As usual, I cranked the radio dial to NPR for some gentle intellectual stimulation on my drive home from work. To my excitement, as a neuroscience major and REbeL alumni, the first snippets I heard revolved around the mind-body connection and its biological roots in the brain.
The interviewer spoke with Anil Ananthaswamy, a software-engineer-turned-science-writer who recently wrote a book on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a condition in which patients with otherwise healthy, intact bodies claim that a part of it does not belong to them. No, they are not blind or insane. They live life disturbed by the particular body part’s presence and feel a deep psychological disconnection from it. One man who suffered this ailment in his arm even proclaimed, “It feels like my soul doesn’t extend into that part of my body.”
I found this fascinating. Listening to this segment prompted me to think of other conditions in which people feel estranged from their physical form, as in the case of transgenderism. Personal testimonies continually pop up in which people claim knowing since as long as they can remember that they belonged in a different body. They often experience deep despondency in coping with what they believe to be wrongly inherited parts.
But perhaps the most compelling example of the severance between mind and body manifests itself in eating disorders. I can only speak for my specific experience. For the longest time, I was convinced that I was too large, that I occupied far too much of the space around me. It wasn’t so much a fixation on numbers or weight; rather, my brain constantly promised that I’d feel safer and more at ease once I shrunk and that the smaller I became, the fewer problems I’d have to face. But, as you might expect, that peace of mind never arrived. I looked in the mirror and saw a thin girl. I incessantly strove to push it further. Eventually I reached discordance: my bones began to break down, and I fell to 80% of my body weight. ‘Physical me’ started defending itself against ‘psychological me.’
Recent research reveals that 50-80% of disordered eating behavior is genetic, while the remainder falls under the umbrella of environmental influence. Thankfully, most people aren’t biologically predestined to suffer from an eating disorder, but it’s safe to say that our society has fairly successfully driven a significant wedge between our minds and bodies.
Our culture pumps our brains full of images of bony models, women with curves, and bulging muscles, while we are inundated with dieting commercials interspersed with those for bacon-wrapped pizzas and fast food. Whether overweight, underweight, or somewhere in between, no one is immune to the torrent of conflicting messages we receive each day. Soon enough we begin to misunderstand and mistrust our body, grow frustrated with its inability to adapt perfectly to our manipulations or age as flawlessly as the celebrities in magazines.
Mending the treacherous gap between mind and body takes time and plenty of compassion. Luckily, we likely don’t have to reconcile with a seemingly foreign limb as those with BIID, but practices like yoga, meditation, playing jubilantly in the sun, or understanding and appreciating the origins of the food that we eat are all wonderful ways of developing a deeper connection with our bodies. Strength does not result from restriction, starvation, or self-criticism or abuse; real strength requires taking charge of one’s own consciousness, recognizing our genuine value and taking steps every day to embrace the unpredictability, imperfection, and staggering beauty inherent in our bodies and our existence.
Our body is our one true home. We spend more time with our bodies than we will with any other person or entity. So why not treat it with the same love and care as you would your lifelong companion? I encourage each one of you today to valiantly take steps toward a more unified mind and body, and bring a little soul into what has become a mindless battle.
Sophomore Neuroscience Major at UT Austin & REbeL Alumna
Back into a routine. Back to worrying about getting good grades. Back to getting the right answer on the test. Back to choosing the right outfit for the first day of school. Back to trying to fit into a certain size of jeans. Back to school still feels like it was yesterday. Today, I still feel how I felt fourteen years ago on my first day of high school. It’s exhausting trying to always get it right and trying to always fit in. I remember trying so hard to do everything perfectly, including the size of my clothes. And it didn’t stop at high school graduation – this continued throughout college and into my twenties. My eating disorder and my distorted perception of myself continued on for years. For the majority of my life, I’ve tried so hard to have the right body, to eat the right things, to say the right things, and to do the right things.
Every day I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect with people in moments of confidence and also moments of self-doubt in fitting rooms. I have a job I love as an Assistant Manager at lululemon athletica Leawood. If you are unfamiliar with lululemon athletica, we are a yoga-inspired, athletic apparel company for men and women. While we’re a retail company that is often known for our black, stretchy pants & cute tops, we’re so much more than our products. We’re a diverse group of individuals empowering our fellow Kansas Citians to get sweaty, to move mindfully, and to live healthy and fun lives that include plenty of movement and self-care.
The moment guests walk into our store, I try to put myself in their shoes. No matter their reason for coming in, everyone shares a common goal – to look and to feel good about themselves and to find something they love in the right size. Due to my own body image struggles, I’m well aware of the pressure many people put on themselves to fit into the right size, the size that is acceptable in their eyes. At some point we have all felt uneasy, unworthy, and have had a negative emotional response to trying on clothing. I know the conversations guests have with one another and am all too familiar with the frantic string of anxious, abusive thoughts that play out in customers’ minds as they examine themselves in the fitting room mirrors.
Although we don’t all walk around constantly worrying about our size, the vast majority of us can pinpoint a time where we’ve felt anxious while trying on clothes. In a recent survey conducted in 2008, 88% of women reported that going into the dressing room made them re-evaluate their bodies. Of those, 42% would change their waist size, 23% would change the size of their hips and thighs, 10% would reduce the size of their rear end, 10% would change the size of their chest, and 4% would alter their arms. I’ve heard it all. The fitting room is a place of vulnerability and a place where blame, shame, and guilt all come into play.
Here’s what I’ve overheard:
“It looks great in the front, but I turned around and my butt looks HUGE.”
“I’ve got to get to the gym more.”
“I look like a blimp. I’m going to cry.”
“I don’t want to show you.”
“I hate my arms.”
“I’m NOT a size 4. The sizes here must be different.”
“I wish I had a bigger butt.”
“I don’t have the boobs for this.”
“There’s no way I can pull this off.”
“See this back fat? Ugh. I can’t wear this.”
“Why did I eat that whole burger?”
When size comes up with customers, I so often see this unmistakable deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes, and I feel their stress levels rise. I can sense the pressure they feel. Most recently, I haven’t even been asking guests their size. I start with, “How do you want to feel?” Can you imagine never being asked your size while shopping? Can you imagine picking out clothes based on how you want to feel rather than the size you want to fit into? That’s ultimately what’s more important, right?
The moment we take arbitrary numbers and the concepts of right and wrong out of the equation, we start to feel. We are able to connect with our bodies in a different way. I know, I know. I’m just like you. This is easier said than done. I nudge myself with little reminders every day that there’s nothing to get right or to fix about my body. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I was able to truly start being a little gentler with myself. I started to love my body as it was and as it was not. I stopped fighting myself. I started to shift to moving and living mindfully and taking numbers out of the equation. For me, and for most, this is and will always be a practice.
Today, as you get ready to go back to school and start to settle into a new routine, think about how you want to feel. How can you be kinder to and be less critical of your body? Are you bold enough to love your own body as it is and as it is not?
You are more than a number. You are more than the size written on the tags. You are more than your clothes. There is nothing to get right. Instead of concerning yourself with right or wrong or adhering to arbitrary standards, simply be you.
Back to school. Welcome back to boldly loving your body.
Written by Lindsay Cullen, Community Connector at lululemon athletica Leawood and Yoga Instructor (www.beboldyoga.com)