A world without mirrors isn’t realistic, but it would be nice to live in a world where we appreciate our bodies for everything they do for us instead of what they look like (and whether they adhere to society’s standards). It’s pretty common to have a negative body image, but developing a positive — or even a neutral — body image can drastically improve your life.
Stacie Garland, Scribd Coach author of Reshape Your Body Image, wants to help people better understand how body image affects your life, and how to train your brain to have a better outlook. Here, Garland shares why her work matters and how someone can get started on a journey to a healthier relationship with their body.
Scribd: How did you start in this field?
Stacie Garland: I did my master's in health psychology, and realized that the hospital clinical environment wasn't where I wanted to work. I've always wanted to help people, and personally, I struggled with an eating disorder and disordered eating in the past. So I really wanted to help women who are transitioning out of an eating disorder, or who have a poor relationship with themselves. My psychology background is in health psychology, which is a more niche area where we look at how your mind can impact your body and how your body can impact your mind. So a lot of the work that I do is focusing on that mind-body connection and also how your stress response and stress in your body can negatively impact your health in terms of your heart rate and your stress response. While I use a lot of what I learned in my school program, I really enjoy the coaching aspect more. I find coaching to be a lot more empowering in terms of dealing with the past, but also focusing on who you are and who you want to be, rather than keeping you in that discovery phase.
Scribd: How do you begin working with a client?
Stacie Garland: I like to start by looking at the human as a whole. Body image, and anything that's going on with mental health, has so many different elements to it, rather than just the actual presenting problem. With my own experience with body image, it wasn't just about what my body looked like, it was about everything from how I'd been socialized to expectations that other people had for me, in addition to my own view of my body. So I like to make sure that instead of just focusing on someone's body and how they view their body, we are actually tackling every other aspect of their life, because it all feeds into it. When you're feeling good about yourself, when you have good emotional resilience, when you're able to handle emotional pressure, you feel better about your body. But when you start to feel tired at work, or there's so many other pressures in other areas of your life, or you’re in a rocky relationship, you often take that out on yourself, and then your body image will suffer. Having that holistic view of the person means that you understand that any issue they have is not compartmentalized. It's not just about body image, it's about so many other things that impact it.
Scribd: How can someone think about this overall holistic view for themselves?
Stacie Garland: I always start with understanding someone's value system. What’s important to you? [Often], people who have poor body image will really value their health, or they'll really value relationships and value all these other things. So then, having poor body image means that they're living out of alignment. For example, they're not having good relationships, because they're focused on how they look or feel too self-conscious to go out to restaurants. Thinking about values helps people understand that they’re not living in an aligned way.
Next, it’s important to think about what your positive body image looks like for you. Everyone is different. I can't come in and say, 'This is what you should be doing.' Because everyone needs to come to their own conclusions and do what's important for them. From there, we can start to understand someone’s underlying beliefs. When we're kids, we generally take up beliefs from our parents or peers. For example, I might get the idea that I'm only worthy if I'm a size six, or that I need to be high performing to be loved.
Once you understand your own values and beliefs and where they came from, it’s easier to begin to rewrite them. Many people will realize that their parents — often unaware of what they were doing — helped develop a bad relationship with food. Maybe you heard that certain foods were ‘bad,’ or that you had to eat every bite on your plate. And now as an adult, those old thoughts can still impact you.
Scribd: How can someone become more aware of their relationship with their body image?
Stacie Garland: It's quite a powerful exercise to actually spend a week noticing your thoughts and noticing what thoughts actually come up. A lot of people don't actually realize the content of their thoughts. But when they actually take time to write down the thoughts and see it on a piece of paper, they're like, ‘Oh my gosh, I speak to myself terribly.' Then it’s easier to start changing those thoughts slowly.
But it’s also important to tease out the positive, and create these positive identities. I’ll get people to write down a list of all of the positive attributes they possess. It could be things like kind, funny, and caring: Whatever they like about themselves. That can actually be quite challenging for people, but it’s a good exercise to think about things that you like about you! After that, I have them make another list of things that they enjoy doing. So it could be golf or reading or going for a swim. Then we mishmash those two together: So you’ll become the kind swimmer or the caring reader. In this way, they're actually changing their identity to something that’s not about what they're achieving, but is who they are. Then when you have that identity shift, your habits and behaviors start to follow.
So, if you have an identity of being an emotional eater, you're always going to follow that because you have that set identity. But if we can begin to change that identity, it can actually get rid of those pressures of needing to be a certain way.
Scribd: What about for people who still want to focus on their health while also being able to accept their body as it is?
Stacie Garland: First of all, understand what health means to you. I find that focusing on how you feel is better than focusing on how anything is changing your body. That might be around your energy levels or your vitality, or it could be a strength-based goal or an endurance-based goal. Focus on the process, rather than an outcome of a certain weight loss. You can lose weight and still be healthy. But if the only goal for you is to lose weight, and you're doing everything in your power to do that, that's when it becomes unhealthy.
It’s also important to be multidimensional as well. It’s OK to chill and watch Netflix one day and do your long walk the next day. Have flexibility around what health looks like. It will change from day to day, week to week. That can be really challenging for people, because we assume that you have to get in these strict routines. But it’s about finding a way to have fun in the process.
Scribd: What can someone do on a daily basis to improve their body image?
Stacie Garland: Journaling is something that I highly recommend. It’s not about just journaling about your day, but also journaling about emotions that come up. When you start to journal and actually write your thoughts out, you can see it more clearly. Getting it out of your head helps you stop ruminating about it. I also highly recommend meditation, whether it’s five minutes a day or an hour.
Scribd: How many people struggle with body image?
Stacie Garland: Actually, I think it's really important to understand that people think that no one else understands what else is going on. But when I introduce myself as a body image coach, nearly every woman will say they struggle with body image, or they have struggled with body image, or they know someone who has struggled with body image. Usually it's all three. Everyone is comparing themselves to everyone else. Everyone is wishing they looked different.
Scribd: How can body image change your life?
Stacie Garland: Once you start to understand that you are more than your body and that your body has no impact on your worth, it can improve your relationships, your career, your sense of self worth, and your confidence. It’s amazing what just that shift can do: I see clients who improve relationships with their partners because they're feeling better about themselves and they're able to communicate more clearly. I see clients who are able to ask for promotions at work because they feel more confident in their abilities. So, yes, body image is really focused on your body, but I would also encourage people to look at how else is it impacting your life and where else is it restricting you. If you're not able to live and play fully because you're worried about what other people think about your body, that has such a big impact on the rest of your life.