Pin the Tail on the Body Image Issues: Analogies for Understanding

A peacock spreads its colorful tail-feathers.Last month, in Recovery Can Feel A Lot Like Skydiving, I shared several analogies that I use with people who struggle with food and body image issues. As soon as I’d completed that article, I recalled more useful analogies. This article will highlight some of these. I hope you find these helpful.

Associating Negative Beliefs about the Self with the Body

Remember the children’s party game, in which a picture of a tail-less donkey is taped to a wall, and a blindfolded child is whirled around a couple of times and then handed a tail with a thumbtack stuck through it? The child tries to pin the tail onto the donkey’s rump. When it comes to disordered relationships with food and exercise, the “tail” is every negative belief and self-doubt that we might have about ourselves, such as “I’m lazy,” I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not loveable.”

The “donkey” is our bodies. Living with these beliefs and doubts is painful. Figuring out how to become productive and feel good enough is challenging. Pinning them on our bodies is a means of making them concrete, so that they can be managed. We may believe that if we never skip a day of exercise, do our best to never eat more than a certain amount, strive to keep our bodies lean, then we can redeem ourselves.

Those of us who struggle with eating and exercise think that the problem is the donkey, but actually, it’s the tail!

Recognizing Signals and Acknowledging Feelings

It’s a warm, sunny weekend afternoon. You’re relaxing in your lounge chair, watching a great sports event or lost in a terrific novel, and the smoke alarm goes off. It’s loud and annoying and you can’t concentrate on your game/book. So what do you do? Get up and pull the smoke alarm out of the ceiling, of course, and go back to enjoying your activity in peace—but the house burns down. You stopped the signal that alerts you to the presence of a fire, but the fire was still there.

Urges to abuse food and exercise are signals. These urges tell us that something is up, that we are experiencing something that is emotionally hard to handle, that we need something, some sort of comfort or support. Whether we act on these urges by abusing food and exercise or simply push through and resist the urge, we need to stop to pay attention to what we are thinking and feeling. We need to figure out what is triggering the urge at that particular time. If we don’t, it’s like pulling a smoke alarm out of the ceiling instead of looking for the fire. Healing from eating and body image struggles means addressing the underlying issues, not just managing the problem behaviors.

Recovery includes viewing urges (to overeat, undereat, eat and vomit, or overexercise) as a signal, like a smoke alarm, that something is going on that needs our attention. Instead of ignoring or distracting ourselves away from the urge, we need to stop and focus inside ourselves, and find out what is causing the “fire.” This will enable us to learn to honor our emotions and meet our real needs, instead of stuffing feelings down or starving, exercising, or vomiting them away.

Moving from Overeating or Deprivation to Mindful Eating

In order to shift a relationship with food from a disordered relationship to a healthy one, there must be no off-limits foods. All foods must be “legal.” When certain types of foods are avoided because they’re too scary—because the eater believes that if he/she starts to eat them, he/she won’t stop until far too much has been eaten—the eater closes the “food window” on them. These foods become forbidden fruit. And forbidden fruit is irresistibly tempting. Eventually, the eater gives in and begins to eat the food. Some part of the eater says, “The food window is open! We have to get as much as possible in now, because it’ll close again any minute!” Not knowing when another chance will come to eat these foods, he/she binges on them. The next day, of course, he/she swears never to eat these things again—closing the food window. Until the next time it opens.

The food window must be opened for good. It takes a while for all parts of a person to learn and to trust that it is permanently open, so in the beginning, the eater will often overeat the previously forbidden foods. But, if they are eaten mindfully, with awareness and presence, the lure of forbidden fruit will fade, he/she will become just as comfortable with these foods as with the foods that had been considered “safe.” When there’s no more deprivation, there’s no more deprivation-driven desire to eat.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Brian Mason

    June 25th, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    I love the smoke alarm analogy!
    I know that there have been many times especially on the weekends when I have some down time when I am sitting around and doing nothing but like watching TV or reading, not even hungry, and all of a sudden I will get that urge that almost demands that I eat, something, anything, and right now!
    I try to ignore it but once it starts it’s like I can’t get that out of my head til I go and do it, have that binge. I wish I could say that it will stop after eating just one of whatever the mind is telling me to eat but it always results in overeating. But I don’t know what the mind is telling me to pay attention to that I am compensating for with food, that’s the problem.
    I think that if I could get a handle on that then maybe I would have more self control.

