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Saturday, April 01, 2006

With the right attitude, you can wear a swimsuit!

By Carol Sorgen
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman


Summertime. Long, sunny days. Warmer temperatures. That's the good news. The bad news? If you have any intention of cooling off in the pool or at the beach, you're going to have to slip into that dreaded bathing suit. Unless you're 8 years old, that thought is enough to bring anyone to their knees.

"Those fluorescent lights have just got to go!" says Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, staff psychotherapist and certified eating disorder specialist at Structure House, a residential weight loss facility in Durham, N.C.

That would certainly help -- as anyone who's ever cringed in front of a dressing room's full-length mirror can attest. But what if your fear of swimsuit shopping goes beyond the glaring lights that magnify every bump and bulge? What if you can't even bear the thought of appearing in public because you're ashamed of your body?

Why Our Bodies Bother Us

Well, you're certainly not alone. Take a quick survey among your friends, family, and co-workers, and chances are you'll find that there's nary a person among the group who's actually happy with their body.

How has it come to pass that so many of us spend so much time obsessing over our body? It starts at home, says Alexander Sackeyfio, MD, coordinator of the Eating Disorder Program at Beaumont Hospital in suburban Detroit. "How well we think we fit in depends on how our family sees us," Sackeyfio says. "It's the family that serves as the buffer between us and the world out there, and if we've been teased or criticized at home, we're left with all sorts of questions about our body image."

Needless to say, the constant barrage of seemingly perfect men and women on TV, in the movies, and in magazines doesn't help. "The media portrays women's -- and now men's -- bodies as never being good enough," says Rebecca Cook, PhD, a postdoctoral psychology resident at the University of Dayton and a dietitian with 10 years of experience treating eating disorders. "The messages we're receiving need to change so that we're appreciating our body rather than hating it."

"Most of us are incapable of looking like the models in the magazines," adds Denise Lensky, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment in Philadelphia. "That's not the norm and it can't -- and never will -- be."

Your Body: Love It or Loathe It?

If anything you've read so far strikes a chord, take heed -- and take heart. You're not condemned to a lifetime of body loathing. You can take steps on your own to improve your body image.

For starters, address the fact that there is more to each of us than our weight. "Concentrate on your personality, your smile, the way you carry yourself, the way you relate to other people," Sackeyfio says. "Enhance the other aspects of yourself."

Become more in touch with your body. "Practice body mindfulness," says Klinger. "Touch your body; get an idea of its shape, its contours."

"Too often our body is regarded as something 'other' or apart from ourselves," Klinger says. When you're walking on a treadmill, headphones in place, or eyes glued to the TV, it's easy to ignore the fact that you're doing something for your body. "Take up yoga instead (or in addition)," says Klinger. "That's a good way to connect with your body."

Stop the negative self-talk, Klinger continues. "Pay attention to what your brain is saying. Become aware of it and how much it rules you." Perhaps easier said than done, but Klinger suggests that when those bad body thoughts come flitting through your mind, "consciously think about something else -- it doesn't matter what, just change the channel."

When you've quieted the mind 'chatter,' give yourself positive reinforcement, says Cook. "Look in the mirror and find parts of your body that you like. Then every morning focus on those parts and give yourself a positive message."

If you can't actually get from "I hate my thighs" to "I love my thighs" (and how many of us really can?!), you can at least get to the more neutral, "My thighs are important to my ability to walk," says Cook.

It wouldn't hurt to "just say no" either, says White. Not to food, but to the steady stream of messages from both the media and your friends. Throw away the fashion magazines, White suggests, and start hanging out with people who share your interests.

Finally, think about what you really value in life. Your family? Your friends? Your creativity? "Chances are, when you think about what's really important to you, it's not going to be your body." White says. "Take the energy that you spend on your body image and put it into what you value most."

All great advice, but are you any closer to wanting to shop for a swimsuit? Maybe not. So why not try to make it a positive, fun experience, says Klinger. Take a friend (just make sure it's a supportive friend!), then go out to lunch afterward or go see a movie. And just remember, your body is not that big a deal.

"It's who you are that's important," Klinger says. "It's really not about your body."

Originally Published June 6, 2004
Medically Updated May 12, 2005



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