I’m on vacation this week in California so I’m re-publishing a series of body image posts from the HealthyGirl.org archives. This one features Tiffany Stewart, Ph.D., of The Body Image Project and originally ran in July 2010.
HealthyGirl: When you’re in the thick of a body crisis, sometimes you wonder if you can in fact come out the other side of a confident and well-balanced person. But people can.
Dr. Stewart: Yes! But make no mistake, it’s a process. It’s a commitment to thriving. It doesn’t just happen; it takes purposeful thought and behavior. However, when we let go of our need to control every part of us and our circumstances surrounding our appearance, things start to fall into place. When we put health as the center point, everything aligns around that…that is the jumping off point to thriving. We have to devote purposeful attention and action to shift our concern with body image to meaningful reflections and actions towards health and well-being. This is the difference between simply surviving (to survive the day) every day and actually thriving (to grow and prosper).
Body image is a journey just like our life journey. It has ups and downs and periods of empowerment and pain. Often, our lives are better than we imagine. The more we hold on to what should be, the less we can see what is and what can be. Opening up to this possibility is a shift in perspective and the essence of acceptance…acceptance of constant change. It takes realizing that the journey is about the journey, and not about certain preconceived expectations and outcomes. When we are able to cultivate this vision for ourselves, we unlock our own ability to let go of judgment and find a genuine appreciation, not just of the body, but of the whole person. When we are able to cultivate appreciation and peace, there is contentment—even if all the flaws aren’t fixed. In that contentment, one is able to move beyond being stuck in the “should” position to make healthy changes in their own life.
HealthyGirl: What specific steps can we take to improve our body image?
Dr. Stewart: We can contribute to our own improved body image and that of others through a few main steps:
1. Become aware: The answer is to stop, become aware of your thoughts, emotions and behaviors every day. Evaluate your perspective. Evaluate what you are buying into. Evaluate the ways in which you break down your own self appreciation and confidence. Then, begin again. Every day is an opportunity for a fresh start…of thinking, behaving, regarding the self.
2. Become a skeptic: We choose what we buy into and digest from the media….when we are aware. Call into consciousness what you know about airbrushing photos and the extreme Hollywood measures taken towards thinness and body alteration when viewing popular media or taking others’ opinions into account (they might be buying in as well). Also, comparing ourselves to others is just as damaging as buying into media. We all have unique bodies with unique requirements to be healthy and happy.
3. Cultivate a new way of being: We must cultivate the way we evaluate bodies and selves. This includes negative thought patterns and behaviors that reinforce those negative thoughts. We must mindfully move from self-criticism and judgment of ourselves and others to celebration, pride, compassion, and gratitude when it comes to our appearance and the general life we lead. Otherwise, we can drown in the failed, self-imposed standards.
4. Cultivate gratitude and kindness related to body and self: We need to learn to value what we have, not seek what we value. Recognizing what we have versus what we don’t is key in thriving in our bodies and minds. The first step is to stop resisting the bodies we have and acknowledge them in their entirety, including strengths. Be kind to yourself, when you feel you succeed and when you don’t.
5. Cultivate health: The next step is to assess our health status and habits, and identify what good health would actually mean to our particular body size, shape, conditions and overall life.
6. Practice that shift every moment of every day, on purpose. Some moments are harder than others, but bring your attention and behavior back to the practice of awareness, gratitude, kindness, health, and action.
7. Show others. If we are not aware, we too can promote unrealistic standards and pressure on others to meet those standards. We need to reinforce our friends and loved ones in cultivating a healthy body, body image, and self-worth. We don’t do this by beating up our own bodies in conversation, criticizing others or validating others’ negative body talk or behaviors. We have to set the example. We have to be the beacons of body image peace for others to follow. People respond to what we genuinely embody in our everyday lives. Something to think about. Every time we validate or celebrate that “control” in others or others’ perceptions of how they “should” be versus how they are now and their efforts to be healthy, we further perpetuate this problem among us. All you have to do is be you…the best you that you can be. Health, self-worth, inner strength, and confidence are intricately related. If we can acknowledge our strengths and maintain our health, our confidence thrives…and comes through to those around us.
The bottom line on body image is that we need to shift the tide from a focus on what is lacking, and judgment of ourselves and one another (based on unhealthy and unrealistic standards), to health, wellness, and appreciation for what is.
Wow. Today I am going to practice gratitude toward my body, for everything that it is and everything that it does. What about you? xo…Sunny