Loving Yourself the
From Radiance Summer 1991
MARCIA GERMAINE HUTCHINSON, Ed.D., is a psychologist and the author of Transforming Body Image: Learning To Love the Body You Have (The Crossing Press, 1985). Her book was an outgrowth of her own lifelong struggle to make peace with her body and accept herself. Here, Hutchinson shares her story and describes the therapeutic method she uses in her book and in her work as a therapist.
"As a child my body was sturdy, strong, and large boned. I was larger than other children my age. I felt out of place, and to complicate matters, my father was a physician specializing in weight loss. I became his project. He was embarrassed by me; he felt that his large daughter was a mockery of his medical practice. There were also family members-my grandparents and my aunts and uncles-who were fat, so he feared that I would grow up like them."
Hutchinson began her first diet when she was six. Her father prescribed amphetamines for her. As a teenager, she was even hospitalized and put on fasts. Not only did these forced diets fail, they left Hutchinson feeling increasingly worthless and lonely.
"I felt I was a failure and a bad person. This was in the mid-1940s and the1950s, when dieting was not part of the national consciousness. Since being thin was not the obsession it is now, I felt like I was the only one going through this.
I think the pressure on me to diet was part of my parents general expectations of me. I was cute and talented, and I was being groomed to be a doctor, which was my parents version of success. There was not much room for me to be myself, and anything that might have been different about me, including body size, was looked on as a rebellion."
In her twenties Hutchinson began to break away from her family's expectations and to pursue her own interests.
"I knew I couldn't be a doctor because I couldn't stand the sight of blood. I even used to watch TV with my eyes closed whenever I saw that anyone would be shot!"
Instead, she developed her creative talents. She sculpted, working on abstract forms in wood and fabric. She created a childrens radio program, performing a set of stories that required her to use more than twenty voices for the different characters. And she worked for a time as an art therapist.
But her cycle of dieting and self-hatred continued.
"I was in psychotherapy, but it never really helped because the emphasis was on losing weight, not accepting the body I had."
By her early forties, things began to change for Hutchinson.
"I was on a quick-weight loss diet. I ate six hundred calories a day for two or three months and lost less than five pounds. I remember thinking, This is really nuts. Dieting is not going to work for me. And that was my last diet."
In addition, she began studying a form of body awareness and movement called the Feldenkrais Method. This gave her an entirely new way of experiencing her body.
"The Feldenkrais movements were my first experience of accepting my body in a respectful, nonjudgmental way. It was much more helpful to me than psychotherapy had been. I learned to pay attention to how my body felt when I did very simple things, for example, going from lying down to sitting up. Its a little like yoga in that you direct your attention inward, monitoring your thoughts as you move. You ask yourself, How does it really feel to get up from this chair? Am I holding my breath? Is there a simpler way to do this?"
Hutchinson had suffered from back pain for three years, and the Feldenkrais method taught her to use her body in a way that wouldnt hurt.
" For instance, one morning my alarm clock went off, and instead of lurching up as I usually had, I spiraled up in the most graceful way. I was half asleep so I knew this change was really internalizedI wasnt telling myself to move gracefully, I just was doing it."
hutchinson's personal transformation aroused her intellectual curiosity, and she began to study psychology at Boston University. There she completed the doctoral dissertation that later became the basis for Transforming Body Image: Learning To Love the Body You Have.
One of hutchinson's major discoveries in researching her book was that for women, body image and self-image are much the same thing.
"We see our inner selves in terms of our outer bodies. We've been taught to emphasize the package (the body), but not the contents (the self). Hutchinson wanted to reverse that emphasis. The goal is to make peace with your body, and in doing so, to begin to learn who you are and what you value. The results are really spiritual-you begin to find the inner part of yourself that says, 'I really am somebody. My dreams, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values are whats important. The way I live my life is whats most important, not the way I look.'"
In her book and accompanying tape, Hutchinson leads us through a healing process using a technique called 'guided imagery'. She begins by asking us simply to relax, to breathe naturally, and then to form an image of our bodies in our minds. In subsequent chapters the guided imagery becomes more detailed as we work through hurtful memories. We begin to heal old wounds by listening to the voices of criticism we've internalized, separating other peoples judgments from our own and discarding the Ideas that don't fit. We then learn to reimagine our bodies more positively, based on how they really are.
Hutchinson explains that she works primarily with images because they give her a gentle method for helping people gain access to feelings they may not be able to express in words.
"I have had clients were were not able to verbalize their anger, but could imagine it as a color or a sound. And because body image is a product of the imagination, it makes sense to use the imagination to change it."
Because images are so powerful, we can use them to understand and change our mental picture of our bodies. In some of hutchinson's exercises, we learn to associate images that trigger feelings of love, acceptance, or awe-for example, a parent, a beautiful vista, or a manifestation of God-with a pleasurable image of ourselves. In other exercises, we can intervene in painful images. We can go back to the memories of hearing something hurtful about our bodies and express feelings we werent able to express at the time.
In addition to this inner work, Hutchinson highly recommends any non-judgmental type of movement. She suggests a Feldenkrais workshop or a yoga class for becoming more aware of how our bodies move. We often have fuzzy or distorted images of our bodies because we don't move them or experience how it feels to move them. And for those who have not exercised, these slow, gentle movements don't require you to have been previously active.
hutchinson's readers and clients alike say their efforts to remake their body images have paid off. One big change is that women begin to take risks: they form new relationships or pursue new goals. They begin to feel good about themselves as they are, even if their bodies arent a picture perfect size 8. I get letters all the time that say, 'This shift in body image has absolutely transformed my life. I now realize how little love I'd given myself over the years, and I'm now developing for myself an attitude of gentleness and compassion. I value myself for the life I live and know my body size has nothing to do with the true measure of my worth.'
