Bullying and a Broken Body Image

Michele L. Gardiner, MAC, CCC, IAEDP

Reprinted from "Body Image" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (1), p. 12

Photo in "Bullying and a Broken Body Image" by Michele GardinerThis narrative is about body image and is based on my personal and professional experience. Sharing these details of my life makes me feel slightly exposed but reminds me of how important it is that we share our stories and the wisdom they can offer us.

Body image is the experience of how we imagine our bodies to look and feel. It is an internal reflection of ourselves, based on our life experiences and the thoughts, feelings and beliefs we form about our appearance. Our body image begins to develop in middle childhood, when we are about six to eight years old. It can be positive, negative or distorted (referred to clinically as body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD). BDD occurs when we experience severely distressing thoughts and feelings about the way we look, to the point that it impacts our ability to function in our daily tasks and relationships.

When our body image is positive, we experience a greater sense of pleasure and confidence in ourselves. We are free from the self-punishing dialogue experienced by those with negative body image or BDD. For example, we may try on a pair of old shorts to find they’re tighter than they used to be. If our body image is positive, we will look at ourselves in the mirror and think, These shorts still feel pretty good! The experience is one of acceptance and freedom.

If our body image is negative, however, trying on the same pair of shorts may trigger feelings of anxiety, causing the thought, I need to lose a few pounds before I wear these shorts. With BDD, the negative thoughts are all-consuming: I am so ugly and fat. My thighs are disgusting. I’m too gross to leave the house. I’m cancelling my beach date! In these experiences, we are held captive by our anxiety.

My first body image memory is from when I was about eight years old. I was standing before my parent’s bedroom mirror, appreciating the yellow tube top and white shorts I had received for summer. I turned sideways, and my undeveloped body looked like a happy little jelly bean, with tummy sticking out and matching bum. I remember feeling good about myself, confident and capable.

Shortly before my eleventh birthday, my family moved. I changed cities, schools and friends, and endured relentless teasing. “Fat-ass” was the daily taunt from the older, more developed girls. As the new girl, I was shy, yet small, pretty and athletic. Years of gymnastics had given me a muscular bottom, lending itself to the nickname. I was also sensitive and passive. The combination made me a target for bullying, as well as body image issues.

Within a year, the verbal teasing had become physically violent. A quiet kid, I chose not to talk about the bullying with parents or teachers. As a result, I experienced anxiety and lost sleep, and I had nightmares. As my confidence diminished, I projected the negative feelings onto my small frame, which ballooned into focus and become the emphasis of my distress. Nothing fit right, looked right or felt right. I thought I was ugly and unlikeable. My body seemed unsafe—like a target for my enemies, one that I couldn’t make small enough.

On a purely physical level, my body was healthy and the changes I experienced at this age were a part of normal development. What had become unhealthy were my perceptions—the thoughts, feelings and beliefs I had internalized about my body. Rather than talking about the negative feelings and letting them go, I had swallowed them down. Instead of reassuring myself that the bullying was wrong, I formed the misperception that my body was wrong. According to researchers, projecting emotions onto the body is common in those with negative body image.1

Whether we are 12 or 21, and whatever our gender, culture, sexual orientation or background, maintaining a healthy body image in Western societies is difficult. In 1997, a US study revealed that 56% of women and 43% of men were dissatisfied with their body image.2 Current research suggests that the high number of negative body image issues in Western societies is linked to unrealistic ideals of beauty promoted in mainstream media. These idealized standards are internalized and replicated by members of society—us, our family members, our peers.1, 3

Perhaps my story can be a reminder of how important it is to talk to someone when we are struggling with problems in life. When we don’t engage with our support systems, the only voice we hear is the internal voice telling us that we aren’t good enough the way we are—and that voice is simply amplifying the damage of our negative self-image. As the bullying continued and I continued to stay silent, I spent more time alone and began exercising to quell negative thoughts and feelings. As a teenager, exercise became a normalized means for me to manage my emotions and gain a sense of control over my life. But while exercise would boost beta-endorphins, lifting my mood temporarily, these quickly dissipated, returning me to depression. The only way for me to remain uplifted was to exercise for longer periods.

