I think most people, if not everyone, struggles with poor body image at some point. Feeling self-conscious, alone, and trapped, whether that be just for a moment or for a long period of time. Hyper-aware of how they look, and limiting their lives because of a lack of self-confidence. Similarly, disordered eating habits and thoughts seem to be all too common nowadays. Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and orthorexia are all on the rise. But even if someone doesn’t have an “official” eating disorder, it seems like almost everyone struggles with some version of disordered eating. That might be undereating, counting calories, bingeing, overexercising, trying to avoid certain macronutrients, obsessing over new diets, obsessing over other people’s diets, or anything in between.
So, how do you get out of it?
Well, that’s a complicated question. It’s obviously not simple or easy, and there is no clear path.
There are a few specific things, though, that I truly believe can make the world of a difference. One of the most effective ways to work through body image issues and disordered eating behaviors, in my opinion, is to focus on relationships. I think it’s one of the most overlooked factors in the whole recovery process. For many people, it can be the thing that pulls them out of the trap, the darkness.
First of all, let’s talk about relationships in general. In my humble opinion, relationships are one of the most important parts of life, if not the most important part. What is the purpose of life? What is the point of it all? I’m definitely not qualified to give an official answer to that, but if I had to guess, I think that relationships and experiences are top contenders.
Human connection is crucial. Being a part of something greater, and affecting each other on a deeper level. Loving other people, getting to know them, creating memories. When you’re on your deathbed, what will you care about? The relationships you curated and the dear memories you made. Feeling like you were a part of something, and that someone truly understood you and cared for you. More than that, knowing what it feels like to love someone else so much that all of the other trivial problems in the universe fade away. Putting someone else first – whether that’s a lover, friend, child, sibling, pet, or anyone else.
When you truly and deeply understand that, it’s much easier to find food and body freedom. The surface level things don’t matter anymore. It’s more important to you to spend time with those people than to waste moments worrying about how many calories are in this or when you’re going to workout to burn off that or how you think your thighs might look too big in those shorts. All of that is bullshit, and a true waste of time. Who cares? People who truly love you don’t care if you’re a size 3 instead of a size 7. They don’t even notice. So why would you?
The problem is that when you’re in the thick of disordered thought patterns, that can be really hard to truly digest and believe. Oftentimes, you’re just too wrapped up in those thoughts. Oftentimes, you’ve blocked yourself off from all relationships because of those thoughts, and you might be spending too much time alone in your own head. You get trapped in your head and you overanalyze things, and that’s where it gets dangerous. You might not want to go out because you’re worried about the way you look and what people will think.
For some people, it starts because of other obligations. They don’t spend as much time cultivating relationships because of other commitments, maybe work or school, and then they start to have too much time to focus on food or their body. They might be unhappy with some part of their life – maybe they’re worried about the future, maybe they hate their job, maybe they lost a friend, maybe they’re stressed about school – and they feel like they can’t control those things. So they start to overanalyze the things they imagine they can control, food and body, because it’s easier than dealing with the real problem. It’s all a big cycle, which is why it’s so hard to get out of.
You start to hole up and avoid people, wondering, Why would people even want to hang out with me? Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Are they going to think I’m too fat? Too thin? How will I look next to her?
Or you might be worried about the food. You might be thinking, What if they notice what I’m eating? What if there’s nothing healthy there? What if they want to eat dessert and I don’t want it? What if they’re all eating a lot of food and I binge? Will they notice if I just shift my food around on my plate? If I go, then when will I be able to work out afterward?
All of these are disordered thoughts. Even if you do realize they are disordered thoughts, sometimes you don’t know how to actually make the leap to truly releasing yourself from those thought patterns.
That’s where a good relationship can really be key.
Relationships can often help you get out of the cycle because they sort of…force you out of it. Like I said, oftentimes people struggling with body image issues or disordered eating don’t want to spend time with others because they’re worried about what those people will think about their behaviors, or how they will respond to them.
If you’re worried about how people will respond, that should alert you immediately to the fact that something is off. You cannot live your life being nervous to be around other people. Your life is not meant to be that lonely. Other people deserve the chance to get to know you, and you deserve the chance to show other people how amazing you are. If you find yourself avoiding being around people or going places because of those disordered thoughts, then guess what you should probably do? Do it anyways.
Cultivating good relationships should be your number one priority.
I’ll give you a personal example. Getting my first boyfriend was the best thing I ever did for my body image in high school. I spent too many years in middle school and high school feeling self-conscious. I held myself back from things. I skipped dances, parties, or just hanging out with groups of people because I was self-conscious. Sometimes it was about my body, other times it was about acne, other times it was just me comparing myself to other people and wondering why anyone would care about me if there were other options. I didn’t think I was special. I avoided romantic relationships at all costs because I wasn’t secure enough in my own skin. I holed up in my room with my books and the Internet, which only perpetuated the cycle. I didn’t cultivate a lot of the relationships that I should have, and I didn’t take advantage of all of the opportunities I could have.
