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Do You Have a Body Image Disorder?

The Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, joins Get-Fit Guy to explain Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and how it can wreak havoc on your life. The good news is that Dr. Hendriksen has 6 tips on how to overcome your body image issues and feel great about yourself.

By
Ben Greenfield
8-minute read
Episode #176

Orthorexia

Orthorexia, means, loosely, “correct diet.”  Unlike anorexia, where people want to be skinny to the extreme, orthorexics want to be healthy, pure, or all-natural, but to such an extreme that it actually interferes with their health and life.  Unlike other eating disorders, this one seems to be more common in men.

Orthorexics eat what they perceive to be a healthy diet and obsessively avoid foods they think are unhealthy, like fat, animal products, or additives. Ironically, their diet can end up so restrictive that it actually leads to malnutrition.  Inevitably, orthorexics experience hunger and cravings, but instead of expanding their diets, they feel guilty and ashamed, and react by becoming even more strict, thus creating a vicious circle.

Again, it’s not an official diagnosis yet, so there aren’t hard and fast diagnostic criteria, but here are some things to consider:  Is your diet isolating?  Many people with orthorexia lose friends or fight with a partner because they look down on others’ ways of eating.  They have a hard time being around people who don’t eat as “healthily” as they do and thus eat only alone at home.  Also, how much time does it take up?  Thinking about healthy eating more than 3 hours a day could signal a problem.  Control is also a big factor: orthorexics may feel in total control when they follow their diet, but guilty and self-hating when they slip, even by one bite.  And finally, as the diet of an individual with orthorexia gets “healthier,” his or her life actually gets worse.

Now, it’s totally fine to follow a comparatively strict diet, like veganism, Paleo, or a raw food diet, as long as it enhances your life and you choose to do it, rather than restricting your life and feeling like you’re compelled to do it.  Remember that most disorders are extreme versions of normal behavior.  Healthy eating, like most behavior, lies on a spectrum; the extreme end—where it causes distress and impairment—is where we start to worry. 

6 Tips to Feel Great About Your Body

To feel great, here are 6 tips to help you be kinder to your hardworking body.  After all, where would you be without it?

  • Tip #1: Think about not only what your body looks like, but what it can do.  I know of a teacher who’s quite a bit overweight, but she’s a karate instructor and a sixth-degree black belt.  I guarantee she’s not thinking about her body shape in the middle of a flying kick.  Do the same and find an activity that makes you feel powerful, peaceful, or plain ol’ good in your body, whether it’s the weightlessness of swimming, the rhythm of Zumba, or the camaraderie of a walking group. 

  • Tip #2: “Fat” and “soft” are not feelings.  Many women use “I feel fat,” and men use “I feel soft,” as shorthand for “I feel bad.”  Don’t conflate fat or softness with negative feelings.  If you feel demoralized, ashamed, vulnerable, or self-conscious, call it what it is.  It’s easier to deal with a feeling directly, rather than through the filters of “fat” and “soft.” 

Many women use “I feel fat,” and men use “I feel soft,” as shorthand for “I feel bad.” Don’t conflate fat or softness with negative feelings. 

  • Tip #3: Argue back to your thoughts.  Think of your thoughts as little monsters that keep whispering rude, insensitive things to you: “Your stomach is gross!”  “You shouldn’t have eaten that, you cow.”  “You’re disgusting.”  Would you say these things to someone else?  Would you say such damaging things to a child?  Of course not.  Then why the double standard?   Stand up for yourself like you’re worth standing up for, because you are.

  • Tip #4: Stop comparing yourself to others.  Shame is a terrible motivator.  Limit your exposure to situations that make you feel bad about your body until your body image gets stronger (notice I said your body image—you don’t have to change your body at all, just your perception of it).  Walk out of snooty studios or gyms where you feel judged or no one talks to you.   Stop buying fashion or fitness magazines that make you feel inadequate.  And for heaven’s sake, stay away from those “best” and “worst” beach bodies features at the checkout stand!  You’ll breathe a sigh of relief.

  • Tip #5: Likewise, stop commenting on others’ appearance or eating.  It perpetuates a culture of judgment where everyone loses.   Say something positive.  For example, if you see a large person struggling to jog, just say “Good for her.” 

  • Tip #6: For inspiration, read Anne Lamott’s “The Aunties,” a hilarious essay on accepting jiggly thighs, or Wendy Shanker’s The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, which is self-explanatory (and also hilarious).  For men and women, Mark Sisson’s The Primal Connection explores, among other topics, meaningful exercise—thoughtful alternatives to exercising just to look good or get a training high.

Body image issues lie at the core of eating disorders and BDD.  It’s not easy to push back against a culture where Kelly Ripa’s arms make headlines.  But look around you.  Look at everyone, not just the Jolie-Pitts.  Chances are, when you broaden your view to see all shapes and sizes of real people, you and your body fit right in.

***

Thanks Ellen. I wish I had your podcast when I was teetering on the edge of BDD.

If you have questions about body image issues, or want to talk more about body dysmorphic disorder or feeling great about your body, then join the discussion over at Facebook.com/GetFitGuy. And if you know someone who has or is headed for BDD, make sure to email them a link to the Savvy Psychologist podcast so that they could stop that train before it gets into dangerous territory.

References

Donini, L., Marsili, D., Graziani, M., Ibriale, M., & Cannella, C. (2005).  Orthorexia nervosa: Validation of a diagnostic questionnaire.  Eating and Weight Disorders, 10, 28-32.

Phillips, K.  (1996).  The Broken Mirror: Understanding and Treating Body Dysmorphic Disorder.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pope, H.G., Phillips, K., & Olivardia, R. (2000).  The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat, and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys.  New York: Touchstone.

Body image disorder and other images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.