Is it possible to love your body?
I facilitated a therapeutic Body Image Group for almost two years, and I've lost track of how many times our explorations returned to the idea of whether it's possible to accept, like, or *gasp* love your body. This isn't surprising given that I work specifically with women who struggle with disordered relationships with their bodies and food. But whether you're battling with an eating disorder or not, body acceptance is a concept that feels unattainable for many people. This is in part due to the problematic and largely unwell socio-cultural ideals that shape our perception of what constitutes a 'healthy' and 'attractive' body. I won't waste my time, and yours, explaining what these are. We know them all too well.
One of the biggest problems with all of these ideals is that they equate health with appearance. We've been taught that health is something that can be seen in our hair, skin, weight, and body shape/size. We are also constantly bombarded with ads and images that perpetuate these ideals on social media, walking down the street or on public transport. If you live in London, pay attention to the ads that line the walls on the escalators going down to the tube, or even the ads on the tube.
What messages do they convey to you?
In my experience, many of them sell products that claim to improve your appearance or your health in some way. There's vitamins for 'perfect' skin, hair removal clinics, and various clothing lines that advertise their products worn by models of a particular body shape and size that look like they're having the time of their life. On an unconscious level, these ads communicate messages about how we 'should' appear to the world in order to be more happy, healthy, successful, loveable, attractive, or fun. Given that we are surrounded by these messages, it makes sense that many people struggle with the idea of accepting their bodies.
It is particularly challenging for individuals who are, or want to be, in recovery from a disordered relationship with food. This is in part due to the cognitive and emotional component of disordered eating. The task of accepting your body can feel impossible when you've got a critical voice inside of you that's constantly telling you that you're worthless, gross, unattractive, or disgusting. It tells you that you will only be happy 'if' you accomplish x, y, and z. What's worse, it chips away at your social self-esteem by leading you to believe that others are thinking the same things about you and your body. When this is your internal reality, the social world can feel pretty damn scary and withdrawal seems like a reasonable and safe option to escape further judgement.
Whilst this all arguably contributes to a landscape of body hatred and social anxiety, there's the added element of our feelings about our selves and how / why they get projected on to our bodies. Projection happens when we unconsciously displace our feelings (usually the ones we perceive as unacceptable or really uncomfortable) on to someone or something else. It's a psychological coping mechanism designed to save us from having to sit with, and truly feel, difficult emotions. After all, doesn't it seem easier to deal with something when we aren't feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable?
So, when you experience *insert uncomfortable emotion here* instead of accepting it, reflecting on where it came from, and allowing yourself to experience it (aka, sitting with it) you try and get rid it as quickly as possible. An effective way of doing this is by projecting the uncomfortable emotion on to your body. For example, let's say you feel angry with a friend for cancelling plans with you at the last minute. You might have grown up in a family where anger was considered a negative emotion and thus rarely voiced, or perhaps you've experienced rejection or abuse following disclosure of anger and disappointment with other people in the past. As a result, you believe that expressing anger towards your friend is unacceptable and unsafe, or that they might reject or hurt you if you do. This can leave you feeling stuck with those uncomfortable feelings without an outlet, so instead you (unconsciously) take those feelings and project them on to your body. It's a brilliant way of coping, really, because it distracts you from the original 'problem' by presenting you with a new one that has an viable solution. Now, instead of feeling angry and disappointed with your friend you feel distracted by anger and disappointment toward your body for not looking a particular way. Once this happens, thanks to those wonderful cultural ideals and norms, you're presented with a solution to your (displaced) feelings: Change the way your body looks and you'll feel better.
Feeling that you have a solution for your anger and disappointment - even if those feelings are displaced - is enough to offer temporary relief. Of course, it is a fallacy because with this type of thinking nothing is ever good enough, and so it ends up fuelling a disordered relationship with food, exercise, and your body.
This is why I tell my clients that body image has very little to do with what your body actually looks like: rather, it's a reflection of how you're feeling and how you're thinking about your self and others. Once you can let go of seeing body image as purely a reflection of what it looks like (its shape, size, weight..) , body acceptance becomes possible. Here's a few ideas that I share with my clients when they're struggling with body acceptance, and I'm not sorry to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with changing your body weight, shape, or size.
Most importantly, try and let go of the idea that body image is purely about what your body looks like and start reflecting on how it's impacted by our social, cultural, and emotional contexts. If you can identify contextual and emotional triggers for your negative body image, it will enable you to connect more with your emotions and see the areas in your life where you can try new ways of coping.
Secondly, focusing on what your body DOES for you and how amazing it is that it enables you to engage and interact with life will help counteract the damaging socio-cultural focus on appearance, weight, and body shape.
Thirdly, practice mindfulness. Mindful meditation helps you to sit with uncomfortable feelings in your body and with your emotions (good and bad). This will help you to recognise that nothing is permanent, and that your emotions don't define you. Once this happens, your uncomfortable emotions can start to feel less overwhelming and you will have a new way of coping with them other than projecting them on to your body.
Finally, cultivate self-compassion. This is perhaps the most effective way of improving your body image, but it's probably the most challenging due to pesky social norms that communicate messages about how self-compassion is somehow selfish or indulgent in some way. Self-compassion means giving yourself permission to experience those uncomfortable emotions because at the end of the day, you are a human being with a myriad of feelings ALL of which are valid. It also means having compassion for your body and what it's endured. If you've got a scar on your arm, instead of hating it and trying to cover it up, take a moment and reflect on the story behind the scar and how your body was, amazingly, able to heal the broken skin and put it back together again. We often forget to express gratitude for our bodies and what they're capable of doing because we're constantly bombarded with messages about how we need to change the way they look. And finally, self-compassion means granting yourself permission to be kind and caring toward yourself. Now, before you say anything:
There's nothing indulgent or selfish about wanting to improve your relationship with your body and your self.
That critical voice in your head, the one that tells you that you're not good enough, cannot thrive in an environment of kindness and compassion. When it comes to addressing body image, we need to look at you as a whole person and this includes your internal and external contexts. This process will look and feel different for everybody, because we are all unique. But if you can try to cultivate more self-compassion and reframe the way that you think about your body, then body acceptance and body love is absolutely possible.