By Brittany Hopkins, LAPC

So, Valentine’s Day has come and gone. No more naked babies with bows and arrows, ribboned heart-shaped boxes containing every manner of chocolate, and long-stemmed red roses galore.

But what remains for the other 364 days of the year is the driving force behind this celebration: love. Seemingly so pure and simple, love in all its forms is a critical aspect of the human condition.

Love, namely self-love in the form of body acceptance, is addressed nearly every day at our women’s center.

Clients enter our 90-day program due to a substance addiction. Although these women do not have a diagnosable eating disorder, they often engage in disordered eating and have very negative body images. It is not unusual for a female client to exist in an adversarial relationship with her physical being. She perceives her body as separate from herself–as a despised enemy simply because it does not look the way she wants. Perhaps she was teased or bullied as a young girl for being awkward, overweight, or possessing any number of physical traits that were completely normal for her age and gender, but not acceptable in her peer group.  Now, grown up, she continues to war with her body by restricting, binging and purging or eating compulsively.

Increasingly, we are also seeing women who bought into the panacea of gastric bypass or lap band surgery, only to discover the many flaws inherent to these procedures. Because such radical physical intervention does not deal with the underlying issues behind the overeating, these women often turn to alcohol to cope. Not only is the dreaded weight frequently regained, but now alcoholism is a very real problem.

Through our disordered eating program, we do everything possible to help these women in two areas. The first involves establishing a healthy relationship with food. Often, if a woman has been active in her addiction for quite some time, she has lost touch with what normal eating looks like and what hunger and fullness cues feel like. Throughout treatment, the hope is to reconnect her to her body and embrace intuitive eating. Therefore, after completing a screening assessment, each client meets with a nutritionist to establish a basic meal plan.

Our second goal is to alter her perception and importantly, improve her body acceptance. Toward that end, our clients participate in a number of weekly groups including a process group and a meal group. The former is a way for her to explore underlying thoughts and feelings related to her disordered eating behaviors, while the latter deals with working towards having a healthy relationship with food.

The body acceptance group, attended by all residents, focuses on body image. Often clients engage in activities designed to unite the mind and body and thus negate the adversarial relationship. An assignment might encourage a woman to write a paragraph on her authentic beauty; the goal is to reframe old ways of thinking and shift the focus from what they hate about their bodies to what they actually might like.

A profoundly positive adjunct to this group is the weekly yoga class. Not only is the focus fully on the body, but through postures and poses, our clients grow to respect, value and appreciate their physical beings in a whole new fashion.  These are women who definitively recognize that through drugs, alcohol, overeating or undereating, they have damaged their bodies; and yet, their bodies continue to function magnificently.

Sustainable sobriety is certainly the most important goal for our clients. However, helping to achieve a level of body acceptance is also highly valued. This doesn’t happen overnight. Not unlike recovery, learning to accept what “is” takes making a series of positive choices over a period of time. It also necessitates focusing on the solution rather than the problem. Repeatedly saying “I hate my body,” is counterproductive. If a woman can focus on even one thing she likes about herself each day, she is on a positive path of acceptance and peace.