How do you nurture a better body image?
There’s so much to explore here, but before we dive deep into the topic of better body image, I’d like you to first think about how you describe yourself?
Would you start off naming things like your height, hair color, body size, gender, and your line of work?
Or, would you start off naming things like:
What drives you,
What gives you pause,
What and who you’d stand up for, or
How you take care of yourself when you’re running on empty?
In other words, would you describe yourself as who you are beyond your looks and beyond your physical body? Or, would you describe yourself based on your physical, external traits, i.e., things that relate to your body image?
Now, why does this matter for you and in nurturing a better body image?
Because beginning to get to know and appreciate who you are and what you value is (I’d say) some of the most pivotal work in nurturing a better body image that you can ever do.
Because you’re beginning to think less about your body and more about your BEING.
Can you see the difference?
This is so important because what we know is that the more we think about our body, generally speaking, the worse we’ll feel about our body. It’s also important because in our culture we often think having a positive body image means we love our bodies so incredibly much. And while that’s really nice, the thing is, our bodies are going to change as we move throughout different ages, stages, and phases of life. So, if we’re putting all of our worth on our weight and deriving our sense of self from our external looks, then we’re going to end up pretty distraught. Because bodies change. They age. They get wrinkly. They develop more cellulite. Our thighs get bigger. We have stretch marks and rolls and dimples and pimples and the list goes on and on. Not to mention, for many, getting to the place of “loving your body” may not happen. But getting to the place of body neutrality and body respect absolutely can happen.
Instead of striving to love our bodies, it can be a much more powerful, healing, and possible experience to learn how to BE WITH our changing bodies and even more importantly, our changing selves.
Because just like you’re not the same person you were at 22, your body is not the same body it was at 22 – and that’s a privilege. This – the connecting to the deeper parts of you – the who you are in a body is work that for many can be profound. Because when we can do this we begin to find worth and meaning outside of our body size and physical appearance. And that’s the stuff that’ll matter in the end. (In my opinion).
Now, you may be thinking – How do I begin actually doing that? How do I begin learning how to “be with” my body? Because that sounds really nice and all, but how does this actually happen?
Well, it takes time. It takes patience. It takes mindfullness. It takes loads of self-compassion and the ability to look inwards. And for most, it usually takes getting support.
But the thing is it can be done. You can begin to nurture a more positive body image and here’s the key part….without ever intentionally trying to lose weight or change your body.
Nurturing a better body image and kinder relationship with your body
While every individual’s experience in forming a kinder relationship with their body looks different and is incredibly nuanced, there are a two things that can, for the most part, be helpful. Those two things are 1.) Getting to know your values and living them; 2.) Actively respecting your body.
I’ll share more of what those two things actually look like in just a moment, but before I do, it may be really helpful to understand a few key points about body image.
First? What does body image even mean?
Body image: How an individual feels IN their body. In other words, it’s the way you individually experience the body you have.
And if you think about this for a moment, I bet you’ll also come to see another key point about body image. That point? That body image isn’t stable. It changes frequently and moves around, just like our emotions. So it’s helpful to understand that cultivating a gentle curiosity around challenging body image moments can be incredibly helpful. Thinking about what happened to bring up those challenging feelings and also, bigger picture, what else is going on in your life that may have added to these feelings?
For example, you may have seen a photo of yourself that you really don’t like and bigger picture, over the past few days you’ve been surrounded by individuals talking about dieting and your body size/their body size. Plus, you’ve been feeling unheard by your partner and friends, and you’ve felt so much chaos in your life that you’ve been constantly eating on-the-go and haven’t had any time to take care of yourself, e.g., moving your body, getting enough rest, or having a sense of calm around your meals.
Zooming in: the photo of yourself emotionally triggered you. Zooming out: the bigger pictures items in your life caused the photo to emotionally trigger you so much. So the work may lie in – How can we begin putting some helpful boundaries around photo viewing and how can we begin chipping away at making the bigger picture items in your life less emotionally taxing (your feeling of chaos, not being heard, etc.)? What boundaries need to go there?
Other key points about body image:
Having a positive body image doesn’t mean you’ll never have a challenging body image moment (after all, you’re human!) and,
Body image work is ever-changing, ever-evolving work because our bodies are every-changing & ever-evolving & so are our experiences in them,
Nurturing a better body image is active, mindful work (meaning to feel better in and more connected with your body, action is required),
You don’t ever have to love your body to have a stronger relationship with your body, but you do need to learn how to kindly BE with your body, and
Ironically, a positive body image has less to do with liking your body or looks and more to do with understanding & respecting who you are IN your body.
