Summer time. A time for slowing down a bit, relaxing a bit, enjoying the pool or beach…
Did your anxiety jump a bit at the thought of being seen in a swim suit? If so, you’re not alone. While body image concerns plague both men and women, a whopping 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. This means that hating our bodies has become a national pastime.
But why? Certainly the media, with its ubiquitous presence and its incessant portrayal of an unhealthy and unachievably thin ideal contributes to women’s often perpetual dissatisfaction with their own bodies. Without our consent, we are brainwashed to believe the only way to be beautiful and to have value as a women is to be thin. This brainwashing seeps in and negatively impacts our self-esteem, our eating habits, and our quality of life. Ongoing messages from others such as our peers, partners and families, can further the damage. We perpetuate this damage with our own self-critical thoughts and judgments of our bodies and ourselves as not-good-enough.
The good news is that once you are aware of this brainwashing, you can take steps to begin to make up your own mind about how your feel about your body. Body Image, the way you perceive and feel about your body, is created and learned. Thus, a negative, unrealistic body image can be unlearned and a new, more accurate and positive body image created in its place. It often surprises people to learn that body image is unrelated to the actual shape and size of your body. Don’t believe me? Have you ever lost some weight, felt good for a little while but then those old feelings of body dissatisfaction returned and you decided the answer must be to lose more weight? I call this the “carrot on the stick” phenomenon. Because our body image does not automatically change when our weight does, we can get trapped in the cycle of believing that we need to keep losing more and more weight to be satisfied with ourselves. Not only is this false, it is dangerous and can lead to disordered eating.
Another way we get it backwards is that we think we need to wait until we feel good about our bodies to start fully living our lives and doing what we want to do. In actuality, by acting as if we value our bodies, as imperfect as they are, and taking care of ourselves, we begin the process of improving our body image and overall health.
Here are some tried-and-true steps you can take to begin the process of learning to appropriately value your body and enjoy it:
- Buy and wear clothes that fit and make you feel good about yourself rather than trying to fit into those old jeans hanging in the closet.
- Treat your body well in all ways.
- Eat well with the goal of meeting your body’s need for adequate nutrition and until you feel full and satisfied. Allowing yourself to enjoy eating and having the occasional treat will help prevent feelings of deprivation that can lead to “pigging out” or “cheating” later.
- Move your body and appreciate what it can do. Be mindful of all the things your body can do for you and in what ways you like to use your body such as dance, walking, yoga, golfing, enjoying a massage, planting a garden, and embracing loved ones.
- Remind yourself that the images you see of thin women in magazines are not real. They are airbrushed and digitally altered to appear artificially and unhealthily thin. Trying to look like them would be as futile as trying to look like Betty Boop or another cartoon image.
- Visit an art museum. Look at sculptures and images of the female form from times past. Notice the beauty in a women’s bodies of different shapes and sizes.
- Let yourself enjoy things you’d like to enjoy. Don’t put off going to the beach in a swim suit, going to a pool party, or going out dancing.
- Once a day, take a moment as ask yourself: “Am I benefitting from focusing on what I believe are flaws in my body weight or shape?”
- Exercise for the benefits of feeling better and improving your health and fitness. Not to lose weight or get rid of calories.
- Think of other people in your life who you treasure and write down a list of the qualities they possess that you value. Notice how rarely, if ever, someone’s weight determines how much you love or value them.
While body dissatisfaction is sadly normal for women in our current culture, there are things you can do to improve your body image and even learn to love your body! If you have persistent and troubling concerns about your body image, self-esteem, and/or eating habits, please consider seeking counseling for help beyond what these tips provide.