I said I was going to work on unpacking some of my core beliefs about weight and body image, and I’ve been doing this. I have not been enjoying the process.
“Core beliefs” is a term I picked up from cognitive-behavioral therapy. It refers to deep, underlying convictions that we’ve picked up from somewhere. Usually we don’t realize the extent of the role they play in our lives and thoughts.
So, enough intellectualizing on my part. What do I believe about my weight and its meaning, and can I look at it honestly and see how messed up some of it is?
Core belief #1: I am not really “me” unless I am below a certain weight.
This is one of the deepest, and I know I am not alone in it. Many who are overweight see their bodies and selves as a work in progress, aided by a culture that encourages us to see our lives as something that will be completed by a better body–or a house, or a job, or a partner, or any other kind of “carrot.”
The weight at which I am “myself” has become more reasonable than it used to be. It’s thirty or forty pounds less than where I am, as opposed to eighty. The problem is that the line exists at all; that a high weight has consequences not only for my health but my very sense of self.
Core belief #2: There is no point in exercising, or doing other things that are good for my body, unless I am currently losing weight or maintaining a very low weight.
This inner tape has done me an incredible amount of damage. It’s often caused me to miss out on not only the health benefits of exercise, but the elevation of mood and self-esteem moving my body brings. If I have a period of healthful eating and some exercise, breaking the streak of the first behavior requires me to give up the second one as well. Never mind that moving my body would help my mood and make me able to return to better eating sooner–nope, it’s all or nothing.
Core belief #3: Being fat and/or eating more than a certain amount is not spiritual. My spiritual self is thin, abstinent, and free from all compulsions. Contact with the Divine as I know it is something I have to earn by not eating.
This belief started to form in my twenties, when I was first exploring my spirituality in the context of a recovery program for compulsive eating. If I was eating in a way that wasn’t on my (very restrictive at the time) plan, I was resisting God’s will. Being on the diet equalled being surrendered to my God’s will. When suffering a relapse into my self-destructive bingeing, and wanting to pray for help, I felt that I had no right to pray until I cleaned up my act. It was a vicious circle.
This belief gets reinforced today by some aspects of my bipolar disorder. Starting a diet tends to make me hypomanic, and hypomania can bring heightened mystical feelings as well as heightened creativity. Similarly, overeating or eating too many starches and sweets has a sedating and depressing effect, making me feel less in touch with the mystical aspects of myself.
Core belief #4: I cease to be a sexual or romantic being when my weight exceeds a certain amount.
It’s natural for me to wrestle with my sexuality as I age; most of us do in this culture. Even when I was younger, though, this pattern was there. I was always thinner in my fantasies: good sex was only for people with good bodies. Times spent in the lower parts of my weight range were the times I took sexual and romantic risks. Somewhere, within a relative narrow weight range, I change from a sensual and sexually awakened woman to one who sees herself as sexually invisible and dormant. I don’t ask for sex, physical intimacy or romantic attention.
Core belief #5: Someday I will conquer my eating disorder for good and never again suffer a relapse. I will achieve “normality” in this realm and maintain it for the rest of my life. This, more than anything else, will mark me as a success in life.
I don’t need to go into how unrealistic this is. It’s as ridiculous as the idea that I’ll make myself not be an addict any more. I’ve got this issue, and I’m going to have it for the rest of this lifetime even if my health improves. I have to ask myself how much of my life I want to devote to this one area of struggle.
I’m sure there are more of these core beliefs, as well as the many surface thoughts that come up when I deal with doctors and other people. I have no intention of giving up on my health–but what would happen if I stopped defining myself by my weight?