Whenever I work with a new client, one of my first questions to them is, "How do you feel about yourself and your body?"
I'm amazed at the type of answers I get, but in most cases a person who is overweight, eating poorly, or resistant to changing his or her eating habits has a negative self-image. The opposite also tends to be true: People who eat well and exercise regularly have a positive body image; as a result, they have more positive self-esteem, better self-acceptance and a healthier attitude toward not only food and eating but life in general.
Indeed, this topic has come into the public awareness in the last two decades, and the literature abounds. According to the California Department of Public Health, body image is a complex concept that affects how people feel about themselves and how they behave. It has been defined as "the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to our selves" (Cash and Pruzinsky, 1990). Body image is not necessarily based on fact, but rather involves one's thoughts, perception, imagination and emotions.
So if we one believes that he or she is "fat," "ugly" or "incapable for losing weight," how does this affect how that person approaches weight loss? If one believes that he or she is inherently worthwhile, capable, and loved, how does that affect how one eats and maintains weight?
In my years of working with everyone from adolescent girls to high-profile businessmen and -women, I know that a person can become overweight or underweight -- and in some cases, dangerously so -- if he or she has a negative or thwarted self-image. Most of my work involves getting my clients to learn to look at themselves realistically.
Here are few of my ways I try to frame my approach with my clients, and here are some conclusions we try to arrive at together:
Remember that you are valuable.
You are a unique person, capable and lovable, with special talents and strengths -- a human being of value. So accept and respect yourself now. Get comfortable with the real you, inside and out. When you approach your health from a place of acceptance, and if you embrace every part of you, you will be well on your way to a path of holistic health.
The healthiest way to lose weight is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
A poor self-image could make you try fad diets and push yourself to the limit. You may be at risk for inflicting bulimic or anorexic tendencies by starving yourself, purging your food and/or overexercising -- or any combination thereof. Start shopping at local farmer's market, cut down on sugar and fast foods, and work with a nutritionist or doctor who can help you develop a realistic food (notice I didn't say "diet") and exercise program. Make eating healthy and exercising part of your daily routine.
You must learn to recognize personal habits and see how they affect your relationship with food.
If you find yourself avoiding looking in the mirror because you think your body is "ugly," "fat," or "disproportioned," or if you are constantly telling yourself that it is impossible to lose weight, or that you you cannot do it because you have always been overweight, then you need to rethink your approach. If you're ashamed of your body, and won't exercise in public, then find a private class or exercise in a gym or group setting during off hours, when the crowds are lowest. Look for ways to work exercise into your daily routine: take a flight of stairs instead of the elevator; park in the outer limits of the parking lot so you can take in a few strides on your way to the market; walk around the block during your lunch hour.
Find a professional confidante and a work-out buddy.
The easiest way to combat the weight gain or loss you may experience due to a poor self-image is to find a doctor or therapist you can trust to help you work through your issues. Your body image may be skewed and your eating habits may be off, but unless you get to the root of your emotional issues then you won't be able to take off the work for good. Simultaneously, find a friend you can workout with, shop with, or possibly even prepare meals with -- someone who can both motivate you and help you stay accountable to your program.
Remember, having a positive outlook on your food and exercise program is not about perfection. It doesn't exist in the real world and it certainly doesn't exist in human appearance. It's about making small (and then larger) steps to improve the way you think, the way you eat, and the way you exercise so you can reach a manageable and healthy weight. As you do so, your self-image will also become healthier as a result.