Simply defined, body image is the way we see and think about our physical appearance and how we feel in our bodies. While the definition sounds simple enough, it is a complex and completely subjective experience. The complexity lies in our perception of our body weight, size and shape as opposed to the actual weight, size and shape. There is a direct link between body image and self-esteem. Self-esteem relates to the global attitudes we have about ourselves, such as interests, opinions, talents, skills, resources, confidence and abilities.
Fostering and maintaining a healthy body image in today’s culture is a struggle, but it is crucial work. I say crucial, because problems with body image and body dissatisfaction predisposes one for being at risk to developing disordered eating patterns and full-blown eating disorders, which are serious and sometimes fatal psychological disorders.
While poor body image is always a mask for unexpressed emotions and a crisis in self-image and identity, we cannot ignore our sound-byte, image-driven world that is clearly obsessed with the relentless pursuit of thinness, sexualized, sculpted bodies, stereotypical beauty and the worship of maintaining a youthful appearance at all costs. Everywhere we look people are plugged in to technology and exposed to increasingly larger and tinier omnipresent screens disseminating a multitude of messages rife with unrealistic enhanced images, pressures and expectations.
The barrage of media messages and ensuing peer pressure mightily fuels a poor body image, as does our personal history. How do we navigate the emotional content of our lives when we have to contend with the real human experiences of difficult transitions such as geographical moves, divorce, changing jobs, a new school, physical changes due to puberty, aging, medical problems, surgery, injuries, physical and sexual abuse, teasing by friends and family? People will unconsciously avoid the feelings that accompany these stressful events and project them onto their bodies. For example, instead of feeling angry at someone and directly dealing with that anger and situation, they project it inwards and wage war on their body by feeling ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ or some other experience of self-hatred and self-loathing.
A negative body image expresses itself in a myriad of ways: The person may experience a distorted perception of body shape and size; they may see fat where there is none, and flaws that do not actually exist; they may feel that others are constantly scrutinizing and judging how they look, and place excessive importance on physical appearance. This is often accompanied by repeated body checking, weighing, measuring and trying clothes on. In some cases, there is an attempt to hide their size and shape by wearing loose fitting or bulky layers of clothes. They may avoid social situations in an attempt to modulate their feelings of shame, embarrassment and self-consciousness.
So how do we learn to love and accept our bodies exactly as they are? How do we make peace with our genetic makeup and find compassion for ourselves to age gracefully, avoiding the plastic surgeon’s knife, fat burners and the Botox needle? How do we remember that we are much more than our bodies, that in fact we are also beautiful, spiritual, creative and emotional beings? And most importantly, how do we for once and for all confront the wicked witch in Disney’s Snow White and counter with, "Mirror, mirror what you cannot reveal is that real beauty is an inner deal!”
Here are a few strategies to help get us back to the truth of who we really are, and acceptance of the whole self:
Reconnect with your physical body in a deep and honoring way.
The body actually hears everything you think and say about it. Sadly it often hears a litany of negative messages. If you heard a parent speak to their child the way that you speak to your body, you would be horrified, and yet it is as damaging to yourself to hear these messages. Our spirit shrinks or grows depending on how we communicate with it. Begin to take note of the negative messages you give it, you might be surprised at how vicious and rejecting you are with this wonderful vehicle that carries you through your hours, days and years. Create a new, kinder and more loving script for your body; thank it for the way it serves you on a daily basis. Speak to it in soothing and comforting ways, especially the parts you find difficult to accept or have completely disowned.
Listen attentively to the messages that your body is sending you when it is warm, cold, tired, scared or hungry and respond in a nurturing manner. Give yourself a daily hug, swap shoulder and foot massages with friends or family members and treat yourself to a full body massage when possible.
The body is very wise, for example it has a set-point weight which refers to a stable weight range that it will maintain when you try not to control it. Set-point can fluctuate between 5 to 10 pounds for most individuals. If you are over or under your set-point, your body will undergo physiological and emotional changes to restore itself.
Remind yourself that 90% of your body functions occur unconsciously; the beating of your heart, the metabolism of food, the regeneration of skin and cells. The body will appreciate your acknowledgment of the miracle it truly is.
Embrace your emotional content.
Begin to identify and name your feelings as they arise, they are a valuable guidance system. Emotional suppression is a pattern that is often passed down in families. See if you can stay with a difficult feeling without running away from it by converting it into a frustration to be taken out on your body. I often ask my clients where they feel different emotions in their body and they usually know and can quickly point to the area. Monitor when your "I’m not good enough” voice is playing in your head or the "perfectionist” is activated. Ask yourself what it is you are really feeling, what triggered that feeling, and how you will get yourself through it. Staying with a difficult feeling and expressing it in a healthy manner is key to developing a positive body image and leads to improved self-esteem because we are able to act upon the message that the feeling is trying to give us. For example, anger and resentment shows us that something in our life requires adjustment.
Experiment with different tools and resources to process your feelings such as journaling, painting, clay, hammer and nails, woodworking, physical exercise, listening to or playing music and talking to a trusted friend, counselor or family member. Remember that your feelings do not define you, they are legitimate so don’t attempt to talk yourself out of feeling them or try to change them. Each emotion brings a gift if you are willing to work through it. As you become more skilled in assessing your feelings and working through them, you will notice they come in layers and it is a process of distillation. You may notice for instance that you are anxious, and when you go deeper you recognize you feel shame and further exploration leads you to some deep sadness. Author and psychiatrist, Dr. Scott Peck posits that what lies at the heart of all emotions are the two basic feeling states of love or fear. Our self-esteem grows proportionately to our ability to feel our emotions, release our judgments about them and feel gratitude for the guidance they offer.
Reclaim your spiritual self.
Our spiritual self is the aspect of us that is connected to the source of creation, God/Goddess/Source. Each of us has that divine spark; by our very birthright we are innately spiritual beings. Our bodies are imbued and nourished with spiritual energy and guidance. We have unlimited access to inspiration, energy, ideas, intuition and passion which gives our lives meaning and purpose.
Throughout antiquity, cultures have embraced spiritual truths. Whether we experience our spirituality through organized religion or a myriad of other sacred traditions, guidance is always available if we are open to receiving it. It is a strong, steady, constant presence that allows us to hear our deepest yearnings and feels true peace.
A poor body image is an indication that the spiritual self has been ignored and invalidated. In Western Culture, it is particularly challenging to connect with our spiritual selves because we emphasize the physical body and the intellect. Sometimes poor self-esteem, unprocessed anger, shame, fear and confusion make us feel as though we are disconnected from it; this is an illusion. It is important to realize that we are never actually separated from our spiritual selves.
Take stock of your spiritual beliefs. Notice which myths, stories and lessons from your past make you feel empowered and those you feel have harmed you or no longer serve you. Create a script of beliefs that work for you now and create time to honor them.
Reconnecting with your spiritual self can occur through meditation, solitude, mindfulness practice, chanting, ecstatic or sacred dance, prayer, church and being in nature. When we give space and time for this practice, we begin to hear the voice of guidance and compassion. We are empowered to accept ourselves and step into the exciting exploration of how best to express our unique talents in this amazing gift of life. We are able to gaze into the eyes of others with compassion and respect and see reflected back to us non-judgment and unconditional love.
The development of a positive body image results in improved self-esteem, energy, vitality and loving self-appraisal. We can experience ourselves as truly attractive in the integrated sense rather than a one-dimensional externalized appearance. A positive body image means we can trust, appreciate and respect our bodies and experience a freedom of expression that liberates us from the shackles of the weigh scale and the tyranny of the mirror.
By Jacqueline Gautier, M.A., R.C.C.