Battling Body Image + Food Control

We can apply “all things in moderation” to so many aspects of our lives. Our relationship with food can sometimes be a murky area, but living by this standard can help us to fight body image fears.

Constance Rhodes, CEO and Founder of FINDINGbalance, Inc., calls herself a chronic dieter, a moniker most people can identify with at some point in their lives. Constance talks with us about the dangers of becoming a slave to our eating habits, and how we can overcome them.

About Constance

Constance Rhodes is the founder and CEO of FINDINGbalance, a Christian non-profit dedicated to helping people find balance with food, weight and wellness. She is the Founding Director of the new Christian Eating Disorders Collaborative Network (www.cedcn.org) and author of Life Inside the Thin Cage: A Personal Look into the Hidden World of the Chronic Dieter.

The recipient of this year’s Advocacy Award for the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, Constance is a frequent speaker around the country, has appeared in multiple media outlets including PBS, Shape Magazine and Good Morning Texas, and is passionate about helping connect both professionals and every day people with the resources they need to impact their world in positive ways.

Click to read Transcript

INTRODUCTION: All things in moderation is the best approach and just imagine Jesus. Just imagine Him here; we’re going to lunch together and He says, “Where is your light menu?” Would He do that? If you really think about it, would He really sit down and have a greasy burger with a guy who needed to talk? I bet He would! Nothing has so much power: cake!

EASLEY: We are talking today with Constance Rhodes in studio. Constance is the CEO and Founder of FINDINGbalance, Inc. Constance, I love the title of your book, Life Inside the “Thin” Cage.  

RHODES: Yes, it’s kind of drastic probably. What the title came from is when I was first beginning to recognize that issues with food may be a problem. One day God turned that light on and I realized this thing that I thought was such an easy way for me to manage life made me feel like I was sort of trapped in a cage, so when that perspective shifted it became easier to want to do something about it.

E: You described yourself as a constant dieter? Was that what it was?

R: Chronic.

E: Chronic dieter. Aren’t all women? And most men?

R: Self Magazine in 2008 did a study of four thousand women and found that three out of four had some kind of eating issue and it was a range of things from calorie prisoners, chronic dieters, emotional eaters, and a lot of folks do that.  There are also obsessive exercisers, and  all kinds of food obsessions. For me I struggled first with binge eating so I was much heavier and then when I got a grip on that I was so afraid to ever gain the weight back that I just had this long chronic diet that most people thought I was really good for doing it. So it was really easy to mask it.

E: So we’re inundated with television commercials of Nutrisystems and Weight Watchers and all sorts of programs, all sorts of pills, all sorts of fat reduction, things you can take, swallow, eat, do this, do that. Where do you start?

R: It’s kind of funny because if you think about it we spend sixty-two billion dollars a year on diets. Ok, just to put that in proper context, that same amount invested through world aid would end world hunger, so we have this really interesting thing where we’re spending a lot of dollars, a lot of time, a lot of energy, emotional energy, and physical energy on diets. What they found, is that ninety-five percent of dieters regain everything they’ve lost within three years. The cycle of just going on a plan, even though that is what people want, usually backfires because the harder you try to not want something what happens? The more you want that thing.

E: The minute you say, “Don’t eat that.”

R: Exactly. That’s exactly it!  So people will focus on the practical part of it. It is true: calories vs energy expended. That’s the equation. If you do it less, chances are if your body is working properly, you will weigh less. But the problem is there’s a lot of emotion tied into food. We don’t really talk about it and as Christians especially food is the one acceptable vice. It gets even stickier when we try and talk about it.

E: It’s ok to be overweight, to eat the way we want, all those types of things. There’s a little taboo going on. It’s the clean thing.

R: Yup! There’s a clinical name for the clean thing. It’s called orthorexia. It’s the obsession with eating natural, pure food. (Michael laughing)

E: I need to play this for someone very close to me.  Not my wife, someone else.

R: But I want to point this out because the name of our organization is FINDINGbalance, right? So that brings up the natural question: where is the balance? So I heard Beth Moore give a talk years ago and she pulled from I Corinthians 6:12. For me everything is permissable, but I will not be a slave to anything.  So if you want to eat clean and you’re not a slave to it, that’s ok. If you start to get nervous and twitch; if you’re sitting at a family dinner or a friend because they’ve got something in the menu that you can’t put in your body, then that’s when you need to look at, “Ok, maybe I’m a slave to that.”

