“If only my stomach were flatter.” “I wish my arms were more toned.” “No matter what I try, my skin is never as nice as hers."
We’re quick to point out our perceived physical imperfections, wishing that we looked more like the ideal body types we often see in the media. While we may know (on an objective level) that a lot of work, including Photoshop, goes into making picture-perfect images in magazines and on TV, our subjective experience is another thing.
The Social Issues Research Centre's summary of findings on body image cited that eight out of ten women reported being unhappy with their reflection in the mirror and more than half report seeing a distorted image. Instead of appreciating their bodies, they see an inaccurate version of themselves, which cues feelings of self-loathing.
As a therapist, many of my clients struggle with unhealthy body image regardless of age. When you criticize your body, you're setting a trap for yourself because what you want is statistically unrealistic. “The current media ideal of thinness for women is achievable by less than 5 percent of the female population," the Social Issues Research Centre’s summary also reports. Wishing and striving for the unattainable means you’ll only be disappointed by the lack of "results" you might expect to see from exercising and dieting.
It’s a negative cycle we all easily fall into at some point, but there are two powerful things we can do to pull ourselves out of it.
Replace ‘I Wish’ with ‘I Am Grateful For’
What if we focused on being grateful for the body we have? An Ohio State University study found that when women focus on how their bodies function and feel, they are more likely to appreciate their bodies.
Instead of wishing for unattainable changes or considering cosmetic surgery, choose instead to appreciate what your body allows you to experience. Those legs that you wish were longer do an excellent job of getting you from your bed to your favorite place, running that race, and climbing up to see an amazing view. Those eyes that you wish were more doe-eyed enable you to survey the beautiful world and people around you. Your skin, that hair, your face—every part of yourself makes you uniquely you and unlike anyone else. By replacing “I wish” with “I am grateful for,” you make a significant and positive change to your body image.
Love yourself as you would love her.
If you find it hard to turn your focus away from the things you’d like to change about yourself, think about how you’d react if you overheard your best friend or sister critiquing her own body. My guess is you’d be troubled by her self-criticism, wanting her to notice only the wonderful things that you and so many others see in her.
Wouldn't you be quick to reassure her of all of her positive qualities? You deserve the same treatment! We’re often needlessly extra hard on ourselves. Imagine how you would respond to a friend who is making the same self-critical comment and respond the same way to yourself. According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor in human development and culture and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, treating yourself with gratitude actually trumps self-esteem. "When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on reaching certain goals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken."
In her extensive research, Neff found that "self-compassion was associated with less social comparison and less need to retaliate for perceived personal slights. It was also linked to less 'need for cognitive closure,' which is psych-speak for the need to be right without question. People who invest their self-worth in feeling superior and infallible tend to get angry and defensive when their status is threatened. People who compassionately accept their imperfection, however, no longer need to engage in such unhealthy behaviors to protect their egos."
Commit to eliminating “I wish" from your thoughts and vocabulary starting today. You'll find that being gentle and understanding toward your perceived imperfections only helps you feel more connected with others. And it will help you maintain a healthy balance of self-awareness and mindfulness not rooted in fear, negativity, or isolation.
Photo Credit: Erin Woody