Cultivating Self-Compassion to Build a Positive Body Image
When it comes to our bodies and appearance, we’re usually our own toughest critic. Let’s face it, if you talked to your friends the way you talked to yourself about your body, you probably would have few if any friends.
We all begin forming an image of ourselves in early childhood, and that perception continues to change into and throughout adulthood. Throughout our lives, we are bombarded daily by media images that objectify human bodies. Countless studies have shown that images seen in the media and on social media can impact how we feel about ourselves and lead to negative body image. Media effects our societal values and ideas, and is driven by money and advertising. Advertisers sell products to us by using unrealistic ideals of what we should look like and prey on our insecurities. Although we are now seeing more body diversity in the media, thanks to the body positivity movement, we still have a long way to go to change our toxic cultural environment that places a high value on thinness and beauty.
Negative body image can be compounded by receiving painful body shaming comments throughout our lives — from a gym teacher saying you need to lose weight because of where you fall on a BMI chart to a family member or classmate making fun of a part of your body. Whatever your age, bullying, weight stigma and discrimination based on one’s size or appearance are stressful experiences, which can lead to negative psychological and physical health effects.
In fact, suffering from negative body image can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with weight loss and may trigger an eating disorder for someone who is genetically predisposed. Poor body image also corrodes one’s self-esteem and negatively impacts self-confidence. It has also been shown to contribute to depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, relationship issues, and substance-abuse issues.
Sadly, the majority of people are very negatively judgmental about their own bodies. According to Brené Brown, the number one shame trigger – that is being triggered to feel like you (or your body) are not enough – for women is appearance and body image, and it’s up there for men too. Negative and destructive thoughts that indicate you are suffering from negative body image are, “I’m so fat and disgusting,” or “I hate my __________,” or “I’ll never look at ____________ as her.” Or, you may spend hours in front of the mirror scrutinizing every inch of your body, performing a mental survey of cosmetic surgeries you feel you need.
Self-compassion has been proven to be effective to alleviate the experience of pain and suffering from negative body image and promotes self-acceptance.
How self-compassion fosters a positive body image
Self-compassion helps us to be more aware of how we feel. When we take the attention off how we look, we open ourselves up to being more aware of how we feel emotionally and physically. Oftentimes, when we are feeling overwhelmed or anxious about a situation in our lives, we distract ourselves and focus on our body and try to control it because we feel out of control in another area of our life.
Practice mindfulness: When we become more mindful of how we feel, we can then guide ourselves to nourish our hearts, bodies, and minds in giving ourselves what we need. By attuning to our emotional hunger and physical hunger, we can better care for ourselves. For instance, we can identify how we feel emotionally and respond appropriately instead of using food to comfort, punish or numb ourselves. Learning to distinguish the difference between emotional and physical hunger allows us to listen to our bodies when it’s time to feed our bodies and when we’ve had enough.
Self-compassion helps us appreciate our body’s abilities. At its root, self-compassion revolves around care, love, and respect for our bodies. When we recognize our body as an extraordinary vessel that is filled with an abundance of love and power, we allow ourselves to fuel it with appreciation.
Show yourself kindness: The next time you find it difficult to rid yourself of negative self-thoughts, respond to yourself the same way you’d respond to a dear friend if they were having those thoughts, or use these kind words to build a positive relationship with your body: ”I love that my hips allowed me to bear two children,” or “I love that my legs allow me to dance with my friends,” or more generally, “I love all that my body does for me.”
Self-compassion minimizes self-punishment. When we feel shame, we feel that we are unworthy and deserve to be punished. When it comes to our bodies, this might show itself in the form of eating disorder behaviors, physical self-harming or abusing substances.
Show yourself kindness: There is a saying, “Be careful what you say to yourself because you are listening.” Our very own thoughts serve as the foundation of our body image, which is why it is crucial to be aware of the conversations we have with ourselves by practicing kindness instead of engaging in destructive, negative self-talk. When thoughts of how much you dislike your body show up, show your body kindness rather than punish it. For example, if you don’t like the way your abdomen looks, gently massaging it with your favorite lotion or placing your hands on your abdomen and feel the warmth and care flowing from your hands to you this part of your body, and appreciate all that your abdomen does for you.
Self-compassion fosters acceptance over comparison. In the words of the caring Iyanla Vanzant: “Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” It’s easy to look at someone’s “perfect body” or “perfect life” and compare it to our own when we are unaware of the journey they’ve gone through in their own lives. Self-compassion allows us to acknowledge that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities.
Explore your common humanity: Recognize that every person — even those who have what we define as an ideal body or who seem to have all the confidence in the world — has also experienced at some time insecurities and doubts about the way they look. It’s important to understand and acknowledge that you are not alone. When we recognize the common experience we all share in this way, it lessens the pain we feel because it makes us realize we are not isolated by this particular experience of suffering. When you find yourself engaging with a thought of comparison, respond to yourself by saying, “It’s human to compare myself to others people. Like me, most people feel bad about themselves when they compare themselves to others, but it really is ok for me to be my own kind of beautiful.”
By practicing self-compassion you can shift negative body image to positive body image and learn to accept yourself just as you are, right now. As you begin to focus less on your appearance and befriend yourself and your body, you free up your mental energy to focus on living your best life.