Food, fat and flexible thinking – what’s so great about perfect anyway?!

Appearance is one of the main reasons for suicidal thoughts in the UK

According to Samaritans research, appearance is one of the main reasons for suicidal thoughtsScreen Shot 2013-10-26 at 09.40.33 in the UK. APPEARANCE.  This makes me very angry. But I can also completely understand why it is up there in the top three along with ‘feelings of failure’ and ‘academia’.

Food, fat and my thoughts about eating are one of the least clear and most complex aspects of managing my mental wellbeing. After all I have to eat every day. I can’t give up eating because it sometimes causes me mental anguish.

I have an athletic figure (that’s what I’d always go for when I did online dating anyway!). My body does amazing things for me – most recently a marathon in a time I was incredibly proud of. I’m not fat. To be honest, I never really have been.

My old teenage diaries would tell you otherwise. An angry blog post from Nothingbythebook recently triggered memories of what started my own difficult relationship with food. I was a girl like the one in the blog post. We didn’t have a TV and (at a risk of sounding overly romantic) I lived outside in hand me downs. My heroes were the ‘pirates’ in Swallows and Amazons. I remember a midnight feast I planned with friends in the garden where the more food we managed to acquire, the more gleeful we all became. Not once did I think ‘if I eat this, I’ll get fat’. And that’s how it should be. I haven’t felt that completely untainted glee at a pile of food since.

Aged nine, I bought a book ‘Every Girls Handbook’ with a birthday book token. Aimed at pre teens, one chapter contained lists of exercises and calorie charts. What were they THINKING? This was the beginning of a messed up relationship with food that lasted all through my teens. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I threw up to purge for the last time. It wasn’t entirely the fault of this pink ‘handbook’ but it certainly didn’t help.

‘Life is what happens when you are busy worrying about your weight’

Now I would never go back there. I still exercise a lot but I realise that the calm, relaxed feeling I get after running is because the endorphins released has made my mind work more positively – and not because my one off run had magically dropped pounds off me. I’ve also realised that feeling full is not the same as feeling fat.

While I generally eat well and healthily there is still a lot more work to do. I don’t have an eating disorder but I think about food and fat too much. Like Lionel Shriver’s character in her most recent book Big Brother, I save photos from the events where I look OK over the meaningful events where I can’t stand the sight of myself in the pictures. And all too often my enjoyment of an event is diminished as soon as I see the pictures of myself. Pictures that I analyse and criticise. My ‘default thinking’ is what I’ve eaten today and how my body is looking and feeling. I still have the occasional mindless binge – not enormous by any means but definitely slightly out of control and pointless eating. I still occasionally do the ‘tests’ I devised when I was younger. 

It makes me angry. How many days, holidays and events have I been unable to fully enjoy because I have felt fat, eaten too much or hated the sight of myself in the mirror. And on each of these occasions, no doubt, nobody else has cared in the slightest about how I look. It’s such a waste of good times.

Can I separate appearance and happiness?

I have accepted most aspects of my appearance. I no longer have wildly unrealistic aims for my weight, the shape of my legs or how I look when I laugh. I know that most women in media pictures are photoshopped. But I am yet to manage the complete separation of feeling attractive and feeling happy.

On many occasions (usually after reading clever women taking sense about appearance – Miranda Hart, Caitlin Moran or those on the Body Gossip campaign) I have recognised how ridiculous we are and vow to behave more sensibly about food. This is OK until I actually gain some weight.  Then I realise I’ve only been kidding myself that I’m genuinely completely over it. I haven’t actually managed to separate feeling attractive from feeling happy. I just like the idea of being able to.

Ideally, I would like to be in a position where even if I did have a few extra pounds or an even wonkier nose or a slightly double chin I wouldn’t care. My happiness (or parts of it at least) would not be linked to my appearance. This is true recovery. 

But it is also a prime example of mental trickery and something that sufferers of severe eating disorders often can’t even imagine. I’ve spoken to many people who have said that while they recognise that their eating disorder makes them deeply unhappy, they don’t want to get help as help will lead to weight gain. What is incredibly hard to grasp is that true help will, in time, lead to a new state of mind where despite weight gain one is happier. Where happiness is no longer linked to appearance. In many the links between low weight ->happiness and weight gain ->unhappiness are so deeply entrenched it is almost impossible to imagine your mind working any other way.

Unfortunately, the culture we live in works to strengthen the link between happiness/success and low weight rather than to break it. As a result, many many of us have these links buried in our minds, our thoughts and our approach to food.

What’s so great about perfect anyway – nourishing flexible thinking against perfectionism?

