Friday, August 1, 2014

Body Shame Triggers Mental Illness, Body Love Heals

I have a great TEDx talk to share with you all today: "Change Your World, Not Your Body," given by Jes Baker at TEXx Tucson. It is a fantastic talk about how embracing body love is not just good for us personally, but it can have a global positive social impact. One thing I love about the talk is that Jes addresses something that few people talk about in relation to body love- how our culture of body hatred contributes to mental illness.

Mental illness is a two part illness having both chemical and environmental factors that can cause, trigger, and/or exacerbate it. All of the body hatred we learn in our society contributes to the increasing rates of mental illness, and not just of eating disorders. Depression is hugely effected by the relationship we have with our bodies. If you are prone to depression, you do not need the body hatred messages that say you are not good enough, no one loves you because of what you look like, and you do not deserve to have relationships with other people. That increases the depression, loneliness, and isolation.

My cocktail of mental illnesses are highly tied in to my view of my body. In the beginning, I thought that I was depressed and unable to do anything because I was disgusting and lazy, because I was taught by our society that overweight people are lazy and unsuccessful. That contributed to me spending more time trying to loose weight, and less time actually finding the right professional help for my mental illness. My treatment was put on hold due to my body hatred. Jes talks about this in her TED talk, that "We put our life on hold, we stunt it, because of our bodies." This is a huge problem for everyone, but a serious problem for people with mental illness who forgo focusing on mental health treatment because we are taught that the real problem is just that we are fat or ugly. If we just lost the weight or got rid of our acne, we would be happy and successful. In fact, our whole beauty industry revolves around this message, that a happy and balanced life can be obtained by being beautiful.

My husband can tell you that when I have a "bad body" day, a day when I hate my body, my rapid cycling bipolar disorder cycles even faster. Body shame, which teaches us "I am bad, because of my body," is a very dysfunctional message to send to your mind. If we walk around in a state of shame, of believing we are bad, then we are reinforcing negative pathways in our brain. If we keep those pathways going, neuroplasticity says that we will make shameful beliefs about ourselves a pattern, and a reality for us.

If we believe we are bad, our mental health is harmed in many ways.

If we are bad, there is no hope for recovery. If we are bad, there is no hope for a better life. If we are bad, we have no choice and no agency in our lives. If we are bad, neuroplasticity is a lie, treatment is a lie, and we will be sick forever. If we are bad, we deserve to be punished, which leads to body harm for many of us, as it did for me.

Jes Baker and me at her Readers Dinner in San Francisco.
Body shame and hatred also significantly contribute to, or can cause anxiety. If we believe that our bodies are disgusting, need to be hidden, and we do not deserve to be in the world, we will become anxious. Some people become obsessive over choosing what to wear to leave the house in order to be sure that they encounter the least amount of name calling or shaming from others as possible. Many people live in a state of fear of physical violence when they are out in public, because of what they look like. People have been abused to do being thin, fat, for the color of their skin, their acne, rosacea, hair, clothes, and more.

I have a panic disorder that actually was triggered due to body shaming. I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Lactose Intolerance. When I was just a child, six years old, people used to make fun of me for not being able to go out because I was sick. They mocked my lactose intolerance and said I was making it up. People were relentless in saying that what my body was doing was not real and that I was only trying to get attention. That is body shame of another kind- shaming someone for how their body works. Some professionals have told me that the way to "get over" my anxiety was to learn that no one will make fun of me and most people are genuinely nice. That is not really a world that we live in, when we have a culture that constantly makes fun of bodies that do not work "correctly." I have talked to many people with Celiac Disease who are constantly made fun of. I don't trust that people will be kind if I get sick in public, so I live every day, every moment when I am with others and often even when I am alone, deathly afraid of getting sick.

Embracing body love is essential to good mental health. Body love does not mean only accepting your weight, but everything about your body- how it ages, what it looks like, and how it works. Embracing body love and using that philosophy with the treatments my therapist provides, like Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), has been very important in the treatment of my mental illnesses and my ability to get well. Plus, I had to accept that my body works differently than most peoples in order to accept my mental illness. I also had to accept my body in my treatment plan, because I was very upset that medications kept making me sick and I could not take them. I was very upset that I had to change the way I ate, slept, and functioned every day because my body (which includes my mind), is "different." If I don't love my whole body the way it is, then I don't follow through on treatment and I get worse.

This is definitely something we need to be talking about more and we need to start changing our world.


Rev. Katie

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