“Thunder thighs.” “Zit-face.” “Child-bearing hips.” “Beached whale.” These are names I have been called by one who should be my friend — myself. Over the span of many years, negative voices in my head repeatedly whispered and shouted hurtful messages. The relentless inner critic picked at flaws and hyper-focused on perceived defects in my body. Mirrors and scales acted as weapons to inflict harm and produce shame.
The journey to change my thinking patterns about my physical appearance and improve my body image has been rocky and is still ongoing, but hope and healing are filling in the potholes, and road signs indicate that I am travelling in the right direction. Following are seven lessons I’ve learned along the way to a healthier body image:
1. Identify causes for a negative body image
The way you view your body is a gradually learned response to past influences and current experiences. Body image specialist Thomas Cash suggests examining four historical influences:
Cultural conditioning: What are the societal and media messages you believed concerning attractiveness and desirability?
Interpersonal experiences with family and friends: What words and actions by those closest to you influenced the way you feel about your looks?
Physical characteristics and changes: How did periods of change, particularly puberty, affect your body image?
Personalities differences: How resilient are you to factors that threaten your body image?
Next, identify current triggers that activate assumptions, perceptions and judgments about your physical appearance. These activating thoughts lead to positive or negative body image emotions that in turn lead to actions and reactions, such as habitually trying to change your appearance or avoiding your looks all together.
By facing past experiences and recognizing current triggers, you are taking the first step to changing the future.
2. Deliberately challenge your thinking
No amount of plastic surgery, dieting, weaving or waxing can change your body image. But, you can. Thoughts produce feelings. If you want to change your feelings about your body, start by changing your thoughts. When negative voices creep into your mind chiding you for your freckled nose or flabby arms, challenge them. Talk back to them. Choose to dismiss them. Redirect them. Develop mantras and positive affirmations of your own, or use some of the following:
I enjoy being positive and having positive feelings.
My inside is healthy and my outside is about to catch up.
I am created in the image of God.
3. Enjoy your strengths
Take some time looking in the mirror and objectively describing your physical characteristics: “I have hazel eyes, straight shoulders, shapely hands and muscled calves.” Force yourself to find physical features you appreciate and like and then write them on the mirror and read them over and over. When you get dressed in the morning, vocally praise yourself for areas that please you. Compliment yourself and accept the compliments of others. Choose to embrace characteristics that are uniquely yours and celebrate your strengths.
4. Increase your gratitude
Live in thanksgiving daily for every body part which functions normally. Count your 10 toes, appreciate your sense of hearing, smile at your heartbeats and breathe in gratitude. The human body is a remarkable machine producing 300 billion new cells every day, remembering 50,000 different scents and delivering messages to the brain at the speed of 170 miles an hour. Still, when it is perceived as an enemy instead of a gift, it is remarkably easy to take for granted or even abuse your body. Instead of focusing on undesirable characteristics, rejoice in the miracle that is the human body.
Jason, a close family friend, was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident. He has made a life and a living of counting his blessings. He exudes confidence and gratitude as he cheers, motivates and blesses others wherever he goes. He has made it his life’s work to appreciate the things his mind and body can do. As you cultivate an attitude of gratitude for every experience, sense, thought and function your body gives you, you can’t help but develop a healthier body image.
5. Care for your body
My favorite yoga instructor starts out each class by saying, “You’ve only got one body, so you better take care of it.” You don’t need the perfect body to practice good hygiene, exercise, eat a well-balanced diet, enjoy the sunshine and breathe deeply. Allow yourself to participate in self-nurturing and pleasurable experiences that soothe or heighten the senses. Be fully engaged and mindfully aware of what you are feeling and listen to the signals and messages your body sends you. Be your body’s best friend.
The Bible asks, “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (KJV 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). While it is important to take care of your temple, it is imperative to nourish and strengthen the spirit within. Your mother was right when she told you, “Pretty is as pretty does.” A well-known beauty pageant specialist observes that truly beautiful people start with the inside and work out. Strengthen your spirit through prayer, devotion, reading spiritual literature, selflessness and service.
7. Share your progress and positivity with others
Imagine a world where everyone thinks she is beautiful, a place where every shape, size and color is acceptable. Walk one step closer to that world by avoiding “fat chat” and conversations that demean the body. Model a positive body image to your children, friends and neighbors. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty found that only 2 percent of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful and thus have started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty. Check out the following videos to understand how the world’s perception of beauty can be distorted, and then work to promote a positive body image in the people around you.