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Love your body

You’re holidaying in Vietnam, immersed in the tranquillity of the perfume pagoda or tones of a two-stringed moon lute when you’re suddenly shaken from your reverie by a local woman grabbing your arm. Squeezing your flesh, she nods her head approvingly, commenting that you are “so fat”. How do you feel? Positive about the obvious approval or roundly deflated?

This exact scene occurred to a healthily proportioned friend of mine and she recounted how ashamed and demoralised she felt. To her, the words translated as “you eat too much, have no willpower and look fat”. It was only later that she realised she’d been paid the ultimate compliment. In Vietnam, the plumper your body, the better. It shows your high status, proving you have wealth, plenty to eat and don’t have to work 12-hour days engaged in tiring farm labour.

The body image pendulum

The Vietnamese body ideal is the polar opposite of our Australian cultural preference, whereby we compliment people who melt away a few kilos and envy those who can afford a personal trainer or can head off to a health retreat to nurture their body and, by implication, their body image. We regard body image as a fixed state anchored to a fixed self-concept (we love or hate our bodies with no in-between). Yet, in reality, the way you feel about your body is in a constant state of flux.

Over the centuries, other cultures with their reverence for tiny feet, long necks, big bottom lips or indeed, big bottoms, have confirmed how much body image is rooted in social conditioning. Cut to the present and in Western world, where most of us tend to follow body image trends from new developments in fashion, the media and music. In light of the limited images of beauty that popular culture offers, you may find yourself often feeling that your physical identity could use a confidence boost or spiritual makeover.

However, even if your body image is always idling on the low side, there’s a good chance it still goes up or down according to who you’re with, how you perceive their attitudes and how you allow this to influence your own inner dialogue. Reality often has little bearing on the way you feel about your body. Sobering research by the Women’s Health Australia project at the University of Newcastle has shown that 80 per cent of women who are in a healthy weight range still want to lose weight.

Your body image is formed as much by your internal world as it is influenced by external cues such as personal experiences and day-to-day events. It is the sum total of how you think of your appearance and kinaesthetically engage in the world, by feeling (or largely not noticing) your physical body through the senses. Yet it is what you do with what happens to you — and how you allow that to affect your flow of energy, emotions and thoughts — that dictates how much body love you enjoy.

Healing emotional wounds

Your body houses your inner self: your personality, spirit and soul. Throughout your life, these aspects of the self can be hurt or damaged. Emotional wounds can range from humiliation in the classroom (in counselling sessions clients often recall negative teachers who kickstarted negative body image), physical abuse by a parent or verbal putdowns by a lover or demeaning boss. If you don’t deal with these hurts when they occur, they can bubble just below the surface, causing dissatisfaction. Over time, these lingering fears of inadequacy colour your body image. Consciously or unconsciously, you may turn to your body to shield you.

I have listened to many clients talk about their unhappiness with their shape, despite eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. When we drill down into why their body might be hanging onto the weight, protection is often the issue. In many cases, the person was hurt at some point and now uses weight to create a buffer zone. They feel that having a physical (and psychological) barrier between them and those they come in contact with will mean they’re less likely to be hurt again. In turn, the life habits they have formed in relation to their injured body image make them feel better in some way — more in control or more secure.

By learning other strategies to heal emotional pain, many people find they can let go of these past hurts and change unhelpful habits, embracing a healthier body concept and greater wellbeing. One of the most effective ways to heal body image hurts is to be more conscious in your body. This is why chronic busyness interferes with a holistic sense of your appearance. When you live at high speed, your mind and body are less integrated and you can start to feel detached from your physical self.

In dealing with clients about issues ranging from relationship problems to anxiety, I see many people who have lost a sense of harmony and connectedness with their body and find little to love or cherish. They feel rushed and stressed, so their body is constantly overloaded with adrenalin. When you take no time for stillness, you lose the ability to be in the present moment and listen to your body in order to be in touch with who you are and what you need to be physically and spiritually well. You lose the ability to achieve balance.

Practices that encourage stillness, such as meditation, visualisation, watching the sunset or listening to calming music, are important keys to a healthy body image. They encourage not only unity of body and mind but calmness, which helps the body feel centred in the world. Practices that encourage joy, such as dancing, singing, laughing and being in nature, are equally important because they boost levels of serotonin and other natural feel-good chemicals in your brain.

Rites of passage: your self image story

Understanding how your path to adulthood shaped your current body image can create the self-awareness needed to open up to change. At each life stage or period of transition, we adjust our attitudes to our body shapes. Puberty, pregnancy, leaving home, getting married or going through a relationship break-up are all times of life that affect body image and if not carefully negotiated can leave you with lingering insecurities.

