There is an ugly truth that hides among even the most accomplished, intelligent, inspiring women that you know. Some pretty nasty little voices have taken root inside their heads telling them they aren’t attractive enough, that they should look a certain way and that make them feel uncomfortable about their bodies. While it is all too easy to see in the media why so many seeds of self-doubt about our appearance get planted, it is still exasperating to learn that 9 out of 10 women are unhappy with their bodies.
The challenge is that these feelings of dissatisfaction with our bodies often impacts our ability to make the kinds of changes that will help us feel better and create happier lives! Women who don’t feel good about themselves often indulge in negative behaviors like comfort eating and restrictive dieting. And the stress of dieting and excessive exercise and the pursuit of unattainable perfection contribute to greater anxiety and stress along with depression, anger, frustration and loneliness. This kind of damaging regimen is unsustainable and ultimately creates a cycle of poor health and sadly, increased weight gain.
The Body Image Myth
Self-sabotaging thoughts come in many forms from an obsession with a part of our body that we don’t like to more generalized thinking that people won’t like us because we “aren’t attractive enough.” We often think that if we just looked a different way, we would feel better about ourselves, be happier and more in control of our social and emotional lives. One of the biggest myths we believe is that our body image will change as our body changes. The painful irony is that studies show that it doesn’t matter if you lose weight, work out all the time, buy new clothes, get a new haircut or even some kind of magic makeover that addresses all of your concerns about your image… the negative inner voices continue.
On the bright side, improving our body image has been shown to have a positive impact on health behavior. A 2011 study found that in a 12-month weight loss study, overweight women who received body image enhancement counsel lost significantly more weight than those who did not. The study also found that letting go of the importance of body size and shape is even more important to positive health behavior than always feeling great about yourself.
Learning to Love and Respect Our Body
When we are always working to “fix” something about our appearance, we miss out on the real work that needs to be done on our body image. Changing something about our external selves can feel good for a moment, but it doesn’t last. The best way to accept our bodies is not to change the way we look but to change our acceptance and love for our incredible bodies and minds and all the amazing things they can do, people they can love, and problems they can solve.
We can start the sometimes slow road of learning to love our bodies by noticing each day what our inner voices are saying about us? Is it kind and accepting – or cruel and judgmental? How do these inner voices make us feel? What kind of appearance assumptions are we making e.g. if I could look a different way, my life would be happier? Are our assumptions about your body true or do they need to be replaced by new truths? At first replacing negative thoughts might “feel wrong” but if we give it time, we can replace our negative inner voices with those that are more loving, more encouraging and ultimately, healthier. And maybe we can place less importance on our body size and shape? It can take some time... but be patient. Your health and happiness are worth it.
And for those pursuing health goals, rather than simply trying to lose weight, it is important that we begin to first create more supportive lifestyles. That means eating real, unprocessed foods, drinking nourishing beverages, enjoying our meal times, savoring good food and moving, breathing and sleeping in ways that truly sustain our health. Eating and living more mindfully can help us connect more deeply to our bodies and minds, which can open a window to our body image. Working to improve our body image is a critical first step to achieve our health goals and live a more meaningful, confident life.