How Those With Eating Disorders Can Prepare for Increased Exposure

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The anticipation of summer and its warmer weather can often heighten body image concerns amongst those in recovery from an eating disorder. The focus on bathing suits, skimpier clothing, and dieting to get “bathing suit ready” can be difficult to manage for individuals of any size and may exacerbate negative body image and eating disorders.

For many with or recovering from eating disorders, wearing more revealing clothing such as shorts, sleeveless tops, and bathing suits is scary and something to avoid. Avoidance is a common response to anxiety. It can be adaptive when evading something truly dangerous.

But, when that which you are avoiding is merely uncomfortable and not really hazardous, the cost of avoidance outweighs any benefit. Consider that you will probably draw more attention to yourself bundled up in a hoody on a 90-degree day than you will if you wear clothing that blends in with what everyone else is wearing while you soak up some sun.

One common mistake among those with or recovering from eating disorders is wanting anxiety to subside before engaging in a certain behavior—in this case, wearing shorter clothing. However, the only way to get over anxiety is to face it. It is better to engage in activities now than to wait for a perfect opportunity which may never present itself. And then you’ve missed out—summer activities offer the opportunity for pleasure, socialization, movement, and vitamin D!

People spend years of their lives avoiding activities because they are self-conscious and uncomfortable in their bodies. And they often pay the price of avoidance in increased anxiety, decreased self-esteem, and depression.

Preparing Yourself

Exposure, the deliberate facing of feared situations, is a core component of cognitive behavioral therapy and key to successful treatment of anxiety and similar problems. This can be applied to summer clothing and activities as follows:

  • Make a list of summer-related situations that you avoid—or dread—and are likely to encounter like wearing shorts or sleeveless tops, going to the beach/pool in a bathing suit, or playing tennis. Rank-order them from least to most scary.
  • Consider interim steps within these situations. If wearing shorts is a general fear, think about it in different scenarios—wearing shorts in your apartment, to the grocery store, to an event with friends. Break down each situation further into different settings and rank-order them. This is called complete ranking your exposure hierarchy.
  • Once this work is done, shop for clothes that will allow you to conquer your exposure hierarchy. These clothes should be appropriate for summer activities. Most importantly they should fit now, even if you are unhappy with your current size and shape.
  • Climb and complete your exposure hierarchy by practicing wearing the clothes in less threatening settings—usually at home—and then in progressively more scary, public settings. For example, shorts in the apartment, and then out in the neighborhood; a swimsuit in the house, then the pool on a less-crowded weekday, then the pool on a crowded weekend.
  • Track your progress. Note your distress level before, during, and after the exposure activities. Many people use a scale from 0-10 to rate their distress.

It is normal to feel uncomfortable as you do the exposure assignments; remember that they are supposed to raise your anxiety. Over time and repeated exposures you should notice a gradual decrease in anxiety. You many need to practice each step on the hierarchy several times. When you notice a decrease in anxiety, move a step up the ladder.

Summer promises longer days, warmer weather, leisure, and fun. It’s unnecessary to tangle body-consciousness up in the celebration of these joys. With practice and preparation, you will be able to enjoy a variety of fun activities and overcome your body image anxieties. As always, if your individual use of the strategies over time does not give you relief, don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional. 

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Article Sources

  • Cash, Thomas (2011). The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks.