Positive Body Image
online conference transcript on body image
Dr. Deborah Burgard, our guest speaker, specializes in women's issues, particularly eating, weight, and sexuality concerns.
David is the HealthyPlace.com moderator.
The people in blue are audience members.
Everyone says you should have it, the question is -- how do you get it? Our guest, Dr. Debora Burgard will be discussing body image in relation to eating, weight, and sexuality concerns.
David: Good Evening. I'm David Roberts, the moderator for tonight's conference. I want to welcome everyone to HealthyPlace.com. Our topic tonight is "Positive Body Image". Our guest is psychologist and author, Dr. Debora Burgard.
Dr. Burgard is a psychologist, author, and webmaster. Her practice focuses primarily on women's issues revolving around eating, weight, and sexuality. Her site, www.bodypositive.com, contains a wealth of information on the subject, and her book "Great Shape" is promoted as the first fitness guide for large women.
Good Evening, Dr. Burgard and welcome to HealthyPlace.com. We appreciate you being here tonight. So we have a clear understanding, what is the definition of "body image"?
Dr. Burgard: Thanks for having me! Body image can be how you literally see your body or how you feel about it in a more general sense.
David: I know that many people have difficulty liking their bodies. Why is that?
Dr. Burgard: In our culture, we are trained to have an adversarial relationship with our bodies. Especially for women, we see the fat on our bodies as our bodies betraying us.
David: And how does that affect our outlook on things?
Dr. Burgard: It makes us try to "control" our bodies. Instead of seeing them as our allies or as something to nurture, we spend/waste lots of time being at war.
David: And it affects all aspects of our lives. One of the letters I received prior to your appearance tonight was from a large woman who said: "how can I feel sexy or good about having sex when I look at myself in the mirror and see the fat?" I'm wondering how you might answer that.
Dr. Burgard: We need to understand that just because we are trained to look at ourselves from the outside, we don't have to find that the most salient thing. Being sexual, you need to have the volume turned up on your own internal experience, how it feels to touch and be touched. When your attention is on "how I look from this angle," it means that the situation does not feel really safe to you and, in fact, it might not be - in the sense that your partner may or may not be looking at you that way. But lots of the time, women think their partners are as critical as they themselves are, and that is not true.
David: But, for many, our weight and our body image are tied together. How do you stop from letting your weight define who you are?
Dr. Burgard: Great question, since the whole culture is built around this!
Even our diagnostic categories - anorexia (anorexia information), bulimia (bulimia information), binge-eating disorder - are like small, medium, and large. I wish they were tied instead to behavior because in real life, fat women can be starving and thin women can be stuffing.
I can't tell when someone comes to see me what her relationship with food is, and I try to train other therapists to think that way too. In fact, there are a few situations - like a job interview or a singles bar - where people are going to look at your weight and make some association to it. But in many, if not most situations, we each have the opportunity to "show up" as ourselves regardless of weight. I try to teach these skills to people.
David: We have a lot of questions, Dr. Burgard. Here we go:
Lori Varecka: What is the best way to have my children have a good body image? I have one overweight daughter @ 11, a "just right" daughter @ 9 and a son who will be tall and thin (probably) and he is almost 7.
Dr. Burgard: Lori, all your children are "just right" if they are fulfilling their genetic fates. We are all like breeds of dogs - not everyone will be a greyhound! Give each of your children the experience that their feelings matter and you will go far in "innoculating" them against the "pollution" out there.
This was such a good question, Lori, thanks for asking. We need much more research on how to help kids feel good.
David: How does someone develop a poor body image? Is it internally composed, externally, or a combination of both?
Dr. Burgard: Well, it is a fairly recent phenomenon in western culture, so I think we have to grant that the external world matters. However, one of my research interests is what protects individuals who seem to resist the cultural pressures. If kids believe that their voice matters, and that they can be powerful not just by having a certain appearance but also by being smart or competent or caring, they feel more confident. Sometimes people blame their bodies for the violence that happens to them, too.
