I will admit, a fair amount of my time is spent contemplating my body. Evaluating if I am thinner, more muscular, thicker, fatter. Contemplating how I might change, control, or otherwise cope with the curves, dimples, roundedness, and rolls. Some days I feel perfectly content, for the time being. Realizing that my body is capable, strong, slender enough, and sufficient. Other days, I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Feeling inadequate, bloated, or feeling guilty about that ice cream I ate for the last 3 nights in a row. I know I am not alone in this mild obsession. I have listened to women lament, criticize, and grieve about their bodies and the bodies of other women. It is time to dig deep and discuss the more sinister topic of body image and self-esteem. In this article we will explore the 7 healthy ways to handle body image & low self-esteem.
Let’s Talk About Fat, Baby!
It is no secret that our society bombards us with an unrealistic and often times harmful ideals of the feminine physique. Over the last 10 years, there have been many articles slashing at the media industry, Hollywood, sexualization of women, and cultural “fat shaming.” We seem to be on the same page, generally speaking: body image issues are pervasive and are a direct result of socialization. Socializing by media images, subtle (or not so subtle) cues from family, and from our peers.
However, the effects of socialization are observed in our inner thoughts and feelings about ourselves. Our self-esteem, particularly for women, is often times the outcome of feedback we receive about our appearance, whether directly or indirectly. “Are we fit enough? Pretty enough? Thin enough?” We see others rewarded for their vanity and we think that if only we looked a certain way, perhaps we would be deserving as well. Or maybe we may have heard harsh words from friends or family growing up, internalizing a core belief that we are unacceptable just as we are. It becomes a vicious cycle. A cycle of guilt, shame, dieting, extreme exercising, falling off the wagon, vowing to start again. This cycle feeds the struggle with self-esteem, strengthening our false core beliefs rather than challenging them.
According to one study conducted at the University of Central Florida, lower self-esteem is strongly linked to lower body satisfaction and is correlated to comparing oneself to peers (1). This seems pretty intuitive. Looking outward for validation is, in many cases, automatic and leads to feeling like we don’t measure up. I can attest to this feeling. If I am surrounded by images of women of varying shapes and appearances, I feel much less concerned about my own appearance. But when I see images of perfectly fit or skinny and petite women, I feel a bit more insecure.
Why do we feel the need?
So if comparison to others is the core of low body image and self-esteem, why do we continue to do it? One explanation is that we want to be viewed by others as good as or better than everyone else. This competitive concept of self is based in socio-cultural evolutionary theory. The idea is that those who are more rapidly advancing as social beings (think money, belonging, social survival, family), are adept, and will “be fruitful and multiply.” If we fail to evolve and succeed in social circles and in the community at large, we are shunned and stigmatized. A harsh result producing deep wounds. Even more so, the level of pressure we feel to conform to social standards of “success” (ie the perfect fit body) may perpetuate our seeking of social approval (2).
Women are very socially adept creatures. We intuitively can sense distress in others. We are more likely to build social supports as a means to ease the burdens of life or to solve problems. Women also tend to be keenly aware of details, in themselves and others. We notice when someone (or ourselves) have put on a few pounds, looks tired, looks upset. We also quickly place judgement on those traits we observe as being more or less valuable. Our instinct can serve or harm us, depending on the values we choose to uphold.
Finally, comparison also tends to be a natural means to keep a person working towards a specific goal. We may look to others as a measuring stick so that we can evaluate if we are meeting our goals or not. This isn’t always a bad thing, but the difficulty is being able to use this as a tool rather than a source of personal worth.
You’re Beautiful, It’s True
Whatever the cause of our underlying self-esteem struggles, the way we feel about our bodies can be influence by conscious choices and actions. If you notice that any of this article thus far has struck a chord or you find yourself yelling “YES, TOTALLY!!” then let’s talk more about how we can tackle these century-in-the-making cultural values of image.
