It’s Time for Body Positivity
Have you ever had a really good, confident day? Maybe you were really feeling yourself, and it showed through your outfit, or your hair. Perhaps on that day, you smiled and made eye contact with everyone you passed. You weren’t concerned about what others might think of you because, well, you felt good about yourself.
On the other hand, have you ever experienced a day when you felt like you just couldn’t stand being in your body? Maybe it was just one small thing that started a negativity snowball, like noticing a blemish on your face or wanting to shed a few extra pounds. However, that snowball quickly turned into an avalanche of feelings. While on confident days, you might have thought nothing of wearing less makeup or running errands right after a sweaty workout, but on days like these, you can’t even bring yourself to leave the house. It’s an awful, shameful, stuck feeling.
We’ve all occasionally experienced feelings like self-consciousness or insecurity. These are natural. But when these feelings start to become a regular occurrence and take over your life, locking you into negative thought patterns and keeping you from truly living, they become a serious issue! If unchecked, these feelings can lead you to feeling chronically unhappy, depressed, or even and utterly unworthy of love.
In my work as a body-positivity therapist, I help clients build self-esteem and a healthy body image. I want clients to know how to feel good about themselves! While we all have something we may not particularly like about ourselves, it’s important to get support when it begins to impact the way we interact with others, ourselves, and our bodies.
The expression “body image” refers to the relationship you have with your body, how it looks in your mind’s eye, and how it feels to you. Essentially, body image is the way you think and feel about your body and its appearance. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is your level of confidence in your own intrinsic value and worth as a person. It’s reflected in how you answer that big question: “Am I loveable?”
If having high self-esteem means you truly believe you have worth, (character flaws and shortcomings included), then this applies to your body, too. High self-esteem empowers you to feel that your body is also worthy of being loved, regardless of any perceived physical flaws or how attractive you think you are.
The Relationship Between Your Body Image and Self-Esteem
Even now, as I write this, I can hear so many readers saying, “It’s because I don’t like my body that I don’t feel good about myself” or “If I could just lose __ pounds, then I would feel good about myself and finally be happy (or achieve my other goals).”
While body image and self-esteem do live together on a two-way street, I’d say that our self-esteem primarily shapes the way we think about our bodies. For example, if we think we’re unattractive, our self-esteem can certainly take a big hit! This is why we should pay careful attention to our self-talk. If we think, “I don’t look like that supermodel. See, I knew I wasn’t good enough. This must be why I am experiencing this painful setback… and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Then, over time, seeing our bodies as not good enough reinforces how unworthy of love we feel we are.
Doubt in your own self-worth can manifest as a struggle to manage and improve your body. Think of it this way: negative body image is a symptom of low self-esteem. This is obviously a vicious cycle.
The chicken-and-egg debate of what comes first, body image or self-esteem, matters less than this: If you’re truly focused on changing the look of your body or just feeling better in it, it’s wise to start by working on improving your self-esteem.
What Shapes Your Body Image & Self-Esteem?
Our sense of value is first shaped by what we perceive about our own “loveability.” Even from a young age, we wonder what being loveable requires of us, and whether we’ve measured up to that standard. These messages aren’t always explicit. Nevertheless, as children, we soak up these messages from everyone around us like little sponges.
Body image is also shaped by the messages of those who are the closest to us. We are influenced by what we are being taught … about beauty, the human body itself, sexuality, and gender, and these perspectives can deeply impact our own thoughts.
Of course, the media also has its say in how a beautiful body “should” look through celebrating certain images in pop culture. Not only that, the fashion, beauty, food, and diet industries can send unrealistic images about the human form. Heck, it even infringes on our sensibilities by telling us how we should move our bodies, how we should use them, dress them, how much they should be seen and, yes, even heard. Think of feminine product marketing and realize that they even want to tell you how bodies should smell!
Sadly, these harmful messages exist for both men and women. It’s overwhelming and it creates feelings of shame. Paying attention to these kinds of thoughts can have a tremendous effect on your mental health.
