It’s spring, and if you don’t want to see images of people with perfect bodies hiking amidst newly blooming flowers, jumping into the ocean and eating smoothie bowls, don’t look at the internet. Social media tells us that if we don’t have thinness, an ‘able’ body, tons of connection, vitality, and youth…what, why don’t we have all these things? We must be different (and we need to buy something in order to fix ourselves!).
This messaging is painful enough to experience when we feel well and emotionally supported. When we are suffering from physical limitations or illness, or are feeling badly about our bodies, this time of year that can feel especially lonely.
Do you notice that you are struggling to feel at home in your body or to feel like your body is enough? Do you notice yourself hyper fixating on some area of your body, comparing yourself, or feeling disconnected from others? Are you avoiding going out, obsessing over weight loss, body checking or avoiding mirrors, feeling unable to be intimate with your partner, or hiding yourself? Are you missing a ‘past you’ who was more active or able bodied? Let me know what you’re experiencing by commenting below.
If you are experiencing any of these things, I want to tell you that there is hope and help. The experience of not being at home in our bodies is so painful, and it can feel very vulnerable to talk about. Here are some tips for working with comparison and negative body image, and for coming back home to your body.
5 Tips to Overcome Negative Body Image
1. Remember that experiencing negative body image is an incredibly common experience and you aren’t alone.
I’m sad to say that I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t felt body shame at some point in her life (we will address more about why this is below). Having negative feelings about our bodies impacts every area of our lives, from our self confidence and desire to socialize, to our sex life, to our day to day happiness, to the way we eat and move. When we are caught in the throws of comparison, we feel less than, insecure, and it’s hard to focus on anything else.
Know that your pain is real but not unique. You have it because you are a human being who, at your core, wants to belong and be accepted. The deeper fear that belies negative body image is that we are different, we don’t fit in, we are unworthy, and we are going to be rejected. Social media influencers hijack this basic human need and exploit it so that we will buy more products.
Sometimes when we know that something is a part of our human conditioning, it can lose a bit of its power. There is no ‘real’ standard that makes a ‘good,’ ‘able’ or ‘attractive’ body. Even many people who appear to be in great health often still feel like they’re not doing ‘enough’ and probably feel negatively about their bodies from time to time. Remember that that they are vulnerable and will die and age and change, just like we all will.
Whatever you are capable of right now, someone is always capable of less (or is dead). As our bodies age and change, they are capable of different things and they look different ways. At certain times in our lives, we may be more or less able and active, or we may just feel more called to rest. In fact you may be a sprite 18 year old and go through cancer, you may decide to take up cross country running in your 70s. Listen to what your body needs and trust it.
2. Remember that the images we see on tv, social media and the internet are not real.
I probably don’t even need to mention the fact that most of what we see on social media is edited/filtered/posed, and only acts as a small picture of the entirety of angles from which we may view a body. There are entire instagram accounts devoted to exposing the lies that social media feeds us (see Danae Mercer for a reminder).
How can we not feel badly about ourselves when we are bombarded with unrealistic images and standards? Filters on social media are designed to show tiny waists, perky butts and boobs, flawless skin, flat tummies, and toned muscles. Social media doesn’t show us behind-the-scenes-eating disorders, cellulite, unflattering angles, postpartum baby fat, and the post-processing the photo has gone through. Remember that you are not seeing a real human body with social media—just as you’re not seeing real sex when you’re looking at porn.
Furthermore, beauty standards are always changing—what is considered attractive one day is out the next. No ‘beauty standard’ holds a monopoly on attractiveness, and beauty comes from so much more than a physical body. Think about the things you find beautiful in the people you love the most–is it their waists, muscles or great butt? Or do you see beauty in the way they show love for you, their kindness, their laugh?
It’s hard to recognize when our brains have been hijacked. When we see images that show us that we are different, our brains conclude that we aren’t enough (see this post on the negativity bias). You may want to consider cutting down on your social media usage as a kindness to yourself and your hyper fixated anxious brain.
3. The story that you aren’t doing enough and that your body is wrong has been finely crafted by the patriarchy to keep women feeling small.
Diet culture is a mode that the patriarchy uses to control women. Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
The patriarchy puts moral value on food—the less we eat and smaller we are, the more obedient we are, the less space we take up, the fewer needs we have. We diminish ourselves in order fit an ideal perpetuated by centuries of white patriarchal culture, and are therefore falling in line with ideals created by men to keep women both docile and spending money.
All the most popular ‘fad diets’ have been created by white men. Many workouts advertise that they keep women ‘long and lean’ and prevent bulking. Our world is designed to keep women feeling inadequate, and many of us have internalized the messaging of the patriarchy.
“Diet culture” exploded during a time when women earned the right to vote, and then again in the 1960s when women were rising up with the second wave of feminism. During both these times, a thin, twig like figure was in vogue. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes, “when women came en masse into male spheres, that pleasure [of a woman enjoying her natural fullness] had to be overridden by an urgent social expedient that would make women’s bodies into the prisons that their homes no longer were.”
The beauty myth can feel so compelling because we read it everywhere we look. However, health, happiness, and love truly come in all sizes. This is one of the most powerful things you can remember when you’re in the throws of negative body image. Wolf points out that thin people are not happier, do not have more love, and are not ‘healthier’ than large ones. Many studies have revealed that a lower BMI doesn’t correlate to higher levels of happiness, connection, or even health. The ability to relax and connect are the things that truly bring us happiness–and we can’t do these things when we are in caught in a trance of unworthiness.
4. Be gentle with yourself during emotional and physical healing.
It isn’t your fault that you don’t like your body right now and it also isn’t your fault if you can’t be grateful for your body. You are literally being ‘fed’ lies that you are inadequate everywhere you look.
Think about what you would say to a child of yours that was feeling this right now. Would you make them get up and run, or would you help them rest and honor what their body was needing? Bodies will respond better and heal faster if we treat them with kindness. No growth or healing happens with being forceful or pushing.
Allow yourself to listen to inspiring podcasts, read books about body kindness, cry, or call a friend. Think about all the things that your body has allowed you to do—hike mountains, fall in love, get through graduate school, birth a child, listen to beautiful music–but don’t force yourself to try to believe things that don’t resonate with you.
Ask your body what it’s needing from you right now—is rest, acceptance, gentle movement, appreciation?—and see if you can give your body what it’s asking for without judgment. If you need help with how to begin the healing process, reach out for a free 20 minute phone consultation. Therapy is one of the most powerful tools for rewiring your brain.
5. Remember that when you are feeling inferior, you are in a trance.
Our simple, breathing bodies are gifts. Naomi Wolf writes, “You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all. The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.”
To free ourselves from the caste system, we must see the bigger picture. The bigger picture reveals that this moment is a miracle, and it is also impermanent. When we are not dumbstruck and overwhelmed with awe, we are disconnected from the great mystery of consciousness. We can experience beauty simply by watching our breath crystalize in the cool spring air, listening to a birdsong outside our window, or tasting the brilliant dance of flavors in a sip of earl grey tea. We don’t need an ‘able body’ or an ‘attractive body’ to be amazed by existence.
In a matter of years, the vessel that you inhabit and are so hard on will no longer be here. But for now, you are alive. Mary Oliver writes, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
Take the world into your arms, however imperfect you think they are, and challenge the world to truly see you.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing online in Colorado and Florida. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist women practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.