Liking our bodies - Is it really worth it?
As explained in Part 1 of this blog series, there are many reasons why liking our bodies is difficult: societal messages promote unrealistic body and weight standards (see Gillen 2015), it is socially unacceptable to like our bodies, and we’re taught that to motivate ourselves to change our bodies we need to employ a healthy dose of self-criticism (e.g., “I look so gross; I really need to lose weight.”). In arguing “why” we should like our bodies more, I describe research suggesting that liking our bodies is associated with better mental health and more healthy eating behaviours. In other words, if we like our bodies, not only will we feel better in general, but we will also be more likely to attain the health and eating goals that we typically try to attain by hating our bodies.
It occurred to me that another reason to like our bodies more is that liking our bodies may be an important piece in liking ourselves in general. How can we truly like ourselves if we don’t like our bodies? And if we don’t like ourselves, can we lead fulfilling lives? More specifically, I wondered if being kind towards our bodies, or having compassion towards our bodies, may promote and be a necessary part of self-worth and fulfillment.
So, I started looking deeper into this issue and found myself fascinated with and excited by all the research out there on self-compassion. Self-compassion involves having an attitude of kindness and nonjudgmental understanding towards oneself and one’s perceived flaws and failures, similar to the sort of attitude we might have towards a close friend or family member who is experiencing difficulties (Neff 2003a). Additionally, it promotes feelings of interconnectedness through the recognition that suffering is a common human experience (Neff 2003a). Although self-esteem and self-compassion overlap, self-esteem constitutes evaluation of the self (How good am I?) and comparisons to others (Am I better than them?), whereas self-compassion is non-evaluative and promotes interconnectedness (Neff 2003a).
Studies show that people who are higher on self-compassion experience more psychological benefits. For example, people who are higher on self-compassion report being better able to handle difficult situations by keeping them in perspective (Leary et al., 2007), their moods tend to be more positive and they are more optimistic (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007), they are less self-critical and experience less anxiety and depression, and they score higher on measures of social connectedness and life satisfaction (Neff, 2003b).
Not surprisingly, at least one study has shown that positive body image is linked to self-compassion (Wasylkiw, MacKinnon, & MacLellan, 2012). Indeed, people with a positive body image are more compassionate towards their bodies: they report more self-care behaviours; such as exercising, meditating, or resting at home when tired (Cook-Cottone, 2014); they are more likely to protect their skin from UV exposure (Gillen 2005); and they have healthier eating behaviours, such as eating mindfully and avoiding opportunities to overeat when trying to lose weight (Carraça et al., 2011).
It seems to me that these acts of protection and appreciation of our bodies, which are essentially self-compassionate acts, are powerful ways to foster and nurture self-compassion for our whole selves. Our bodies are, after all, the vehicles through which we experience everything and a healthy body is an integral part of our well-being. Not liking our bodies, and not respecting its needs while trying to develop self-compassion, would be like trying to communicate to a child we have compassion for them without, for example, helping them to eat and sleep properly and taking care of them when they’re ill.
To summarize, I believe that having a compassionate stance towards our bodies will allow us to have a more compassionate stance towards ourselves in general, and thereby we’ll be better able to weather the storms that life often presents us, whether it’s a conflict with a friend, getting a low grade on an exam, or trying on last summer’s clothes only to discover they no longer fit. In addition, a compassionate stance towards our bodies will help us take better care of our bodies, whether that be through an exercise routine, meditation, healthy eating behaviours or relaxation. So, I hope you check out the tips below on how to like your body more, and by doing so open the door to self-compassion :)
How to improve your body image.
Below is a list I’ve compiled of various tips and techniques for improving your body image. This list is a continuation of the list outlined in Part 1 of this blog series. Depending on where you’re at in your body acceptance journey, you may find some of the things I recommend difficult to execute on your own. If possible, I recommend seeking the help of a mental health professional who is familiar with these techniques to guide you. I also draw a lot from this great resource: The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks (Thomas Cash, 2008), which I highly recommend for helping you in your body image journey. Additionally, helpful and easy-to-read resources on eating disorders can be found at the Centre for Clinical Interventions website.
9. Realistic goals. Establish more realistic goals and expectations for your weight and body. If you’re having trouble doing so, consult with a dietician; they are great resources for helping you with your healthy eating and weight loss goals. Consider whether the diet you’re on will help you lose weight quickly, or will help you sustain a healthy lifestyle. According to set point theory (Harris, 1990), genetics play a role in our body size and shape, and once our body is at a certain weight, the body uses regulatory mechanisms to keep its weight. So if you have an unrealistic weight loss goal, you will constantly feel discouraged, and will likely blame yourself for not having enough “will power.” Your self-esteem may then be affected, not to mention you’ll likely have a bunch of negative emotions that will get in the way of your motivation, concentration, etc. You may also want to think about putting in place a healthy eating system vs. a goal related to eating and weight, as goals tend to keep us in a state of perpetual failure (Adams, 2013). Systems, unlike goals, are things we do every day, and we can feel good every time we apply our system. An example of a goal is losing 10 lbs., whereas an example of a system is eating healthily.
10. Expand your identity. Invest less of your self-worth in your body image by nurturing other parts of your identity. Identify your values and make goals, habits, and systems consistent with them. What is important to you? What do you find meaningful in life? If you value personal growth, try developing a new hobby or try a new sport that puts you out of your comfort zone. If you value family, try making it a habit to get to know them a little bit more every time you see them. Think about how to make every day a life worth living. If we base our self-worth largely on appearance, we will be fighting it all our lives, as we often get messages that we need to be young, thin, and beautiful to be worthy. Do you really want to spend so much time and energy on this never-ending battle? Why not invest your energy in things that will make you a happier person even at 80 years old, such as attending to your relationships, broadening your skills, developing hobbies, being active, eating in a way that is healthy and sustainable, learning how to be more mindful, etc. What will allow you to look back on your life and say, “I lived my life according to what really mattered”? Check out this worksheet on identifying your values.
