Body image is a big, complex topic, which is why I’ve resisted writing about it. I don’t want to minimize the topic by telling you to just repeat nice affirmations in the mirror (unless of course that works for you). And healing often requires the help of a therapist because things like trauma, low self-esteem, and other unresolved issues and life stressors are common causes of body dissatisfaction.
But since appearance and body image is the number one source of shame for women, it’s a hard topic to ignore for long. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of men struggle with this too. So I want to take a stab at doing my part to help. Here are 9 real tips for improving body image (some may surprise you):
1. Shift your attention from your body’s external appearance to your body’s internal experience. Professor and author Michelle Lelwica, PhD writes, “One of the consequences of living in an image-saturated society is that many of us develop a rather superficial, image-oriented relationship with our bodies. Our nearly non-stop exposure to advertisements, TV, films, the internet, and other media trains us to see, understand, and experience our bodies as ‘moving pictures’–that is, as images for others to view–rather than as the moving home and ground of our being.”
Coming home to your body’s wisdom involves mindfulness, a regular practice of paying attention to your body’s inner experience without judgment. What does that look like for you?
2. Try this shopping technique. (And yes, it’s important to shop for clothes that feel comfortable for your here-and-now body.) I’ve seen too many clients hold off on buying comfortable clothes, hoping this will motivate (shame?) them into smaller sizes. Instead, the pinching, not-quite-comfortable clothes (or underwear) triggers the inner critic, keeping us preoccupied with the false message that our body’s “not okay.” Writer Anne Lamott says, “The world is too hard as it is, without letting your pants have an opinion on how you are doing. I struggle with enough self-esteem issues without letting my jeans get in on the act.”
Right. The shopping technique. I’ve got to credit Intuitive Eating co-author Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD for this one, which she came up with while taking her daughter prom dress shopping. Here’s what she recommends for your next shopping trip: Take a variety of sizes, about three per clothing piece, to the dressing room. (You may have noticed there’s no standardization of sizes. I’ve worn a small and an XL in the same brand.) Starting with the largest size, try on the clothing piece while facing away from the mirror. Then, assess for comfort. How do the clothes feel? You might want to give it the shimmy test or try a squat or two to see what it feels like sitting down. Once something passes your comfort test, then turn around and see if it passes your standards for style.
3. Check out the Olympus Spa (if you’re a woman in the Seattle/Tacoma area). Yes, I’m talking about the Korean women’s spa where lots of naked ladies walk around. Where else can you be exposed to a variety of non-photoshopped bodies? (Noooo, I don’t recommend you google “naked women.”) Let yourself be amazed by how incredibly diverse bodies are, unlike what we see in magazines. Truly, no two bodies are alike and that’s a beautiful thing.
Bonus: taking some time out for self-care often helps with gaining perspective.
4. Get media savvy. Ask yourself who benefits when you buy into any particular ad or image portrayed through the media. (Hint: good chance it’s our $60 billion dollar weight loss industry. But there are also other industries ready to cash in on our insecurities.) Get a group together and watch the documentary Miss Representation to learn more about the media’s harmful influences and the economic motivations driving it. (Download the free kit for hosting your own Miss Representation viewing party here.) Remember that the vast majority of images we see online and in print are not real. Let your mind refresh by taking regular breaks to unplug. Unsubscribe or unfollow anyone and anything that makes you feel worse about yourself.
5. Spend more time in nature. A study involving women ages 24-54 found that spending more time in nature improved body image. Researcher Kari Hennigan theorized that body image improved by “distancing women from the cultural context, increasing embodied experiences, and supporting connection to nature.” Perhaps taking breaks to see the natural beauty and wonder all around you helps you to see the same in yourself.
6. Take a self-compassion break. There’s growing research on the power of self-compassion for decreasing body image distress. The first step of self-compassion is to notice your own suffering, according to leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, PhD. And experiencing a JAB (judgment about body) is a real moment of suffering. While this may seem obvious, Neff says most of us jump right into problem-solving mode instead of taking a moment to acknowledge that what we’re experiencing is hard right now. The next step according to Neff’s definition of self-compassion involves common humanity, recognizing that you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing and that suffering is part of the shared human experience. The last piece of self-compassion involves self-kindness, responding to yourself much like you would respond to someone you cared about if they were going through a tough time. Neff suggests having a personalized self-compassion mantra that you can easily memorize and repeat to yourself in difficult moments. Her own personal mantra, mentioned in her remarkable book Self-Compassion is: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” And if these words don’t quite resonate for you, she recommends coming up with your own caring words (and offers some great alternative ideas in her book). Got seven minutes? **Check out her powerful guided self-compassion break here.**
Another simple way to practice self-compassion is to put your hand on your heart, as suggested by Chris Germer, PhD in our recent interview on self-compassion. A kind physical gesture, such as placing one or both hands on your heart, softly stroking your face, or gently hugging yourself, has been shown in research to release oxytocin, a soothing, comforting hormone. And contrary to popular belief, self-compassion has been shown to be a more effective motivator for self-care and practicing healthy behaviors than self-criticism.
Neff says the motivation behind self-criticism is fear; the motivation behind self-compassion is love. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I say choose love every time.
7. Find your tribe. Having honest conversations and connecting with others about what it’s like to live in your body is one of the best ways to fight body shame. Check out my colleague Angela Pham, MS, RD, LMHCA’s post on the importance of community for fostering body acceptance and info on her upcoming Health At Every Size groups. Consider starting your own non-diet book club, supporting each other’s journeys in practicing food and body peace in a world that’s dieting. (And if you’d like a list of books I think would be great for such a book club, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
8. Decode your judgments about body. I’m trained in the method Decoding Food and Weight-Related Behaviors developed by dietitian Dr. Barbara Birsinger. The decoding method was partly inspired by her friend and author Anita Johnston, PhD’s work. It’s a great tool for learning more about your relationship with food and your body. Contact me if you want to learn more.
9. Create art with Sibel Golden, PhD, LMHC. If you’re in the Seattle area, join my friend and eating disorder/art therapist Sibel Golden, PhD for her upcoming workshop My Body, My Valentine: An Artful Approach to Body Image Love and Care on February 13 at the Seattle Creative Arts Center in Ballard from 7-9p. It’s only $25 (which includes all art supplies) and you can get your ticket here. Come home with an inspiring gift for yourself.
I originally planned to share 16 tips for practicing peace with your body but this post is getting a little long and my brain is getting a little tired. :-) If you’re digging this topic, I appreciate you letting me know and I’ll be sure to post Part 2 of Real Tips for Improving Body Image!
*UPDATE: You can read Part 2 of this post here.