part of our humanity. Without that ability, something gets destroyed. That could mean diminishing our own self-worth, acting out on ourselves, or even resorting to violence.

The second issue with the idea of fat as a feeling is that, when used, it invariably refers to feeling one of the following: ugly, lazy, hopeless, disgusting, afraid, indulgent… The emoticon isn’t smiling and joyful; it looks like someone who’s constipated, ashamed, or both. When fat is used as a feeling, it’s not in a neutral context expressing the status of one’s daily energy expenditure. There’s always more behind it.

And that’s why it bugs me. Because it’s not useful as a descriptor and the user generally has a myriad of other — actual — feelings in which I’m much more interested in hearing.

At the publishing of this post, I no longer could find the “fat” emoticon on Facebook. Does anyone know if the petitioning done by some in our community was successful? Hooray! 

28 Oct

Walmart Used the “F” Word and I Didn’t Care

Current Events 2 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

Story

Social and traditional media has been abuzz for the past day or two as Walmart got lambasted for listing larger-sized female Halloween costumes under the label “Fat Girl Costumes.” When Jezebel “exposed” the story, Twitter lit up with comments slamming the retail giant for their apparent insensitivity and shameful decision-making.

I’m going to admit something, and I’m expecting, based on the backlash I’ve seen against Walmart, that this may not go over particularly well. But when I first saw the news story on CNN (right after an Ebola update and before an ISIS segment…), my first thought was, “Wow, Walmart’s more progressive than I thought.”

I’ve asked readers here before what they thought of the word “fat” and the responses were varied and enlightening. Still, at that point, the majority of readers felt that the word was not particularly helpful or appropriate.

Meanwhile, a movement continues to grow in which the idea and reality of fatness is embraced. That includes not just accepting size diversity, but accepting — and honoring — the word “fat.” The idea is that, much like other traditionally stigmatizing words, there’s an opportunity to reclaim the word and thus diminish the negativity and critical power associated with it. Personally, I love the idea of beating the haters at their own game. If I call myself fat — and not in a self-deprecating way, but in descriptive, neutral way — than I’ve taken away your power to insult and harm me with that word. Try again, jerk.

That said, it might be hard for some of us to imagine using the word fat for ourselves or someone else in a neutral way. That’s because so many other words have become embedded with the word fat deep in our brains — words like: lazy, self-indulgent, bad, wrong… It’s important to note the should-be obvious here, which is that none of those things are naturally or inherently tied to the idea of fatness, but our cultural and linguistic traditions are pretty powerful.

So I get the fact that some hear the word “fat” and immediately get defensive. That’s not because there is something inherently wrong with the word; it’s because in their minds they immediately hear all the other words associated with it and feel that Walmart is hurting its customers. If Walmart had said “Selfish, Ugly, Lazy Girl Costumes,” I’d support us being up in arms. But they didn’t. They just said a three letter word that could be argued to neutrally describe a portion of their consumer base.

Now, it’s equally important to consider that words don’t exist in a vacuum. Was Walmart supporting the fat-acceptance movement and promoting a progressive wave of feminism with it’s webpage? I’m not naive enough to totally buy that. But I also can’t say what the intention of the site was. The fact that they’ve now apologized profusely and pulled down the page seems to indicate that they are not exactly trying to make a political statement (or at least not one they were prepared to defend).

Alright, lay it on me… What do you think of Walmart’s “Fat Girl Costumes” page? What do you think of the word “fat”?

p.s. I actually feel a little more offended by the term “girl” in that phrase… You don’t see Walmart referring to adult men as “boys.” But that’s for another day…

 

14 Oct

Eating Disorders in the Ivory Tower: How Colleges Can Help or Hurt

Ideas to Consider 5 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

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{image credit :: Matt Katzenberger}

It’s easy to romanticize the college experience. When someone mentions my alma mater, my heart flutters a bit as I recall the excitement of a new syllabus (I am not being ironic, just so you know — I really am a nerd), meeting friends for lunch in the student union, warm spring days spent sitting on my porch curled up with a good… book.

But college isn’t a time of frivolity and freedom for everyone. And even those among us who had a great college experience face our challenges. A deeper look back quickly brings to mind all the things that made this transitionary time challenging: I was alone in a relatively huge place without anyone or thing that was familiar. I didn’t know who I was or exactly what I wanted to become. I was anxious about running out of money and scared I wasn’t wearing the right thing.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by thousands of other students in the same exact boat, trying to navigate these choppy, unchartered waters. But most people weren’t talking about their fears of fitting in or getting lost in the shuffle. They were too busy drowning their anxieties in the alcohol that was suddenly copiously available or perfecting their AIM away message to sound just busy but available (read: cool) enough.

And, as a recent Huffington Post piece explored, there may be another reason that college kids aren’t talking about their feelings: they don’t want to get kicked out. The story looks at the way that universities are handling college mental health, staring by highlighting the experience of Rachel Williams who faced an eating disorder while at Yale.

The piece struck me because this is an issue that I face on a very regular basis as a psychologist. I’m constantly face to face with students who have been asked to leave their universities, chosen to take a leave, or soon facing the decision (their own or the school’s). I’m also often asked by universities to help provide a recommendation for whether a particular student should be on a medical leave.

What’s been fascinating to me sitting on this side of the couch is that there is so much variability in the way that universities handle issues of mental health. I’ve worked with students who have been in a strong place of recovery for a significant period of time, but their university won’t let them return until a specified period of time has passed. This is often a semester, but has been as long as a year. Other students I’ve treated have been essentially ignored at their schools, despite our best efforts to enlist the help of the university to grant a leave or provide services.

It begs the question of whether there is a best practice for universities in addressing students with eating disorders. While nothing formal exists for the field of eating disorders, it’s heartening to know that 55 universities very recently signed up to take part in The Jed & Clinton Health Matters Campus Program, a program evaluating mental health services on campuses. The universities will take part in self-assessments and commit to improving their practices.

I can only hope that one of the outcomes of such an initiative is to develop effective ways of managing individuals with eating disorders on college campuses. With prevalence rates of eating disorder symptoms nearing 20%, it’s not an issue that can be ignored.

Further, it’s not an issue that can be addressed with a one-size-fits-all approach. Taking the stance that students with eating disorders cannot continue with academic pursuits can be short-sighted. We have to consider the particular student and the potential impact of having them step away from their university. For some students, college can be incredibly helpful in the process of recovery, providing a source of focus and meaningful activity outside of the disorder and the chance to socialize and interact with people not trapped in the grips of their own disorder. Some students find that leaving school sends them into a spiral of depression and anxiety, feeling like all they have left in their lives is their eating disorder.

Of course, this is not the case for all students. Many very much need to step away from the school environment in order to give themselves a chance to really reflect and focus on their recovery process. College campuses aren’t exactly known for promoting great eating and health habits, and the stress of academics can sometimes make it impossible to participate fully in one’s own treatment. For students with severe eating disorders, taking time off to address their health — just as they would do with another health condition — can be life-saving.

The point is that protocols are nice in theory, but cannot forget to take into account the individual needs of individual students. While campus suicides and other deaths are heart-wrenching for a school, colleges also cannot react to student mental health concerns from a place of fear. This only leads to further stigmatization, which students with mental illness already face on a daily basis.

If you struggled with mental health issues during college, how did you university handle things? What kinds of practices do you think would be most effective in getting students the services they need? 

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