Meet Beth, Jillian and Diane. They met a few years ago when all were at similar low points: unhappy with their bodies, wanting more from their lives. Today, a divorce, a career switch and even a few gained pounds later, all these women, remarkably, are doing quite well. Let us introduce you ...

Each year, a group of 20 or so women of all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds sit down together for a series of extraordinary conversations. Some of the talk is about their bodies, but more is about their lives. The place is Canyon Ranch spa in the Arizona desert, the occasion is Shape's Body Positive alumnae program, and the talk is only the beginning. Most of these women have come because they were initially dogged by bad body feelings, feelings that later on reveal themselves to be rooted in issues deeper than the surface concerns of body appearance. Their self-dislike had become intrusive enough to finally demand a change, a cease-fire, a new, more forgiving script. Here at Body Positive, the women experience a sense of community that they have rarely felt before. And in the five years of the program's existence, many of those women have changed their lives.

Today, a few days before the program officially begins, a number of Body Positive alumnae have gathered in the same place, bringing with them all they have learned since their first Body Positive experience -- and all the unfinished business of their lives. Some alumnae have returned for almost as many years as the program has existed. Their very existence as returnees gets at the heart of the Body Positive philosophy and revelation: Change, physical and emotional, is not a one-shot deal, and our ability to deal with it healthfully is a lifelong process. The alumnae are not really graduates; they are, more accurately, graduate students.

Tears and fears

Many things happen more quickly for alumnae than for first-timers: camaraderie, laughter, support. A telling example came on the second day of the session I attended, when a movement-therapy exercise brought one woman to tears. Two women sat with her, first in silent support, arms around her, then, gradually, in a gentle, insightful discussion of the sorrow that had surfaced and led to her open distress.

This kind of emotional release and support is a familiar sight and is key to the Body Positive dynamic. "Returnees tend to feel more open, more generous to others and more competent to give support," says Rebecca Gorrell, who was Canyon Ranch's director of movement therapy. "The theory of movement therapy is that every thought, every occurrence in your life, is stored in your body. This movement quiets your 'mind chatter,' so you process things physically rather than mentally; often, repressed emotions well up."

Body Positive, says Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., leader of the program's psychological group sessions, is all about taking people out of their comfort zones, physically and emotionally. That requires taking a risk, and the humility to acknowledge that there's more work to be done. "Fitness is a process of developing yourself in mind, body and spirit. There is no endpoint," concurs Barbara Harris, Shape editor in chief and founder of the program.

What got these women to this place of greater comfort? And what are they learning now? Here are the stories of three recent alumnae that show the process at work.

Beth

In the four years that she has returned to Body Positive, Beth McGilley has learned a lot about truth -- and one of the first truths she had to face is that she came here under false pretenses. As a therapist, she came in the guise of a professional looking for new training. But the self-deception didn't last long in the open Body Positive atmosphere. "The minute my butt hit that floor the first night, when we sat in the circle and introduced ourselves, I took my badge off," says Beth. "I'd been hiding behind my work and my degree, but I needed what I'd been giving out for years: to sit in a safe community of healing women and face the truth."

The central and most searing truth of Beth's life was that her mother, a manic-depressive who was overwhelmed by having five children, had been unable to truly care for her -- and that her mother's suicide was tied to Beth's preparing to leave home for college. She spent her college years immersed in anorexia, and emerged, finally, physically healthy but still heavily burdened emotionally. Meting out loving therapy to others helped, but eventually she needed to be on the other side. What amazes her now is how Body Positive continues to surprise even her, a professional who knows how the therapeutic process works.

"Each time I'm here, I bring several issues and then end up really wrestling with one of them," Beth says. "One year it was my marriage, and I realized that I had to leave my husband, that our marriage could not survive. Another time it was my work, that I needed to start my own practice." This year, it was the chance to understand the sense of loss she has carried since childhood: that her mother was never there for her. As with many revelations at Body Positive, hers was sparked by another participant's reminiscences of holding her own children.

"Just being in that circle together with other women like you, we have a synergistic effect on each other," says Beth. "To me, this is like one big womb. This place has steeped me in the courage to change."

Jillian, who, in her words, "didn't even see my body anymore, just my thighs," came to Body Positive in 1999. As a former bulimic (and child victim of sexual abuse by a neighbor), she found, as everyone who experiences Body Positive does, that her bad body feelings represented deeper issues that were sabotaging her happiness. Inspired with new hope and confidence, when she left Canyon Ranch last year she wrote a mission statement for changing her life.