Besides increased self-esteem, Hutchinson sees a positive change in her clients level of self-care.
"From listening to your body, you gain information that you can get only from looking within. Better health is possible as you pay attention to stress signals-fatigue, shortness of breath, hunger, sore muscles-and take steps to slow down or eat for health rather than to be thinner."
As we refocus our attention inward, we begin to understand our needs and wants more deeply, to really hear what Hutchinson calls the language of the self. She explains,
"As women, we've been brought up to attend primarily to the desires of others or care mostly for our outward appearances. But when we shift our attention inward, we get a sense of what it is we need. We answer the questions, What are my dreams? What do I value? What do I need now that I haven't been getting? Some of our needs might be as basic as wanting the touching that we didnt get as a child."
Hutchinson sees large women as survivors of society's prejudice.
"Large women have had to survive a bombardment of assaults on their integrity. Look at the amount of energy that goes into trying to reshape yourself into a body you don't have. Its a major tragedy."
Hutchinson says that many large women have already learned that the Idea that body size is a measure of your worth is utterly bizarre.
But what about those of us who are still learning? Hutchinson suggests that "if we get stuck, we need to ask ourselves, How much time do I want to spend obsessing about weight? How many limitations do I put on myself because I don't like myself for who I am? How much longer am I going to go on like this? Often we get stuck in self-hatred because of a mistaken belief that unless were disgusted with ourselves, we won't be motivated to improve our lives. But nothing could be further from the truth. If you have two guests coming for dinner, one you love and one you hate, for whom would you rather spend time creating a lovely dinner? Of course, the person you love. If you can begin to let go of the self-hate and instead work from a belief in your self-worth, you will find yourself making the changes you want more easily."
These days Hutchinson is married, teaches, has a private practice in the Boston area, and gives workshops, which take her across the United States. Her work has put her in the national spotlight as well, as a guest on many television and radio shows. She is optimistic about the changing attitudes she sees.
"Ten years ago I went on television and spoke to audiences with the feeling that I was really going to have to fight to get my perspective across. But today there is more openness to the Idea that our bodies are fine the way they are. People used to say I was radical, but all along I simply thought of it as logical."
Though she doesnt promise utopia, Hutchinson does offer a way for us to stop waging war on our bodies. Today she says confidently, "I am at peace with myself. Im living the life that fits my values, and thats how I measure my worth, not by anyone else's criteria." For information on attending Transforming Body Image Workshops, call 508-653-3665.
Sidebar by Marcia Hutchinson
BODY TALK (Taken in part from Transforming Body Image) This exercise is in two parts. Please do them both in one sitting. Please do it with as many areas of your body as you can.
GUIDING WORDS This exercise gives you the opportunity to see more clearly how you treat your body. Some of us deluge our bodies with toxic thoughts. It is important to know what you are doing so you can change it. More important, Body Talk lets you experience the effects of your habitual behavior from your bodys point of view. What you are doing is opening the channels of positive, constructive communication between you and your body.
Your body is a very sensitive instrument that, if given a voice, can teach you a great deal. First of all it can tell you how it needs to be treated. Later, when you trust it more and have a greater willingness to listen, your body can tell you a lot about its needs, likes, and dislikes. If you will listen, your body will tell you when it is getting sick, when you are under stress, when it is hungry, what it likes to eat, when it has had enough, what kind and how much exercise suit it best, when it is tired, and much more. Your body has a wealth of useful information. But if your communication is a one-way affair, with you dumping negative thoughts on your body, then this valuable information will be lost.
To create a healthy mind-body communication, you will have to develop a gentler, more compassionate way of talking to your body. It is possible to be kind to your body even if it falls short of your expectations. I used to look at my legs and say all manner of nasty things. Now I look at them and see the same legs, but I choose a different approach. I acknowledge that they will never win any beauty contests. But I see them as large, strong, and functional. They work for me-they are powerful and useful and I am grateful to them. I also see that they could be nicer if I were to lose some weight and do some spot exercises religiously. I see all that. Right now it does not feel important to me but maybe someday I will have a loving, positive reason to make changes in my legs or other aspects of my body. I can then do whatever it takes because the changes will come from a base of self-acceptance, not self-condemnation. My body and I will be working together. On the other hand, if I choose to live with my legs just as they are, that will be fine also, because I know that I am so much more than a pair of legs! I have a body but I am not a body. I am a person, and I like the person I am. I choose to be kind to me, because that is the kind of treatment I deserve.
I choose to be gentle with my body because I realize that it does a great deal of harm to treat it cruelly and judgmentally. Speaking harshly to my legs never resulted in any positive, lasting change. It created a state of divisiveness between me and my body that could only spell trouble. It made me miserable.
Please practice Body Talk with all the areas of your body that you malign and carry this practice into your daily relationship with your body. Start to notice when you are speaking harshly to yourself about your body. Catch yourself. When you do, it is an opportunity to put into practice a new way of communicating. As always the choice is yours, whether to continue relating as in the past or to move into new behavior. If you do not feel ready to adopt a policy of kindness and compassion toward your body, ask yourself what it would cost to make this change, what the risk would be in letting this negative practice go. See if you can Identify the assumptions that underlie your refusal. Many of us operate on the assumption that if we do not keep harassing ourselves we would go totally to pot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Harassment leads to separation and separation to further battling. It is only through peaceful collaboration that you will make your body-mind a working partnership. Keep working at this until it becomes natural and easy. It is one of the most important gifts you can give yourself. �
M. G. H.
MARY HOWER is a freelance writer and poet living in San Francisco, California.