I went from a normal, healthy 45 to 60 minutes in the gym to two, then three, then six hours of exercise a day. I don’t remember when the bullying stopped. By that time, running had become my addiction, my life controlled by the idea of making my body socially acceptable. Overstrained, nutrient-depleted and dehydrated, my body began breaking down. I felt exhausted, my weight dropped, my periods stopped, I experienced agonizing fractures in my feet and stress fractures in both shins. But I continued to run.

When I began to feel painful pressure in my chest, which I later learned was caused by electrolyte imbalance from dehydration and poor nutrition, I was finally afraid enough to slow down and ask for help. I spoke with my family doctor, who referred me to a treatment program for eating disorders, which included components on positive body image and skills for monitoring negative thoughts and feelings and applying safer, healthier ways for reframing and coping with these. Over time, I began to feel empowered, confident and beautiful again.

Despite social and media pressure, cultivating a healthy body image is possible. There are many ways we can inspire an acceptance and appreciation of our body’s shape, size and capabilities—free of addictive or disruptive behaviours.

The first step is to connect with trusted support systems—friends, family, a doctor or professional mental health workers—so we can improve our awareness and skills for managing negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Next, we can foster creative ways to express thoughts and feelings, such as journaling, art, dance and music. Improving our media literacy skills so we are able to think critically and challenge unrealistic social standards of beauty is also empowering. Lastly, and most importantly, we can practise positive self-care through healthy sleep habits, balanced nutrition and exercise, and daily routines that allow our bodies to feel naturally soothed.

It has been 20 years since I made peace with my body image. Now I view my body as a whole, capable and peaceful part of me, worthy of care and compassion. Today, refuge comes from practising positive self-care and making lifestyle choices that bring inner peace and balance, including meditation, mindfulness, healthy sleep and nutrition, spending time in nature and limiting alcohol.

It is normal to have a bad body day every now and then. Many of my clients say that they feel fatter on a stressful day, or that the image they see in the mirror doesn’t quite match the one in their mind. Becoming aware of these thoughts and feelings, the experiences that trigger them and the ways to accept and cope with them can be both freeing and supportive to our well-being.

Life will always challenge us. Mainstream media will continue to set unrealistic standards of beauty and perfection. However, we have the capacity to challenge these inappropriate ideals and negative experiences. In a way, this resilience defines our true beauty, inside and out.

 
About the author

Michele Gardiner is a Certified Clinical Counsellor and operates a private practice dedicated to body image and eating disorders in Summerland, BC. Outside of counselling, she enjoys photography, a connection to nature and adventuring with her canine co-counsellor, Varo

Footnotes:
  1. Grilo, C.M. & Mitchell, J.E. (2011). The treatment of eating disorders: A clinical handbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

  2. Phillips, K.A. (2009). Understanding body dysmorphic disorder: An essential guide. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  3. Mitchell, J.E. & Peterson, C.B. (2005). Assessment of eating disorders. New York, NY: The Guildford Press; Maine, M., Hartman-McGilley, B. & Bunnell, D.W. (2010). Treatment of eating disorders: Bridging the research-practice gap. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

  4. Holzhauer, C., Zenner, A. & Wulfert, E. (2015). Poor body image and alcohol use in women. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 30(1), 122-127.

  5. Brewerton, T. & Dennis., A. (2014). Eating disorders, addictions, and substance use disorder: Research, clinical and treatment perspectives. New York, NY: Springer, 14-16.

  6. Schreiber, L.R.N., Odlaug, B.L. & Grant, J.E. (2013). The overlap between binge eating disorder and substance use disorders: Diagnosis and neurobiology. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(4), 191-194.

  7. Freimuth, M., Moniz, S. & Kim, S.R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: Differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(10), 4069-4081. http://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph8104069.

  8. Schreiber, L.R.N., Odlaug, B.L. & Grant, J.E. (2013). The overlap between binge eating disorder and substance use disorders: Diagnosis and neurobiology. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(4), 196.

  9. Carson, Ralph E. “Nutritional Guidelines for Treating Eating Disorders 101”: What you need to know when treating eating disorders. Webinar presentation for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, April 17, 2013.

  10. Schreiber, L.R.N., Odlaug, B.L. & Grant, J.E. (2013). The overlap between binge eating disorder and substance use disorders: Diagnosis and neurobiology. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(4), 191-194.

  11. Carson, Ralph E. “Nutritional Guidelines for Treating Eating Disorders 101”: What you need to know when treating eating disorders. Webinar presentation for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, April 17, 2013.

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