This is a cross-post from one of my recent posts on WeAretheRealDeal, a body image blog that was introduced at last summer’s BlogHer conference at a panel discussion on body image and blogging. I’m pleased to join the blog as a contributor.
Self-efficacy is a big word. Okay, two words. It’s about our belief in ourselves, essentially that we are in charge of our thoughts and actions.
The concept pops up in my mind every time I hear someone say it’s a person’s duty to live a healthy lifestyle. We see these kinds of statements often in discussions that get into HAES principles. “It’s okay if someone is fat as long as they’re eating healthy, exercising, etc.” Meaning that it’s not okay if they’re not doing that because of the impact their choice may have on others such as family members who might have to care for them if they fall ill, or the rest of us who end up paying for it via health care costs. I won’t get into whether people feel the same about someone who isn’t fat.
It also comes to mind when I hear discussions about taxing foods in order to address obesity problems. (Disclaimer: Not all obesity is problematic. Some of us are made to be larger and we can be healthy at the same time.) Because many of us appear not to be able to handle eating problems by ourselves, some folks think legislating (translated: taxing) us into better eating habits will work. Although I wonder without researching my question whether it might not be more reasonable for a whole lot of reasons to reduce corn subsidies that have made the sweetener used in sodas so inexpensive. If sodas are taxed, seems like we’re paying for them twice. But I digress.
My point about self-efficacy is that neither of the above scenarios helps build it in the person who is struggling with it. Not everyone struggles with self-efficacy, but many people who struggle with eating, weight and body image do. And feelings of self-efficacy are essential to successful change. Generally, if someone doesn’t believe they can do something, they can’t.
In my eating disordered days, no one could have been more intent on leading a healthy lifestyle than I. But my belief in myself was damaged by years of attention paid by others to my weight. Never obese in the clinical sense of the word, yet never really thin compared to siblings and other family members, I was always the odd one out in terms of size. And they let me know it. It damaged my self-esteem, growing up thinking I was somehow less acceptable than others because of my size. The often scornful comments I received about my weight only made me feel worse about myself and sink deeper into the struggle that consumed my life. My salvation was finding myself in other things; a healthy lifestyle followed because of my own desire, not because someone pushed or shamed me into it.
Long story short, it’s unlikely that any form of dictating to people is going to help them adopt healthy lifestyles, whether it’s a general belief by others that someone “should” or an attempt to force them into it. Forget about how that might make someone dig in their heels and resist any attempt at change. In essence, such thoughts and actions smack of disapproval, and all disapproval does is chip away at our ability to believe in ourselves.
How good are you at believing in yourself in the face of opposition? It definitely slows me down.