October 7, 2013
Build a Positive Body Image Through Body Acceptance Exercises & Self Talk
Written by Rachel Eddins
Body image issues can affect almost anyone.
No matter your size, shape, gender, or age, no one is immune to a negative body image of themselves.
We live in a society where the standard of perfection keeps getting higher and more unrealistic. But, it’s not always fair to just blame one or two things for body image issues. There are some specific key contributors that you should be aware of.
The more you know about what might be causing your body image issues, the more steps you can take to coping with them.
Let’s go over three of those key contributors, how they might affect you, and what you can do to cope with them and have a clearer, more positive image of yourself.
3 Key Contributors to Body Image
1. Influences from Childhood
For many people, body image issues can begin at quite a young age. During your formative years, the people around you have a huge impact on how you see yourself.
If your parents, guardians, or other family members often commented on your weight or the way you looked, even if it was done in jest, it could lead to serious body image issues as an adult.
Think back on your formative years. Was your body a “popular” subject among those closest to you? If the answer is yes, this could be a deep, underlying trigger that causes you to view yourself negatively.
One of the best things you can do to cope with this is to practice self-acceptance.
Your body changes as you get older. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re not a child anymore. It doesn’t matter what your family thinks of your weight or shape, it only matters what you think.
Self-acceptance can also be one of the most difficult things to achieve for someone who struggles with their body image. But, once you’re able to, you’ll feel more empowered and more confident in yourself.
Positive body image is associated with greater overall well-being, self-compassion, optimism, and intuitive eating.
2. Media Pressure
The media often gets the most negative reputation for influencing people to look a certain way. Now, in the world of social media, photo filters, etc., it’s become even worse.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid the media in one form or another. And, with people who look practically flawless being posted all over, it can really trigger a lot of negativity in people who already struggle with their image.
So, what can you do to cope with something like this, that isn’t going away any time soon? The best thing is to stop comparing yourself to others. This doesn’t just include models in a magazine, it includes your friends on Facebook.
Your body is your business. If you’re doing everything you can to stay healthy and take care of yourself, that’s all that matters. When you stop comparing yourself to others, you’ll have more time to focus on your own physical and mental wellbeing.
3. Your Partner/Spouse
If you’re in a relationship and your partner is pressuring you to look a certain way, it can really take a toll on your self-esteem. Even if they claim that they’re making suggestions in a “loving” way, they’re looking at the relationship from the wrong angle.
It’s important to talk to your partner about how their suggestions make you feel. Hopefully, that will put the negative comments to an end. If they continue talking about your body in a negative way, you may want to consider couples therapy so they can have a better understanding of your needs.
Try This Body Acceptance Exercise to Improve Your Body Image
I love this take on a traditional body acceptance exercise that Dr. Christiane Northrup shared with Jean Fain, author of The Self Compassion Diet in a recent interview. She suggests doing body image mirror work in candlelight.
The great thing about using candlelight rather than traditional light is that it creates a luminescent glow and softens your skin. Candlelight also feels more intimate and re-connecting with your body is a very intimate and vulnerable experience.
The body image exercise can be very emotional and powerful so try it during a time when you’re feeling more compassionate with yourself, not when you’re feeling tired, lonely, anxious, sad or vulnerable. If you have been avoiding the mirror for some time, start small.
It’s a good idea to start any type of body image exercise such as this with a relaxation exercise to help you let go of tension and relax your body. Here are instructions for a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.
Steps to the Body Acceptance Exercise:
1. Light candles all around a bathroom with a mirror (any type of mirror works, whatever you feel comfortable with. A hand mirror is fine to start with.)
2. In the candlelight, admire and caress your skin. You can choose to focus on a particular part of the body that you feel more comfortable with to start.
3. Be compassionate with yourself as uncomfortable feelings may come up such as all the reasons why you’re not lovable. Just focus on connecting with your body and find loving, kind, or compassionate thoughts or affirmations about the part of your body you are connecting with. Examples might include:
“My legs are strong and carry me everywhere I want to go.”
“My skin is radiant.”
