I love helping people explore issues around their body/weight/shape/size (I talk more about my approach in my post “The 180-Degree Difference”). In my experience working within this specialty for over a decade now, it doesn’t matter what a person’s weight, BMI, or clothing size is: virtually no one is happy with their appearance. Many changes are possible when we work on these issues, but negative body image usually takes the longest and is the most challenging part to heal.
Body image is not your objective body/weight/shape/size. Rather, it is the mental (subjective) picture you have of your own body in your own head. Negative body image is when you are convinced that you are unattractive and that your body/weight/shape/size is a sign of personal failure. It’s when you feel so ashamed, self-conscious, and anxious about your body that it contributes to your feeling awkward and uncomfortable inside it. Body dysmorphia is negative body image on steroids: it is a disabling preoccupation with perceived defects or flaws in appearance that can rise to the level of actual delusions (i.e. beliefs that are firmly held despite ample evidence to the contrary). One of my favorite ways to help someone get a new perspective on their own body image is to use their beloved pet’s body as a stand-in for their own.
Just like all the different races of humans come from a common ancestor, all the different breeds of dogs come from a common ancestor. Over the centuries, some breeds have grown prominent and look markedly different from other breeds, but there is also a lot of interbreeding which results in a high level of variability of appearances within the species as a whole. Look at this diagram below of a few different dog breeds:
Which one is the best? The most attractive? Whatever criteria you use to answer those questions is arbitrary, subjective, and likely to change over time. The truth is, they are all perfect in and of themselves (flaws and all). The first dog I fell in love with was a pit bull; the current dog-love of my life is a pug. They both have positive and negative aspects to their breeds (though what I deem positive and negative is subjective to my own personal tastes) and, despite appearing very different from one another, they are both beautiful to me. They are each perfectly themselves: the pros/cons of one don’t detract from the pros/cons of the other. You are perfectly yourself too, right now, just the way you are, no matter what anyone else looks like. This is true regardless of your height, weight, jeans size, body fat percentage, or measurements.
Unfortunately, it’s not only our own personal negative body image we have to wade through here. Instead of accepting and appreciating our bodies the way they are, our culture seems invested in selling women the idea that we should strive to be Barbie Dolls …i.e. plastic toys invented in the 1950s. They look at each of us mutts and say, “You are already [cute, caring, smart, creative, talented, responsible]. If you just [watch your fat intake, don’t eat any carbs, count calories] and [exercise, boost your metabolism, get plastic surgery], with some hard work you can become a Barbie Doll too!” They try to convince us that if we were Barbie Dolls, everyone would love us, anything would be possible, our value would increase, and our lives would be perfect. The truth is that a Corgi can only be a Corgi, not a Barbie Doll (not even a Poodle). No matter how hard you focus on trying to make yourself a Barbie Doll, it will never change you into a plastic doll. Instead, focusing on becoming a Barbie Doll will only result in your becoming a hugely unsatisfied Corgi. This can lead to body hate, depression, eating disorders, and even identity crises.
So what is positive body image? According to NEDA (the National Eating Disorder Association) positive body image includes:
- A clear, true perception of your shape–you see the various parts of your body as they really are.
- You celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape and you understand that a person’s physical appearance says very little about their character and value as a person.
- You feel proud and accepting of your unique body and refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight, and calories.
- You feel comfortable and confident in your body.
For many people I’ve worked with (no matter what their weight), this definition of body image is too far removed from how they experience themselves for them to think of even reaching for (much less attaining). So if you can’t yet reach positive body image, how about body neutrality? According to Melissa A. Fabello:
Body neutrality is falling asleep thinking about anything — anything — other than your body and what you’ll change tomorrow in the hopes of it altering eventually.
Body neutrality is freedom from the obsession with our bodies entirely.
Body neutrality is a blank slate.
Body neutrality is a starting point.
Body neutrality is a foundation.
Body neutrality is the place from which we can work toward building body positivity.
And when it comes to culture? Bottom line: WE are our culture. If you don’t like what our culture is telling you about your body then, as Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Start with your own body and self:
- Know yourself. Get to know your body, your emotions, your values, your personality, your dreams, your likes, and your dislikes.
- Appreciate who you (and your body) are. What are your strengths? What are your limitations? What are your desires? What do you like about your body/self? Talk to yourself with self-compassion, as if you were your own best friend with these body images issues or your own beloved pet with these body imperfections. Demonstrate your appreciation of yourself to yourself the same way you would demonstrate your appreciation of your child to your child.
- Be real. You were born to be you, not plastic or perfect. Check out Beauty Redefined, Beautiful You, and the “10 Will-Powers for Improving Body Image.”
- Value and nurture the body you have. What do your personal hunger and fullness cues feel like? What foods does your body want? What movement is fun to your body and leaves it energized? How much rest and what kind of healing does your body need in order to work at its optimal level? What clothes feel good on your body? What assistance does your body need in order to handle the demands (i.e. responsibilities, stressors) it encounters in your daily life?
- Value others’ bodies as they are. Join the efforts of Operation Beautiful. Send others silent blessings for their well-being (rather than silent judgments on their appearance). Encourage your children to value their own bodies, including role-modeling it for them at home and out in public (they learn more from what we do than what we say).
You don’t have to win Best In Show to be perfectly you, worthy, and lovable. You just have to be YOU.