By Andrea Wachter and Marsea Marcus
Body dissatisfaction is an epidemic in our image-obsessed culture. If you are a member of the unofficial “club” of women who dislike or despise their bodies, you may have discovered that the daily dues are high and the long-term benefits are low. But membership in this body-bashing club is hard to avoid, with people speaking the club’s not-so-secret language and recruiting new members just about everywhere you turn.
We call this club’s language “Fat Chat.” Fat Chat is when people talk about food, fat, or other peoples’ bodies in a negative way. Even positive comments about bodies can sometimes be Fat Chat because of the focus on looks and the pressure it causes people to think they need to look a certain way.
Club doctrine dictates that there are “good foods” and “bad foods” (though this changes, depending on the year). Club status is determined by how much or how little a person eats, weighs and exercises. Club members assess their own rank on a daily basis, rarely feeling good about their status. Although members regularly bond over Fat Chat, they often end up feeling bad as a result of it.
While some club members can dabble in occasional dieting without negative consequences, others are not so lucky. Many people find that dieting leads to sneak eating, overeating, bingeing and weight fluctuations, not to mention the full or part-time (unpaid) job of “feeling fat.”
As women who have each spent decades lost in these painful patterns, we know all too well what it’s like to battle with your body on a daily basis. We also know what it’s like to overcome that battle. And you can too!
If you are one of the millions who are plagued with a bad body image, here are some tips for you:
1. Broaden Your Perspective
For many people, body dissatisfaction is front and center in their lives, causing their peace of mind and relationships great damage. For others, it’s a background noise that distracts and disturbs them as they go about their days. Either way, body hatred causes many people to miss out on their actual lives. It’s what they spend the majority of their time thinking about. But is the size of your body really more important than your health, your life or what you do with your day?
Other than your body size, what really matters to you in life? If this was your last month on earth, and you had no hope of changing your weight, how would you want to spend your time? What would you want to think about?
2. Become a Body Buddy
Our bodies are working constantly for us, providing countless complex tasks and non-stop assistance to live our lives. Yet most people not only forget to thank and appreciate their bodies for all they do, they also walk around abusing or ignoring the amazing bodies they live in. In our children’s body image book, we teach kids to be a Body Buddy, as opposed to a Body Bully. If you are someone who walks around bullying your body, critiquing, criticizing and negatively comparing it to others, try taking some time to appreciate and thank your body for all the amazing things it does for you.
Practice thanking your body on a regular basis. Consider all your organs and limbs and miraculous systems that are at work, 24/7. Practice appreciating your amazing senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.
3. Practice Radical Acceptance
Many people spend their lives trying to change their natural shape. This is like wishing your feet were smaller or your eyes were a different color. But when it comes to a body part we don’t like, we often think it makes sense that we should try to change it, rather than try to accept it. Radical Acceptance is about letting go of arguing with nature and being willing to accept your natural weight and shape. If you are overeating, under-eating, over-exercising or avoiding movement, you are probably not at your natural body size. But hating yourself won’t help you get there. Self-love, self-care and Radical Acceptance will.
Imagine accepting your body or some part of your body. What would you stand to gain if you practiced Radical Acceptance?
4. Combat Your Thoughts, Not Your Body
Think of some recent times when you were laughing or feeling free, times when you were not thinking about your body. In those moments you had the same exact body that you do now, but you were able to be happy because you were not focused on your bad body thoughts. It’s so easy to think your body is the problem. But if you can feel happy in your body one moment and horrible in your body the next moment, then the problem is not your body, it’s your thinking. Of course if your body is not healthy and you need to make some changes to heal it, that’s fine, but the root of most suffering comes from our thinking. That’s why some people can have what seems to many like the “perfect body” and still feel miserable, while others can be larger than the cultural ideal and feel free and comfortable in their bodies.
Notice some times in the next few weeks when you experience joy or peace. Then, when you find yourself lost in bad body thoughts, remind yourself that the reason you are in pain is because of your thoughts, not solely because of your body.
5. See if Self-Hate Is Helping
Self-hate is like a virus that takes over your computer and causes all kinds of problems. Then other things act up and it’s easy to get caught up in the new problems and get even further from fixing the original virus. Self-hate pretends to help. It pretends to “whip us into shape” and motivate us. But if self-hatred was going to help you achieve happiness and peace, you probably would have by now.