4. Eventually work your way through your whole body and admire your body as a whole. As you admire your body in the candlelight focus on loving, kind, or compassionate thoughts about your whole body.
5. Be mindful that as you attempt this exercise, negative thoughts may start to pop up in your head. First of all, just notice them, thank them for sharing, and then shift your attention back to admiring your body and focusing on compassionate thoughts. Don’t get hooked by the negativity.
If the negativity is persistent, take a break to get in touch with what you are actually feeling. Try and identify the feelings behind your thoughts and get in touch with those feelings so you’ll know what hooked you. This practice is about re-connecting with your body, your feelings are a part of that.
For example, if you get hooked with, “I hate my thighs”, ask yourself, “what am I feeling?”
Am I feeling sad, lonely, angry, or inadequate? Check further back, did something happen recently to make you feel this way? What thoughts might you be having about that situation?
It’s usually quite difficult to identify feelings associated with automatic, negative body image thoughts. A therapist can help you work on this at a deeper level if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
Dr. Northrup shared this advice with Jean, “It’s never too late! The body is self-renewing. We turn over every cell in our body within seven years, but you can almost make over completely in three months. It begins with the story you tell yourself in your head.”
You can change the story in your head! Take time regularly to practice body acceptance by re-connecting with your body.
Commit to working on a body image exercise regularly to make peace with and build love towards your hard-working body. Work on slowly replacing negative thinking with compassionate thinking and over time, you will begin to feel differently.
I Feel Fat – Decode The Negative Self Talk
Do you find yourself saying, “I feel fat”? What does that really mean to you?
Negative body image thoughts are often a way of talking to yourself about other issues in your life or feelings that bother you. Learn to decode these messages and stop the negative body thoughts.
There are often psychological factors that affect the way you feel about your body at a particular moment. For example, a negative body image thought such as “I feel fat” might be a way to distract you from a particular feeling such as loneliness, sadness, or despair.
What happens is that the uncomfortable feeling (loneliness, sadness, despair) gets translated into a negative body thought.
Feelings Can Get Directed into Our Bodies as Negative Body Image
Imagine you are dating someone and you find out that s/he went on a date with someone else when you had agreed on being exclusive. You decide that you’re not going to say anything because you don’t want to “push him/her away.”
Suddenly you find yourself criticizing your body. “My thighs are disgusting, I feel so fat.”
What happened? Can you decode this message into feelings? Can you see how the discomfort you felt about the situation was displaced into your body?
Were you feeling disgusted about the situation? The negative body thoughts helped you from having to confront the situation. Instead, it was directed into your body.
Decode the Feelings Underneath Negative Body Image Thoughts:
Here is an exercise adapted from The Diet Survivor’s Handbook . The next time you find yourself yelling at your body, “I feel fat”, “I hate my legs”, see if you can decode the emotional message:
1. Which adjectives (disgusting, etc) did you use to describe yourself?
2. What aspect of your personality or situation in life do those words describe?
I feel fat might equate to feeling heavy, which might equate to feeling sad or depressed. If you say that your arms are too big, what else in your life feels “too big” right now?
Is something overwhelming you? I have a big behind might equate to responsibility constantly following you. Your therapist can help you with this if you feel stuck.
3. When you have negative thoughts ask, “I’m yelling at myself about my body. I wonder what would be on my mind right now if I weren’t criticizing myself?”
What thoughts and feelings preceded the negative thoughts?
4. Use your understanding of how your negative thoughts reflect emotional aspects of your life to be compassionate with yourself.
When you notice that you’re having a bad body image thought, remember that it’s not really about your body.
5. If you find yourself resisting this exercise, “you don’t understand, I really am too fat”, see if you can go a little deeper.
The language that you use disguises feelings. There’s a reason that your negative body thoughts occur at certain times and that you pick particular words to describe yourself.
Decoding your negative body image thoughts helps you directly face other issues in your life that bother you. It also helps you move in the direction of body acceptance as you increasingly understand that the words you use to talk to yourself about your body are not objective facts
The Research on Dieting and Long-Term Weight Loss
Research has consistently shown us that the majority of dieters do not maintain their lost weight over the long-run. Long-term follow-up studies document that the majority of individuals regain virtually all of the weight that was lost during treatment, regardless of whether they maintain their diet or exercise program.
