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Attitude Make-Overs Help Women Unhappy With Their Bodies

August 14, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Growing up, Jennifer Donaldson developed an unfortunate body image, and one that she has worked hard to overcome. "It was drilled into me by my mother that 'Jennifer needs to wear a dress that goes in at the waist and out at the hips because she has big hips,' " recounted Donaldson, 42, who lives in Stevensville, Md.

Likewise, Beth Hansen, 46, who was called "fatty" by merciless schoolmates and slimmed down to a size 6 in college, emerged from her childhood with "that little fat kid lingering inside."

Hansen, a librarian from Mystic, Conn., met Donaldson last spring at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tuscon, where both were attending a "Body Positive" workshop, aimed at helping people overcome their preoccupations with real or perceived body flaws.

A bad body image, called "body dysmorphia" by experts, can rob one of joy and pride, and can also poison sexual relationships with shame and self-consciousness.

Although women seem most often afflicted, men are not immune, as amply documented in the recent book, "The Adonis Complex" (Free Press).

A handful of psychologists and body image experts--many of whom conduct workshops--have found ways to help people overcome a negative body image.

Misguided comments of the past are irrevocable, but people don't have to accept them as adults--especially from loved ones, said Anne Kearney-Cooke, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute.

One of her patients had a husband who told his wife that she used to look like an attractive woman on television. The husband, said Kearney-Cooke, who gives body image workshops, said he was only expressing concern about his wife's diabetes.

The wife explained that comparing her to women on TV would not help, but offering to care for the children would allow her to work out, which would help.

"The woman spoke up, telling her husband such comments make her body image worse," said Kearney-Cooke, "and it forced her husband to put his money where his mouth was."

Sometimes the worst wounds are self-inflicted. Those suffering from a poor body image tend to punish themselves--through diet and exercise--for not being perfect, said Adrienne Ressler, a therapist from the Renfrew Center, an eating disorders facility in Coconut Creek, Fla. "That punitive attitude toward your body just keeps reinforcing that negative body image because you buy into the idea that if you just worked harder, your body would be perfect."

Compassion is fundamental to doing away with the cycle of self-punishment, she said. "I suggest carrying around a favorite picture of yourself as a child," Ressler explained. "When you say to yourself, 'You are really fat and disgusting,' look at the photo and ask yourself if that is how you want to talk to that little child."

Learning to be kind to themselves was a large part of what liberated Jennifer Donaldson and Beth Hansen from their negative self-images.

At their Canyon Ranch workshop, they learned to appreciate their bodies for what their bodies could do rather than what they look like. An important moment for Donaldson came at the end of the workshop, when the group scaled a mountain. "I left my big butt on that mountain," she said. "I don't even care about it. I don't look at it now. I am not hiding it under a big T-shirt anymore."

And Hansen left her fat little kid in the dust. "I always thought cycling a hundred miles or climbing Mt. Washington were for real athletes," said Hansen, who recently cycled her first 100 miles. "But it really doesn't have to do with weight or how you look, it has to do with energy. I left, saying, 'Yeah, I could do this.' "

*

Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at kellehr@gte.net.

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