People with bipolar disorder often struggle with weight gain, because it’s a side effect of so many medications used to treat depression and mania. Compounding the issue is the fact that the more you worry about weight and try to “shed the pounds” the harder it may be to lose weight. Meanwhile, all you accomplish is feeling bad about your body.
I recommend a different approach, one that focuses on health and happiness and banishes body shaming.
This past weekend my young adult daughters (25 and 21) and I took a short vacation together. As women who live in the world, our conversations often touch on women’s health, weight stigma, and body shaming. We decided to experiment with a “contract” with each other to ban negative talk about our bodies, weight, and appearance. Over the first day or two we caught each other, gently, many times. By the end of three days, we were able to catch ourselves as the thoughts bubbled up and before we unthinkingly expressed them. “My face is so chubby in that picture, I look terrible” — noted and tossed from conversation. “I look so fat in these shorts” — jettisoned. “Hat hair makes me look disgusting” — handed a similar fate.
Our very small, thoroughly unscientific, but personally meaningful experiment succeeded; we became far more aware of how often we said negative things about ourselves and how differently it felt to remove them from our conversations. We all reported that the thoughts might still be in our heads, but not giving them language — not getting social reinforcement for saying them — definitely began to disrupt some of our automatic interactions around weight and appearance.
I was an early adopter of body acceptance and working to get healthy regardless of weight. I tried hard to use positive language, such as strength and health, about women’s bodies around my daughters even when they were young. I stopped dieting, which I had done for many years of my life, and focused on exercise and choosing food based on nutrition, taste, and a positive food experience. But this was very much a work in progress, and I failed many times. Of course, I could never protect them from the ubiquitous social messages — from media, from friends, from friends’ mothers — that body size and appearance were the most important characteristics of a girl and that losing weight and staying “thin” were supposed to be the focus of their lives, regardless of other accomplishments.
Our experiment on vacation revealed that shaming and critical thoughts about our bodies and appearances remain part of our internal infrastructure. It also cleared small steps on a corrective path. Sadly, accepting our bodies is a revolutionary act for women — but I have hope that it will not always be that way.
For our next vacation we have decided to ban unnecessary apologizing. I will keep you posted on how that goes.