We are constantly told that we need to have a healthy body image in order to thrive. Simultaneously, we receive a barrage of conflicting messages from the media, which subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) inform us that true happiness can only come with the attainment of physical perfection. It’s a tough formula to withstand. Little wonder that the somewhat wishy-washy messages to “love yourself” and “own your body” often get short shrift in practical terms.
Loving your body, no matter what it looks like, is undoubtedly an incredibly healthy attitude — but it is by no means easy to do. There is no switch to be flipped, and often one’s body image is so profoundly wrapped up in sense of self that it can feel impossible to change it.
Why Is It So Difficult?
It’s hard to change one’s body image for a variety of reasons. Changing the way in which you view your appearance requires an astonishing strength of character and a deep well of self-compassion, which is incredibly difficult to build up in a society which thrives upon exploiting people’s angsts. Furthermore, the way in which we view our bodies is deeply connected to our state of mind in general — so much so that the two often cannot be untangled.
While it’s easy to encourage people to improve their body image, in reality you’re talking about smashing down generations of cultural conditioning, telling people to step away from the messages of the society in which they are submerged, and asking them to rewrite their own mental software. Changing the way in which you think is not simple.
The toxic blend of media messages and negative self-perceptions can lead people to quite literally endanger their own lives in the name of bodily ‘perfection’. It’s not a phenomenon that can be altered without profound change at a societal level. However, this seems unlikely to be forthcoming in the near future, so in the meantime we must develop some solid methods of improving our own body image. None of these are easy, but — if practiced diligently — they do work.
Here are some practical ways to help boost your body image –
Stop Talking About Appearances
You can’t just stop thinking about the way you look overnight. But you can stop talking about the way you look. And about the way other people look. Be it yourself, your family members, people on TV, people in magazines, your friends… Do not comment at all on the way they look. You may think that they look nice. You may have a burning desire to point out their ill-advised fashion choices to your friends and have a giggle. But if you’re serious about improving your own body image, don’t. Talk about the way they are as a person instead (there is so much more to most humans than the way we wear their our hair or the amount of poundage we’re carrying!).
Getting involved in conversations about appearances subliminally reinforces the message that appearances are enormously important. Furthermore, when you’re picking out the flaws and good points in other people’s bodies, you are essentially training your brain to scrutinize all bodies in a similar manner. Inevitably you will repeat what you’ve learned on your own body — but much more intensely. The results are never good. So shut down appearance-based conversations if you can. Even compliments can take on a sinister tone if you have poor body image. A “You look lovely today!” is all too easily translated by the suffering psyche into “You usually look appalling, today is an exception.” This may seem harsh, but until you are comfortable in your own skin, you are not ready to comment upon anyone’s body — least of all your own. It will only backfire.
Manage Media Intake
We live in a media-saturated world, so avoiding it may sound like an incredibly difficult request. But it can be extremely beneficial. If you’re struggling with poor body image, there is lots of evidence that exposure to the unrealistic standards of beauty with which we are bombarded can have serious consequences for our own body images.
Even supermodels that pose for magazines do not look like the photographs that end up in the magazines — the magic of posing, lighting, and digital retouching create fantasy images that are unattainable for any human being. Still, plenty of us compare ourselves to these gods and goddesses of the glossies, and find ourselves deeply wanting. Don’t do this. If you come away from the TV or a magazine feeling ugly, then don’t turn to them in the first place. It won’t be long before your standards of beauty recalibrate along more normal lines, and you start to realize that you are just fine the way you are.
If you’re also making a conscious effort not to talk about the way you or anyone else looks, you’ll find that you begin to develop an appreciation of yourself and others based upon more important things than appearance. The way we look really is not as important as cosmetics companies would have us believe — in order to truly appreciate this, you may have to stop drowning your brain in subliminal media messaging. If you cannot do this (and it is tough to do so in this day and age), then educate yourself about the way in which the media uses and manipulates images of physical perfection. Read books like Naomi Woolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’, research methods of digital retouching, check out the psychology of advertising — anything to help you contextualize and think more critically about the images you are consuming.
Talk to Someone
The bottom line here is that appearances really are not that important. Many of us believe that if we only looked a certain way, we would be happy. Truth is, if you’re not happy with who you are, no amount of prettification is going to change the way you feel. If you’re seriously upset with the way you look, the answer doesn’t lie in changing your outward appearance, but rather in talking to someone who can help you.
Sure, looking good can be great for your self-esteem — but you have to believe that you look good in the first place. You could be the most beautiful person in the world yet still believe yourself ugly if you don’t have a solid basis of self-compassion upon which to build. If you can develop emotional equilibrium, self-understanding, and strong mental foundations, then it won’t matter what you look like. Honestly, it won’t. But sometimes, you might need some professional help to achieve these things.
Written by Helen Canter
About the Author: Helen Canter is a freelance writer and mother. She spends time divided between her children and writing on subjects she is passionate about.