  • myra

    June 25th, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    I am that girl who live with off limit foods and beating myself up when I miss a day of workouts. I count every little calorie that I consume, and it has become such a habit that well, I just don’t know how to break that chain.

    My life for years now has been about this, and there seems to be no end. I am not sure how to stop feeling like I have to lose another five pounds and finally accept and be happy with what I am . How do you get there?

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    June 25th, 2012 at 7:39 PM

    Brian, when you get the urge, don’t ignore it, and don’t fight it. Stop and notice: notice what emotions you are feeling. Notice what sensations you are experiencing in your body. Notice what thoughts your mind is thinking.

    Even if you can’t pinpoint specific emotions, chances are you’re not feeling comfortable. So it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re wanting food to provide comfort as an antidote to the discomfort. So seek comfort in the ear, shoulder or arms of a friend. If no one is available, try journaling about what you’re experiencing.

    Myra, it starts with self-acceptance. The practice of self-acceptance is powerful. Affirm that you accept yourself completely, exactly as you are. (You won’t believe it for a while, but the work is in the practice.)

    Recognize that the parts of you that count calories and exercise relentlessly are trying to protect you from emotional distress. Learn how to feel and manage the distress without resorting to disordered eating and exercise behaviors (you may need assistance from a therapist for this).

    Dare to trust your body to know what to do with the food you give it. Focus on nourishment and self-care, and let go of any investment in your size, shape and weight (you may need assistance from a therapist for this!).

    Good luck to both of you!

  • kel

    June 26th, 2012 at 12:18 AM

    while all analogies are worth reading the food window was especially educative.i say this because a lot of us have this forbidden food and just go on a rampage when we slow ourselves to indulge.has happened with me.

    it really does more harm than good to label a food like that in your mind.looks like we need to get rid of the window.

  • Brian Mason

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    Thanks for the suggestions Deborah. I am going to try journaling because I just know that there is something at the bottom of this deep sea that is me but you know how uncomfortable that journey can be sometimes! It is scary to think about what could really be going on because then how am I going to know that I will be strong enough to power through it? Another tip that I got from reading another article was to go for a walk when I get these urges. It does help some because it gets me refocused on a different task, but always there at the back of my mind is that urge that does not necessarily go away. I realize that this is a life long battle that I am going to have to deal with so I am looking for any ways to get on with my self improvement. I appreciate your suggestions.

  • MelissaJones

    June 26th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    Where do all of these bad relationships with food stem from?
    I have never looked at food as anything more than energy, something enjoyable from time to time, but for the most part just something that I need to fuel me for the day.
    And I have never had a weight issue either, because I think that it’s only the people with all of this anxiety that revolves around food who struggle one way or another with their weight.
    You need to get to a point where food is what it is- not a reward, not a punishment. Just nourishment for the body, plain and simple.

  • canby99

    June 27th, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    Deborah thank you so much for these! I can remember metaphors and analogies better than other things so this is going to help me.

  • Corinna

    June 27th, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    @ MelissaJones- you sure are lucky to have never had any food issues. But please be mindful of the fact that there are a lot of us who do and it hurts to feel like you are belittling those of us who have struggled with body image and food issues for a good part of our lives. I would think that since you are actually on this website and responding that you would be a little more sensitive to that fact.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    June 28th, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    Kei,I’m glad you find the Food Window analogy helpful. I would respectfully disagree about one thing: we don’t need to get rid of the window– we just need to leave it open :)!

    Brian, you’re welcome. Dealing with eating issues is a long, arduous process, but you are worth the effort!

    Canby, I’m glad the analogies are helpful for you.

    To Melissa and Corinna:

    I’ll just ask that everyone who posts here keeps an open mind and a gracious heart and a respectful attitude toward everyone else. There’s room for people with all types of experiences, all of which are valid.

    Melissa, take a look at the main GT Eating and Food Issues page. There’s information there about the origins of eating struggles. I know it’s difficult for someone who has not experienced them to understand, but I hope you’ll try, as they are painful and heartbreaking for many.

    Thanks to all of you for your posts!

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