David: What do you mean by that?
Dr. Burgard: I'll take a relatively mild example - Say you are teased by your older brother for beginning to develop breasts. And you feel furious and ashamed at the same time - some of your anger is at your brother, but some of it can go toward your own body for "being a target."
David: Here's an audience question:
DottieCom1: I am a mature woman with a nice figure and at middle range of ideal weight. I'm so afraid of food. If I gain a pound, it ruins my whole day.
David: It's more of a comment, but a lot of women feel that way.
Dr. Burgard: I would wonder, what is the meaning of gaining a pound for her? Maybe it feels like an achievement to keep her weight stable, or maybe it gives her life a feeling of order. We attach all these powerful ideas to these numbers of the scale!
Sharyn: How can we feel good about our body image when "gravity" takes over? Perhaps applying for a job knowing the younger person may have a better chance? I like my body image but not when applying for a job or just those little things we deal with when out in public.
Dr. Burgard: Well, so this is a feeling you are having not about your body itself, but about the stereotypes about what it means to have an older body. The feeling is totally valid, and it may include feelings of loss, especially if you had the power of being seen as very attractive before. I try to remind myself that if I don't die, I'll get old. I'd rather get old! : )
Sidzel: I went to a job interview and they said they weren't hiring, even though I had seen the ads in the paper. Several months later I tried again and I was hired on the spot. The guy who was once doing the hiring was fired. Reason was, he didn't hire what he thought were overweight people. I learned this after I was hired. I was so hurt. I couldn't believe people could be so rude.
Dr. Burgard: Wow, you could have told your story to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month when they considered, and eventually did, add height and weight to the anti-discrimination code. People made fun of us out there but as you can vouch for, it happens all the time.
jesse1: We see fat on our bodies as us being too much. So we try to be less. Somewhere in our life, we got the impression that if there was less of me then they would like me.
Dr. Burgard: Yes, Jesse, very good observation. Why do you think anyone would want you to be less?
jesse1: Our culture is built around perfection. We strive for perfection.
David: Here's an audience comment on what's been said so far:
Barbara2: It is interesting that in some cultures fat is considered beautiful and a sign of wealth, so women are fattened up before marriage!
David: What would you suggest, and I'm looking for 2 or 3 concrete ideas that people can take with them tonight, on how to begin to improve your feelings about your body.
Dr. Burgard: Well, the Body Positive tag line says:
- Change your mind.
- Change your culture.
- And let your body be.
So let's go one by one:
First, you have to look at what you say to yourself, all day long. The world may be "polluted" but what most of us hear is our own internal dialogue. Remember that your "body self" hears everything you think. So if you want to feel better about your body, you have to treat it better. You don't have to say things that aren't true, but you can replace the critical comments with descriptive ones; like replacing "I'm so disgusting" with something that you're grateful for, like how your body stayed awake to drive you home safely or any number of the incredible things our bodies do for us every day.
Next, activism helps! Do something, any small step, to speak up to try to change the culture. If your friend starts the "fat talk" ask her what she is really feeling, if she can't use body angst to disguise it.
And then, learn to take better care of this amazing entity that is your body. Remember when we were all finding our "inner children"? We now have to find some "inner parents." That means the part of you who helps you get enough sleep, eat your vegetables, and go out and play. Our bodies need love and care.
aimilub: I gained a lot of weight over the past 2 years, I believe due to medication. My husband refuses to be intimate with me until I'm back down to my old weight, hence bulimia relapse. Now I'm 11 weeks into bulimia recovery, but restricting big time and losing lots of weight. I am afraid to eat for fear of gaining again. How can I feel good when I'm getting these messages from him that I'm not attractive unless I'm thin?
Dr. Burgard: How would the two of you deal with some other kind of change? Partners change all the time, and part of the task of being in a relationship is to be able to keep up. I wonder if you are feeling less attractive and less sexual, and maybe that is affecting his feelings too? But whatever help you need to get, to get yourself more stable again, I would encourage you to focus on that. Maybe there is something that the two of you need to talk about that is being masked by this issue.