In the year since, she has left a bad business partnership, helped her husband refocus his career, infused her marriage with more romance and sexuality, created new family rituals that have reconnected her and her husband with their two young children...the list goes on.

"I knew going into Body Positive that my thinking was negative and broken," Jillian says now, "but I needed the tools to fix it. I realized here that I'm not a failure if I walk away from something -- like my professional partnership -- that isn't working." (This realization is common among attendees. In Jillian's group her first year, two women decided to leave their marriages.) Jillian has had much greater confidence in what she calls her inner voice this past year, which has opened her up to people in a new way. She even smiles bigger, presenting herself more eagerly to the world.

At first, coming back seemed "mostly a way of measuring the changes," Jillian says. "But now I realize I need a chance once a year to rethink my life -- to refine my mission statement." The second year also brought an opportunity for her to mourn the past. In a group writing exercise, she described her sense of loss for the years she spent feeling fearful and unworthy; when she tried to read it aloud, she was choked with tears.

Oh, and that little business of her body image? "I went from feeling that I was OK as I am about 50 percent of the time to feeling that way 90 percent of the time," she says. "I'm getting there."

Diane

If Diane seems in touch with the idea of process -- that no one's ever finished, done, perfect -- perhaps it's because she has experience with the disconnect between what shows on the outside and what lies within. "People will look at you after you've come here and say, 'What changed? You don't look any different,' " she said at her third alumnae meeting. "I have changed. It's a work in progress; you don't get to a point where it's finished."

Diane is a highly respected manager at AT&T, overseeing 14 people, but she's still bringing her confidence up to speed with her professional success. "When I solicited feedback from my staff recently," she told the women at Body Positive, "they all said, you're a great boss, but you're down on yourself too much."

Diane has battled her weight since childhood, feeling always, she says, like a fish out of water. The result was a conviction that her weight defined her, that she was unworthy of the good things she achieved and needed to compensate by pleasing everyone. These realizations, Diane says, took a year to surface, one reason why returning to Body Positive seems crucial to her. "The first year, I shared a lot, cried a lot, but didn't get to my central issue -- my sense of unworthiness and rejection stemming from my father's desertion of our family," she says. "It wasn't until the second year that I could verbalize that my relationship with my father set the pattern for the way I deal with the world: I never felt good enough and tried to compensate by working hard and trying to please everyone, not paying attention to my own needs."

Diane's life changes since those first revelations appear subtle: She hasn't changed jobs, ended relationships or lost weight. Yet, she is different -- freer. She no longer makes work the single focus of her life. And she now refuses to knock herself out visiting every single person on trips back home. She has established limits. And as Body Positive participants are reminded often: If you can't say no in a relationship, you can't say no to food.

Her next step is to work on the externals, to get back on her fitness plan. To do that, she says, involves risking achieving less than a perfect result and believing that it's worth the effort. Next year, her compatriots will hear how she's done.

Change your body thoughts (a short course)

For those who can't attend Body Positive, psychologist and body-image expert Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., offers guidelines that spring from a parable she tells to the alumnae: A polar bear is sent to a zoo to inhabit a grand new space. He arrives early and must stay in a cage while his habitat is being finished. For a month he paces the four corners of his cage, over and over. At last he's released into the expansive new environment, replete with pools, rocks and pleasures. Yet he continues to walk in a square, mentally trapped in his pattern, unable to see that he's free.

"What cage have you constructed for yourself?" Kearney-Cooke asks. "It's the outdated notions about yourself that hold you back." The moral? You must think your way out of it. How? Start by asking yourself these questions.

1. What am I distracting myself from? When body-loathing hits, instead of just going with it -- pacing those four corners of "I'm fat," "My thighs are huge," "I'm ugly" -- stop and ask, What situation am I in right now? Who am I with? What else might be bothering me? "Bad body thoughts distract us from the really tough issues," Kearney-Cooke says. "It's easier to go with those familiar self-hating themes than to think, for instance, about whether we're getting what we need from others."

2. What am I afraid of? "We often fear the pain of actually doing something about a bad situation," Kearney-Cooke explains. "We're afraid that trying to make a change will hurt us. But if you're stuck, if you're in a cage, that's painful, too."

3. What am I hungry for? "When you find yourself in the cupboard on the verge of a binge, step outside the cage of your usual self-judgments: 'I have no self-control,' " Kearney-Cooke says. "Instead, ask, Why are you there? What is it you need? Distraction from something that's hurting you? Get closer to the real hungers in your life, other needs that might be expressed through eating. How can you start to satisfy those hungers directly, rather than using food as a stopgap?"

 

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