Loving yourself and our relationship with ourselves is complicated. There is no denying that. As we live our lives, we are tasked with the responsibility to learn to love many aspects of ourselves: our feelings, our thoughts, our actions, and most importantly, our bodies.
You might read that and think, “Really? Body satisfaction is most important?” And let me be clear: your body is the least interesting thing about you. Your heart, your sense of humor, your passions, your hobbies, all of that is far more interesting and should be what really matters. But unfortunately, and you probably know this all too well, there is massive importance put on looks in our culture. And a big part of that is a multi-billion dollar industry committed to convincing people – mostly women – that their bodies should generally be smaller.
Causes for Body Dissatisfaction
1. One’s worth being attached to one’s body:
This is a really big one. The culture we live in upholds this narrative at every stage of our lives. We think our body shape and image define us and reflect our value; that we are only as good as our body looks or have as much approval as our bodies do. We tell ourselves that our value will increase when our bodies look a certain way or fit a certain size: “I will be happy when I lose the baby weight,” or, “I’ll know I’m doing a good job when I can fit into those jeans.” How often do we view women positively if they are skinnier than the average, and how often do we judge women if they are curvy? Think of the labels you use or have heard for women who by genetics happen to be slender vs. women who again by genetics are taller or bigger-built. Society clearly favors and respects one over the other.
Along with the pressure in our culture to be thin, there is pressure “not to age,” especially for women. We begin to fear the passage of time and the way it changes our bodies and admire those who seem impervious to time passing. Think about the times in your life when you have gone a while without seeing a friend. This period of time has been further extended during this pandemic. After that time apart, when we do get to catch up, how often do we say to each other, “OMG, you haven’t changed a bit!”? And how often do we take this compliment as a sign of great accomplishment, allowing it to make us feel a great sense of pride and contentment. Wrinkled skin, muscle changes, the effect of gravity on the human body, changes in body size and composition, all of these are normal. But we fear them and we hate to see ourselves grow from young people to older people.
3. Traumatic Events:
Physical traumatic events can include accidents or medical procedures, such as a motor vehicle accident, childbirth, mastectomy, skin cancer removal, and many more. These changes to your body can leave you in a different state than you are used to: your size or shape may have changed, and/or you may have scars. These events can be extra challenging to process when your odds of survival were low; people around you may tell you that you should just be happy to be alive and not make space for you to process the changes to your body.
Emotional trauma can also have an impact on how we feel in our bodies. You may have been bullied for your looks at some point in your formative years, permanently impacting the way you view yourself. Abuse of any kind can also inform the way you feel about yourself as a whole and may include feelings of dissociation from your physical presence or fear surrounding trusting others. This fear can make you feel unsafe in your own skin; you might imagine that if you were taller or stronger or faster, you would be able to feel secure.
4. Need for Perfection:
We may be perfectionists in every aspect of our lives, or we may seek physical “perfection” for emotional or psychological reasons or both. Our efforts to control our size and shape can often be a placeholder for issues we aren’t able to control the way we’d like or a manifestation of perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism is a dangerous habit to be in when it comes to “managing” our bodies; what may start as small goals or wishes can easily turn into disordered behaviors and food habits. In our efforts to obtain “perfection,” we are seeking confidence, power, stability, happiness, love, and many other things. When we feel insecure about our ability to have or maintain those things, we attempt to control our bodies to feel worthy and to feel like we have some say in what happens to us.
5. Cultural and Societal Messages:
What do the society and culture you have grown up in and currently live in say about a woman’s “ideal” look? Take a look at the celebrities in your culture that are glorified as having the ideal shape for a woman. Look at advertising aimed at either men or women to see what is being sold as the beauty standard. This persistent effort to uphold a very narrow range of people as beautiful, all the while telling us that our value is in our beauty, leads us back to a sense of our worth being attached to our bodies and the notion that our worth is (and deserves to be) low.
When we realize how much of our time and energy is spent worrying about how we look or what size we wear, it can feel quite overwhelming. We might think that we are doomed to feel this way forever because we don’t know how to turn body dissatisfaction into body celebration. But the best first step is actually to realize that this constant state of self-judgment about our bodies is no way to live. From there, we can take steps to improve our relationship with the skin we live in.
5 Steps to Loving Your Body:
1. Forgive yourself for being so hard on your body:
Any change starts with awareness. Notice the ways you have been self-critical of your body and before you can make any changes, first give yourself compassion by forgiving those unkind thoughts. Unfortunately, we have been taught to attach morality to our food choices and our actions. How often have you heard someone say, “I’ll be bad and have another cookie,” or, “I was really good yesterday, I went for a run and had a salad for dinner”? When we hear foods and lifestyle choices qualified in this way, we make connections to who we are. “I ate a cookie, and that was bad. Therefore, I am bad.”
