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mind and body

Correcting a body image problem

By LAVINIA RODRIGUEZ

None of us can be truly objective about our appearance. We can only perceive ourselves from within, while other people view us from outside. Even our mirror image is distorted — it's not how others see us.

But some people, often those with eating disorders, distort their body image to an abnormal extent. A person with anorexia or bulimia often perceives her body size as significantly larger than it really is. Insisting you are fat when others see that you are emaciated is one of the classic signs of an eating disorder.

And when the patient's self-image becomes more accurate, that's a sign of recovery. This change happens through the course of therapy and starts with acceptance of the problem.

But how do people with an eating disorder start understanding that they have a distorted view of their body, and that distortion is hurting them?

It starts with the recognition that the eating disorder has not given them the happiness and perfection that they were seeking but, instead, has brought them tremendous pain and suffering. That's when it's possible to face the fact that other people's perceptions are more accurate than their own, at least when it comes to body size.

What are signs of a significant body image distortion?

1. No matter how much weight you lose, you still think your body is too big.

2. People describe your size in a significantly different way than you do.

3. It's hard for you to accept compliments about your appearance.

4. You feel fatter on days when you're upset and thinner on days when your mood is good.

5. You feel significantly heavier or lighter from one day to the next.

6. You react to adversity by suddenly feeling fat or unattractive.

You don't have to have a full-blown eating disorder to have body image problems. Many women and even some men let their focus on their bodies get in the way of living.

It's also true that there are plenty of people of all sizes and shapes who never let what they look like get in their way. They may be perfectly aware that they don't meet society's definition of beauty. They just know that life is too short to worry about not having a perfect body.

Who do you know that worries incessantly about body image and is also truly happy and fulfilled? Just like you can't be both anxious and relaxed at the same time, you can't enjoy life when you're hiding away from the world, fearful of exposing your imperfect body.

As with any problem, to make positive changes in body image what you need most are the desire and the determination to change.

Sometimes it takes working on self-acceptance, and understanding that having a fulfilling life is more important than meeting social expectations.

Some people may need a little support from a counselor to start viewing themselves more realistically and rationally. Other people may need intensive psychotherapy.

The point is, it's possible to change how we see ourselves so that we don't let our body image get in the way of life and all the wonderful things it has to offer.

Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at (813) 240-9557 or drrod@fatmatters. com.

Correcting a body image problem 04/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 5:30am]
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