Mindfulness and “No Thanks” to a Bikini Body

Published: July 15, 2014

I’ve long been a fan of Veronica Mars, the titular character of a television show (and now movie). Veronica is a sassy, mystery-solving high school student who protects the weak from the powerful and doesn’t care what other people think of her. Veronica Mars is played by Kristen Bell. (For the younger set, Kristen Bell is also the voice of Anna in Disney’s Frozen.) In keeping with her onstage character, the new mom has made it clear that she won’t be bowing to extreme Hollywood pressure to quickly reclaim her “pre-baby body.” In an interview with Women’s Health magazine, she was quoted as saying, “We attach negativity and positivity to things in our life. If you are 150 pounds, you’re not fat, you’re 150 pounds. Stop using the word ‘fat’ to describe yourself.”

The fat acceptance movement would go a step further and argue that the word “fat” itself shouldn’t have negative connotations, which is an intriguing position. However, my focus here is on Kristen Bell’s point – that we tend to label things as good or bad, and might be happier if we did so less often.

This idea of “non-judgment” is emphasized in the practice of mindfulness, which has become increasingly mainstream over the past few years. “Mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali word “sati,” meaning something like “awareness.” Mindfulness can refer either to being mindful or to the practice of cultivating mindfulness. These practices originated in the Buddhist tradition, and over the past three decades have become increasingly popular in the West. Mindfulness is now used to help people cope with stress, chronic pain, and recurrent depression. In a therapeutic context, mindfulness is often defined as “non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes “non-judging” as one of the seven pillars of mindfulness in Full Catastrophe Living, a book focused on reducing stress and pain by learning to embrace the present moment. According to Kabat-Zinn, non-judging “consists in taking the position of an impartial witness to your own experience. It requires that you become aware of the stream of judging and reacting to inner and outer experiences and step back from it. This habit of categorizing into good and bad or positive and negative locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all.”

Kabat-Zinn suggests spending a few minutes observing your thoughts and paying attention to “how much you are preoccupied with liking and disliking what you are experiencing.” If you’ve never done so, give it a try. You might be surprised how much of your time is spent labeling your experiences (or other people, or even yourself) as “good” or “bad.” Given how ingrained this tendency is, non-judgment isn’t easy. But, like most things, it gets easier with practice.

Mindfulness is an important component of several types of therapy, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, typically pronounced as the word “ACT” rather than “A-C-T”). Over the past two decades, DBT and ACT have been applied to the treatment of eating disorders, as described in a number of books for clinicians and workbooks for individuals suffering from eating disorders. Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of DBT for eating disorders (Bankoff et al., 2012), and studies establishing the effectiveness of ACT for eating disorders are just beginning to emerge (Juarascio et al., 2013). If you’re interested in learning more about DBT and ACT for eating disorders, I’ve listed a few resources below.
[Postscript: Incidentally, while I was looking at the article with Kristen Bell’s interview an advertisement for a “21-Day Bikini Body Plan” popped up (see screen shot below). There was an option to click on “No thanks, I already have a bikini body.” Unfortunately, there was no option to click on “I don’t care about having a bikini body and don’t consider that to be a part of my health.”]

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DBT Resources:

Astrachan-Fletcher, C. & Maslar, M. (2009). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bulimia. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Safer, D. L., Telch, C. F., Chen, E. Y., & Linehan, M. M (2009). Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Binge Eating and Bulimia. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

ACT Resources:

Hefner, M., Eifert, G. H., & Hayes, S. C. (2004). The Anorexia Workbook.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Sandoz, E. K., Wilson, K. G., & DuFrene, T. (2011). The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Bulimia.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Sandoz, E. K., Wilson, K. G., & DuFrene, T. (2010). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Eating Disorders.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. 

Other References

Bankoff, S. M., Karpel, M. G., Forbes, H. E., & Pantalone, D. W. (2012). A systematic review of dialectical behavior therapy for the treatment of eating disorders. Eating Disorders, 20, 196–215.

Hilmantel, R. Kristen Bell: “Stop Using the Word Fat.” October 2, 2013. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/life/kristen-bell-water-conservation-interview

Juarascio, A., Shaw, J., Forman, E., Timko, C. A., Herbert, J., Butryn, M., Bunnell, D., et al. (2013). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a novel treatment for eating disorders: An initial test of efficacy and mediation. Behavior Modification, 37, 459–489.

 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

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photo credit: Paul Bica via Creative Commons