E: Well I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit of a food snob. Cindy is too. We go out to eat and we’re a bit snobby. Now I’m just saying that we’re all consistently inconsistent;that is we’re on a no carb plan for a time, no added sugar, or no desserts for a while, and we go ahead and celebrate and say, “Oh let’s go ahead and have the warm carrot cake and J.Alexander’s.”

R: So what’s the point then of the torture of the no carb and the no whatever? Really all things in moderation is the best approach Just imagine Jesus. Just imagine Him here. We’re going to lunch together and He says, “Where is your light menu?” Would He do that? Would He spend hours in the gym admiring His pecks in the mirror? If you really think about it, would He really sit down and have a greasy burger with a guy who needed to talk? I bet He would! So it’s all things in moderation. Nothing has so much power: cake! If you have it all the time you won’t care about it if you think it’s ok. Then you’ll make choices like, “Do I want to taste cake right now, or do I want to taste something else and start making choices that way?”

E: You’re raising three children?

R: Yes.

E: You’ve got one daughter?

R: Yes, one daughter.

E: I’ve got three daughters and one son. All three of my daughters went through struggles with body image, with eating issues. I’m thinking about Barbies they were growing up with, make-up obsession, Seventeen Magazine. Is that still around?

R: I don’t know, but I think so.

E: It was big when my girls were young, but it was Brittany Spears or the latest, Gwen Stefani. Gwen Stefani was one of my daughters favorites. She loved Gwen Stefani; one of the most beautiful women in the world. As a dad you’re trying to say, “You are beautiful as a person. Your body image does not define you.” Everywhere they look, and now we’ve got Facebook, and we’ve got Snapchat, and Twitter Feed, and all this insanity where these children are being exploited. You’ve got to have this figure which is basically no figure.

R: Correct. There’s no one thing because you’ve got Kim Kardashian on one end and some others on the other end. Certain parts of the body are highlighted and some others aren’t and it is a challenge. It is a huge challenge and I will say that one of the biggest reasons it’s a big challenge, and I’m not saying anything about how you guys have raised your children, but I know from the women we work with that we have so many moms that hate their own bodies.  That message is playing loudly at home.

E: The child that is playing dress up and says they’re fat looking in the mirror. They heard that somewhere.

R: Exactly! They hear it somewhere. I have a daughter and I remember when she was five months old and I was holding her looking in the mirror. She could barely open her eyes and I was drooling, and I said, “You’re beautiful.” I was so afraid that she would develop an eating disorder. I’ve spent the last seven and a half years brainwashing her at every moment. (Michael laughing) I’ve been very physical squeezing her body, talking about how awesome it is because it’s so squishy and “I love it and it’s soft and I love your belly.” She now knows that if someone were to come up to her and say to her, “You’re fat” or “You’re rear end is big. “ Whatever they would say. She would say, “ My mommy loves my bottom.” I have just been training her that that’s the proper response. We have to be comfortable with our own bodies before we can really spread that message.

E: Would she have a Barbie?

R: Absolutely not. I don’t have Barbies in the house. I don’t buy Barbies. She’s been given a couple of dolls in that family, but she knows I don’t like them. We don’t get Barbie movies because I notice they really stretch the body type: super, super skinny and tall. We’re pretty aware of content in our home that she might see to help shape what a normal body looks like. As a result I don’t think she has any issues with her body at this point. She’s only seven and a half. Those issues can start as young as three and girls as young as six are being treated for eating disorders so we know we have to start sooner and sooner on these.

E: That’s a horrifying statement.

R: It is a horrifying statement.

E: We have to start sooner and sooner on these issues. When my girls were in the teen years, in the sleepover years is when it really started, because you’ve got a gaggle of these junior high girls and  they’re in somebodies house, even if they’re “fine Christian homes” or friends you know you have no idea what they’re going to be up to. Now with these devices with iphones, and ipads, and  tablets, anythings available in a matter of seconds for them to gorge.

R: I tend to be conservative. I’m conservative with sleepovers because I care about what movies they see and I’m conservative with social media so far my oldest is only thirteen so we haven’t had to fight the battle yet, but I’ll keep them off the socialism as long as I can. This is isn’t realistic for everyone but some people would do well to take a break anyway, even grown ups from social media if they find it triggering.

E: Constance, you have written a lot. You’ve written not only your book Life Inside the “Thin” Cage,” a personal look into the hidden world of a chronic dieter. Finding Balance With Food- A 12-Week Guided Journey. What is that about?

