March 08, 2012

Refocus your body image and learn to love yourself

For the last 30 years, my family and I have vacationed at the same resort over the winter holidays. As I lay by the pool last month, I reflected on the wide spectrum of body types I have occupied over time in those chaise lounges. I also tried to recollect how I felt about my body at those times in my life.

As a cuddly 4-year-old, my biggest concern related to my fingertips wrinkling when I played in the water all afternoon. Moving into adolescence, I recalled feeling uncomfortable as my body started to soften and develop new curvatures. At age 16, I remembered hiding under my bathing suit cover-up, feeling shameful of the 40 extra pounds I carried as a high-school sophomore. I also thought about the self-consciousness I experienced as an emaciated 25-year-old doctoral student as I was recovering from a life-threatening illness.

This year, I had fully expected to feel completely at ease in my bikini. I am in arguably the best shape of my life, having recently developed a passion for weight lifting and yoga. I am part of a community where “strong is the new skinny,” and I usually take pride in my “guns.” However, as I looked around the pool at some of the willowy figures around me, I suddenly felt like a linebacker. The old voices of self-doubt started whispering, “You’re so bulky. Those women look much better than you.”

Fortunately, a wise part of me could step back, observe my thoughts, and be curious about them – rather than immediately accept my thoughts as facts. After all, our body image is a subjective experience, reflective more of our current emotional state than of the reality of our physical shape and size. If you are one of the many individuals who struggle with poor body image from time to time, try the following: 
  • Focus on Function: Remind yourself of all of the wonderful things your body allows you to do. Your arms hug your loved ones and your legs allow you to explore the world. Regardless of its aesthetic qualities, your body has value and importance. 
  • Nevermind the Numbers: The bathroom scale can give you faulty information and contribute to inaccurate and negative feelings about your body. Because muscle takes up less space in the body than fat, your “look” at a particular weight can vary greatly. I weigh 10 pounds more than I did last year, but my clothes are looser, I can sprint faster, and I can flip a 500lb tractor tire. Thus, if you are only using a number to make assessments about your body, you may be overlooking important positive changes.
  • Cut the Comparisons: There will always be someone in your environment with longer legs, a flatter stomach, or less jiggle under her arms. (Further, it’s very likely that someone is looking at you and feeling envious of your best feature.) Thus, using someone else’s body to measure your satisfaction with your own physique is a set-up for disappointment.
  • Accentuate Your Assets: When you look in the mirror, focus on what you like best. Maybe you have striking eyes, broad shoulders, or a long and graceful neck. Play up that feature as you make decisions about how you style yourself. This will build your overall confidence in your appearance.
You only get one body in this life. Care for it. Respect it. Learn to love it … just as it is right now.

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