What to do if you have body image/food issues, but they’re “not that bad.”
By the way, as I head into the end of 2022, I’m wondering how you all feel about the monthly guest articles I share here! Do you love seeing the perspective of someone else, or would you prefer to read more from me? Are there topics, people, or formats that you’d rather see instead? I ask because in 2023 I could do something similar to what I’ve been doing with Stefanie all year, or try gathering articles from different sources, or just scratch this idea and do something else altogether!
I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and ideas on this, so please hit reply and share away!
What if My Body Image and Food Issues Aren’t “That Bad”?
The other day, I received a coaching application from a woman named Melissa*. At the bottom of the form, she had typed in the following:
I have filled out this application before and not sent it. I don’t want to take up a spot if there is someone else who needs it more. My issues aren’t that bad. I’m not sure if I need coaching so I’d like to get your opinion. Thank you.
The rest of the application had cited things like dieting from an early age, but never to the level of an eating disorder. Weight cycling and insecurity about her body were among the symptoms she described, but she did not feel all-consumed with thoughts of food or body image and was still able to work and socialize. Her application reflected more of a fatigue with food rules (that she sometimes followed, sometimes didn’t), mild food guilt, and low-level body distress that prevented her from feeling fully comfortable in her skin.
Melissa is not unlike other people I have heard from who don’t fit into a more definitive category of people with eating disorders, disordered eating (to be discussed), body dysmorphia, or clearly defined body image “issues.” For those who feel on the outskirts of this conversation, what resources are available and how can their experiences be addressed?
One of the most important considerations to look at here is the issue of being “sick enough.”
There is a landscape of experience before “eating disorder” or “BDD” (Body Dysmorphic Disorder) that benefits from intervention, and can be equally distressing on mental health. Diagnoses are not required to warrant support. (Even among those with EDs, there seems to be a “not sick enough” trend that speaks to the “not enough-ness” generally found in perfectionists, black and white thinkers, people pleasers, and trauma survivors.)
The second consideration is how much a “mild disturbance” in our food and body relationship may actually reflect a culture that normalizes such disturbances. It is not uncommon for someone who restricts their food to feel perfectly “normal” for doing so; as if it is an expectation and obligation rather than a type of disorder. For example, ordering a salad with dressing on the side when we really want a burger and fries is touted as admirable and “being good,” when in fact it may be a method of eating the least amount of calories possible or performing for an audience.
Likewise, body image disturbances like “feeling too fat to go out,” taking 50 selfies before posting the one that doesn’t reveal a double chin, or spending half of a paycheck on fillers and Botox is so typical that it’s not private – it’s an understood way of being a woman in the world. Might it be the case that what appears to be mild distress about food and body image is actually a socially sanctioned version of disorder?
In any case, disorder exists on a spectrum rather than being a black and white issue of you-have-a-problem or you-don’t.
Some people may live on a more mild end of distress and stay there, more or less; others will go on to develop more significant levels of distress over time, or move in and out of periods of greater and lesser distress; and still others will move into full-fledged, diagnosable disorders. It is unclear what makes one person move into disorder while another does not, but it seems to relate to factors like trauma, genetics, stigma, self-esteem, and social conditions, to name a few.
I have never found much value in defining the disorder to perceive its level of severity; there were times in my life when I would not have qualified for an official diagnosis but my mental and physical health were at their worst.
I encourage clients to consider how much mental space is taken up by thoughts of food and body image, and to what degree this interrupts their life satisfaction. This barometer usually offers more insight into the question of “do I need help or not?”
If food and body image issues are impacting the quality of your life and you want it to change, you deserve help. Period. No diagnosis necessary.
Even if others suffer “more” than you, and even if you don’t identify with all of the conditions laid out in the DSM-5 or on popular Instagram posts.
But let’s say that you’re still reading this and thinking – but it still only mildly bothers me. It doesn’t play a huge role in my life, even if it takes up a little more space than I want it to. I’m generally happy, this is just an area that feels like it could use work.
If this is the case, a part of me wants to say – congratulations! It’s pretty awesome to feel the pressures of society and stay generally afloat. (Of course, I’m biased, because I definitely wasn’t one of those people!)
I’ve gone out to dinner with friends who know what I do and say to me: “I love what you’re putting out there and a lot of it resonates with me. I can’t quite take the leap into full body neutrality or not judging my food, but I’m listening.”
And that’s valid!
For some people, the work involved in deconstructing decades of belief systems and habits might not be worth the life disruption. It’s possible to feel comfortable enough with the way things are and to deal with the occasional food guilt and body image insecurities as minor disruptions instead of diving any deeper into it. I know plenty of people who watch from a distance, take what they need, and leave the rest.
Remember that it’s your subjective level of distress, and the distress just might not be significant enough to go further than digesting Instagram posts and reading weekly newsletters. No judgment.
Ultimately, you are the one in charge.
Notice what messages resonate most. Get curious about why. Let it marinate. See what comes up.
But above all, know that support does not have to be earned. Our culture can be brutal! It’s okay to offer yourself a larger landscape of opinions about food, weight, and worth, even if it shifts your experience just a little.
*Not her real name.