“Compassion with Fashion”: mental health+people+music+gorgeous designs

Compassion isn’t often a word we hear in the same sentence as “Fashion”, so when I first heard of this event, I was intrigued. A Canberra mother and daughter duo had an idea, and that idea crystallised into a fashion parade to raise awareness and funds for mental health. The mother, Erika Zorzit, witnessed her daughter Paris, a young model, being bullied and harassed at school and on social media and supported Paris to find help to deal with the resultant anxiety and depression that followed. Then, “Compassion with Fashion” was born. I was delighted to be invited to speak at the event as a mental health practitioner – here’s what I had to say:

Good evening everyone and thank you Erika for the invitation to speak tonight.

This evening  gives me an opportunity to share with you some of the experiences we’ve had over the years in our clinical practice that complements the work of Compassion with Fashion . At Life Unlimited (our practice name) we specialise in treating depression, anxiety and trauma-related mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These conditions come about for a variety of very serious reasons, such as war and combat, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We work with mostly an adult population of clients.

However, in the last few years we are increasingly seeing younger people in our practice whose wise – or perhaps frightened – parents are taking notice of how their children’s mental health is faring in an age of unprecedented technological growth; violence saturated TV, games and movies; the rise and rise of social media and the ever-present spectre of cyber-bullying – all issues that their parents did not have to deal with at the same age.

We’re seeing children as young as ten with eating disorders, teenage girls who are convinced that they need surgery to fix some errant body part, young people who feel stressed and anxious about what their peers think of them based on what they do or don’t look like. And we see adults hamstrung by a perception that they just aren’t good enough because their appearance, behaviour or knowledge doesn’t fit someone else’s norm.

According to last year’s national survey of young people, conducted by Mission Australia, coping with stress was the top issue of concern, with body image coming in third after school or study problems.  Unaddressed, we know this can lead to adults struggling with stress, study or work problems, and body image.

Because of tonight’s theme and the drivers leading to this fabulous event, let me share some brief thoughts about body image, mental health and some of the ways we work with our clients.

It strikes me that each year, we seem to get a new name for those unruly bits of our bodies that women especially, are expected to subdue with diet and exercise.  Remember the muffin top? Geez, if you had one of those you were doomed. And last year we had the advent of the “thigh gap”, aided and abetted by Photoshop and airbrushing, and no doubt for many women, extreme diet and exercise!  There’s also a thing called the “Bikini Bridge” – look it up, it really is a thing – I have no words right now to talk about that!  And gents, you are certainly not off the hook, there are plenty of sources on the internet that tell you if you haven’t got a pec implant, a calf re-sculpture or your neck hair removed, well apparently, you are not a 21st century man!

However, do you know what this year’s hands-down, most unruly body part is? Apparently, we now have to get rid of a pesky part of our anatomy called the mons pubis – that’s the soft fleshy bit under our pubic bones – feel free to find it ladies, maybe in the privacy of your own home but here if you want to.  I mean, there’s a really good reason it’s there – like cushioning and protecting our pubic bone and our reproductive organs!!  But we’re now being told that we can have surgery to rid ourselves of our fat/huge/enlarged/gross mons pubis!!

You know, mention any body part and we can point to someone who is making a great deal of money by telling us that we look wrong and we need to “fix” ourselves. We are exhorted to work it out, tone it, tan it, bleach it, tattoo it, cut it, cauterise it, remove all the hair, replace it, enhance it, get rid of anything that just might jiggle.  Body-shaming is big business.

Read any popular magazine or e-zine and we find that exercise has absolutely no status anymore as a pleasurable activity. It’s another way for us to manipulate our bodies, another vehicle of self-torture. It seems exercise is less about being healthy and feeling good in our skin than about an emphasis on looking good to others, or fitting some warped image of what we think is sexy or “ideal”. When we focus on how we look rather than how we feel, we’re much more at risk of flogging our bodies for the sake of beauty.

A relentless pursuit of a “bikini body” is not likely to give us a lasting relationship with our bodies. Nor is it any kind of sustainable health pursuit. To get a truly joyful relationship with our bodies, we need to focus more on our internal experiences, not the external.

When a woman comes to our practice, and we start defining her therapy and health goals, many women put “I want to lose weight” somewhere near the top of the list.  There are a couple of things I say in response – and one seems pretty brutal. “You know”, I say, “losing weight is a dead person’s goal; I guarantee you will lose weight when you are dead”.

Then I ask: What about in the meantime? What about now? What would your life look like if you did lose the ten kilos or however much you think you need to lose? Invariably we get answers like these: I will be fitter. I’ll have more energy. I’ll be able to run around with my kids. I’ll feel better. My health will improve.

So, instead of focussing on losing weight, we focus on gaining life.  What do you need to do to get fitter, what activities give you more energy? If you never had to think about losing weight again, what would you do differently?  Some of the “aha” moments our clients get when they answer these questions are sometimes funny, sometimes sad and poignant.  Here’s a few examples:

If I never had to think about losing weight again…

  • I’d go to the gym/beach/the river/the mountains
  • I’d wear a bikini and go swimming – maybe I’d skip the suit and skinny-dip!
  • I’d make love to my partner
  • I’d dance/I’d run/I’d hike
  • I’d audition for a play/join a choir/learn an instrument
  • I wouldn’t be depressed/anxious/stressed
  • I’d enrol in uni
  • I’d look for a new job
  • I would love summer
  • I’d wear sleeveless shirts
  • I’d go overseas
  • I’d be in the photo instead of taking it
  • I’d stop avoiding people
  • I wouldn’t hide anymore

We soon see how very life limiting the whole idea of “losing weight” is. All these answers our clients bring are about living life, engaging with people, places and things that have meaning and bring them joy and purpose. Once we become clear about what is really and truly important, we focus on what we value – our family, friends, health, community, relationships, culture, learning – and begin to live a life that is not constrained by an external view of what we should be or look like.

It’s time we start having a more complex view of ourselves as men and women – and valuing what our bodies can do for us, looking at what brings meaning and purpose to our lives, what we can contribute, and actually living a life of meaning and purpose.  We need to appreciate beauty, of course we do, but let’s not denigrate ourselves if we are not someone else’s “ideal” of what beauty is.

I’d like to end with a couple of favourite quotes. The first is from JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.

“Is “fat” really the worst thing a human can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil or cruel? Not to me”.

And this by writer Anne Lamott:

“oh my god, what if you wake up one day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written, or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart! Don’t let this happen!”

Thanks for listening; enjoy the rest of your evening.

Photo credit: “Compassion with Fashion” http://www.compassionwithfashion.org

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