I took some time off from writing in order to enjoy the summer since it’s such a beautiful time of year in New England. I cherish the dog days of summer, especially when I am at the beach, my happy place. But I also recognize that the beach is not a happy place for everyone, particularly those who have a negative body image. Wearing less clothes, being in a bathing suit and comparing oneself to others can be particularly triggering, not just for young people, but also for middle-aged and older folks. The quest for a “perfect” body is unrealistic and downright unhealthy.
So many of my clients come to sessions in distress because they can’t stand the way their bodies look. Here is just a snapshot of the comments I hear from my clients, as well as from some of my friends:
“I feel so fat,”
“my arms are sagging,”
“my belly looks bloated and fat,”
“I can’t put on a bathing suit because I feel too uncomfortable, because of my size.”
The list goes on.
What to Say to Someone Who Feels Bad About Their Body
Our natural instinct is to provide reassurance to those who complain about their bodies. For example, maybe saying something like, “Don’t say that about yourself! You look great!” Providing reassurance may alleviate some of the anxiety the person feels in the short term, however the anxiety pops back up again soon after. Most often, the person doesn’t believe it because they truly don’t feel good about themself. And the reassurance others provide feels phony, only fueling their insecurity around their body.
The best course of action is to avoid making any positive or negative comments about how they look. Instead, ask what the person might be experiencing internally rather than externally. Ask questions about the person’s life, and practice compassion by listening instead of offering advice or reinforcement, which could be interpreted as judgment. See if the person is having a bad day, is feeling anxious, sad, lonely, etc. These emotions often trigger a heightened focus on the body. For many, it’s a lot easier to focus on the body as a way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings.
How to Feel Better About YOUR Body
If you’re someone who identifies with the statements made above, here are some thoughts on how to challenge your own negative body image:
1. Practice mindful self-compassion.
We are all unique. Not only do we all have different personalities, we have different bodies too. These differences should be celebrated. Set an intention each day to practice self-care and loving kindness towards your inner and outer self. This practice will pay off in the long run as this more gentle and kind approach will become a habit. You will get to know your body in a more positive and wholesome way.
2. Appreciate your unique body which shifts throughout your life.
We all get older, thinner, rounder, shorter — this is life! Like our emotions, our bodies shift, and we need to accept these changes. As our bodies evolve, we have a choice; we can accept this natural evolution, or we can be consumed with negativity and an unrealistic quest for perfection and youth. My bet is that acceptance is a more fulfilling path.
3. Be curious.
When you beat yourself up about your body, ask yourself what is happening internally. What are you experiencing in your body that is fueling your negative body image? Move inside and be curious about the physical sensations and emotions that are churning. The body is a conduit into our internal world, which is rich and complex and communicates an enormous amount of valuable information.
4. Identify the emotion, lean into it, and focus on it.
Spend some time feeling the emotion rather than brushing it aside. By giving it the space it needs, it won’t feel so oppressive.
5. Practice mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is the energy of being fully aware of what is happening in the present moment — both within and around us. It involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the surrounding environment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing right now rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance: we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them, without believing that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. Practicing mindfulness involves returning to this awareness again and again when our attention drifts or gets caught up in conditioned mental habits and behaviors.” Source: The Body Image Therapy Center
Mindfulness is particularly helpful to those who are suffering from a negative body image. Mindfulness shifts attention away from the outward appearance to what is happening internally. It also prompts us to focus on the here and now rather than getting caught up in the past or future. We learn to not judge our thoughts and feelings, which ultimately enhances our capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion.
I hope that you all will set an intention to practice self-compassion, mindfulness and body acceptance in your daily lives. Recognize that you are unique, wonderful and special. Challenge unhealthy ideals in our culture that manipulate us into believing we are not “good enough.” Accept that you are beautiful just the way you are!
Karen Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.