At such times, your body can alter due to hormones or lifestyle changes and, feeling out of control, you may suffer fears or discomfort about the way your body feels and looks. This process starts very young. In a 2005 study by Flinders University, researchers found that of girls aged five to eight, 47 per cent wanted to be slimmer (many in the hope that this would make them more popular). “The major life event which occurs over the five- to seven-year age range, when body dissatisfaction begins, is the commencement of schooling,” says researcher Hayley Dohnt, who worked on the study.

If when you are a child your family members are fairly relaxed about their own bodies and seem comfortable with their weight, you are more likely to feel comfortable in your skin. Negative comments made by parents about their own bodies or those of others can cause a child to suffer unconscious confusion about what they should think and a level of uncertainty will creep in about how to relate to their own body.

Exposure to this objectification can teach you that putting your body down is normal. If your mother always dieted or your father called you “chubby”, you may have grown up scrutinising your body constantly but finding fault rather than self-love. Alternatively, at any time of life, an insensitive comment by a sibling, friend or partner may plant the seed for dissatisfaction with your appearance.

Adolescence can prove a real tipping point for body image. As a child, when you reached puberty, you had to redefine your identity in relation to your transforming shape as it lengthened and showed signs of maturity such as pubic hair, broader shoulders or more curvaceous hips. Comments by those in your peer group, even if they didn’t relate to you, were saved and stored and may still be impacting on the way you see yourself.

Cut to your 20s and sexual relationships, along with the new physical, sensory and emotional experiences they bring, add a whole new dimension to your body image as you embrace both the pleasure your body can give and the fears about how you measure up: am I too small, too big, individual, average? Am I normal?

If not mindfully addressed, your body’s rites of passage can allow you to compartmentalise your appearance according to often cartoonish unrealistic gender stereotypes — big breasts and barely-there stomachs for women; big biceps and penises for men. This attitudinal state can leave you in an emotional slump, unable to celebrate or even acknowledge your many other appealing qualities whether physical (corkscrew curls, striking eyes, graceful neck) or related to temperament (quick wit, beautiful disposition, keen intellect). Instead, you can slip into the habit of filtering out the positive and zooming in on the negative, obsessing about a few extra kilos or a curvaceous stomach as grounds to dislike everything about your physical appearance.

This self-deprecating body image can lead you to start a self-targeted body smear campaign that may go on for years and shift up another gear when you enter parenthood or mid-life.

Celebrating the signs of time: parenting and beyond

If you’re a new mum, trying to keep up with the celebrity standards of “yummy mummies” can create stress and a sense of failure about your body just when you should be revelling in the joy of motherhood and new life. An impossible ideal of “perfection” is more widely available than ever on the internet and in other media, and knowing that these images are carefully lit or Photoshopped does not stop them from holding enormous power.

To learn to love your body more deeply, a shift in attitude is needed whereby you reconnect with your body’s gifts — its ability to nurture both mother and child and give life itself. If you’re a dad, you will also benefit from celebrating your body’s functions and abilities in this way because you, too, will have less time than before to nurture your body.

Don’t think that being male keeps you immune from worries about appearance. At an alarming rate, men have been catching up with women in the area of negative body image. According to the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria, approximately 45 per cent of Western men are unhappy with their bodies to some extent, compared with a rate of 15 per cent 25 years ago.

Self-doubt and insecurity hijack your time when you’re unhappy with your body image, along with preoccupations about food, mirrors, scales and clothing sizes. Although there’s nothing wrong with striving for a healthier body and complexion, if left unchecked, the desire to make self-improvements to your looks can easily become an obsession, particularly in mid-life. There is a tendency to search out imperfections, then allow what you think you see in the mirror to dictate your moods. If your stomach is bloated, that’s a “fat day”. If the scales say you’ve gained a kilo, you call yourself a “beached whale” or a “heifer”. It’s a fast track to unhappiness and chronic depression.

Poor body image can interfere with your quality of life, career, social time and sexual satisfaction. You may even find you become intensely fearful of intimacy because you feel ashamed of being seen naked and then deny yourself the healing power of touch, which is so critical to body harmony.

