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Body image can be 'life thief' by Jeannette Boner

Women looking into broken mirror

We’ve all been there. Standing in front of the mirror, pulling at our clothes that seem to stick a little too tightly to our stomachs or arms. Changing out three or four outfits before leaving for the day. Eating a nice lunch out with co-workers while secretly promising ourselves we’ll run an extra 3 miles later or skip dinner that night.

“It’s really easy to get sucked into this kind of thinking,” said Mary Ryan, a Jackson-based certified eating disorder specialist through the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals. “We fixate on whether our pants fit too tightly, or we are constantly asking, ‘Am I getting my heart rate up?’ That mismatch between what we are doing and what is expected of us, it’s real and it can be really difficult to break that cycle of self deprecation.”

Women’s issues can hardly be talked about without shedding some sort of light on the relationship — often fraught — that women have with their bodies. What is healthy? What is culturally prominent and acceptable? Here, two body positive professionals talk about this tension.

The diet industry preys on weaknesses. Scrolling through social media platforms, users are bombarded with ads promising a “new way to eat,” “cleanses for the health conscious” and, of course, the more overt “lose weight now!”

“The pandemic created massive body image issues,” said Tanya Mark, a nutrition therapy practitioner and eating psychology coach in Jackson. “The changes in our lifestyles caused by the pandemic turned us upside down, and the diet culture clamped down. They are spending massive amounts of money on diet methods, and this kind of advertising ramped up tenfold during the pandemic. It’s not our fault that we feel compelled to click on the ‘lose weight’ button. We want to fit into our culture around here.”

Mark is a non-diet nutrition and body image coach in Jackson working to untangle individuals from the self-deprecating web of society’s definition of bodily perfection. She believes strongly that it takes a community to reclaim a holistic approach to health and wellness. Ryan is a licensed clinical social worker and registered dietitian nutritionist with a Master of Science degree in foods and nutrition.

While she and Ryan operate different practices in Jackson, both are committed and passionate advocates working to defend and reclaim our health against the untold damage that dieting and the culture of dieting leave in their wake.

“We’re off swimming in this toxic pool of what our bodies are supposed to be like,” Ryan said. “I’ve had a lot of my own issues with food at different times in my life. I remember the first time I heard the term ‘muffin top,’ and I had all these mixed emotions. These kinds of terms can send people spiraling.”

All of that is easier said than done in Jackson, where post-powder day debriefs are epic stories of how high and how deep the snow was that day. Trail runs are not meandering walks through the woods but instead often a means to push back on what aging is naturally doing to our bodies. Even walking the dog can become a hike up Munger Mountain instead of a stroll through the park.

“My work is really about helping our community to build community around the practice of separating what our body looks like from what is fitness and health,” Mark said. “And that is not easy, and it is difficult to do alone. We are constantly bombarded with these images of perfection. When you consider that less than 5% of women have this perfect ideal of what a body should look like while society tries to sell us this perfection, it’s really hard on all of us. I think first we need to educate and create awareness and shift our thinking from the idea that what you are seeing in the mirror is not the problem. The problem is the perfect cultural ideals that are more prominent in the Jackson area.”

In January, CNBC reported that 45 million people in the United States pursue weight loss programs. “Diet and weight loss have grown to be a $71 billion industry, yet according to studies — 95% of diets fail,” read the report.

Ryan, like many of us, moved to the Tetons for the love of the big landscapes and endless adventures. And while so much of the Jackson lifestyle is found in pursuit of the mountaintop experience, Ryan slowly peeled away some of the darker realities of Jackson’s “healthy” lifestyles.

“We don’t understand how it’s impacting us,” she said of the high pursuit of the ultimate Jackson lifestyle modeled by uber athletes and the bodily perfection that follows. “And what is that costing us? What is the cost of you not beating yourself up, juggling kids, work and everything else, because you didn’t get up Glory? I think awareness of what we trade off is just a process of all that we have to go through. You don’t figure out your body image problems and live happily ever after.”

Ryan explains on her website, “Beyond Broccoli,” that her mission “has always been to guide and support you toward nutrition changes for health and well-being. I have expanded this mission with my additional therapy skills for us to work together towards any lifestyle changes that help you make your life better.”

