Don’t be a Hater, Befriend Your Body
by Catherine Morris | July 6, 2020
Most people welcome summer. Long warm nights, backyard BBQs, sunbathing, and lazy days outdoors—what's not to love? Plenty, if you're not comfortable in your own skin.
Those who struggle with their body image may find this time of year challenging. We are flooded with media trying to tell us what 'the perfect beach body' is. The relentless encouragement to embark on the latest 'summer-ready diet,' can make anyone question their diet choices, and the bombardment of social media pics of toned and tanned celebrities lazing by their pools is bound to make people overthink their next swimsuit purchase.
The pandemic has been a friend to no one, and lots of us are feeling pretty shaky in the mental health department. Coming out of quarantine, it's normal to feel some lingering anxiety, loneliness or depression. Adding body insecurities to the mix only makes it harder to stay positive, but it can be done!
With the right treatment and tools, you can learn to not just accept, but to love your body.
Knowing Your Triggers
The first step in overcoming poor body image is knowing where the negative self-talk comes from. While body issues are often generalised as a ‘weight problem’, or something exclusive to people suffering from eating disorders, there are many reasons why someone might feel insecure looking in the mirror. Perhaps they're unhappy with their appearance after physically-altering medical treatments such as a mastectomy, perhaps they have scars, or a visible disability. They might have been bullied as a child—look, there are way more reasons to feel bad about yourself than can be gone over.
Body image issues aren’t exclusive to 'females' and they can’t be brushed off as 'teenage angst'. Increasing numbers of boys and men are affected, and these problems can also strike the middle-aged and elderly.
“Body image issues have a very complex presentation, and the root cause can be multi-faceted and vary greatly from one individual to the next,” says certified clinical counsellor Carly Power. “Body issues are so seldom about what they seem to be on the surface. It is not about weight, it is about fitting an ideal. People see that ideal and think that when they get there, they'll feel fulfilled.”
For the most part, we live with our insecurities. Most of us are able to brush them aside, and ignore our internal critic—most of the time. For some people, it's not so easy. Sometimes a triggering event can reignite those feelings and leave us vulnerable, self-conscious, and anxious. These triggers come in a variety of forms—a bad break-up, job loss, aging—each stage of life comes with its own baggage, and if we're not ready to accept our bodies they might end up becoming an emotional punching bag.
Power says she sees clients who have held onto their dissatisfaction for so long that they are at the end of their tether, and desperate to get rid of that burden, “Exhaustion is a big trigger when people carry [body issues] for so long. It can be quite distracting – they have these other goals they want to do with their lives, but their mind is constantly going back to the parts of their body they're not happy with. In around 90 percent of cases I see, it goes back to childhood [and] by the time they land in my office as adults, they are exhausted.”
Identifying the roots of your physical insecurities, and the triggers that bring them to the fore is where most journeys of self-acceptance start. Power says: “The 'why' of it is probably the most important piece. Once we understand that, it is more of a straight line. I work with people to get a really clear understanding of what that person's personal mental map is around their own body. We look at when they feel empowered or disempowered, when they notice these thoughts arise, when they [are] heightened and when they calm down. We start to build the bigger picture. We look at ways to empower ourselves and deconstruct why they have attached to those ideas of physical perfection.”
Tips and Techniques to Boost Your Body Image
There's no easy answer, or one-size-fits-all solution to address body issues. Treatment and approach varies depending on the causes, but there are some simple tips you can try today to help get you started.
It should be noted though that the below are helpful for those with body image issues that can be approached through self-management. Power warns that techniques such as mindfulness and gratitude can actually be counterproductive for people dealing with past trauma. If you're facing more serious body image concerns, it's always best to seek professional help.
Mindfulness — In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of recognizing our thoughts, feelings and actions in the present moment. In a therapist's office this could involve cognitive behavioural therapy which encourages clients to examine and question their thoughts. At home it might mean something as simple as sitting for five minutes in the morning connecting with what's going on in your head.
Mindfulness meditation addresses racing thoughts, and teaches you how to tune into your inner stillness. Studies show that this type of meditating can promote better body image by making people more aware, and more appreciative of their internal workings by listening to their heartbeat, feeling their breath, and relaxing their muscles.
Gratitude — When you start thinking about what your body can do, rather than what you think it can’t do or be, it can help you reframe your entire outlook. Gratitude is almost inextricably linked with mental well-being and, when it comes to minor body issues, can be part of the solution. In one study women who sat and contemplated gratitude before viewing pictures of 'ideal' body types reported much lower levels of dissatisfaction after looking at the images than those who skipped the gratitude session. It's not just women who benefited — further study showed an equally strong link between gratitude and body image in men.
Physical activity — If you're struggling to appreciate your physical self, perhaps it's time to put that physical self to work. The mental benefits of exercise are well-documented, but did you know that just a single 30 minute bout of activity can make you feel stronger, happier, and more at ease with your body?
Now's the time to take up that hobby or sport you've always wanted to do. Rediscover your passion for a sport or game you enjoyed playing as a kid. Join a workout group, and set challenges for yourself. Take up yoga, and feel the mind-body connection restore your sense of self.
Eating better — Our mood is highly affected by what's on our plate. Nutritional deficiencies can have a profound impact on how we think and feel. Low in vitamin D? You're more prone to depression. Not getting enough Omega-3s? You're at risk of psychiatric disorders. Another one to watch is magnesium. This vital mineral is a natural stress-reliever, so if you're feeling anxious about your appearance it might be time to reach for the dark chocolate, or leafy greens. Other foods that boost our happy hormone, serotonin, include fatty fish, eggs, seeds and nuts.
It's difficult for an under-nourished body to think straight, so making sure you're getting the right foods in your body is important, but a word of warning—for people whose body issues centre around their weight, the 'D' word (diet) can be a major trigger. Consider professional help, such as a therapist. You may also want to consider a nutritionist, who can help you create a healthy eating plan that doesn’t trigger negative feelings.
Building a better relationship with your body, and addressing harmful thought patterns isn't easy. If you're having problems implementing healthier habits, you don't have to go it alone. Power says if your negative thoughts are becoming distressing it's time to consider professional help. “Body issues can be very insidious and undermining. The minute it is on your radar as an issue, it could be time to seek support.”
She advises that people take their time when looking for the right therapist, saying—“This is very vulnerable work, so finding a therapist that feels very safe and comfortable is important. Someone who is accepting, compassionate and knowledgeable. It's good to work with someone with experience in this issue and someone who is trauma-informed, because it is very complex. Interview a few people to get a sense of who they are. Find someone who feels like a good fit for you, then pace it in a way that is not overwhelming. It needs to be an approach that is tailored to each person.”
For anyone contemplating therapy but feeling intimidated, Power has a positive message—healing can be a slow process, but it is within reach. “The biggest thing is taking that step to care for yourself, so it's not about 'fixing' yourself. I reject the idea that it is a lifelong condition. I know from experience that that is not true. Recovery is absolutely possible. Self-love is absolutely possible.”
Whether you're looking for a therapist, life coach, counsellor, nutritionist, meditation consultant or naturopath, Which Doctor's extensive database of qualified practitioners can help with discounted virtual, or in-person sessions. Browse our free clinic or check out services in your area for more information.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.