Monday Morning With The Mirror: Article and Class in the Open Exchange
By Anne C. Wilford
Anne C Wilford, MA, MFT, has been leading workshops for over 30 years. She is a licensed Psychotherapist (MFT#32496) with 19 years in practice. She works with individuals, couples and groups. She is a co partner of Education Through Therapeutic Arts and co-author with Dr. Deah Schwartz of the Leftovers Workbook/DVD SET and is currently offering this workshop series. Please see Leftovers’s announcement on the Women’s Pages and Weight.
It is Monday morning and in a variety of bathrooms, bedrooms and hallway mirrors the week starts out with sighs and recriminations as people do the “check”. What is the “check”? It is the “body check.” With the scrutiny of a scientist, people, especially women, check out the perceived imperfections of their bellies, legs, hips, and chests. Every woman has that particular part that pulls her attention immediately and, for many, how that body part adds up may impact her mood for the whole day or longer.
The obsession with how we look has not gotten easier over the years…. it has gotten worse. When I first started exploring the issue of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating years ago I thought it was a matter of discovery and self-esteem. I was wrong. It is a matter of changing how we as a collective think about bodies and body image. What we are up against is discrimination from a very early age. For instance a group of Yale University psychologists visited three kindergarten classes each from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They offered the children a chance to win a doll. The choices given were, however, limited to dolls missing a limb, afflicted with a disfiguring skin condition, or dolls that were fat. So which dolls were the last to be selected? That’s right. The fat dolls were perceived to be both “ugly and lazy.”
This uphill battle leaves us with a constant case of the “diets.” One out of three women and one out of four men are on a diet any given time. What is stunning is that it has been proven that diets don’t work and that 95% of people who go on diets gain back what they have lost along with more weight than they had before. In other words, diets that claim to be proactive toward “healthy” weight are actually the catalyst for the “dieter” to start a cycle of “yo-yo dieting” which moves the dieter into a self defeating cycle of shame and failure.
This has been especially destructive for girls who started dieting in their early adolescence. For girls who started dieting before the age of 14 the result of their diets has been the beginning of disordered eating. This could be binge eating, bulimia, or even anorexia. These young girls become women who do not recognize hunger in their own bodies. And because the description of healthy weight is so overwhelmed by the media images, many women who are perfectly healthy see themselves as unhealthy. For instance, the average U.S. woman is 5’4″ and weighs 140 lbs. In contrast, the average U.S. model is 5’11″ and weighs 117 lbs. Some of these models meet the criteria for anorexia and this is what is being presented to us as “good.”
So, how do we work with these issues that are so imbedded in a culture that relies on a 60-billion-dollar per-year diet industry that keeps selling us perfection but results in women feeling like a failure? My co-authors and I wrote an original theater piece entitled “Leftovers….the ups and downs of a compulsive eater” in response to this issue. We wanted to get beyond food as the problem and explore from the inside what our relationship to food and our bodies was really about.
We took an entirely different approach. We were all performers so we utilized improvisation, writing, art, and music to explore all aspects of the compulsive eating cycle. The strongest part of the process was the sharing with each other what we were thinking, feeling, and experiencing. We toured with the show for many years winning an award from the National Association to Aid Fat Americans because we were a voice promoting self-acceptance instead of judgment.
One very special part of the show was that after we performed the show we would have an audience participation session where people could share their experience and reactions to what they saw us go through in the show. We were humbled by the outpouring of honesty and emotion from these people. They talked about gasping at certain parts of the show because we were, “saying exactly what they thought” and they thought they were the only ones.
It was in response to these women who identified with “Leftovers” and the professionals who work with them that prompted Dr Deah Schwartz and I to create our business Education through Therapeutic Arts. We were inspired to write the Leftovers Workbook/DVD which offers a workshop series that utilizes many of the same exercises we used to develop the original theater piece coupled with other techniques we had developed in our therapeutic practices.
We feel strongly that one of the most effective ways to help women explore disordered eating, and their own body dissatisfaction is to see that they are not alone in their struggle. We have found that the power of group work when it is approached with sincerity, humor, and trust paves the way to the very difficult and joyful journey to self-acceptance.