Mark is also sounding the alarm on diet culture and specifically where it seeps into the Jackson culture. She said the diet industry has changed the way it uses certain terms. “Clean,” “detox” — those words are really the same as the word “diet,” Mark said.

“My clients are women who are badass,” Mark said. “But this piece really holds them back, this piece that we spend so much time and energy on that we could be using to live. It’s what Christy Harrison calls the ‘life thief.’ We change our clothes three times before we think about going out, and then we just don’t go out. Or you don’t take your daughter to the Rec Center because you are uncomfortable in your bathing suit. We are smart, successful women, but this piece, this way of seeing our bodies as less than perfect, can be crushing and hold us back. That is where we need to do this work collectively.”

“We have so much more power collectively as a group,” she said.

Mark hosts group workshops that bring clients together to share struggles and triumphs where body image, health and well-being intersect. “This is about reclaiming our health back from diet culture. I really encourage our community to dive deeper. The ultimate step for us is to move beyond beauty and be more than a body. Our body is a fraction of who we are.”

Mark considers for a moment and then asks, “Think about all the women who you admire. The fact that you admire them has nothing to do with what they look like.”

Ryan cites some sobering statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association, the largest nonprofit organization working to support people with eating disorders. According to NEDA, by the age of 6, girls will begin to express concerns about their weight or shape. NEDA points to 40% to 60% of elementary school girls ages 6 to 12 years of age are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.

Additionally, 70% of elementary school girls who read magazines say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape, with 47% of them saying the pictures make them want to lose weight.

“The two biggest areas I work with with clients are in orthorexia, which is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy. And the second is hyper-exercising,” Ryan said. Both of which, she said, are prevalent and even a celebrated way of life in Jackson Hole.

“Jackson attracts people who have a high level of perfection and high levels of achievement,” she said. “So many of my clients don’t have a healthy perspective when it comes to eating and exercising. So many have an active lifestyle but feel if they don’t top a four-hour trail run or didn’t hike Glory that day then they didn’t do anything to contribute to their overall well-being. That is such an impossible standard, even for a young person.”

“I think that we are still sort of caught up in the expectations of what our bodies are supposed to be,” she said. “Because I specialize in disordered eating, many of my clients present problems with their relationships with food or their bodies. My clients want to change their bodies, and that can mean gaining muscles or losing weight. They say, ‘I’m so tired of not liking my body. I don’t want to fight my body.’ There are years and decades that they have been struggling, and they are tired and don’t want to feel that way anymore.”

“We are obsessed with wellness and wellness culture,” Ryan said. “We don’t even know how to separate weight from wellness. Because we do have this bubble of uber athletes in Jackson, what I am seeing more and more of are people who are desperate to not get to another size and to maintain this high standard of eating clean. That’s like nails on a chalkboard, ‘clean eating.’ When I eat Ben and Jerry’s, I am not eating dirty. I am sorry, I am not.”

There is hope, always. And that first step toward healing and relearning and to looking at ourselves through a healthier lens is much harder than the last push to cresting Glory.

“With bodily dissatisfaction, trying to fill in the ‘blank’ in ‘enough’ with words like ‘strong enough, ‘fit enough.’ We live in this culture where we are not enough. It’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but if we can take a step back and be curious about what is going on, that’s a first big step,” Ryan said.

“I am seeing the shifts,” Mark said. “I am starting to see a shift in magazine articles and how they talk about body and image. I’m seeing it in the community’s desire to separate wellness from weight. We are seeing some changes in society, and I’m having these conversations locally with yoga and fitness instructors. We’re talking about how we talk about health, from mental health to emotional and social health, and we can separate these from the scale.”

Mark added: “We have some work to do and we can do it. The power that we have is in the collective community. I’m hoping we will get there.”

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Contact Jeanette Boner via wnroyster@jhnewsandguide.com

“It’s not our fault that we feel compelled to click on the ‘lose weight’ button. We want to fit into our culture around here.” Tanya Mark non-diet nutrition and body image coach

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