Rosebud: Hi Dr. Burgard, what would you do, if you had a body that doesn't work? I have mild Cerebral Palsy. I used to called myself ugly, reject and retard. And I still do because I don't like my body. How can I improve my self image on this?
Dr. Burgard: Hi, Rosebud. Well, there are a lot of people whose bodies aren't perfect, (can I get a witness?), and we all can do much more to appreciate what our bodies can do. I am glad that your body allows you to be here with us now! But I do understand that you probably face people's prejudices, and that is not easy. It is important to try to remember that the way people react reveals their own fears, and your job is to "show up" with your real self. I am glad you have stopped calling yourself names. We can all learn from you.
David: I'm wondering how many people in the audience tried dieting to make themselves feel better? Send me your comments and whether it actually made you felt better, worse, or the same.
aimilub: I diet to make me feel better but end up feeling worse because the diet always fails.
Nerak: I have tried so many diets. They all make me feel worse cause I fail so bad at them. I believe this plays a part in my depression.
Kello: At first dieting made me feel better, but before long, anorexia began controlling me and I ended up worse.
mickey: My life has been one diet after the other and still can't loose weight to be thin enough.
Cutie: I am always dieting and I love and enjoy the healthy food I eat. I also love the way my body responds to the food choices and work out schedule. However at times I feel I become obsessive and I wish that I did not let my body image greatly affect my mood.
chyna_chick: How can a person w/ an eating disorder who has to gain weight do so when they already feel and look so fat?
Dr. Burgard: This is so hard, I know. It is almost as if the universe is forcing you to face your worst fear in order to recover. But you do have to find out that your body is not really your enemy, that your fear has to be identified and dealt with. For example, if your fear is really how you will be treated if you were seen as fat, you need to develop the tools to defend yourself anyway. You need to feel like you can be OK no matter what you weigh. That is true liberation.
LynneT: I'm a compulsive overeater and incest survivor, I've had a lot of therapy and I'm a member of Overeaters Anonymous. I am considerably overweighed. When my weight drops to a certain weight, I become terrified and usually gain weight, even if my eating is not enough to gain. How do we get past this barrier?
Dr. Burgard: If in fact your genetic weight is below where you are now, and you have to eat when not hungry to maintain it, then you have probably identified that a thinner body size scares you somehow. But of course you know that it is not a thinner body but how you feel in your thinner body that worries you. The people who I have worked with have to develop a pretty unshakable trust in themselves, in their own willingness to advocate for themselves and their safety, with words or with actions (like leaving the scene of an abusive conversation, for example) in order to replace what they see as the "message" of their bigger bodies. But remember that your genetic weight might be higher than you think, and this could also be your body just trying to get back to its set point. It gets confusing, yes?
Taryn: How can a person be happy with their "set" weight when it is heavier than what is acceptable. I hate always having to be dieting just so I can barely be acceptable, not even thin.
Dr. Burgard: Almost all of us have set points that are higher than acceptable! Our culture is crazy - everyone is supposed to be a greyhound. If the average clothing size is a 14-16, and you can't even always find that as a "large" then most of us feel like we're not "acceptable." So my question to you all is, what are we going to do about this, ladies?
Susie3: How much damage do you do to your body when you drop a lot of weight.
Dr. Burgard: I am not a physician but the studies I have seen flag some potential problems for example, loss of lean body mass (including heart tissue), and, with weight re-gain, the potential for high blood pressure, redistribution of the regained fat to more "metabolically active" areas, and so forth. These issues have made many of us in the healthcare field think twice before recommending that people try to lose weight. I am much more comfortable helping people figure out what changes they feel like they can make and sustain for the rest of their lives, and then see what their body size is, and try to accept that body size as their healthy weight - i.e., the weight they are when they are living in a healthy way.