1. Find and connect with your inner goddess.
Your inner being is a far better measurement of your worth and value than your outer appearance. Truly, the traits of kindness, compassion, strength, humor, or intelligence have more social value than whether or not you can do 1000 squats or break a bottle over your washboard abs. Even just for your own personal life, the beautiful goddess inside is what determines how you survive and thrive in your everyday challenges.
2. Be open to a new perspective on body image.
The standards of body image are not exactly realistic or even possible for everyone. In fact, even within one person’s life, they are not going to have the same body composition. The lack of flexibility to adapt one’s perspective of beauty is a recipe for heartache. Allow yourself to see the things you once viewed as “flaws” as your uniqueness. New wrinkle or freckle? Accept it. Age old problem area you have always struggled with? Take the path of least resistance and don’t try to change it. Body image does not need to be an ideal to which we aspire. It could just mean accepting where we are.
3. Wear clothing that fits.
I swear this makes a huge difference in how I feel about my body. When clothing is too snug, it sends a constant message “I’m bigger than I used to be.” Plus it’s just uncomfortable. If you put on a pair of pants that allow you to breathe and be at ease, watch as your mind stops with it’s negative critiques. You may actually feel sexy as hell. Same goes with bras, underwear, etc. And quit hanging on to your “skinny” clothes, hoping you will fit in them again. Let them go. Embrace and dress yourself where you are right now.
4. Notice when you are feeling most insecure.
Tune into the times and experiences that are triggering your inner body critic. Does it happen when you are with certain people? Specific environments? Maybe your feelings arise when you are tired and malnourished? Or right after a huge meal? Notice when you are feeling most vulnerable or self-loathing. You might actually just be responding to something else internally, such as stress about your job, worry about your family, or something else that feels out of control. Also, once you are more aware of what is setting you off, tend to it with kindness and compassion, addressing the root issue. Most likely the feeling will pass and you can just take it at face value.
5. Celebrate and strengthen positive bonds with women.
It isn’t totally a surprise, but a study in 2008 determined that women who hold feminist beliefs tend to have less body shame and worry less about their bodies (3). Understanding the oppressive nature of unfair body expectations and the sexualization of women can help women unite and support each other in their own personal endeavors. Seek to connect with other women who speak out about body image issues, whether authors, friends, family. Generally speaking, having positive views of other women can trickle down to our own feelings about ourselves and vice-versa.
6. Nourish your body and mind.
Feed yourself soul food. Both literal and metaphorical. I can’t imagine feeling good about myself if I am constantly filling myself with junk. In no way am I advocating depriving oneself of treats. But you need to give yourself nutrition to live on! Veggies, smoothies, oats, plenty of water, for example. Read books or listen to podcasts that inspire and nourish your soul. This may also mean abstaining from poison. Quit reading fashion magazines. Quit scrolling through the numerous pictures of random women taking selfies in their workout sports bra and spandex pants. You may be able to tolerate those images without feeling the need to compare, but if these are poisons to your mind, just don’t.
7. Use the power of self-love to transform your beliefs.
Self-love, as introduced in another article I wrote, is more than just a powerful tool. It’s a way of being. Cultivate kindness, compassion, and encouragement toward yourself. This process of of loving yourself can set up the prime conditions to address the false core beliefs that you may still be carrying. False beliefs are usually something we have to uncover and pull apart to understand. One cannot truly find and change those beliefs without a healthy dose of self-love. Build yourself up with positive affirmations, meditations, gentle and kind words. Then try journaling about what you believe at your core about yourself, your body, and where you first learned those beliefs. Evaluate whether or not they are still true and useful beliefs. If they don’t serve you, try denouncing the belief and seek to replace the belief with something more empowering. “I am enough, just as I am.” “I am beautiful.” “All I need is to be myself.” “I care for myself, body and soul.”
Where do you feel you stand on the issue of body image? How have you been able to address the negative cultural standards and body shaming? I would love to here your feedback, comments, and questions. Thank you for reading, and take good care of you!