Body negativity surrounds me. I’ve spent most of my life struggling with my weight and trying desperately to fit the idealistic image of beauty that our culture celebrates.
Body negativity creeps in early
As a young teen, I was obsessed with magazines and all their secrets to be prettier and have a better butt and get your crush to notice you. Nothing seemed to work, though. As years passed my desire to fit the ideal beauty image only increased. In high school, I learned to skip meals, and in college I learned to combine food restriction with exercise. Even then, I don’t remember being happy with my body.
Changes Over Time
Over many years my body and my weight have changed drastically. Also, struggling with depression and anxiety has meant trying different prescriptions (all with weight gain as a side effect). It’s contributed to more body changes, especially in recent years. As my weight changed, the harder it became to reside in my own body. I didn’t feel like myself anymore and I didn’t look like or move like I once did. Body negativity only increased.
I looked back on when I was thinner and remembered that I was unhappy at that size, but now I’d kill to have that old body back.
It was painful to look at myself in photos. I started avoiding old friends and acquaintances because I didn’t want anyone to see my new body. Every pound I weighed carried shame and self-blame. My body was the enemy and I was at war.
A Life-Changing Discovery
In the midst of trying new ways to manage my anxiety and depression, I came across yoga therapy. It was life changing for me. I found that I felt better after every session, even in the midst of a severe depressive episode. To feel a mood shift in the slightest degree was miraculous and I was hooked. I needed more yoga in my life. Being the academic that I am, I decided to study it.
The True Meaning of Yoga
The first thing I learned was that yoga means union. It aims to unify the mind, the spirit, and (lucky me) the body. As a woman currently waging war on her body and studying yoga at the same time, things were about to hit the metaphorical fan. Not too many months into my yoga studies, I found myself in treatment for an eating disorder. I realized body negativity had permiated my life.
I had to learn, or in some ways, re-learn, how to connect with my body. Turns out there are a variety of sensations and sensitivities in the body that we can (and should) tune into. This body I’d been at war with for so long turned out to hold the key to healing many wounds.
I realized it was time to end the war. My body deserved peace. It deserved compassion.
All those years of struggle with body negativity have left a mark on me. I still tend toward eating disorder behavior from time to time and still find myself comparing my body to those around me. Sometimes the body-hate speech in my head can still get so loud that I can’t hear myself think. In my recovery, I’ve found a few things that help, though. I’d like to share them in hopes of helping someone else who needs it.
How to Combat Body Negativity and Create Compassion
1. Every time you notice body envy, thank your body for something it does well.
This will require you to be mindful about when you are comparing yourself to others or checking yourself in a mirror. Take a moment to purposely think about something your body does that is good for you. Doing this may not create an instant change in mindset. But it will help to re-wire some old thought patterns over time.
Some things you could thank yourself for are breathing, talking, hearing, and thinking. Maybe thank yourself for the ways in which it transports you from place to place, walking, frolicking, twirling. Feel free to be creative!
2. Find body movements that suit you.
Not every person is a natural athlete, so I’m not going to insist everyone start running marathons. You know your body and you know what you’re capable of doing.
Personally, I love yoga, as all good yoga teachers do. I also love the camaraderie of running activities, but I’m a walker. I walk 5ks and am planning to participate in a walker-friendly half marathon within the next year. It’s accessible to me and I feel good doing it. Maybe for you it’s swimming or dancing or hiking. You don’t have to be the best at it, just enjoy it.
3. Scrub your social media feed.
Nourishing ourselves goes way beyond just what we put in our mouth, it includes what enters our minds.
Nearly everyone has some contact with social media these days whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. These places are ripe for talk of new diets and weight loss before and after photos. Body negativity abounds on social media.
I find it important to unfollow anything that’s unhelpful to you. If it elicits negative feelings about yourself, I beg you to consider deleting or unfollowing. Replace these feeds with more body neutral or body positive or health-at-every-size feeds. Add stories and images of successful people who look like you and who behave in ways that make you feel good.
4. Buy clothes you feel comfortable in.
I am uncomfortable in tight fitting clothes; I’m not present when I wear them. My mind constantly focuses on how others may be seeing me. Body negativity affects me as I worry how others will interpret my outfit. So I recommend shopping for a few new pieces that make you feel good. Ignore the numbers and go by how it makes you feel. Ask a friend for support if you need it. It does improve your confidence when you wear clothes that really fit you.
5. Have honest conversations with your loved ones.
Set boundaries around diet talk. If certain topics and conversations trigger you to feel poorly about yourself, it’s important to talk to people you trust about your sensitivities. Loving friends will want to support you in this and are often really receptive. I’m lucky to have really friends who are respectful of my boundaries and are honest when I ask them questions about my insecurities. Find people you can trust and let them support you.