While it may seem like conversations around body image are a relatively new phenomenon—with models like Ashley Graham on the cover of Sports Illustrated and last year’s release of the “Embrace” documentary—there are people and organizations that have been doing work around this topic for decades. The Body Positive, a non-profit out of Berkeley, California, is among the most well-respected.
Founded in 1996 by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott, The Body Positive started by offering leadership training to high school girls around the Bay Area on the topic of loving their bodies. Since then, it has expanded to providing training for college students, mental health professionals and the public. Each program is based on five core competencies to help people live “peacefully and healthfully in our bodies,” and include: declaring your own authentic beauty, reclaiming your heath, practicing intuitive self care, cultivating self love and building community.
Wanting to hear more, I called Sobczak, executive director of The Body Positive, and author of “Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and Quiet That Critical Voice!).”
How did you become interested in helping people who struggle with body image issues?
It all goes back to my childhood. Back then—this was the 70s—all I wanted was to have a thigh gap and look like Farrah Fawcett, but I was the farthest thing from it. I was the runt of my family, called ‘bubble butt’ and ‘thunder thighs’ at school. I started dieting when I was 12 and became bulimic when I was 15.
I came to UC Berkeley as a transfer student in electrical engineering with a very bad eating disorder. All of my friends growing up had eating disorders—it was normalized, and there was no language for it.
Were you throwing up?
I’d rather not say. It is not a good thing when people talk about their exact eating disorder behaviors.
Oh, I’m sorry.
It’s OK. That’s part of the education process. That’s why shows like “To The Bone” on Netflix concern me greatly. When exact behaviors are shown, some people who are struggling will get help, while others will start on an eating disorder path after seeing the imagery.
What happened when you went to college?
It was really hard. I knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t until someone told me I might have a form of anorexia that things changed. I didn’t want to be on the planet at that time, but when I got that word, I changed my whole community. I decided to dive into the spark of life force I had left. I dove into that little light and realized I wanted to live.
I dropped out and came back, eventually getting my degree in psychology. I planned to be a therapist focusing on eating disorders, but then I became a body worker and helped people with emotional release work. I soon realized that I wanted to take a non-traditional path.
Did others in your family also struggle?
Yes, my sister had an eating disorder. She was 5’11” and spent her teen years being shamed by my father at the dinner table. We bonded over gaining and losing weight—a weird way to bond. She got breast implants when she was 21, and the doctor accidentally crushed the implant inside of her. The silicone spread in her system, and it caused lupus. She died at 36 because of complications of lupus.
When she died, I wanted to change the world. My daughter was one year old, and she was so in love with her body; I couldn’t let anything happen to her.
I’m so sorry to hear about your sister. Was that when you came up with the idea for The Body Positive?
I got the idea for The Body Positive in 1995, a few years after she died. My first idea was to create videos for teens, just to plant seeds in their minds about how to be in their bodies, not about eating disorders in particular. I wanted to produce educational videos to give to teachers, but then I met Elizabeth Scott, who is a longtime social worker helping teens with eating disorders. We joined forces and presented our first leadership training to high school students in 1998, and it’s grown from there.
I love that your book talks about how to quiet the critical inner voice. Has this work helped you do that?
Yes, but I’ve come to realize there is no such thing as perfection. I’m 57 years old, and I’m not happy with my body every day, but now I have a structure of self-love that I practice. I don’t want to waste my time. I have a dead sister. When I hear my critical voice, I turn toward it and say hello. I think of that voice as I would my daughter when she was 4 years old, having a tantrum. Back then, I would pick her up and hold her until she was calm, and recognize that she was afraid.
I often think of that voice as my 13-year-old self—the self that wanted to be perfect so as not to get hurt. The part that just wanted to be loved.
That internal critical voice can get pretty loud, at least for me.
I know what you mean. And there’s no perfecting it, but we can have acceptance around that voice, and acceptance of our suffering. We are not taking that away by building self-love and seeing beauty. We may not see it in every moment, but the goal is to keep coming back, practicing and forgiving ourselves.
My Mom is turning 90 this year and says that making mistakes is one of life’s greatest gifts and the only way to learn. And that we must allow ourselves to be human.
That is beautiful. What advice can you give readers who struggle with issues around body image?
First, read my book. Second, check out what we are doing on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) because we have a lot of great information there. But even more, be aware of the mixed messages around this movement. The ‘body positivity’ movement is taking off, which is great because there is more conversation around these topics than ever before, but it is also concerning because it is being co-opted by advertisers. Be weary of companies that deliver the message of only being ‘body positive’ when you lose weight. That is not the right message at all.
How is your daughter doing, having grown up with a mother so active in this movement?
My daughter, Carmen, is 26 now and was 4 when we started this work. She grew up with the message of body positivity and was always around a beautifully diverse group of people. She grew up without body shame and is actually writing a book for college students that will hopefully come out next year. The book is about how people who identify as female can step in their power because she sees the obsession young people have with their bodies as a waste of resources. I couldn’t be more proud of her.