So what can I do? I don’t claim to have all the answers by any means, but I’m coming round to some new ways of approaching the issue that I hope will help. I recently bought myself the Body Gossip t-shirt in the picture above and I’ve started using its slogan as a mantra beyond issues of food and weight.

Perfectionism can be a problem in its own right and can also be a feature of other disorders (eating disorders of course being a prime example). Fear of failure is often at the heart of it. The reasons for suicidal thoughts in the UK are deeply intertwined.

What about flexible and inflexible thinking more generally. Feeling as though things have to be perfect is a prime example of inflexible thinking. Inflexible thinking can often be a sign of unhealthy mental attitudes that in turn can lead to anxiety and depression.

What is inflexible thinking?

According to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) inflexible thinking can lead us to create rigid rules of thought. These end up locking ourselves into ideas about who we are and who we have to be. It is much harder to build resilience and manage the day to day if we can’t adjust and change our approaches and ideas about the world – and if we’re not prepared for things to be imperfect. Inflexible thinking seems to be the enemy of acceptance and leaves us in a situation where our happiness is dependent on the fulfillment of certain criteria and our self esteem is too dependent on achievement. 

Examples of inflexible ‘all or nothing’ thinking might be;

‘If i don’t get good grades then my life is over’,
‘If I don’t find love then I have failed’,
‘If I gain weight then I will be unsuccessful’,
‘If I gain weight then I am worthless’,
‘If I self harm again then I have completely failed at recovery and may as well give up’.

These are often so deeply embedded within us that it is hard to recognise them for what they are – just thoughts, rules that we have created for ourselves or let the world create for us unnecessarily. They can pop up automatically and start a train of thought and worry. Could there be another way of looking at things? This is where Mindfulness joins CBT.

Using MBCT to challenge these entrenched attitudes, thoughts and rules

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy tells us that thoughts are not facts – and that these thoughts can start becoming an unhealthy running commentary in our minds (I explore this in post six of my series on Mindfulness for Mind). When we find ourselves experiencing negative thoughts like this we should try and recognise them for what they are, stop and examine them.

It isn’t easy, these thoughts tend to run on automatic pilot. Mindfulness is the best approach I’ve found so far. When you recognise these thoughts appearing, take a step back (a breathing space) and ask yourself;

-Am I thinking in black and white terms.

-Am I judging myself.

-Am I expecting perfection or overestimating disaster.

-Who is setting these standards? Who minds if they are met or not?

Try and see these thoughts as a symptom of your mental state rather than a reflection of reality. Here’s the ‘I’m too fat, what have I eaten today’ tape running again. Here’s the ‘self critical, going over every small mistake at work tape’ doing its destructive thing. What can I do to distract myself from the tape rather than listen to it?

Food and flexible thinking

Properly using mindfulness to recognise and examine your inflexible thoughts and rules can help with perfectionism, depression and anxiety. If you are interested I would recommend reading the links above in more depth. What else can help us change our attitudes and think more flexibly, particularly around food and appearance?

  • Work to recognise when you are making comparisons.  We’re always making comparisons. How we ‘should’ be feeling, looking or behaving. Perfectionists make constant comparisons. When they come out negatively from the comparison they ruminate on it and when they come out positively they almost instantly disregard it. Sound like you? Next time you find yourself making comparisons try forcing yourself to list all the things you like about yourself – for yourself and not in relation to anyone else.
  • View your body as a friend not an enemy. That was quite a revelation for me. Be kind to yourself. What does your body do for you? LOADS! It’s a bloody miracle.
  • Make a conscious effort to add balance to your thoughts. It’s a slow process but try and expose yourself to more positive body thoughts, ideas and stories. There are people out there fighting for a culture change towards positive body image – Body Gossip is my favourite. Join them. Read their stories. Write yourself a letter like this one, telling your body what you like about it and why.

Do you have any other ideas, suggestions, blogs, campaigns or things that have worked for you? Do share them! By exposing that link between appearance and worth to as much scrutiny, question and ridicule as I can, I hope to slowly wear it down until I’m happy with all my imperfections. And you know what, I think I’m OK with that taking a while. No-one’s perfect after all 😉



3 thoughts on “Food, fat and flexible thinking – what’s so great about perfect anyway?!

  1. Pingback: Exercise addiction – managing the tangle of anxiety, eating and exercise. | Clare Rose Foster

  2. Pingback: What I’d tell my 2015 self about dieting, body positivity and accepting medication | Clare Rose Foster

  3. Pingback: The next step in recovery – letting go of clothes that don’t fit | Clare Rose Foster

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