“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, or concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of Death and Dying
It is ironic that the author of the book Death and Dying seems to speak so directly to women with body image problems who believe that their lives will miraculously be transformed when they achieve the external facade of the perfect body that they relentlessly pursue. The myth that anyone can achieve model thinness if they only try hard enough actually promotes low self-esteem, feelings of failure, and puts us at war with our bodies.
Promises of thinness, popularity, health and beauty, fuel our fantasies. None of us is immune from society’s messages. None of us can escape being bombarded by blitz of advertisements, beauty products and diet aids. By high school graduation, the average American teenager will have been bombarded by approximately 350,000 commercials. Bodies sculpted and buffed to perfection invade our everyday lives on the pages of magazines, on our televisions and movie screens and even billboards on our highways. The 35-billion-dollar diet industry fuels a mentality that plants self-doubt in even the most confident among us. As news journalist Eric Sevareid once said, “The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles or television. It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety.”
So, how do we make peace with ourselves and our bodies? We first need to recognize that how we treat ourselves has a tremendous impact on our overall self-image and self-esteem. Many of our beliefs and feelings about our bodies are formed by experiences we had and decisions we made when we were very young. No matter how much weight we may lose or how successful we may become, we tend to cling to those early images as a part of how we perceive ourselves.
Body image is a complex concept. It simply is not possible to loathe the body you inhabit and feel good about yourself. Body image and identity issues are woven closely together. How you look to yourself in your mind’s eye, how you believe others perceive you, and how you feel “living” in your own body help determine who you are. Contrary to what the image-makers would like us to believe, research shows that a healthy body image in females is correlated, not with a physical attractiveness, but with high self-esteem.
Give yourself the gift of self-acceptance! Perhaps it is not fat but, rather, neglect and abuse of the body that is the enemy. Practice self-care and nurturing as a way of life and listen to your body’s signals and sensations instead of what the latest diet “expert” has to say. Try it for a while and notice if your body begins to be nice back to you.
Here are some suggestions to help you get on the road to being as good to yourself as you probably are to others in your life.
- STOP calling yourself negative names. Catch yourself whenever you find yourself defining who you are in harsh or critical terms. Find a positive label that will replace your old body image label that is so punishing. Make sure the word is one that gives you a “lift” and makes you feel good.
- Give your energy and attention to meaningful life goals no matter what you weigh.
- Think of yourself as your own “best friend.” Treat yourself accordingly.
- Remind yourself that the images you see in the media are totally unrealistic for the average person to attain. For celebrities, buffing, sculpting and dieting their bodies into submission is their “day” job and they have a whole support staff to help them.
- Use the mirror to appreciate, not punish, yourself. Before you look in the mirror, practice letting your eyes relax. DO NOT narrow your eyes – close them and then open them very wide several times. Feel your eyes relax. Think of “softening” your eyes and only then look at yourself in the mirror. Start with looking yourself in the eye and give yourself a friendly greeting. Next begin to widen your scope of vision to include your entire self. DO NOT focus on any one body part. Conceptualize yourself as a whole person. Do this a few times a day and remind yourself of your new body image word as you do so.
- Keep yourself surrounded by people who love and appreciate who you are – not because you have met certain conditions to be worthy of their approval or love. At the same time, reduce your interactions with family members or acquaintances who are negative or critical of you. You DO have control over your environment.
- Set appropriate boundaries with people who comment on your weight or your body. Letting others know that you feel hurt by their assessment or that they are violating your personal boundaries is not only okay, but NECESSARY for your survival. Imagine that you have an invisible line around you. Inside the perimeter are all of your good feelings. Make a decision not to let anything critical or demeaning inside of that boundary.
- Learn to please yourself. No one can please everyone all of the time so stop trying.
- Give up whatever fantasy you have about how your life will be different when you just “lose enough weight,” “fit into the clothes I wore when I was 18,” “look like the models in the advertisements,” etc. Start living your life NOW. Don’t put off whatever you need to do to make yourself happy. Start living and stop fantasizing.
- Make sure you add relaxation breathing and physical movement of any kind to your daily routine. The breathing helps you stay calm and also centers and grounds you in your body. Physical movement also connects you to your body and provides you with a sense of aliveness, energy, and sparkle that will help you love, accept, and nurture yourself.
The assumptions below are FALSE
- Weight loss is to be applauded – the greater the loss, the greater the praise.
In reality, weight loss often triggers binge-eating, weight gain, anorexia, mood swings, and emotional distress and 90% of those who lose more than 25 pounds will regain the weight within two years.
- Anyone should be able to lose weight if strongly enough motivated.
This perspective promotes blame and shame and ignores acceptance of different body types or learning to listen to one’s body needs and signals.
- An ideal body weight is possible to achieve.
Ideal body weight does not exist. A healthy weight range is more attainable than one number on the scale. We now know that health is determined by many factors other than weight: social connections, attitude, pleasure, play and a sense of purpose in life.
- Interventions based on blame, shame and starvation are effective in weight loss.
Actually these interventions set up a destructive cycle of failure. Unconditional acceptance of oneself and others leads to nurturing self-care, optimism and a greater likelihood of making healthier choices. Because mind, body and spirit are all involved in the process of healing, a mind that is harsh may cause the spirit to falter and the body to refuse to cooperate.
Written By: Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, CEDS, F.iaedp, Vice President, Professional Development, The Renfrew Center Foundation www.renfrewcenter.com