R: You know it’s funny. We actually piloted that at the church you pastor, Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, and that is a 12 Week Journey through the underneath stuff. People would focus on “How can I change what I’m eating so I can lose weight?” That’s most people’s concerns. As I walk through my own eating issues it was more, how did I get here? What keeps me stuck? How can I move out? So we walk through things like identity issues, how we were raised, what was modeled to us? Where does sex fit into it? (Which is different for each person) How does community fit into it? So it’s a really great guided journey through the book. The book, Life Inside the “Thin” Cage, is used as a textbook and then there’s a curriculum that goes along with that with video lessons and things to keep people on track.

E: What would be the target age for that audience?

R: I would say eighteen and up.

E: Eighteen. Ok, undoubtedly you deal with a lot of women who still come to you with questions. Where do you start with them?

E: I think one of the starting places for them is to be able to be honest about their own struggles. So at our website for example, they can take a self test and that’s sometimes the very first step. It was a big step for me to just admit “Oh maybe there’s an issue here.” Secondly, one of my favorite things that we’re doing now is an online support program where they come in at whatever place they’re on in that continuum. Some are anorexic, some are bulimic, some are binge eaters, some are none of those things, but they know this is an issue. They enter into an eight week course with us that they can re up and do again, and continue growing in the context of community. Our goal for that is that we want highly motivated people to come into that program and they don’t have all the answers, but they’re motivated to change, and they see how this is costing them in their marriages, their relationships, their work, whatever the case may be and they want more freedom. The more freedom we see them get, the harder we push on them and sometimes they don’t like that and they leave, but the ones that stick around grow and grow. A year into the program we have our first pier leader, somebody who’s gone through the program and who has grown so much and we are slowly and intentionally mentoring her to lead others and that’s the kind of model that we see happening. That’s exciting to them for a couple of reasons: 1) To know they’re not alone. 2) To begin to practice sharing their yuck and not be rejected. 3) That God stirs within them excitement by using their gifts and their callings as they break free out of the very area that they struggled with, which is super exciting for us to see. So we look at it as really mission work that we’re doing, kingdom work, as people find that freedom they’re more able to be who God called them to be, whether doing stuff with us or with any other ministry effort that God might call them to.

E: Beyond the cultural pressures, the image idolatry that we have in print media, television, and film, beyond those, why are we so obsessed with how we look in the mirror?

R: Well God created us in His image and He is a very creative guy and He’s a visual guy I think if you look around at nature. I’m a very visual person. We like visual things and we develop a taste for certain visual things-that’s one thing. Secondly, messages like we talked about earlier from a very young age, “If you look like this, you will get that.” Ultimately at the end of that day, what I feel personally drives that need whether it’s to have a really important job, or have a lot of money, or look a certain way, or whatever the case may be, is because we have this void within us and we’re lonely. I would say in a lot of the people we work with, they’re feeding their loneliness. You can feed it with food; you can feed it with stuff; you can feed it with control. That was my biggest struggle. I can control my diet when I feel lonely then I can focus on that and not how lonely I feel.

E: Many years ago I had a Christian Psychologist friend. I asked him the question about eating because he was very large at the time and we were good enough friends to have that conversation. He said, “Michael, for me it’s love hunger.” When I have a hamburger and french fries and whatever I feel good. I’m satiating a void that I don’t have a way to feel. Obviously, he’s married; he’s got a family; he’s very busy in his practice, yet there was a loneliness and a love hunger for him and boy, that made sense to me. At the time I was a stick; I’m in my twenties; I could eat whatever I want. I wasn’t there, but as I’ve gotten older it changes. Boy, it does feel good to have Five Guys, and a large fries, and a coke.

R: Well there’s a chemical thing happening in your brain with those fattier, sugarier, foods. There’s a chemical thing happening and there’s an amazing book called Loneliness. It’s way over my head, but you’d like it cause you’re more intellectual than I am. It’s somewhat academic, but they studied a group of people where one control group they said, “We’re going to buddy you up with certain people.” They took half of the group and they told them no one wanted to be your buddy. They other group they paired them up. So you had one group rejected and lonely and you had one that didn’t. (As I’m eating my snickerdoodles) Then they had them do an experiment. They said, “ Here’s what we were going to have you do with someone else, but no one wanted you. We need you to taste test these cookies.” They found that the people who felt lonely and rejected ate lots more of the cookies.