After having my first serious boyfriend, though, my thoughts about myself shifted without me even realizing it was happening. I was pulled out of them. Seeing how someone else saw me for me, didn’t even register those flaws that I thought I had, made me realize that it was all in my head. It was validation, yes. Validation isn’t always bad. That validation stuck with me, and it taught me to validate myself.
I knew he cared about me for my heart and soul. I realized that on days when I felt bloated and chubby, he didn’t notice. On days when I was broken out and embarrassed of my face, he didn’t notice. And because he didn’t care, I realized, why do I? Suddenly, all of those worries seemed like a complete waste of time. I was too busy living life and having actual experiences to even think about those silly things anymore.
Let’s get blunt. There are a lot of things I learned as I got older that I wish I realized at a younger age. When you’re making out with a guy, he’s just happy to be making out with you. He’s not thinking that your thighs are too big or your stomach’s not flat enough. If he is, then he has some major problems and is not someone you should be around anyways. But he wouldn’t be making out with you to begin with if he cared. Also, again, boys don’t notice zits. If they do see them, they literally do not care. Guess what? They have them, too.
When it comes to disordered eating, putting yourself in an uncomfortable romantic situation might be just what you need. When you’re dating or in a relationship, it’s much harder for the disordered eating habits to fly. You don’t want to be that person who is so high maintenance that you can’t eat out anywhere. You have to be able to adapt to the other person to a certain extent, and being overly rigid just won’t work. Relationships are a two-way street, so you have to be open to what the other person wants, too. If he wants to go get ice cream on your second date and you really like him, are you really going to say no? And when you’re around each other literally all the time, you won’t be able to slip in that sneaky workout to try to “burn off” those calories (doesn’t work like that, anyways, by the way).
Then there’s the negative self talk. No man worth pursuing will put up with listening to a girl whine and complain about how she looks in an outfit or how “ugly” she is, unless they’re already married and he can’t escape it. If not, though, no one wants to be around a Negative Nancy. And when you realize that, you’ll have more motivation to stop. When you’re on a romantic date with BAE, you don’t want to be the one to make the conversation turn sour all the time. Do you really want to talk about how insecure you are when you’re trying to have a romantic evening? No, probably not. Bask in the moment, and let him compliment you. Sooner or later, you’ll pick up on it, and you’ll believe those compliments.
It doesn’t have to be a boyfriend, though. It just has to be anyone who loves you for you, and who can help you see yourself from a different perspective. Someone who values you for your personality and couldn’t give a shit what you look like or what you eat. Someone who you don’t want to risk being nit picky about your food or weight around, because then maybe they wouldn’t see you as that strong, confident person anymore.
When I struggled with orthorexia and exercise addiction, it was a friend. A friend who talked to me about things that had nothing to do with food or exercise or looks or any of that. I could tell she admired me for my knowledge and compassion related to other things, and I wanted to keep it that way. I wasn’t going to mess it up by bringing up my own insecurities. I realized how important that friendship was and how much I wanted to keep it, so I prioritized it. I wasn’t going to talk obsessively about food and working out and my body – I could imagine the boredom and loss of respect on her face.
And I couldn’t prioritize my excessively long workouts at the same time. I had to choose, because there quite literally wasn’t enough time in the day, and making that choice helped me avoid sneaking in too much extra exercise. We hung out, and we ate out at restaurants more often, and I had no choice but to be less structured with my diet. All of this was good for me, in the long run. It started off as being something I was basically forced into if I wanted the relationship, and it slowly morphed into something I was more than okay with because I valued the friendship so much. I realized what it was like to just… live life.
Having that relationship also held me accountable. She was holding me accountable with even knowing it. I knew she would be watching, so I didn’t do anything I was ashamed of. And slowly but surely, it became my norm to live without the chains of my eating disorder or exercise addiction. Having that friendship forced me to do other things besides think about food, exercise, and my body. I tried new things, made new memories, and met new people. My thoughts were no longer consumed with things that were tying me down, because there was so much more going on in my life.
After being forced into it, I realized how much all of the things I used to care about didn’t matter. They were ridiculous. I had no reason to care about those surface level things now that I knew what it felt like to be fulfilled by an actual relationship. Because at the root of everything – that’s what it is. We have these insecurities or disordered eating patterns because we are trying to fill a hole deep inside, whatever it might be. We are looking to feel fulfilled in some way, but chasing it in ways that are not going to fulfill us. You’re never going to reach the perfect weight or find the perfect diet or have the perfect body, because perfect doesn’t exist. Trying to chase those things will never fulfill you. Relationships, though? Those are fulfilling.
If you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating, I highly encourage you to start prioritizing relationships in your life. Good relationships can be hard to find, but finding them will fill you up in a way that even the best salad never can. The disordered thoughts might start to melt away without you even trying, and your days will be filled with good people and new experiences. Put yourself out there, even if you’re afraid. When the thoughts are telling you to hide, don’t. If you don’t know how to show yourself love right now, then give someone else a chance to. It might just teach you to love yourself.