Developing body and spirit harmony

  • Forming more nurturing, accepting and gentle attitudes towards your body is a process that takes time, self-awareness and patience. The first step is to recognise that you have the power to change the way you conceptualise your body. The second is to formulate your own PR campaign, adopting the following strategies to actively love yourself and your body a little more every day:
  • Experience the sensual: Body love is not as simple as thinking nice thoughts; it is a mix of attitudes and behaviours that allow you to recognise, enjoy and celebrate how you look and feel. Any activity that heightens pleasure (such as a massage) and helps your body feel physically relaxed (such as a candle-lit bath) nourishes your body image. Making an effort to connect with the sensual moments in your life will help you experience them more fully. When you’re in the shower, enjoy the feel of your skin under the soap. When you’re dancing, savour the sensation of swaying your hips. When you’re sitting in the sun, notice how good the warmth feels on your back. The more you enjoy the way your body moves and feels, the more comfortable and relaxed you will feel in your own skin.
  • See yourself at your best: Choose some photos of yourself looking and feeling wonderful. Put these pictures in a place where you will see them regularly and pay yourself a compliment when you notice them.
  • Let go of negative talk: Note three positive things about your appearance. If negative self-talk pushes its way into your head, allow it to come and go and focus on the positive. Write some approving thoughts about your body in a “daily acceptance journal” for one month and, if you ever find you’re feeling blue about your body, sit down and read all your comments to give your self-image a lift.
  • Focus inward: Make an effort to ignore what is outside your skin and, for a week, try this experiment: aim to look in a mirror no more than once a day. Often this helps improve body image by allowing us to acknowledge and address our feelings. If you’re happier emotionally, your body image will reflect this.
  • Change thought patterns: Identify any unhelpful thought patterns such as all-or-nothing thinking (“I look bad in that photo therefore I’m the ugliest person on the planet”), catastrophising (“I have put on 1kg — it’s a disaster”), personalising (“why were they looking at me like that? I must look fat in this”), jumping to conclusions (“they said I looked strong — does that mean I’ve put on weight?”) or living by fixed rules (“I should look”, “I must be” …). Come up with a positive reframe for each unhelpful thought process.
  • Notice others: You’ll soon discover there are few who resemble our supposed cultural ideal. Real women and men come in all shapes and sizes and it’s these differences that make us interesting. Pick out attractive women who have a shapely build or unusual but compelling faces, or handsome men who are short and fit or thin rather than muscly but boast fine cheekbones or clear skin. If you find appeal in others who stray from beauty stereotypes, you help yourself become more accepting of your own appearance.
  • Seek a friend’s perspective: Ask your partner or a trusted friend to write down 10 wonderful things about your body and mind. Whenever you feel down on your appearance, read the lists to help heal and nurture your body image.
  • Avoid self-criticism: Self-flagellation is a bad habit many of us slip into when we have a distorted body image. Would you put down your best friend or work colleague in this way? Of course not, so it’s obviously not OK to say these negative things to yourself about the way you look. In the long term, critical self-talk can destroy self-respect. So avoid it. Instead of going to tai kwon do classes to dissolve your bulging belly, consider exercise and a balanced diet as an investment in a healthier and longer life.

  • Stand tall: Rounded posture can result in your tummy, chest or breasts looking and feeling larger than they are. It can also make you feel less energetic. So stop slouching. Imagine you have a piece of string going up through the top of your head. Once you try it, your neck will immediately extend, your tummy will tuck in and you will feel more confident.
  • Think spiritually: Realise that a beautiful body is not reflected in the mirror; it’s reflected in the mind’s eye — and in your mind’s eye you choose what you want to be. If you can start to appreciate your body for what it is — unique, sustaining and full of life force — then you’re well on the way to body love.

Meditations for body awareness

Air bath

As you move during the day, notice how the air caresses your body and sweeps around you. If outside, feel the breeze and be mindful of how it brushes your face, hands, lips, ears and so on. Enjoy.

Mirror

Stand in front of a full-length mirror naked or fully clothed and look at your body as you would a piece of art. Notice the curve of your thigh or calf muscle, the flowing line of your neck or sensuality of your breasts or bottom. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about your stomach or feet or face, visualise those body parts bathed in white light and tell yourself, “I embrace you as part of my beautiful body.”

Gratitude

Sit in a chair or lie with your eyes closed and do a quick body scan, tensing and releasing any tightness in your muscles from your toes all the way up to your head. Now repeat the phrase “I thank you” in your mind as you think of the many wonderful things your body has done for you. For example, “I thank you for healing the cut on my finger”; “I thank you for giving me sexual pleasure”; “I thank you for the strong legs that walk me to the beach”; “I thank you for staying awake to feed my baby.”

Is your body image distorted?

You need to take a more holistic approach to your body image — and perhaps seek counselling or healing therapy — if you regularly:

  • Worry you don’t match up to the physical perfection of others.
  • Feel preoccupied with or distressed about how your body looks.
  • Repeatedly check your appearance in the mirror to confirm you look OK.
  • Avoid looking in the mirror because you don’t like what you see.
  • Take great pains to camouflage or hide body parts you don’t like.
  • Avoid situations because of poor body image — for example, not going to yoga or the beach because you feel self-conscious in a leotard or swimsuit.
  • Feel your entire mood lowers if you have gained a few kilos or noticed a few new laugh lines.
  • Shy away from sexual intimacy sometimes because you feel insecure about how your body appears.

Jacqui Manning is a psychologist who specialises in self-image and stress management.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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