Letting Go of What "They" Think
In the early months of anorexia the praise I received about my appearance and weight loss served as fuel for a dangerous fire.
“You look great!”
“What are you doing? You look awesome.”
“I wish I had your willpower.”
“Wow, you have a great body.”
Friends, strangers, and even my parents, in the early days, doled out praise for what appeared to be a newly discovered commitment to health and the smaller pants I could fit into. Approval was like a drug. It felt good, really good, when it started and it served as a motivation later on. When I didn’t want to go to the gym or I wanted to eat something beyond my ultra restricted diet all I did was think about what people would say if I gained weight and that was enough to keep me in line. In a lot of ways I was addicted to praise. The high I got from others celebrating my physical form (and how it conformed) was palpable. The panic I felt when (I projected that) others judged my body negatively was crushing. My colleague Tara Mohr is brilliant when it comes to the topic of unhooking from praise and criticism. Tara says that being hooked takes different forms, including:
Dependence on, or addiction to praise – causing us to do only those things that are likely to get us gold stars and others’ approval
Avoidance of praise – not wanting to stand out from the crowd – even for positive reasons, which causes us to self-sabotage, to not do our best work
Fear of criticism – which causes us to not innovate, share controversial ideas, pursue interests where we’ll be fumbling beginners or fail along the way, or do anything that makes us visible enough to be criticized!
She makes the astute suggestion to “always look at feedback as giving you information about the person or people giving the feedback, rather than information about yourself." Tara's writings explores this topic mostly in the context of our careers and I want to take it further and apply it to praise and criticism of our bodies and food choices.
And unhooking in this realm is not an easy thing to do because we all want to belong. We all want approval. When we are praised it feels great. When we are judged or rejected it can feel devastating. And yet, living at the mercy of the approval of others, striving to conform in our appearance or diets to what others or “society” deems good is the definition of disempowerment.
Being able to live our lives and make basic choices like what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat without factoring in what other people will think is essential if we are to feel free and unmasked. It’s essential if we are to stay connected to the immense wisdom of our bodies.
Feeding ourselves is one of the most basic acts of autonomy. No one else should have a say in what we put into our bodies and yet for too many women, with each bite, comes a cacophony of judgemental voices—some real, some projected. This happens when we get dressed too. Our minds run off with thoughts of "Does this make me look fat?" "Does this show my belly/thighs/arms/butt, etc?" "Will so and so think I’ve gained weight?" "Will they think I’ve given up?"
Too often we sit on the side lines, skip the party, or spend more than we can afford on clothing just to mitigate the judgement we fear others will have of how we look. But, as Tara so eloquently explains
“the goal...is not to become impervious to praise and criticism. That would be impossible. It would also be inhuman, and would force us to deny an important part of ourselves….The part of us that wants others to receive us with appreciation, with enthusiasm – the part that wants to be loved by those around us? I think that’s a very tender, real, part of us, a part to honor too. The point is not to become disconnected from feedback, to have such a thick skin that we can’t feel it or hear it, but rather, to become “unhooked” by it, to not be run by it. The point is to be run by our own wisdom...The goal is to not have others’ ideas about us distract us, silence us, or take us on an emotional roller coaster.”
I agree. In the end it comes down to what we each, as individuals, decide is important in a meaningful life. Unhooking from praise and criticism when it comes to our bodies and our food choices is a life long practice. Each of us has an ego that is ready and willing to lure us back to that to the roller coaster. Getting hooked isn't a failure.
So what does it look like when we’re unhooked from body praise and criticism? It looks like this:
Eating what we want, not more or less based on what other people are eating or who we are eating with, or what social function we have coming up on our calendar.
Allowing photos of us to be taken and seen, knowing that a single moment captured in 2-D doesn’t define us or tell our whole story.
Not hiding in the ways we dress or hiding what we are choosing to eat.
Letting someone else’s comments about our appearance be about them.
Dressing and adorning ourselves for ourselves, with pride, and the body we have today.
Observing the hurt or fear that comes from criticism and looking inward to where we may be holding self-judgement. After all, it’s much harder to be hurt by criticism we don’t agree with.
Doing our best to practice non-judgement when it comes to other people’s eating and appearance.
Sometimes consciously giving up the SHORT-TERM high we know we'd get if we went on a crash diet. We unhook when we choose long-term, internally-based sustainable happiness instead of short-term, external hits of power. This happens in small moments.
When necessary, reminding other people that our body, appearance, and food choices are entirely our own domain—no outside contributions needed or welcome.
Unhooking is a practice, but remember, what I think of you, or she thinks of you, or he thinks of you, or your inner critic thinks of you doesn't much matter. You are in charge. Your body is yours. Your reasons behind your food choices are personal and multifaceted and no one's business.
Go to the party. Take the photograph. Put on whatever size clothing fits your body today and feels comfortable. Eat what you want, in public, in front of people who are still entranced by diet culture. Have no shame for struggling, getting hooked, bumbling toward finding your way, or being a human who feels deeply—this stuff isn't easy. Ultimately though, when you can, remember that what other people think about your body and food choices only has as much power as you give it.