E: So did they have a support therapy for that group afterwards? I mean (unfinished sentence and Michael is laughing at this point.)

R: It was really an evil thing, but you have to smile a little bit about it, right? Because it was just wrong and funny at the same time. That is the point. We need to remember even if we’re satiating that need and have that good feeling it’s not love because what follows is guilt and shame.

E: A substitute.

R: That’s the enemies trap always is to give us that fake love and we’re followed or chased by guilt and shame, and hiding, and fear.

E: Truth be known even when I paint that meal I’d love to eat, I feel miserable after I’ve eaten it.

R: It’s ok to have a burger and fries.

E: Once in a while.

R: Sometimes you’re body will just not (incomplete sentence)

E: It says, “Too much. Time out.”

R: Yes

E: When you look at the church you attend, the church that we’re apart of, you look out in the room, what breaks your heart?

R: Wow! You know one of the things that breaks my heart; I went a month without makeup while I was attending Fellowship Bible Church. Since then, it was many years since, I’ve had a lot of conversations about this and recognizing that going to church was the hardest thing for me during that month. Really asking that question, why? Why would church be harder to go to than a business meeting, because I had those also that month, and recognizing how very terrified we are at church to be honest with each other and watching how women put the mask on the most at church. I think that breaks my heart the most and that’s why I’m a fan of taking my makeup off on stage sometimes when I do speaking engagements. I still wear makeup. It’s that balance again but being willing to look at that and not be intimidated by that, but have a heart to say, “This person doesn’t feel safe enough here. What can we do as women in particular to really be more comfortable with who we are, and love and support each other, so that we can rock this world?” Because women should really rule the world you know. We are more qualified than men at most things. (Michael laughing again)

E: My wife would agree.

R: We are so insecure and shame based that often we miss those opportunities.

E: Most of what we’re talking about is endemic here.  In Africa, in poorer parts of the world, we might have a little bit of that, but nothing like we have with materialism, prosperity, success, economy goes up. Williamson County, you know we lived a lot of places.

R: It’s a first world problem.

E: Williamson County is the Brentwood bubble. It’s so interesting. There’s a line in a Van Morrison song: The girls walk by dressed up for each other and the boys do the boogie woogie on the corner of the street. It’s such a great picture of “what is she wearing; what is he wearing?” Guys are getting that way. Guys are getting more conscious about this.

R: Which is horrible.

E: I was told I wore the wrong blue jeans when I first came here.

R: I remember that. You did wear some weird things on stage. I have to say it took you a while. (joking around)

E: I still only pay $20 for my jeans. I refuse to pay $200. There’s this first world issue, third world issue, whatever you want to call it. Wow!

R: I would say that the difference is community; the depth of the community. In those third world nations you have a village.

E: So we’re all phony over here.

R: Because we don’t feel safe with each other and we haven’t invested in real relationships. We are more interested in ourselves, and in producing things to make us feel important than in family time. Look at how busy we are, how fragmented we are as people. You don’t see a lot of family dinners; you don’t see a lot of families bonding together. There’s a lot of breakdown of the family unit. I would say that’s the biggest difference between these other cultures. Now in other cultures you do have absent fathers, a lot in some of those cultures, but you have a village. You have a village of people; they are a community together; they’re with each other; they’re not divided into a million different directions and as a result people feel known and know each other and that resolves a lot of that loneliness issue.

E: I’m imagining that a father is raising his little girl right now. He would die for her. She’s the most precious beautiful thing in the world; she’s an infant; she’s three; she’s seven; she’s an infant; and she’s daddy’s little girl. What does he tell her?

R: I think he tells her he’s proud of her and he loves her and he tries to emphasize things he loves about her besides looks, but also how she looks.

E: Ok, balance that for me because as a dad, I always encouraged and exalted their  character, not just their looks.

R: Exactly right then! Not just. But if you never say anything about their looks, they’re going to wonder.

E: True.

R: So you’ve got to pepper that.

E: You say “They’re pretty. That dress looks nice on you.” At the same time I don’t want their identity to be Daddy thinks she’s his pretty little girl.

R: But they do have to know you think that they’re beautiful. There’s a balance.

E: So for example, this one child of mine is the most grateful child in the universe and I would say, “You are the most grateful person” and she still is. That’s a character issue.

