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This is tough. Many of us will have spent years, if not decades, beating ourselves up for the way we look, stuck in an endless battle of wills to change the largely unchangeable. The current pandemic we find ourselves in doesn’t seem to be helping, as time spent online and stress have increased hugely; 53% of UK adults have said that lockdown has made them feel worse about the way they look.
But if we want to move away from dieting (as I highly recommend), and towards actual ways of improving our long term health and psychological wellbeing, how we feel about our body plays a key role. If you feel shit about your body you’re much less likely to take care of it and treat it with the respect it deserves. Now that’s not to say that you have to love your body to take care of it, but we can move towards a place where we start to recognise all that it’s done for us and will do for us and treat it better. See the first blog I wrote about body image which goes into body neutrality and body respect in more detail.
It starts by understanding that your physical appearance is not what makes you worthy. It involves understanding where beauty ideals come from (and challenging them, daily), widening your beauty lens (have a quick scroll through your social media feed – how diverse are the bodies there?) and adjusting your measure of self-worth. By slowly working on these things, you can improve your body image.
The activities below are examples of those I use with clients to help them nurture body respect and kindness. Take what you want, leave what you don’t but if you can go through all of these - one at a time - when you get the chance. This might not be something you’re ready for right now, so make a note of this page and come back when you’re up for it. Don’t shy away from any feelings that come up – ask yourself, what’s really going on and what do I really need to feel okay about my body?
The ‘image myth’ is perpetuated in the media more than anywhere, those who fit the current (and ever changing) ‘ideal body image’ are often amplified. 57% of adults report ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ seeing themselves or people who look like them regularly reflected in images in media and advertising. So how can we be expected to understand that bodies come in ALL shapes and sizes - and that that’s actually a good thing?
What to do:
* Diversify your social feeds so that they represent the huge diversity of people we have in the World.
* Follow people who look like you, who’re just living their life and not letting the way they look get in the way.
* Make sure to follow a wide range of body sizes, shapes, skin colours, people from different backgrounds etc. or just follow puppy accounts and those that have nothing to do with people!
* Also have a think about what you consume through traditional media (magazines, blogs, TV) – do you just read Women’s Health or blogs written by skinny clean-eating influencers? Change it.
* If what you’re consuming on a daily basis makes you feel crap about yourself – change it!
Have you ever made a list of all the things you don’t like about yourself, or all the things you’re going to change? I’m willing to bet that you’ve done this but never done one on all the things you like. So that’s what this exercise is for. Make a list of 100 things you like and appreciate about the way your body looks, the way you are (personality, values etc) and what your body allows you to do.
What to do:
* This can be tough, especially if you’re having a bad body image day (we ALL have these!) so choose a day when you’re feeling alright or neutral about yourself.
* Start with just a couple, build up the list when and as you can. If you’re stuck ask those close to you for things they love about you, in particular those that have nothing to do with the way you look – do you like these parts of you too?
* Once you have a list it’s hard to ignore what an amazing person you are and you can refer back to this when you’re having a difficult body image day.
* Just FYI, it’s totally okay to get weird with this list – the first thing on my list is my belly button!
Do you have anything in your wardrobe that’s too small? Are you using these as goal clothes that keep you tied to a different version of yourself? Have you been holding out buying new clothes until you’re at your target weight? Or not wanting to buy the clothes that would actually fit you because they’re ‘too big’. Your body - as it is right now - deserves to be dressed comfortably, in clothes that make you feel good and sexy.
What to do:
* Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit you or that you’re saving for when you’re thinner. You don’t have to feel guilty about chucking them out, swap them with a friend, give them to a charity shop or recycle them at large supermarkets.
* Once you’ve gotten rid of clothes that don’t fit properly go shopping. Take a trusted friend or find a store with a personal shopper who can help you find a style that makes you feel awesome.
* When you’re trying clothes on turn away from the mirror and feel them before you look. Comfort should be high on your agenda – our body deserves that at the very least no?
* If money’s tight check out charity shops, or start with underwear. Underwear is important as you deserve to feel comfy – if you’re constantly pulling and fixing an ill-fitting bra or pants it keeps you body checking and hyper-aware of your body.
* And remember that clothes sizes are so arbitrary and studies have shown that generic UK clothes sizes fit only a tiny proportion of the population properly – they can also vary wildly between shops. It’s the clothes that are wrong not you!
It’s near gone impossible to remove 100% of negative thoughts about our bodies, we’ve been trained to think about our bodies this way. But, we can do something about them so we can see them for what they are – just thoughts, not real and entirely changeable. In this exercise we’re looking to neutralise negative thoughts about the way our body looks, this can be particularly helpful when you’re having a bad body image day and these thoughts come thick and fast. Then instead of letting these thoughts dictate your mood and feelings for the rest of the day you get some clarity and space to question them, hopefully changing this trajectory to something more helpful.
What to do:
* When a negative thought comes up write it down and underneath write down 3 neutralisations which help bring you back to reality and to body kindness. Cross out the negative thought, if that helps.
Examples might be:
“my thighs are jiggly” change to “my thighs are strong, they allow me to walk through this world and give me support when I need it”
“my tummy shouldn’t stick out” change to “tummies are supposed to stick out, my tummy helps give me nourishment from my food and my tummy muscles help me to sit up and stand”
“My arms are flabby” change to “my arms do so much for me, like allowing me to hug my family and to dance whenever I want”
* Externalising thoughts helps make them more tangible and puts them in the light of day. Think about how you’d talk to a close friend if they said these negative things to you.
* And remember, self-compassion is key!
This one requires a bit of commitment and potentially exploration of difficult and upsetting times, so leave this until you’re in a place where you’re ready to do some hard work. Write 2 versions of a letter to your body: firstly, a love letter where you get to thank your body for everything it allows you to do and experience; then an apology, for all the times you’ve treated it unkindly and as less than the miracle it is.
What to do:
Version 1 – Love letter to your body
* This is the easier of the 2 to do. In this letter thank your body for all the things it allowed you and allows you to do.
* Be creative, think about how your body allows to have health (healing wounds, taking cleansing breathes), everything you experience through your senses - both pleasant and unpleasant sensations, how you use your body to communicate and be part of your community, moving and being active in an enjoyable way etc.
Version 2 – Apology to your body
* This can be potentially upsetting and difficult as it involves exploring potential past trauma and dark times. Do this only when you feel ready for it.
* In this letter apologise to your body for all the times you’ve spoken unkindly about it, punished it with grueling, painful exercise or not nourished it properly, ignored it’s needs or poked and pulled at it.
* Start with version 1 and come back to this one when you’re ready.