As I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store, I glanced over and read the headline of the nearest magazine. It read “lose 25lbs and look great by Memorial Day.” I laughed to myself. And then quickly, my second thought came; a reminder of how many are going to buy that magazine or start another diet today and the shame and disappointment that often come with that cycle. I laugh as a way to remind my brain to take these messages with some humor, calling them lies and distancing myself from it.
It hasn’t always been this way. When I was young, like many of us, I heard negative comments about my body. Some direct, some indirect. All damaging. And then I went to school and encountered friends that asked if I wanted to participate in their pact to not eat their lunches all week. They all discussed their bodies, never in positive ways, always picking themselves apart and sometimes others too. Even in a “good crowd” you can’t help but hear the message: your body is flawed. In the last decade, it has been shown that over half of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) say they are concerned about their weight or fear being fat (Smolak, 2011). These messages may begin early, but for so many of us, they are still a significant part of our life today.
Professionally, my early career began in a Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Center. As time went on, this has become a specialty of mine in my clinical practice as a Licensed Counselor. And while I have heard thousands of stories of women in the trenches of Eating Disorders, fighting to break away from a culture that teaches us to hate our bodies. Today, I want to share with you how I have begun to practice loving my body and some of the tips and tricks I teach to my patients as well.
Body image is defined as one’s perception of their body. This includes everything from what we believe about our appearances, our assumptions, our memories, how we feel about things like the color of our skin, our height, even our shoe size. It also incorporates how you experience our body in your movements and how we physically feel in our body.
Raise your hand if any of the examples given above have yielded a negative outcome about your body image. Great, I’m not alone. Truth is, research has already proven that. Recent studies have shown that 97% of women reported at least one negative body image thought, each day. I would guess if you are a woman, that you would not combat these findings. Male or female alike though, the shame that affects how we feel about our bodies is far-reaching.
Let’s talk strategies for changing this. But first, let me give a caveat. These are not meant to be quick fixes or even one-size fits all approaches. Rather, time, persistence and deep shame work can often accompany our body image work. Here is a great place to start.
Our bodies are more than their aesthetic value. Our bodies are
magnificent! Begin to affirm the ways your body provides for you, perhaps the things you have begun to take for granted. For example your legs’ ability to run after your children, your stomach’s ability to house and keep safe your vital organs, your arms ability to hold and embrace a loved one, etc.
Begin to notice the messages that reinforce negative body image in your
life (the magazine title for instance). And then make changes as necessary. Perhaps this means un-following some people on social media, unsubscribing to certain beauty magazines, or even walking away from conversations.
Find clothes that fit you and that you feel like yourself in. Yep, ladies, you heard me right. An excuse to go shopping! Again, this won’t fix everything. But if you are wearing clothes that don’t fit your body or your style, then it’s time for a change.
See food as a method of enjoying your body, not as an enemy to your body. When we believe that our body is “wrong” or “bad” we begin to look for ways to “fix” it and food naturally becomes a common outlet. However, food nor your body are the bad guys. And once the miswirings of shame are challenged we can begin to enjoy each. The same could be said for exercise. Use exercise as a celebration of your strength and endurance, rather than a punishment.
Use positive language when describing your body to others and yourself. We can get into the unfortunate habit of tearing ourselves down, thinking this will motivate us to change what we don’t like. Brains don’t work this way, though. Research shows that motivation comes from positive goal setting and self-appreciation. For instance, try standing in the mirror and stating what you like. Go even further and share it with a friend and heck, even compliment him or her while you’re at it. We all know we need more positivity in the world!
Perhaps you are one that negative body image started in your early childhood. Perhaps you have been fighting this battle for a long time. Here is your permission to make a change to that story. Here is your permission to seek professional help, to attend a support group, or even to change your environment. The only life we will live on this Earth will be in this one body, so let’s learn to love and cherish it.