Love your body
Youâ€™re holidaying in Vietnam, immersed in the tranquillity of the perfume pagoda or tones of a two-stringed moon lute when youâ€™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 â€œso fatâ€. 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 â€œyou eat too much, have no willpower and look fatâ€. It was only later that she realised sheâ€™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 donâ€™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, thereâ€™s a good chance it still goes up or down according to who youâ€™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 Womenâ€™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 â€” and how you allow that to affect your flow of energy, emotions and thoughts â€” 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 donâ€™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 theyâ€™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 â€” 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). â€œThe major life event which occurs over the five- to seven-year age range, when body dissatisfaction begins, is the commencement of schooling,â€ 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 â€œchubbyâ€, 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 didnâ€™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 bodyâ€™s rites of passage can allow you to compartmentalise your appearance according to often cartoonish unrealistic gender stereotypes â€” 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 youâ€™re a new mum, trying to keep up with the celebrity standards of â€œyummy mummiesâ€ 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 â€œperfectionâ€ 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 bodyâ€™s gifts â€” its ability to nurture both mother and child and give life itself. If youâ€™re a dad, you will also benefit from celebrating your bodyâ€™s functions and abilities in this way because you, too, will have less time than before to nurture your body.
Donâ€™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 youâ€™re unhappy with your body image, along with preoccupations about food, mirrors, scales and clothing sizes. Although thereâ€™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, thatâ€™s a â€œfat dayâ€. If the scales say youâ€™ve gained a kilo, you call yourself a â€œbeached whaleâ€ or a â€œheiferâ€. Itâ€™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
Meditations for body awareness
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.
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, â€œI embrace you as part of my beautiful body.â€
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 â€œI thank youâ€ in your mind as you think of the many wonderful things your body has done for you. For example, â€œI thank you for healing the cut on my fingerâ€; â€œI thank you for giving me sexual pleasureâ€; â€œI thank you for the strong legs that walk me to the beachâ€; â€œI thank you for staying awake to feed my baby.â€
Is your body image distorted?
You need to take a more holistic approach to your body image â€” and perhaps seek counselling or healing therapy â€” if you regularly:
- Worry you donâ€™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 donâ€™t like what you see.
- Take great pains to camouflage or hide body parts you donâ€™t like.
- Avoid situations because of poor body image â€” 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.