R: Yes, you want to focus on both. So my father had a really hard time praising me in my ministry because he didn’t want me to be proud. Ok, pride was evil.

E: That’s a generational thing. Yeah, don’t get the bighead.

R: Exactly, just the last couple of years, I never felt his approval of my work, now on the other hand he might compliment me for how I looked. I will tell you, and we’re going to speak on this together at our conference this summer Hungry for Hope, but we’re going to talk about how once he started affirming me in the area of ministry which mattered to me because he’s a minister. This mattered to me and I needed to know what he thought and that I was not weird and not wacko dude, you know. Once he affirmed me in that way, it has radically changed my life. I think to whatever you might err to one side or the other, then try to focus on the other one.

E: I’m not going to state your age, but even at this age you need your dad’s voice, though.

R: That’s what he said. Yes, yes. I think I brought it up when I was thirty-six and he said, “Well, I guess at your age I just didn’t think you needed that anymore.” I said, “Yes, I do.” If you hear Michael Hyatt talk, I heard him and his wife recently, and they said, “Even as your kids are grown up, they need to know you love them, you’re proud of them, they need you to slip them a $20 bill once in a while. They are still your kids always.” So try and look at how you don’t affirm and start doing that maybe more than how you would naturally.

E: Ok, you touched on it earlier, but what about the boys? I look at Moms because  I think we’ve got so many things messed up in the families. I’m old school. I still think that Dad’s voice for his daughter is really strong and I think the mom’s voice for her son is really strong. Not that the others are unimportant. So what does a mom tell the son?

R: Hmm.

E: As you said, his identity is becoming how he looks, his clothes, the right labels.

R: And these things we don’t want our boys to be worried about, “But I’m not dating today because I couldn’t do the metro thing.”

E: That’s our tease right there. “I couldn’t do the metro thing.”

R: I actually would disagree a little bit, that I think the dad’s voice is more important.

E: I’m not saying it’s more or less important. I think it’s strategic.

R: But you’re saying what should the woman? (incomplete sentence)

E: Right. I think there’s things that my wife can say to our son that he won’t hear from me.

R: Ok. Well I know with my son, he needs to know that I love him. Too often I’m critical with all of his areas which is a woman thing I think that we’re very quick to share our criticisms and how we want to change everything and control everything, right? Would you agree?

E: Sounds like a personal problem. ( Michael joking) I’ll plead the fifth.

R: He needs to hear from me that I love him. When he’s playing the piano, I see him and he’ll look at me like, “Are you listening? Are you listening?” He seems to need to know the same thing that I need to know from my dad. He needs to know that I see his talents, his abilities. He doesn’t care if I tell him he’s cute. I do tell him all the time, but he needs to know that I affirm him so that he feels just safe to be him because social life is pretty hard when you’re a teenager.

E: It is that. Constance, how can other people help?

R: I think one of the first things is to not stereotype this issue. Be aware that three out of four women and lots of guys have issues with food. Number 2) Be honest about your own issues so people will say how can I help my daughter? Why don’t you tell her how much you worry about your own stuff. Be honest about that. Number 3) I think you’ve got to know your boundaries so it’s probably not your job to manage their diet for them, their weight for them. You can certainly ask them how they’re doing and present things you see that concern you especially if it’s a concerning situation someone is particularly underweight, or you see self injury, or different things related to these sorts of things. Number 4) I would say ask God what is the right step for you. Maybe the step for you is to look at your own issues; maybe the next step for you is to pray for someone; maybe it’s to serve a ministry in some way that can help others. Everyone has a different next right step. Are you looking for yours, or are you so busy building your own kingdom, that you miss what God might be doing and asking you to join Him in? I think that’s the key thing too. God’s got a call for each one of us and are we following Him in it?

E: You can find out more about Constance on the site. Constance, you’ve got a conference coming up.

R: Yes! Hungry For Hope. This is the premier Christian conference for eating and body image issues. We have workshops for clinicians, for everyday people, for parents, anyone that’s impacted by this issue. This is June 25-27 at the factory in Franklin and we would love to have you join us. Some of our special guests are JJ Heller, a great recording artist friend of ours, Jennifer Dukes Lee wrote the book of Love Idol. The theme of the conference is “Love Well.” You will get your butt kicked, but in a loving way.

E: In a Christian sort of way, yes.

R: (Laughter) In a Christian sort of way. So if you’re looking for freedom or want to be a part of that answer for people come be a part of that.

E: Thanks Constance.

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