Thanks to the efforts of the diet industry, this extends into how we view ourselves and others overall; we are taught that people who carry more weight are making “the wrong choices” with their food and activity level, and that’s why their bodies look that way. Those people, then, are viewed as people who don’t care about themselves enough to take proper care of themselves and would rather “be bad.”
If these sorts of thoughts have impacted your view of yourself or others, know that they were taught to you. In vowing to do better now that you know better, you are also allowed to forgive yourself for the past.
2. Change the way you talk about your body:
At the very least, you should endeavor to stop berating yourself. That is the first step: when you catch yourself thinking or saying something unkind, pause. You might tell yourself, “I have learned better, and I know better than to say that now,” or, “That is not helpful or beneficial to me.” Something that reminds you that you are still learning and adjusting.
How often do you compliment your body? How often do you give your body words of affirmation or gratitude? Depending on your physical abilities, you may struggle with doing so; chronic fatigue and pain can paint our bodies as our enemies. Speaking kindly to and about your body doesn’t mean lying to yourself. It means focusing your energy on what works for you. You may even decide to tell your body things you don’t believe yet. You might choose to stand in front of the mirror and really look at yourself. “Thank you,” you might say, “For getting me this far. Thank you for keeping me alive.” You might take time to rub moisturizer on your body, perhaps areas that you’ve struggled to accept, and speak kindly to your body. Keep a journal of things your body allows you to do. Take photos when you love your outfit.
3. Surround yourself with people who also have a loving relationship with their bodies:
We are all a work in progress, and we have the right to evolve at our own pace. I am not saying everybody has to be on the same page as you, but they sure have to be on the same path as you, and that’s the path of loving oneself and one’s body. Self-acceptance is hard enough without having regressive chatter around you. Be sure to set boundaries with loved ones that you aren’t talking about weight, sizes, or perceived physical flaws anymore. Truly, no good can come of any of this. Follow accounts on social media that promote body positivity (or neutrality) and unfollow others.
Doing this work means making a conscious effort not to discuss appearance or changes at all. It should also go without saying that if you are straight-sized, your plus-size friends who have strong relationships with their bodies are not there to reassure you that you don’t look like them.
4. Embrace Change:
If aging is a powerful trigger for body dissatisfaction and body hatred, the opposite lies in embracing the change that each one of us is going through. Whether those changes are easily visible to others as they may be wrinkles around our eyes or some changes, we can cover ourselves with some comfy seater.
We can look to prominent figures who are embracing aging, such as Andie MacDowell, who is feeling empowered these days by going grey and letting go of the exhaustion of trying to pretend she is younger than she is. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do what you need to to feel your best; even someone like Jane Fonda is open about the work she has had done over the years but is quick to wash off her makeup and focus on health, strength, and causes she believes in over how she looks.
What would embracing change look like for you? Will it be to go without makeup on the weekends? Will it be wearing your glasses more often in public? Posing for pictures… and then posting them?
5. Stay healthy:
Most of my clients tend to get stuck on how to find a balance between loving their body and still having health goals because they feel like they can’t achieve them without “dieting.” First of all, I don’t like the word “diet,” and I encourage my clients to remove it from their vocabulary. Taking care of your health is so much more than counting calories or weighing food; loving your body is providing it with full support. A healthy lifestyle includes drinking water, resting, eating plenty of nutrient-rich foods, and moving your body in a way that you enjoy, as opposed to doing some fitness craze everyone else is doing even though you hate it. You can have your ice cream before dinner if you want to; healthy living is doing things in moderation and with mindfulness. On this topic, I would love to share a resource from a wonderful colleague of mine. It is a mindful eating journal by Alyssa Snow Callahan.
Here is why learning to love our bodies is essential: there are very few mainstreams, funded initiatives out there aiming to convince you that you’re wrong to like needlepoint or that your volunteer efforts are bad. And alas, marketing agencies don’t use ‘having a great sense of humor or ‘being a good friend’ to sell things; they use sexuality and a narrow scope of “what beautiful is.” Our entire lives are spent being bombarded with how important it is to look a certain way – and how looking that way is the only way to be important. The only way to be ‘worthy.’
In case no one has told you lately: the beauty standard in our country is ridiculous. Very few people look even close to what is presented to us as the ideal. And the idea that how we look is more important than who we are is wrong. You may have invested a lot of time and effort to try to measure up to some ideal; you may have sacrificed health, happiness, time with friends, freedom of choice. You deserve better, and you deserve more.
Other Services at Embracing You Therapy
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.