Ask yourself: If hating myself was going to help me feel better, wouldn’t it have done so by now? See if you can motivate yourself with kindness, care, self-love and honesty. Try talking to yourself like you would a dear friend or a child you adore.
6. Challenge the Idea that Thin People Are Happier
The multi-billion dollar diet industry is dependent on the myth that thin people are happier. But don’t you know thin people who are very unhappy and fat people who are quite content? The idea that thinness brings happiness is challenged every single time someone loses weight on a diet and then proceeds to gain it back. If thinness actually brought happiness, people would lose weight on a diet and live happily ever after. But that is not what happens. The truth is, people can be happy or unhappy at any size. Happiness has more to do with our thinking than anything else.
Can you find something in your life to be happy about right now, regardless of your weight? Can you see that on some level, people are all the same? We are all afraid of some things; we all want love; we are all here temporarily; we all have problems; we all have good times and hard times. The next time you compare yourself to someone who is thinner than you, tell yourself you are making up a story about this person’s happiness and you really have no idea what they are going through, have gone through or will go through.
7. First Thought Theirs, Second Thought Yours
We are not responsible for the thoughts that got downloaded into our minds. It’s not our fault that we were born into a culture that is obsessed with thinness, fitness and perfection. When a painful body image thought pops up in your mind, you are not to blame. Nobody decides: five minutes from now, I am going to compare myself to someone else, think I am unacceptable and feel horrible the rest of the afternoon. Bad body image thoughts are like the automatic pop-ups on a computer. We are not responsible for them. But we can get better at catching and deleting them, rather than getting lost in them. This part is your responsibility. You can’t necessarily stop negative body thoughts from popping up, but you get to decide what to do once you become aware of them.
Stay on the lookout for your automatic bad body thoughts. When you catch one, praise yourself for catching it. Then practice disagreeing with it or deleting it. Remind yourself that if negative body thoughts were going to help you, you would certainly feel better by now.
8. Separate Self-Image from Body Image
Healthy people have an identity that is about many things. For some, it’s based on who they are, knowing they are kind, good and loveable. Someone might value being a parent, a student or a good friend. Others might value a talent or a skill they have, or a hobby or interest they feel passionate about. There are many things that make up a person’s identity that can contribute to them feeling a sense of value. And on top of all that, they have a body that they take care of and live in. When someone has a bad body image, they generally don’t have a sense of worthiness so they latch onto being thin as something they can, or should do and be good at. Their self-image and their body image get twisted up together and they think they are only as good as their body looks to them.
Think of some things that make you special or valuable that have nothing to do with your looks. Imagine what it would feel like to know you are good enough as you are.
9. Reveal and Heal Your Underlying Issues
Body obsession is extremely painful, but it works as a distraction from deeper issues. Healing from body image issues requires a willingness to work on your other problems, the problems that go much deeper than the size of your abs, how many carbs or fat grams you ate that day, or how much cardio you did. Revealing and healing your feelings, thoughts and relationship issues is hard work, but so is hating your body and never feeling good enough. Rarely do people come to our office and say, “I want to work on feeling my unresolved pain, learn how to challenge my thinking and speak more authentically to the people in my life.” It is usually their weight or body obsession that brings them to our door, and what they want is to learn better ways to get the body they want. The good news is that when they gain better emotional coping skills, they start to feel better, and they no longer need their bad body image as a decoy.
What deeper issues do you suspect your bad body image might be distracting you from? The next time you find yourself obsessing on your body, ask yourself: What would I be feeling or thinking if I wasn’t thinking about my body?
Healing body image is an ongoing process. Nobody moves quickly from self-hate to self-love. It takes a lot of patience and practice to delete all the unkind messages you have been taught and to upload new, kinder messages into your brain. But it is possible. Body hatred used to be a full-time job for each of us. And then we decided we wanted peace and freedom more than we wanted bodies that looked like someone else; bodies we were never meant to have no matter how much we starved, exercised or obsessed.
It is possible to break free from the chains of body and food obsession. It is possible to allow, feel and express painful emotions and experience a deep sense of relief and peace. It is possible to catch and delete your painful thoughts and learn to think in a whole new way. It is possible to challenge your internal rules and find other ways to feel safe in the world. It is possible to live a full life that is about so much more than your appearance. I wish this for you.