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How Body Image And Self-Esteem Affects Your Overall Health
How you feel about yourself affects how you treat yourself; your body is no exception. Since self-esteem and body image are so closely tied, what we’ve been taught about our loveability shows up in our perceptions of our bodies as well as how we treat or interact with our bodies.
Remember that day we talked about earlier: the one when you’re feeling so bad about yourself that you don’t want to leave the house? Well, when you don’t feel worthy of love, it’s a struggle to feel worthy of self-care, including getting out of bed, getting outside, and seeing people. Eating well, going to the doctor, getting fresh air or good sleep, can all suffer when we don’t feel important or loveable. Afterall, we invest in what’s important to us.
When a lack of consistent, basic self-care (and other not-so-healthy ways of coping with feeling bad about ourselves) leads to inevitable health issues or weight gain, we tend to say, “See, I knew it. My body is my enemy. I generally suck. What’s the point? I’ll never be healthy, happy, beautiful or loved.” Just like that, those ideas that your body is ugly or too fat, seem to confirm the faulty message that you are intrinsically flawed. While you’re stuck there, not sure how to get out, you may be tempted to believe that losing weight or changing how your body looks is your only option for handling these big feelings. This anxious feeling can be overwhelming.
Cue the diet industry. When in this rock-bottom place, going on a diet is erroneously marketed as a quick-fix and the only way out of hating the way you feel in your skin.
However it is important to realize the reality. The beauty, fitness, and weight loss industries are intrinsically built on people feeling bad about themselves. They market to your insecurities and sell a branded image of perfection. While there are many well-intentioned people in what we call the “wellness” industry, seeking perfection is always toxic for you. [Read more about shifting from a Dieter’s mindset to a Body Positivity mindset here!]
Research shows us that dieting not only leads to overall weight gain and more health problems, it’s also linked to depression and anxiety. That’s right: dieting actually increases weight and lowers self-esteem in the long-term.
Unlike what these industries tell you, your imperfections are not shortcomings. What idealistic beauty standards define as imperfections are actually parts of what a human body is supposed to be. Exactly as you are, exactly as your body looks today, you are loveable and desirable.
Finding Freedom in Your Body
So how do we break out of the low self-esteem and body image trap? First, start by building a strong foundation of self-esteem, on which a better relationship with your body can be built.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What were the messages I received while growing up about my “lovability”?
- How do I know I am worthy of love and that I have value?
- Do I believe that my lovability and worth are intrinsic, or do I believe that they have to be earned?
Now, set aside some time to write a list of all the qualities you love or like about yourself. Think of as many as you can and remember what others have appreciated about you or how they’ve complimented you. Ask those you trust for help adding to the list. Put this list where you can see it every day and add to it regularly.
The good news is while working on your self-esteem, you can also start building a new relationship with your body! These go hand-in-hand!
- Notice the messages you get daily about beauty and your body. Being aware is the first step in challenging and changing your own perceptions of beauty…and your own body image.
- To build a new perception of beauty and a new body image, expose yourself to new, more balanced ideas of beautiful bodies. Follow body-positive social media accounts. (I list a few of my favorite ones below). Simply look at more different types of bodies, paying attention to how you feel about them, while celebrating what is interesting or unique about them.
- Time to write another list! Think of and write down as many things as you can that you like or appreciate about your body. **Don’t limit yourself to appearances.** Your body is more than what it looks like. What is amazing about it? What does it do for you every day? How does it support you? How does it heal you? Where is it strong, flexible, or resilient?
- Try writing a letter to your body. What would you want to say to him or her? Furthermore, how do you imagine your body would respond? What does your body really want you to know?
While these are helpful tools, I encourage you to reach out to a counselor or coach who can help you practice new ways of showing up for yourself every day, with both support and accountability.
It can be an extremely rewarding journey, one that leads to true peace and ultimate freedom. You, and your body, deserve it.
Meet Kathleen: an experienced therapist and life coach with a gentle but powerful style. She can help you build your self-esteem, heal after living through hard things, and create strong, meaningful relationships in a non-judgmental, productive space where you will feel safe, comfortable, and understood.