It is a well-accepted notion in psychology that avoidance of a particular item or situation can lead to anxiety. This anxiety leads to more avoidance which leads to more anxiety and on and on…and on. For individuals with eating disorders, avoidance can take many forms including food avoidance, social avoidance and emotional avoidance. However, there is one particular type of avoidance that seems to blossom and intensify in the summer months and in warmer climates1… body avoidance. Body avoidance is refraining from wearing seasonally appropriate, more revealing, cooler clothes due to fears about having one’s body exposed or being more visible. Perhaps the most dreaded, and most often avoided, is the bathing suit. It is the one clothing item pretty much required to take part in some of the most fun and refreshing summer activities… jumping into a cool pool, running into the chilly ocean, or floating on top of a serene lake.
For people who have a preoccupation with weight and shape, oftentimes just the thought of wearing a bathing suit can stir up a lot of negative body image thoughts and tremendous amounts of anxiety. In an effort to escape those thoughts and feelings, many people go to great lengths to not wear a bathing suit at all (avoidance). While the goal might be to not feel badly, as discussed earlier, avoiding the feared situation and the discomfort momentarily actually leads to more anxiety in the long-term. And so, the avoidance/ anxiety cycle begins.
The only way to stop this exhaustive and stressful process from continuing is to stop avoiding the feared situation. In this case, it is to face the bathing suit head on…to wear a bathing suit, feel very anxious, survive the situation, and repeat. Over time, a new, less threatening, response to one’s fears will ultimately develop and the anxiety will slowly subside. The best strategy for doing this is to fully exposure yourself to wearing a bathing suit.
- First, make a plan to visit a pool or beach in the next week and commit to wearing a swimsuit for a set period of time.
- Second, know that you will likely feel extremely anxious initially but allow yourself to feel your full anxiety. Knowing that you feel very anxious and that you can survive the anxiety is a key element of exposing yourself to your fears.
- Next, once this first exposure is complete and your anxiety has decreased, make a formal plan to put on your bathing suit as much as possible in the days ahead. Plan to reward yourself after the exposure- take yourself to a movie that you have been wanting to see, put $10 in a jar to work toward buying that new piece of furniture you’ve been eyeing, or treat yourself to a long phone conversation with an old friend.
- Finally, repeat. The feared stimulus (aka the bathing suit) has to be worn regularly and without escape in order for the anxiety reduction to stick. Track your anxiety and monitor to see that as the exposures progress, your anxiety starts to go down.
Science tells us it is best for positive outcomes to jump in feet first on body image exposure experiences like this. However, if it feels too overwhelming, consider breaking it down into smaller steps like first just wearing your bathing suit* around the house when you’re home alone, then wearing it in your backyard, then somewhere with just a close, trusted friend. Remember that the longer you put it off, the scarier it will seem. If you can start today, by the end of the summer you may actually be able to associate wearing a bathing suit with feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, instead of feeling distracted and fearful.
If you are struggling to take the plunge, consider working with a behavioral therapist who can offer guidance by providing education and support for helping to develop a systematic planned exposure schedule.
*Insert here any feared and avoided article of clothing- tank tops, shorts, skirts, light colored clothes, fitted clothes, dresses, formal attire.
Looking for more summer inspiration? Check out these other posts about overcoming negative body image and making the most of your summer season
Body Positive Summer: Step 1 – Stop Critiquing Your Body. Start Critiquing the Thin Ideal.
Body Positive Summer: Step 2 – Stop Comparing. Start Contrasting.
Body Positive Summer: Step 1 – Set yourself up for success.
Written by Laura Sproch, PhD.
Research Coordinator & Outpatient Therapist
Dr. Laura Sproch is a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as Research Coordinator and outpatient individual and family therapist at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Currently, Dr. Sproch is initiating treatment outcome studies, managing quality improvement projects, and developing novel research projects in an effort to contribute to the field’s understanding of effective eating disorder treatment methods. Dr. Sproch received her Ph.D. in Clinical/School Psychology from Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY where she completed her dissertation examining cognitive similarities between differential eating disorder diagnoses. Dr. Sproch originally joined the CED team in 2011 as a postdoctoral fellow on the inpatient and partial hospitalization units acting as a family, individual, and group therapist. She has also worked with adolescents and adults struggling with disordered eating at a variety of levels of care, including at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, PA and ‘Ai Pono: The Anorexia and Bulimia Center of Hawaii in Honolulu, HI. Her professional interests also include family-based treatment, psychological assessment, school psychology, and research on the transdiagnostic model for eating disorders
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Sloan, D. M. (2002). Does warm weather climate affect eating disorder pathology?. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 32(2), 240-244. doi: 10.1002/eat.10077