In the culture we live in, it’s unfortunately very common for women of all ages to struggle with their body image. This may not result in clinical eating disorders or body dysmorphia, but it’s safe to say that, sadly, most (if not all) girls and women have struggled to accept and love at least some part of their body at some point in their life. Many of us women instinctively think that we must change what we don’t like about our bodies in order to love our bodies. But there is another way: to love the body you have right now.
Why physical change isn’t the answer
Sometimes, as women, we internally criticize and shame ourselves for looking a certain way, intending to motivate ourselves to change what we don’t like through diet or exercise in order to achieve a certain “ideal” look. Combined with the external influence of unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in the media is often an internal voice telling us we are not enough. Often, we have become so accustomed to that little nagging voice inside our heads that we are not even aware of its presence.
Sometimes, our desire to achieve a certain look is rooted in a desire to feel enough. Without even knowing it, our desire to feel prettier, thinner, curvier, something-er is actually our chasing a feeling of “enoughness,” of fulfillment. “If I look that way,” we tell ourselves, “I will feel happy,” or “I will be at peace with my body.” Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking, “If I could just look like that, I would love my body.”
The author of several books on women’s struggles with body image, Geneen Roth describes this well: "We are truly convinced that if we criticize ourselves, the criticism will lead to change. If we are harsh, we believe we end up being kind. If we shame ourselves, we believe we end up being loving to ourselves. It has never been true... that shame leads to love. Only love leads to love.”
Roth’s comment makes intuitive sense, and, as a therapist, I have seen this truth play out in all types of relationships (not just the relationship with our own bodies)—often we are convinced that “criticism will lead to change,” and change will lead to love. But even when our self-criticism does lead to change, chances are we will still find ourselves wanting, finding yet something else we feel insecure about or to lament over, still struggling to love and accept our bodies.
Even women who have what the media often portrays as the “ideal” body—actresses and models—have admitted to struggling with their body image. This confirms what we likely already know: despite what much of the cosmetic, plastic surgery, dieting, and exercise industries want us to believe, our outward appearance can’t teach us to love ourselves. Only we, as individuals, have the power to learn to embrace, accept, and love our bodies, no matter what they look like now.
Learn to love what you see
Have you ever looked in the mirror and grimaced? Or wished away what you see? I have. After my second child, I looked in the mirror and saw a belly covered in stretch marks, with loose, baggy skin. I won’t say I haven’t wished it away or wondered why my skin couldn’t rebound the way other women’s does, so seamlessly. Whether I could change my look or not (I can’t), there is a way to learn to love that stretched belly.
Every day, look at the part(s) of you that you struggle to embrace, and say “I love my ____”. When I look at it in the mirror and feel that immediate dislike, I touch my belly and say, “My belly is beautiful.” It might feel like a complete lie at first, but with persistent repetition and the intention to believe what you are saying, you can learn to actually love what you see, regardless of how you feel now.
Likewise, when you look in the mirror or in a picture and the knee-jerk reaction comes up to criticize a body part, pause and replace (or respond to) the critic with a body-positive thought about that body part. If I look at a picture and think, “My arms look so flabby,” I can interrupt myself and intentionally replace it with a true statement like, “My arms are so strong!” or “My arms carry my sweet baby,” or simply, “My arms are beautiful.”
Be intentional about what you consume
We may not be able to decide who is in advertisements or what those portrayed in the media look like, but with so many media outlets and ways to enjoy media, we can choose what we consume. In order to cultivate body positivity in a culture that encourages anything but that, we have to be intentional about our media consumption choices. Follow accounts on Instagram and other social media who are body positive in what they write and the pictures they post (@sheis.elle, @katejbaer, and @jennakutcher to name a few). Unfollow accounts that leave you feeling worthless or less-than, or don’t post content that will contribute to your body positivity journey.
Consume media from magazines or other outlets that don’t retouch photos (like Verily!). Support businesses that promote body positivity with their models and advertising (like Aerie, Old Navy, Target, Asos, and more). Be conscientious about any art you might display in your home to ensure you are sending yourself (and other girls or women in your home) a positive message. If you get Facebook or Snapchat ads that don’t align with your goal, click the button that gives you the option not to see ads like this again.
We might not think these little things make a difference, but imagine if we grew up seeing women of all shapes, heights, sizes, and characteristics portrayed in books, movies, shows, and advertisements. How different would our view of the world and, importantly, our view of ourselves be? No one ever told me explicitly that thighs shouldn’t touch, or that my stretch marks are ugly, or that my arms aren’t toned enough—yet these were beliefs I held about my body that I am still working to overcome. These beliefs came from the women I saw—or rather, the women I didn’t see—in the media throughout my life.
We know that the more we see something, the more we like it (known as the mere-exposure effect). So it’s no mistake that what I internalized as the “ideal” woman’s body image is probably the same image as most women—an image that can be found on advertisements and catwalks alike. Imagine if I had seen pictures of “wrinkled” bellies as part of advertisements growing up. If stretched skin were normalized, I might not struggle to love my own. So while we might not think we have much say in what we say, we actually have a lot of power in the matter. And the little things we see over and over again certainly carry a lot of weight in how we see and love ourselves.
Talk to yourself like you’d talk to your younger self
In therapy, I often have clients call to mind a younger version of themselves from childhood, and talk to themselves about whatever they are dealing with the way they would talk to this little girl. When we struggle with our body image and body positivity, we often look at ourselves in the mirror and that subtle, insidious voice whispers critical remarks we’ve just come to accept. But imagine if you heard your five-year-old self say those things to herself—what would you say to her? What would you tell a little, five-year-old girl who genuinely thought her thighs were too big? You would stop her in her tracks and correct her, most likely. You would remind her that she is beautiful, and that her thighs are perfect just as they are. Try talking to yourself with the same gentle, compassionate, loving tone and words.
If that exercise doesn’t fit for you, think about a real little girl you know. Maybe it’s your daughter, your little sister, the neighbor girl down the street, or your niece. Imagine that she is in the room and can hear everything you think or say about yourself. What message do you want to teach her about body acceptance? What messages about body image do you want her to internalize from you?
When my little girl wants to look at my belly button, it’s nearly instinctual to want to keep my stretched belly under my shirt, or make a remark about how I really feel about it. But I know she is listening. I know that I am the “media” she is consuming right now, at this impressionable age. So I am intentional about what I saw about myself, what I do, and even my body language when I look in the mirror around her. When she pulls up my shirt to see Mama’s belly, I tell her it is beautiful—even if I don’t fully believe it myself yet. And when she’s not around and I look in the mirror, I try to pretend that she is there, listening, internalizing how I see myself.
So, maybe this New Year’s Eve (or better yet, sooner), instead of resolving to get a “bikini bod” or committing to a new diet, we can resolve to become body positive about ourselves. Maybe this is the week, month, or year we stop trying to fit into old jeans or that new swimsuit and come home to ourselves. Our beautiful bodies are waiting.