David: One of the things about body image, and I'd like you to comment on this Dr. -- from conversations with other women, I think many women, and guys for that matter, want to have a certain "look" which is tied to lower or moderate weight. And then they think that's going to be the trick that "gets them a man or a women." But if you walk down the street, you'll see all different types (shapes) of couples -- one tall, one large. A tiny guy with a moderate woman. I mean, they're are all mixtures. But yet, many feel like they can't get a mate or a date without having that "look."
Dr. Burgard: Yes, people who want to be attractive to men, especially. Straight women and gay men are more likely to want that "look" maybe because men's sexuality is pretty visual. But you're right, all you have to do is look around to explode that myth. I remember being in junior high and seeing that my friend's older brother, who was one of the best-looking people I had ever seen, was with a really homely girlfriend. And I was fixated on this, I think because I wanted to be able to "talk back" to all the messages I was getting that were myths - and I could use my own feelings as well, because I was drawn to all kinds of people, some of whom were not conventionally attractive, but who I found very appealing. I think that undoubtedly you get more people looking at you, without knowing you, if you are conventionally beautiful, but those people get stereotyped too. And so you still have the same existential dilemma about how to "show up" to someone with your real self.
BRITTCAMS: I have been doing very well for the last few months and have put on a lot of weight. When will I ever stop feeling "fat"? will I ever be able to look in a mirror again and see my real self?
Dr. Burgard: Good for you to fight back against the disease!
In my experience, people definitely grow stronger and stronger in their sense of themselves, and their comfort with their own bodies. I think if you have seen your real self before, you have not lost her! Fight for her! It is so worth it to have a real life. Good luck to you!
Tessa: Don't you think it's possible to just want to be really thin for the sake of being really thin instead of having some strange past that is causing it?
Dr. Burgard: You may want to be thin in order to have a certain *future*, yes. We are all taught to believe life will be perfect then. But your question reminds me of young women who have come to me for help, who say that their lives are fine and they should be happy and they feel very protective of their families and afraid I'm going to judge their families. There is enough junk in the air to trip up even relatively healthy families, so in a way, my interest is more in what we can do to help you want to have a real life that you own, not a fantasized "perfect" thin future.
David: Here's a comment relating to my earlier question on whether being on a diet made you feel better, worse, or the same about yourself: (dangers of dieting)
mickey: I have been made feel FAT, have been on a diet all my life and always compared to my thin sister.
David: And then a few more comments on what's been said tonight:
Cutie: Everyone wants to feel attractive. I would suggest that people should concentrate on what attracts them to certain individuals they admire. I think many will find that what makes them special and ATTRACTIVE has nothing to do with their weight.
Lori Varecka: I tell my kids that they are just right, the way they are. Not that simple though. Self talk is hard to do day after day after day.
Barbara2: I think many people in many cultures strive for what they define as perfection - but perfection is culturally defined and differs. It does seem ironic that in this culture 55% of people are considered to be overweight.
beth12345: With me, when I eat anything and I don't throw it up, I feel I have to punish myself. I do this by cutting myself. It's not me really, but something in my head that tells me to.
Tink: It is a way of failing.
shell_rn: This is just my opinion, but weight is not the only factor to having a poor body image.
David: Well, it's getting late. I want to thank Dr. Burgard for being our guest tonight and sharing her knowledge and expertise with us.
Dr. Burgard: Thank you all for such great questions and comments!
David: I also want to thank everyone in the audience for coming and participating. I hope you found it helpful.
I would like to invite everyone to visit the Eating Disorders Community at HealthyPlace.com, where you will find hundreds of pages of information about issues that we talked about tonight. You can also sign up for our mailing lists at these, and any other HealthyPlace Communities of your interest.
During our next conference we'll be discussing gay, lesbian, bi, and trans. issues with Tom Fronczak. If you are interested, please go to the HealthyPlace Gender Community for information.
Good Night everyone.
Disclaimer: We are not recommending or endorsing any of the suggestions of our guest. In fact, we strongly encourage you to talk over any therapies, remedies or suggestions with your doctor BEFORE you implement them or make any changes in your treatment.
Last Updated: 06 April 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD