What My Wedding Taught Me About Beauty Culture

I’m not shy about my anti-diet message.

I’m a strong advocate of body acceptance and encourage my clients to derive self-worth from inner values rather than outer appearance. It’s not always easy to practice what I preach, but I’m committed to trying my best.

Last month, I got married. It was an incredible milestone that I will remember with joy forever. However, in the months leading up to our big day, I found my inner Anti-Diet Warrior was challenged in some new ways. Today I want to share how my experience as a bride challenged my resolve and offer some guidance for those of you preparing for your wedding or any other big life event.

In our beauty-obsessed culture, the message (particularly for women) is that those who fit the standards of beauty (thin, tanned, clear complexioned, young, white, and confident but not too confident) are most worthy of love and admiration. Everywhere we turn, there are products and services geared towards “fixing” various aspects of our natural appearance to achieve this worthy ideal. Apparently, there is not just an ideal woman, there’s also an ideal bride: thin, tanned, clear complexioned, bright eyed, effortless. Basically, she’s just a lace-covered, amped up version of the same beauty standard that’s promoted in everyday life. But she is special because all eyes are on her.

Weddings are one-time events, so even if most of us can’t achieve the ideal in everyday life, we’re taught that we can still make ourselves the ideal bride, by temporarily pouring money, time, and energy into pre-wedding diet and beauty regimens and achieving perfection for that one magical day. In fact, it’s so common for brides to aggressively diet in advance of the wedding that there’s a term for the practice: Brideorexia.

I’m grateful I get to work with clients who bravely recover from eating disorders every day. My job protected me from Brideorexia and motivated me to stay balanced. I didn’t want to compromise my professional integrity, and I wanted to treat my body with compassion. So I made a pledge to myself when we got engaged. I swore that I would not alter my eating habits or physical activities in preparation for the wedding.

Turned out, keeping my promise was harder than I expected. A few months before the wedding, a back injury forced me to step back from my usual physical activities. I knew I had to respect my body’s need for rest, but my brain was suddenly telling me to compensate. The inner critic said I should probably “just diet a little” since the wedding was coming up. What the heck, brain?

Every day, I held tight to this mantra: My body is the least interesting thing about me.  When I saw anything that tried to convince me otherwise, I was quick to hit “unfollow” or change the channel. When my own thoughts tried to convince me otherwise, I sought support or did some journaling. When people wanted to discuss their diets, I would change the subject. When the girl doing my bridal alterations suggested that we wait to finish “in case I wanted to lose any weight,” I politely assured her that wasn’t in the plans.

It’s important to note that I have the privilege of living in a naturally smaller body. While this doesn’t make me immune from bad body image days (nobody is), it means I was not really hit with judgments or stigma from the outside world for choosing not to shrink my body before the wedding.

A sad truth in our weight-biased culture is that many brides (and non-brides) in larger bodies are subjected to more overt pressures and messaging to change themselves. My experience, while challenging thanks to my inner critic and a lifetime of absorbing social messages, was just a fraction of what many people face on a daily basis.

The paradigm overall needs to change.  We need to stop reinforcing women for their appearance and promoting an unrealistic “ideal” that hardly anybody fits into naturally. While this seems like a long journey (and it is!) it starts with each of us at the individual level. Read on for some tips to get you started.

Rejecting Unhelpful Ideals of Beauty

My advice to anyone struggling with appearance-based insecurities (pre-wedding or otherwise) is to consider the messages surrounding you.

  • Become a critical consumer of media. Are the TV shows, movies, commercials, podcasts, and blogs you frequent promoting things to alter your appearance? Are they insinuating you’ll be happier as a result of “fixing” something (body hair, acne, body fat, wrinkles, under-eye circles, or any of the millions of nuances of being a human)? Are they emphasizing what you look like as a reflection of how you’re doing in life?
  • Notice how social media makes you feel. When you’re consuming social media, how are you feeling? Do you feel negatively towards yourself? Do you compare yourself to the accounts you follow? If someone you loved saw this same account, how do you think it would make them feel about themselves? Also, remember that you cannot tell how healthy, successful, or satisfied a person is based on their appearance.
  • Messages also come from the people around us. Do your friends, family members, and coworkers make you feel insecure about how you look? Do they talk about themselves in negative or self-critical ways? Often, body shaming can feel like a bonding activity, especially among groups of women. Notice if you find yourself joining in just because it’s an easy way to connect.
  • Catch yourself judging others based on appearance, whether praise (I wish I had her thighs!) or criticism (that haircut is horrible on her). Ask yourself, what would I say if I didn’t comment on appearance right now? What else would I notice and appreciate? If you’ve been taught to value being beautiful and to take pride in your appearance, this exercise is tough. It’s eye-opening to learn how instinctively we comment on someone’s looks.

While we can’t completely avoid the pressure to “fix” the parts of ourselves that society has deemed to need fixing, we can be critical consumers. We can get angry when faced with this messaging, and speak up when people around us are spewing these messages (however well-intentioned they might be). None of us owes the world an altered version of ourselves.

In conclusion, this stuff is complicated.

 It would be a flat-out lie to say that I didn’t get pleasure out of having fancy hair and makeup, a gorgeous dress, and sparkly shoes at my wedding. It was really fun. In our human brains that love to categorize things as “right” or “wrong,” it’s tough to let there be a middle ground. In some ways, reveling in how pretty I looked made me feel like a hypocrite and a failure as an anti-diet clinician. My brain told me I’m supposed to give the middle finger to the mirror, but in my heart, I admitted I wanted to feel beautiful. I decided to give myself permission to participate in the beauty traditions, without judging myself either way.

Listening to what I felt I “should” do to reject beauty standards would have diminished my enjoyment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each of us has to figure out what’s most authentic to ourselves.  If you derive pleasure from the primping, good for you! If you hate it, don’t do it! For me, the key was remembering that there’s no right or wrong. It’s okay to invest energy in how you look, and it’s also okay not to.

Remember that the wedding, beauty, and diet industries are each raking in billions of dollars every year by convincing you that you need to look a certain way. Think about whether buying a service or product will truly lead to a happier experience. If you want to amp up your workouts or whiten your teeth or get a spray tan, you do you, girl. Choosing to alter your appearance is not the problem; the problem is believing that youneed to alter your appearance to be worthy of validation.

When you stop acting like appearance is the most interesting thing about yourself or other people, you start to see more. You start to recognize the emotion on someone’s face, without giving attention to the wrinkles or spots. You start to appreciate the deeper, more meaningful things. And when you look at photos from one of the happiest days of your life, you’ll see the joy and love, regardless of how your face and body looked.

The researchers at Beauty Redefined said it best: your body is an instrument, not an ornament. If you need some help navigating this stuff, I’m here for you. You deserve freedom from looks-based judgments on your wedding day and every day.

Demystifying Mental Health Treatment: How long will I need therapy?

It’s the start of a new year, and while you don’t need the calendar to tell you when to make a change, the whole #resolutions thing makes it a convenient time for many to reflect on goals for themselves in the upcoming year and start taking action steps. My #resolution is to do my part to bust myths around mental health treatment, so that nobody has to feel embarrassed or judged for struggling. To get things going, I’ve decided to start off 2018 with a series of posts demystifying the process of therapy. I’ve noticed that many people considering therapy have the same questions and concerns about the process. Today, I’ll address the one I most frequently get: how long will this take?

Well… at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, the truth is that it’s different for everyone. People seek therapy for various reasons, so treatment is not “one size fits all.” Some people are struggling emotionally with things like depression, anxiety, or grief, or having difficulty coping with a past trauma, navigating a difficult relationship, or managing self-criticism. Others may be struggling to stop engaging in certain behaviors, like addiction, substance abuse, compulsive behaviors, or unhealthy eating and exercise habits. Some people may be looking for help adjusting to a major life change or while going through a life transition (such as graduating from college, starting a new job, getting fired, going through divorce, moving to a new city, grieving for a loved one, or having a child). The list could keep going on—humans are complex and messy, and so it is natural at some point in our lives to experience a disruption to our mental health, just like it’s natural to get sick or injured physically at some point.

I suspect that the reason this question is so common is that we like to know what we’re getting ourselves into. Totally fair. Humans are wired to solve problems. When something is bugging us, we want to figure it out right away so that we can fix it and move on. If you’re coming to therapy, you might have been experiencing difficulties for a long time and are finally ready to commit towards change and growth. Or, maybe something just recently popped up, and you want to “fix it” before things get worse. Either way, you probably want some instant gratification. So even though I can’t give you a straight answer about how long it will take, I can do my best to help you get some immediate relief, as soon as the very first session. In fact, it’s a good rule of thumb when you’re looking for a therapist to consider when you walk out of the first session whether or not you feel understood, supported, and hopeful about the possibility of change (even if you don’t feel “better” right away).

Research over the last several decades has shown that therapy has the best chance of being “successful” when the client and therapist have a strong rapport, or therapeutic alliance. Rapport is developed when the therapist and client build trust in one another and work as a collaborative team. Most people need a little while before they are comfortable opening up. However, if you’ve been going to your therapist for awhile and still don’t trust them, this is important to address. I’ll be writing a future post about what to do if therapy isn’t helping you or if you want to break up with your therapist, so stay tuned for more on that later. In the meantime, just know that the sooner you and your therapist form a connection, the sooner you can get to work.

The length of therapy also can depend on how long you’ve been struggling with certain behaviors or experiencing symptoms, how motivated you are to change, the approach your therapist is using, and how open you are to trying new and sometimes difficult things. I often will suggest something many times, over the course of weeks or even months, before a client is willing to give it a try, and that’s okay. We can’t force change—you have to be ready for it when you’re ready for it. So that might take a degree of patience from both of us. Plus, it sometimes takes a lot of repetition before something finally “clicks,” since therapy involves shifting belief systems and worldviews that have been in place for many years. I like to tell people, “you didn’t get this way overnight, so you won’t change overnight either.” If you’re trying to change a lifelong habit, it can take some time to start seeing results because the habit might be really deeply ingrained, and you may not have ever really used other tools (or even known there were other tools available) for dealing with certain experiences. That being said, just because someone has been stuck in a certain pattern for 10 or 20 years does not mean it will take 10 or 20 years to change it. Just don’t expect to break longstanding habits in one session. If you find yourself feeling impatient with the pace of change, speak up. Therapists are not mind readers and if we know you’re feeling frustrated then we can figure out how to get “unstuck” and moving again.

Sometimes, we are chugging along nicely, and then – surprise – life drops a metaphorical bomb. Unexpected stressors can barge in (a breakup, a medical diagnosis, an accident, etc.) and interrupt progress or take priority over whatever we had originally been working on. That might mean we shift course and then return to the original plan at a later time (or abandon the original plan if necessary). It’s important to stay flexible as we go along. I’ve also found that as we progress, we sometimes uncover or make room for other topics to address that weren’t the original reasons for seeking therapy but that are still worth focusing on. For example, maybe you came in to treat your anxiety, but along the way we realize that most of your anxiety is work-related and it’s because you’re in a work environment that just isn’t right for you, so we start to explore a job change. Or, once we’ve helped you resolve depressive symptoms, we start to look at an unhealthy romantic relationship that you weren’t ready to address before.

If you’re dealing with trauma or grieving for a loss, the change may be slower than you’d like it to be, since the healing process often involves feeling an increase in pain or discomfort before experiencing any decreases. If you’re dealing with symptoms of an eating disorder, phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, you also might notice symptoms worsening before they improve, because a component of treatment involves exposure to things that you prefer to avoid in order to get you more comfortable with anxiety “triggers.” This is often a very challenging and stressful process, but ultimately if you stick with it, you will find relief in the long run.

Typically, I like to start off meeting once weekly, and then scale down and meet less frequently as treatment progresses and you start to see change, to give you a chance to try things on your own. Occasionally, we may increase frequency to twice-weekly sessions for a brief period of time in situations where a person needs more support than once-weekly sessions can provide, and there are many clinicians who will meet two, three, or even four times weekly with their clients (this is not my policy). In the initial session, we can get a sense of what’s going on and what level of support would be best, and if you need more than what I am able to provide in a private practice (such as inpatient/ residential treatment or intensive outpatient treatment), I will refer you elsewhere. While it’s important to consider your unique situation when making decisions about how frequently to meet, I have generally found that people who commit to coming in regularly and making it a priority to stick with therapy have seen the fastest change.

Now, I don’t take it personally that you might not want to see me every week forever and ever. In fact, I have the opposite perspective. I don’t want my clients to have to come any longer than necessary. Once you’ve reached your treatment goals, we discuss whether anything new needs our attention, and if not, we decide that it’s time to say goodbye. My goal is to essentially make you into your own therapist, so that you can internalize our work and go about your merry way. As much as I love working with my clients, I also love sending them off into the world to spread their wings! That being said, in times of high stress, it’s not uncommon to slip back into old habits or patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. So my door is always open for a “booster” session down the road, even if we haven’t worked together in awhile.

Some clear outcomes of therapy include:

  • Developing skills for effective communication and problem-solving
  • Feeling more self-confident and becoming more compassionate towards yourself and others
  • Learning new ways to cope with stress and anxiety
  • Becoming more equipped to manage and regulate your mood
  • Improving your social, intimate partner relations, and family relationships
  • Changing old behavior patterns and developing new ones
  • Gaining self-awareness and a better understanding of your values

The start of a new year is the perfect time to begin making changes to enhance your life, and therapy might be part of the plan.

If you are considering therapy and want to know more, or if you have a question about how therapy works and would like to see a future post about it, comment in the section below or send me an email, drpaulafreedman@gmail.com.

Am I “Normal?”

One of the most common questions I’m asked by therapy and testing clients is “Am I normal?” It’s a fair question, and it makes sense that some people view psychologists as the people trained to give a solid answer. After all, one of the core educational requirements of anyone seeking a graduate degree in psychology is a course in “Abnormal Psychology.” It can certainly be fascinating to learn about “outliers” in any human trait—intelligence, athleticism, narcissism, and so forth. Plus, in order to accurately assess and diagnose, we need a framework for organizing whatever it is we are assessing and diagnosing. As such, the foundation of our field for the last century has been rooted in “mental illness” being just that—a diagnosis or label, assigned to people whose presentations are “not normal.” So I get why this is the burning question.

“Normal” in 2017 is more elusive than ever. With technology at our fingertips, we ask Google, Wikipedia, and WebMD to weigh in. Social media has perhaps been most influential, taking the “am I normal?” question and providing “answers” by showing us what “everyone else” is doing with their lives. What does a “normal” body look like? A “normal” family? A “normal” person’s Saturday night? Consult social media, where you can decide if you measure up to the curated online images of people popping up in your newsfeed. For some people, it’s easy to feel lame and unsuccessful when it’s “normal” to censor ourselves and only show the public the highlights reel. For others, it’s a constant competition to set the new standard. I wonder what would change if everyone knew how much everyone else was asking whether “it’s normal to [fill in the blank]?” Maybe we’d have more tolerance for the full spectrum of our daily experiences if we could accept that “normal” doesn’t exist.

Perceptions, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories are subjective. They are often driven by context and filtered through the lenses we’ve developed through life experience. So what’s “normal” in one context may not be seen as normal in another. Walking down the sidewalk with one’s nose to the ground, sniffing for discarded food scraps = unusual for a human, “normal” for a dog. Sucking one’s thumb = unusual for a 45-year-old, “normal” for a 2-year-old. However, context isn’t always as clear as one’s species or age. Is it “cautious and smart” to lock and then double-check the locks on your doors and windows at night, or is it “paranoid and obsessive” to do so? It depends.

It’s “normal” (natural?) to be curious about whether our experiences and behaviors can be considered appropriate, acceptable, or healthy. But who is the authority on what is considered appropriate, acceptable, or healthy? Psychologists? We’re people too! I’m not the authority on “normal” just because I can tell you if you match up to an agreed-upon set of criteria published in a scientific manual. The reality is that you are the authority on yourself, so only you can answer whether your experience is adaptive or not.

For example, anxiety is “normal.” In fact, it’s a human necessity. It keeps us alert to danger and motivated to complete tasks. Without any anxiety, we have no urgency to get anything done. With too much anxiety, however, we become too overwhelmed to be productive. Finding that “sweet spot” of optimal anxiety for optimal performance on top of the inverted “U” illustrated by the Yerkes-Dodson Law  is the key to success. That sweet spot, however, is subjective to the individual experiencing it.

Current research shows that mental “illness” might be more of the “norm” than the outlier. The Dunedin Study in New Zealand has followed over 1,000 people from birth and over the course of their lives for the past 40 years, assessing them every few years to look at various health and mental health conditions. The most recent “check in” with study participants took place when they were 38-years-old. So far, only 17 percent of the sample has never met any criteria for a psychiatric disorder at any time in the study’s assessment points. This means that at some point in your life, it is likely that you meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis (most commonly something like depression, anxiety, an adjustment disorder, or substance abuse). While of course no single study can be generalized to reflect the whole world’s population, it gives us some pretty solid data.

