Body Image and Eating Disorders

What Colors Do You See?

Susan Parish-Walker MS, LPC

What do you see when you look into a full-length mirror? If you are like many men and women, it’s not what you would like to see. Instead, your mind’s eye reflects on a history of a collage of past and present experiences, of remembered critical remarks and unforgotten praises. Is the image reflected of a person who is too thin, too fat, or just right? Moreover, do you find yourself analyzing and criticizing specific body regions such as your arms, buttocks, stomach, hips, or thighs?  Some psychologists compare an unhealthy body image as being distorted or being colorblind? For example, if one is truly colorblind that may have difficulty differentiating between various color tones. Similarly, if one has a distorted body image they may have difficulty assessing an accurate picture of their body.

Why are so many men and women prone to have a distorted or unhealthy body image? Clearly, we may have a few figure flaws and many of us will never look like Cindy Crawford or Michangelo’s David. Body image studies reveal many factors that often lead to body dissatisfaction. The following issues seem to be contributing factors: weight gain, paradoxical messages from the media, cultural pressures, perfectionism, drive for thinness and a relentless pursuit to become thin, low self-esteem, being in a relationship where a loved one is disapproving, mood swings, physiological changes such as hormonal imbalances or pregnancy, chronic illness, disfigurement, and sexual abuse. In addition, other symptoms that are often correlated with poor body image are interpersonal distrust. In other words, one may experience difficulty in building trust in relationships and may keep others at a distance. As a young girl, my father would build the most beautiful fires that were mesmerizing. I would love to put on my bobby socks and  flannel granny gown and sip hot chocolate in front of the fireplace and experience the warmth of the fire. However, if I moved too close to the fire I would often feel the heat that was so intense and I would create some distance to cool my skin. It was always a delicate balance between being too close and too distant. Likewise, building trust and intimacy in relationships may be very challenging if one has been burned or hurt very badly.

More specifically, if someone has been molested, raped or an extramarital affair has occurred it may create what is known as the “fat pad of protection” and create emotional distance. On the other hand, if one has been sexually abused one may lose an excessive amount of weight to appear unattractive so that they will not ever be sexually abused again.

Similarly, interoceptive awareness is a term that is often used in the Eating Disorder Inventory to describe how one has difficulty recognizing and accurately responding to emotional states such as stress, depression, or anger. Moreover, it indicates some confusion the identification of certain visceral sensations related to hunger and satiety. Often times an individual who struggles with weight management issues or a formal eating disorder has difficulty with assessing emotions and responding appropriately. For example, if an individual becomes angry, this is similar to a bee sting that allows that person to recognize that an event occurred that offended that person and they can react in an appropriate way to address the emotion. Overeating or underrating has often been used to cope with various emotions. Thus, anger and jealousy are the two emotions that women deny the most and men would prefer that they express their anger in an assertive manner versus acting it out by being passive-aggressive.