In fact, a large percentage of dieters actually end up with increased weight.
Weight Cycling and Health
Weight cycling is the most common result of engaging in conventional dieting practices and is known to increase morbidity and mortality risk.
Additionally, dieting can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with food and body over time, which can lead to an eating disorder. So, what does work for overall wellness? Does this mean that health is out the window? Certainly not.
What Works for Long-Term Health?
Research comparing participants in six randomized controlled clinical trials indicate that a Health at Every Size (HAES[R]) approach is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g., eating and activity habits, dietary quality), and psychosocial outcomes (such as self-esteem and body image), and that HAES(R) achieves these health outcomes more successfully than weight loss treatment and without the focus on weight loss.
It often sounds scary to think of not focusing on weight. If the focus isn’t on weight, then what do you do? Rather than focusing on a specific number on the scale, the focus is on accepting and connecting with body.
Essentially, it’s shifting your focus from external (what others think I should look like and eat) to internal (my body is telling me I need to stretch).
All six studies reviewed indicated significant improvements in psychological and behavioral outcomes; improvements in self-esteem and eating behaviors were particularly noteworthy. This is a very positive finding.
No studies found adverse changes in any variables, which means that focusing on intuitive eating and body acceptance vs. dieting did not lead to increased health risk, poor eating habits, etc.
What is the Health at Every Size Approach?
1) HAES(R) encourages body acceptance as opposed to weight loss or weight maintenance;
2) HAES(R) supports reliance on internal regulatory processes, such as hunger and satiety, as opposed to encouraging cognitively-imposed dietary restriction (intuitive eating); and
3) HAES(R) supports active movement as opposed to encouraging structured exercise.
Encouraging Body Acceptance
It is often thought that body discontent helps motivate beneficial lifestyle change. Ultimately, this is akin to shaming someone into change. That doesn’t work.
Research actually tells us that body discontent induces harm, which leads to less favorable lifestyle choices, perhaps as a means of coping with negative feelings (i.e., what the heck eating).
Compassion-focused behavior change theory emerging from the eating disorders field suggests that self-acceptance is a cornerstone of self-care, meaning that people with strong self-esteem are more likely to adopt positive health behaviors.
HAES(R) research supports this theory. HAES(R) participants learn to value their bodies as they are right now, which strengthens their ability to take care of themselves and sustain improvements in health behaviors.
When starting with an approach encouraging body acceptance vs. body shame, fears often arise that individuals will eat with abandon and continue to gain more and more weight over time. HAES(R) research actually disproves these fears.
All HAES(R) research studies report maintenance or improvement of dietary quality and eating behavior. This is in direct contrast to dieting behavior, which is associated with weight gain over time.
Supporting Active Movement
HAES(R) encourages people to build activity into their day-to-day routines and focuses on helping people find enjoyable ways of being active. The goal is to promote well-being and self-care rather than meeting a specific guideline for frequency and intensity of exercise.
Active living is promoted for a range of physical, psychological and other benefits which are independent of weight loss. Ultimately, finding and incorporating movement into your life is about having fun and enjoying what it feels like to move your body.
Statistics on Body Image and Eating Disorders
Recover from Body Image Issues with Help from a Specialist
Having someone you trust and someone you can talk to about your body image issues is always a great solution. If you’re struggling with self-image, don’t go through that journey alone. Use these tips to cope with specific triggers, and consider seeing one of our counselors for even more helpful solutions.
Eddins Counseling Group in Houston, TX has many experienced counselors that can help you form a more positive body image and cope with concerns such as self-esteem. Call us today at 832-559-2622 or book an appointment online.
As part of our Make Peace With Food therapy group, we explore body image as well as our relationship to ourselves as a whole. Contact us if you’d like to find out more.
With The Self-Compassion Diet, this Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist prescribes a practical program for transforming the way you think and feel about food and your whole self–a shift that, paradoxically, inspires physical change.
The Body Image Workbook offers a comprehensive program to help you stop focusing on your perceived imperfections and start feeling more confident about the way you look.