Given these findings, we could argue that it’s “normal” to experience depression at some point in one’s life, just like it’s “normal” to get the flu or break a bone at some point in life. Whether your symptoms warrant treatment depends on how the symptoms are interfering with your life. Everything falls on a spectrum; just as there is a difference between bumping your head and bumping your head with such force that it’s deemed a concussion, there is a difference between feeling a flash of anxiety before a big presentation and feeling such debilitating anxiety that you cannot speak.

The newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which mental health professionals use for making clinical diagnoses, has shifted towards a more dimensional approach that matches this concept of everything falling along a spectrum. Hopefully, in future editions, it will move even further away from categorizing people as “normal” vs. “abnormal” and help us remove the stigma from these diagnoses, especially since most diagnoses can be temporary. So is it “normal” to struggle at some point, and to have symptoms intense enough to meet criteria for a diagnosis? Absolutely. It’s part of being human.

Maybe we can let go of the need to know if we are “normal” and instead ask ourselves, “does this work for me?” or “is being this way helping me live a meaningful life?” When I first meet with someone seeking therapy, I ask them the “miracle question,” some variation of the following: “If I waved a magic wand and you walked out of here today completely cured of your [depression, anxiety, painful trauma memories, addiction, etc.], what would be different about your life? What would you be able to do?” Usually, the answer has something to do with more meaningful relationships with loved ones, a rewarding job, more energy, etc. Those answers become our treatment goals. If you’re able to move towards your values, the things that truly matter to you, then isn’t that more important than knowing if you’re “normal” by someone else’s standards?

If you had a weird rash, you’d go see a dermatologist… right?!

I feel such a mixture of puzzlement and sadness whenever I think about our country’s minimization of mental healthcare.  It’s funny (but no one’s really laughing here…) because so many of us are self-proclaimed “health nuts” who value wellness and want to live happy, fulfilling lives.  However, the reality is that many people, somewhere along the way (probably early in life), learned that when you feel a certain type of way, you “should” be able to change it or simply will yourself to feel differently.  And if you aren’t able to do that, you must not be “strong enough,” right? If you can’t just flip the figurative “switch” in your own brain and motivate yourself out of a difficult emotion, something is “wrong” with you, according to this belief system.  We therapists are here to remind people how warped and self-destructive that view can be. Let me explain…

When someone has a heart disease, you don’t say to them, “just stop having heart disease!” If you did, they’d either call your bullshit or, if they were a little more trusting initially, they’d sure find out pretty quickly that your advice is bogus! Without a real understanding of the healthy lifestyle choices and behavior changes necessary to improve cardiovascular health, a person cannot heal.  That’s why cardiologists exist. Sometimes, something more is required, maybe a medication or medical intervention.  Without the open-mindedness to see that something needs changing and the willingness to do what it takes to change it, we cannot heal.

Of course, we like to convince ourselves otherwise because change is uncomfortable.  But the discomfort of facing the pain is usually nothing compared to the fancy mental tricks we play on ourselves to try to avoid facing the pain. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post, on the ACT concept called “experiential avoidance,” but it pretty much goes like this: If I have a toothache and I don’t go to the dentist because I’m afraid of the pain that might come with the drill, I’ll have a toothache indefinitely… and it probably will end up getting worse and causing more problems down the road. Plus, on top of having the tooth pain, I’ll also have the fears and worries that come along with ignoring it. So not only have I not “solved” the problem of my toothache, I have also made the problem a bigger and more central part of my daily life.

Pretending something doesn’t exist has never worked out when it comes to our health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. Let’s make it okay to seek treatment.

The Mental Health Association of Greater Chicago (MHAGC) is an organization that basically counteracts the logic of “just get over it” by raising awareness of mental health conditions and working to decrease stigma.  I think what’s coolest about MHAGC is that they intervene early with 9th graders to help educate them on mental health at the same time they are learning about physical health in school. I hope this will help reduce bullying in high schools by making kids more sensitive to mental health issues.  I also believe learning about conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders can teach kids to recognize when they themselves might be struggling, and make it okay to seek help.  MHAGC’s first-annual “Breakfast with the Stars” will be held on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, Veteran’s Day.  To learn more about their powerful initiatives, or make a donation, visit http://www.mentalhealthchicago.org/mhagc/

Don’t you wish you had learned as a child that it’s normal and human to experience emotional pain, and that if it becomes overwhelming, you don’t have to go through the pain alone? I know I do.

If you are struggling or if someone you know is struggling, please visit the pages on this website to learn more about my practice and who I treat.