As I mentioned earlier, every individual’s experience in forming a kinder relationship with their body is going to look different and is incredibly nuanced. However, there are two things that generally speaking, in my professional experience, have been really helpful for clients doing body image work. Those two things are 1.) Getting to know your values and living them; 2.) Actively respecting your body.
Let’s explore what those two things actually mean…
Nurturing a Better Body Image Tool #1: Getting to Know Your Values
To better know yourself, it’s helpful to know your core values (at this time in your life). And then, the really neat stuff happens when we begin looking at if you’re living a life that’s aligned with your values.
For example, if nature is a core value of mine, yet I never walk or sit in nature, am surrounded by nature, or do things to help protect the environment, then I’m not living aligned with my values. If autonomy (the right to govern myself and make my own decisions) is one of my core values, yet I’m following a diet that has stifled my autonomy, then I’m not living aligned with my core value of autonomy. And finally, one more example, if fun is a core value of mine, but I can’t remember the last time I did anything I felt was fun, then again, I’m going to feel like something is off because I’m not living aligned with my values.
This feeling that something is off relates to the experience of cognitive dissonance. Which is when you believe or value one thing, but your actions don’t align with your belief or value. And when we experience this, we usually experience mental discomfort.
We can see this really well with someone who values alone time, yet they can’t remember the last time they had any alone time. Or with someone who values uniqueness and beauty, yet they never allow themselves to wear accessories or clothing items they find unique or beautiful because they think their body isn’t the right shape or size.
Uncovering your core values as a human and living them – despite whatever messages you’ve received about your body, yourself or food – can be incredibly liberating. And this work can have you understanding more about who you are as a HUMAN (and focusing less on who you are in a body).
Think about it – What are your core values? And what actions in your life would show that you’re living them? And, what would it look like if you started applying your core values to making peace with food and your body? In other words, if self-acceptance was a core value of yours and you’re struggling with accepting your body, what would be one tiny action, mindset shift, or thing that would maybe allow you to show your body more self-acceptance?
Nurturing a Better Body Image Tool #2: Respecting Your Body
A second thing to explore here is what it would look like for you to respect your body?
You see, you don’t have to love your body to respect your body. However, respecting your body can help you feel less awful in your body and overtime, can help you feel more neutral and maybe even more compassionate towards your body, which is a major win!
Because remember, you’re in a relationship with your body, and if you’re not respecting it by feeding it, moving it, resting it, listening to it, and so forth, well then, my sweet friend, it’s really challenging to develop a more positive relationship with your body.
If we think back to the beginning of this piece, we know that body image work is active work.
What I mean by this is that it takes effort to nurture a better body image. And that effort will look different for you based on the day, your energy level and how you’re feeling.
“Active body image work” may look like:
Practicing and working on attunement with your body (feeding your body what it really wants to eat when it’s hungry and honoring your body when it’s full),
Setting boundaries with people in your life who make you feel worse about your body,
Working with a therapist and/or dietitian skilled in body image work to help untangle and dismantle old unhelpful stories and beliefs,
Asking not to be weighed at the doctors office (or doing a blind weight, where you can’t see or know the number),
Practicing self-compassion and self-soothing in a self-caring way, and/or
Getting support to develop healthier coping mechanisms for challenging emotions and body image moments.
Gaining clarity on why you’re feeling how you’re feeling can be incredibly healing and then acting in a way that’s aligned with your values and where you want to go in your relationship with food and your body can be liberating. Yes, it’s challenging work, but also, in the end, with practice, patience, and lots of trail and error it’s also really beautiful work.
In sum, we often think that we have to love our bodies or like our bodies, before we can respect them, but that’s not helpful in building a better body image. In fact, it can prevent you from building a better relationship with your body. And most importantly, in learning how to “be with” your body.
The truth is that you may never “love” or “like” your body, but the other truth is that you have a body. So what would it look like if you began to respect the body you were given? What would it look like to be kind to your body? Just the way it is.
What would change for you then, if you stopped trying to shrink your body? If you began to connect more with who you are in a body and your values instead of what you look like in your body?
Because again, all bodies change. And if we put all of our worth on something that is constantly changing, then we’re going to be left pretty disappointed. But, we’ll never be disappointed if we begin to lead a life that’s aligned with our values and if we learn step by step to gently, the best we can with where we are and what we have to respect our bodies.
Connect with who you are in a BODY more than who you are as a body.
Mantra: I am choosing to think less about my body and more about my being.