“It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” ― Patrick Rothfuss
Practicing self-compassion, especially for women when it comes to body image, is not easy. I work on my practice of having a healthy body image on a fairly regular basis, and the “aha” came for me when I stopped trying to get my body “right” and instead focused on getting my mind “right”. You see, you can be a size small, and still think you are fat and not good enough. It is like those funny mirrors at the carnival when you are struggling with body image issues. What you see is not reality, what you see is the self-image you have of yourself in your head. So, the exercise of loving your body doesn’t start at the gym, it starts at the top (your mind) and works its way down to your body.
So, how do we do this work? It really is individual to each person and a good place to start is to think back to childhood. Much of our self-image is rooted in how we were treated and seen by our early attachment figures, which is often our parent or guardian. This is where our core beliefs start to form. The good news is we can challenge the core beliefs that no longer serve us and create new ones. For me, I received mixed messages growing up. I had incredibly encouraging parents who complimented me often and always told me they were proud of me and that I was beautiful. They encouraged athletics and being active (going outside and running around), we ate healthy (the four food groups), and enjoyed sweets and treats in moderation and often, only after we finished our greens. The mixed message came in watching my mom exercise compulsively, eat not much more than salad, take diet pills, and put herself down for how she looked. You know that question that makes our friends and partners roll their eyes; “Does this make me look fat?” That was a common question my mom asked which got me thinking at a young age about the importance of not being fat or being perceived as fat by others. I wish I could say I haven’t asked this question, and that how I felt about myself wasn’t influenced by how I look or how I think others think I look, but at times it is. I have learned that it doesn’t matter how the receiver of this question answers it, it matters how I answer it. So, do I blame my mom for my unhealthy body image? No! Instead, I have compassion for her and wonder where she learned to view her body and self and practice self-compassion for myself.
I am a big fan of Kristin Neff and her work on self-compassion. She outlines three elements of self-compassion and I believe you can apply each element to your practice of learning to love your body from the top down.
1. Self-Kindness – This is being gentle and understanding with ourselves, especially when we fail, make mistakes, and struggle. It is also the knowing that making mistakes and having life difficulties is inevitable. So, when it comes to body image, instead of getting angry at yourself and labeling yourself as “bad” when you ate too much, didn’t exercise, have put on a few pounds, or don’t fit into your favorite pair of pants, challenge yourself to practice self-kindness. A good measure is to think, what you would say to your best friend if they were going through what you were experiencing? Would you call them a fat, loser? Probably not, instead you’d take a gentle and encouraging approach. You may remind them that they are beautiful and that you love them regardless of how they look, and that one extra piece of cake isn’t the end of the world. You may say, “Your body is amazing and strong; remember that bike ride we took last weekend?”
2. Common Humanity – This is “recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. It also means recognizing that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by “external” factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.” You are not alone! Here are some sobering statistics from the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders which exemplifies that body image is a common issue on women’s mind from a young age: (http://www.anad.org/):
- 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.”
- 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
- 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991).
- 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).
The challenge is to not give into the “external” factors and take on the helpless mentality of “I guess I will always hate my body”, “If only mom would have role modeled something different and I didn’t read fashion magazines, I’d love my body”. The purpose of the element of common humanity is to pull us outside of ourselves, to move past the shame and blame and recognize we are human. We learned to think and feel a certain way about ourselves because of the influence of “external” factors. We are not just “weak, wrong, or bad” for learning to think this way, and we can unlearn this unhealthy way of relating to ourselves!
3. Mindfulness – “The willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” This is a healthy mindset to take on and practice a healthy body image. Like I said from the beginning, the practice of loving your body starts in the head. So, the next time you put on that pair of jeans and they are a bit tight or you find yourself comparing yourself to your thin best friend, be willing to honestly and courageously observe your negative thoughts and emotions. We can’t change our thoughts, but we can catch them, check them, and challenge them and work towards changing our unhealthy reactions to them. One suggestion is to take a deep breath and practice compassionate self-talk when you catch your negative body image self-talk. Neff suggests:
“This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment?
May I give myself the compassion I need?”
Kristin also has several self-compassion meditations on her website, http://www.self-compassion.org/guided-self-compassion-meditations-mp3.html.
While I know I will never reach a perfect place of loving my body all the time. What I do know is that I have influence over how I think about my body, how I feel about my body, and how I treat my body. I know that I am not alone in this struggle. I know that my body is strong and allows me to run, hike up mountains, and practice pilates and yoga on a regular basis…oh and have a baby and still do these things, wow! I have learned to appreciate and compliment my body for what it can do and the experiences it has given me versus how it looks. I practice loving my body from the top down.
“People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing that you are the beholder.“ – Salma Hayek