Helpful steps for improving your body image
Healing body image distress is not a quick fix, but a process that takes time, patience, and self-compassion. If the people close to you are also struggling with their body image, it can be tough to move beyond self-criticism, fixation, and shame. A body image counsellor can provide support, understanding, helpful tools, and guidance. Here are some steps that you can take yourself to move towards a better relationship with your body.
Improving your body image: Steps you can try now
Broaden your social media Feed
Seeing a constant stream of the same kind of body represented in the media over and over impacts how we view bodies that fall outside of this cultural ideal. We are presented with an 'ideal body' that is thin, white, tall, young, able bodied, cis, heterosexual, athletic, affluent... and any bodies that exist outside this are considered problems to be solved.
As a part of my work as a body image educator and speaker, I regularly show students a particular advertisement that breaks stereotypes and displays men with average, everyday bodies in underwear. Every time I show this video the students gasp and giggle - and then we discuss why. It can be shocking to see 'real' looking bodies on screen because we so rarely do.
We need to see diversity. Our eyes need to see the full spectrum of human bodies. Only then are we likely to understand our bodies are not a problem or a project. We can see all bodies as perfectly normal and human (including our own). One of the positive things about social media is that we have control over the curation. We can broaden our feed by: following a diverse range of people (with a diverse range of experiences as well as appearances); filling it with accounts aligned with our values; learning from body image activists; and follow causes and organisations you support. Your feed does not have to reinforce the cultural ideals.
Social media cleanse
Whilst you're adding to your social media content, it's also important to get rid of the repeat offender accounts who post content that makes you feel bad about yourself. Unfollow, unfriend, hide, or block the brands or people who share posts that:
- Cause you to feel 'less than', or like your body is a problem that needs fixing
- Reinforce the thin ideal, weight bias, 'thinspiration', #Fitspo and the beauty myth
- Encourage you to constantly compare yourself to others, rather than embracing individuality
- Promote diets, weight loss, 'cleanses', and share before and after photos
- Perpetuate "good" vs "bad" food messaging
- Trigger self-judgement, self-criticism, and shame
Focus instead on accounts that empower you and lift you up, rather than dragging you down.
Recognise, understand, and challenge cultural messaging & ideals
Think for a moment about the most desired and admired body in Renaissance Italy versus the 1920's flapper times, the Victorian era versus 1960's Twiggy versus our athletic body culture now. Body ideals change. They are shaped by a multitude of influences, but the fact that they change supports that there is no inherent and true 'best body'. Body ideals are socially contrived. Understanding these ideals and the messages that perpetuate them is an important step in being able to recognise them for what they are, critically evaluate them, and then choose to reject them. Without examining cultural messaging we are doomed to be trapped by it.
Check out the work of fat activists like Virgie Tovar, Sonya Renee Taylor, Jes Baker, Your Fat Friend, and Lindy West. Read Body Respect by Linda Bacon & Lucy Aphramor, Body of Truth by Harriet Brown, Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. Powerfully illuminating.
Are you persisting with clothes that are too tight in the hope that you'll soon lose weight? If we are enduring a waist band that digs in, bra straps that cut into our skin, dresses that restrict our breathing, jeans that strangle us when we sit down, or underwear that rides up, it is so difficult to feel comfortable in our body. It is challenging to live peacefully within our body and become embodied if we are continually reminded of it in a negative, uncomfortable way. Clothes that fit well are a relief, and help us to let go of constant self-judgement. You deserve to have clothes that fit you well in this present moment. If the cost is putting you off, check out second-hand stores or clothing swap events. If you feel really brave, sorting through your wardrobe and donating any clothes that are too small can be very cathartic when complete (although challenging during so make sure you have some supports and coping tools on standby).
Create a coping tool box
It is common to 'displace' negative feelings onto our bodies. So if we're struggling with difficult thoughts, emotions, or problems we may channel these painful experiences into something more routine and familiar, like body dissatisfaction. Have you ever noticed that some days you're not even thinking much about your body, and then wham! you suddenly feel awful about your weight or appearance for a few days or weeks, and then it passes again? Your body distress may be triggered by other difficulties in your life. Having a wide range of coping tools for all kinds of problems can help (in many areas of our life, not just our body image!).
Think about all the things that help you to feel calmer, more centred, safer, or more you. Maybe it's doing something creative, spending some time outdoors, patting a pet, enjoying some movement, connecting with a friend, doing a mindful activity, listening to music... there are no correct answers, just individual preferences. For me, I need conversations with close friends, time with my dog Franky, walking in nature, time at home to do nothing, and singing in my car (see, it's individual!). It's totally ok if one of your coping tools is a glass of wine, numbing out in front of Netflix, online shopping, or eating - it becomes problematic when it's our only coping tool. When we have a wide range of ways to cope, we are less likely to become dependent on just one.
When you are having a tough time, or feeling low, it's time to put the coping tool box to use!
surround yourself with supportive people
Healing your relationship with your body is easier when you have some people around you who 'get it'. Whether they too are in the process of rejecting appearance ideals, and working on their own body image, or if they are already fabulous role-models of self-acceptance, you need people who you can talk to about these concepts. This can be difficult to find considering how deeply entrenched our culture is in the thin ideal and diet culture. You might feel like some kind of weirdo for wanting to learn how to respect your body and yourself without conditions if you haven't found a bubble of radical self-acceptance. If you don't have friends or family who get it, I encourage you to join Facebook groups filled with such people. I highly recommend our group The Moderation Movement for a tribe who will understand and support you.
Learn about and practice self-compassion
Self-compassion is an absolute game changer. It is an antidote to self-criticism and self-judgement, and enables us to stop fearing our humanity and start embracing it. If you're concerned that self-compassion is self-indulgent you needn't worry - it helps improve your compassion for others. If you're concerned you'll never improve without your inner critic, please know the research says otherwise. You're more inclined to challenge yourself and try new things if you're not afraid of failing, and you'll reduce your stress hormones too. Self-compassion allows us space to be imperfect and truly know that it's not only ok, that's what brings us closer to others - we're all in this together. You can find out more about self-compassion via Dr. Kristin Neff's work, or read my Beginners Guide to Self-Compassion for an introduction to her work.
Strengths & Values work
Think about what's most important in life for you. What and who do you love? What thrills you, moves you, gives you a sense of purpose? What makes you you? I'm guessing appearance and weight didn't feature in your answers. I'm guessing you thought about values, strengths, character, connection, meaning. Really getting in touch with our strengths and values can help to remind us of what is truly important to us and what we really want in our lives. It can help to take the focus off the superficial and refocus on the authentic. It can help us heal our relationship with our body.
If you would like support in improving your body image, please get in touch as I'd love to work with you.