11. Mirror exposure (Hildebrandt et al., 2012). Often when we have a negative view of our body, our perception of it becomes distorted, so that we see parts of it differently than they actually are. This happens for a few different reasons. First, if you look at anything out of context, especially if you feel negatively about it, it will appear bigger relative to its objective size. So, if we’re zooming in on our thighs and we dislike our thighs, we might think they look “huge.” Second, our brain is able to distort our perception so that we see what we expect to see. If we expect to see fat thighs, we are more likely to see fat thighs. For a more detailed explanation of how our perception of our bodies becomes distorted, check out this information pack from the Centre for Clinic Interventions website.
One way to counter a distorted body perception is to develop the habit of looking at ourselves in the mirror mindfully, without judgment. This is also known as “Mirror exposure” and is outlined in the Body Image Workbook, Second Edition (Thomas Cash, 2008), under “Mindful Mirror Reflections.” A main goal of this exercise is to develop a more objective, realistic, balanced view of our bodies. To do mirror exposure, you stand in front of the mirror and describe your body in terms of its shape, form, colour, texture, and shading, as if you were describing it to someone who can’t see. It is important to be objectively descriptive, not evaluative or judgmental. In other words, avoid using words such as “bad”, “ugly”, “fat”, etc. You want to look at every part of your body equally and not excessively focus on parts that make you feel particularly bad but not avoid them either. Complete the exercise by spending a minute looking at your total reflection, your body as a whole and not as parts. If you do decide to do this exercise, I highly recommended you use the Body Image Workbook, Second Edition (Thomas Cash, 2008) as a guide, or consult with a therapist who is experienced in using this technique.
12. Stop checking. When we are preoccupied with our body’s shape and weight, we might “check” it often by touching it, pinching it, squeezing it, looking at it in the mirror a lot, or weighing it excessively. Excessive checking is problematic for many reasons. Excessive checking increases our preoccupation with whatever it is we’re checking, and it also causes us to notice small, meaningless changes that we otherwise wouldn’t notice, and interpret those small changes as meaning more they really do. For example, if we weigh ourselves daily, a lot of our thoughts during the day will be in anticipation of weighing ourselves or possibly ruminating about the number we recently saw on the scale. Moreover, with frequent weighing, we will inevitably notice small increases and decreases in our weight, as everyone’s weight goes up or down a pound or two day to day due to biological changes such as water retention. However, if we’re worried about and expecting to gain weight, we will be more likely to interpret small increases as weight gain, and we will try to link that increase with something we ate in the day, even though there’s no association (that piece of cake we had earlier in the day did not make us gain a pound).
13. Stop comparing. Another form of body checking is comparing our bodies to other people’s bodies. I recognize that for some of you not comparing yourself to others probably sounds like an impossible task, as it happens so automatically. I can guarantee you though that in our constant comparing, we are maintaining our negative preoccupation with our bodies and, because we are probably selectively comparing ourselves to highly attractive people, we are making ourselves feel bad over and over again. To reduce body comparisons, start off by practicing catching yourself comparing your body to other people’s bodies. Once you get really good at this, practice shifting your attention to something else when you notice yourself comparing. Don’t judge yourself for comparing, but make a deliberate effort to move your attention away from the comparison. The more you are able to let go of comparing, the easier it will become.
14. Mindfulness. Be mindful of the thoughts and feelings you have about your body image. Mindfulness is a skill based in Eastern philosophical perspectives. Mindfulness teachers suggest that our minds often get carried away by stories, or thoughts about how things are, were, or should be. For example, while looking in the mirror, we may think, “I’m so fat.”, “Why can’t I just look good for once?”, “Why do my friends have it so much easier when it comes to weight?”, “I need to lose 10 lbs. by my birthday.”, etc. Mindfulness teaches us to notice, without judgment, when our mind has jumped onto the thought train, and with practice we can learn to step off of the train and onto the platform. We can step off of the train by coming back to the present moment, by noticing, for example, our breath or the sensations in our bodies. By observing our thoughts without judgment and coming back to the present moment, we will stop ourselves from equating thoughts and feelings with truth, our inner experiences will become more tolerable, and we will be less likely to react in a way that causes us further suffering. Check out my colleague’s Natsumi Sawada’s blog post to learn more about mindfulness!
15. Gratitude. Every day, thank your body for its function. For example, “thank-you legs, you let me dance today. “Thank-you arms, you let me hug my best friend.” Or, simply, “thanks body, you work pretty well most of the time.” Check out this short clip to hear Amy Poehler’s thoughts on how to have gratitude for our bodies.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, in reflecting on why we should like our bodies, I realized that liking our bodies is likely an important piece in cultivating compassion for our whole selves. I’d like to take this a little further and leave you with this: Perhaps by nurturing compassion for our bodies, we can more readily experience compassion for our loved ones, for people in need, for the environment, for people who annoy us, and for those who have really hurt us. As Tara Brach eloquently said, “Once we have held ourselves with kindness, we can touch others in a vital and healing way.” This is not a new idea, that we can better love others if we love ourselves, but what I’m saying here is that an important, and perhaps necessary, part of this is having compassion for our bodies. In any case, it’s a good place to start :)
For more self-help and mental health resources, check out our resource section!
Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
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