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SALT LAKE CITY — So, you are sick of it, huh?
Sick of negative body image dominating your thoughts, which never fails to bring along the constant feelings of inadequacy; the starting and stopping of fruitless diets; and the countless hours wasted time talking with friends and family about what they “need” to do to their bodies and walking away feeling a wee bit more unfulfilled?
Well, if you are like so many women and men who get to this point and then don’t really know what the next step is here are six ways you can punch body-shaming right in the face and maybe even deepen your connections with those you love and make this world just a little bit better, while you are at it.
1. Strive toward living a value-directed life
Identify the main areas of your life: family, work, school, health, hobbies, community and get real with what is most important to you and how you would strive to be if you were living an authentic, value-directed life.
I would imagine obsessing about body image is not the way you would ideally like to spend your life. If that’s true for you, that would imply that continuing to do so is in direct conflict with one of your core values and acting outside of our core values is basically a giant, flashing "welcome" sign to distressing emotions.
Cultivating one’s character as he or she learns how to behave authentically and daringly aligned with his or her innermost core values is a rich, honorable and meaningful way to live. It feels good.
2. Deepen and strengthen your capacity to tolerate difficulty — particularly emotional difficulty
Another thing the majority of us have been taught in our culture is to avoid negative emotional experiences at all costs. Dr. Brene Brown is one of the most fascinating women of our time. She has made an incredible impact on our culture by creating a dialogue about what I consider to be the essence of the human experience.
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
–Dr. Brene Brown
She has conducted her research over the years on shame and how we humans spend so much of our time doing everything we can to avoid it. Shame, in our culture, represents unworthiness, being unlovable and rejection. It’s not too difficult to understand that we would do what we can to avoid that feeling.
What she explains is that by avoiding shame we also avoid being vulnerable: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change,” she said.
So by default, we are sacrificing the best things in life by not knowing how to tolerate the feelings of vulnerability.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable," she said. "Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
3. Focus on and develop talents
Do not — I repeat — do not wait for your life to start for any reason, especially negative body image. Not only will focusing on developing talents and living a more value-directed life provide a distraction from the recently dominating body obsessions, but it also has a much higher likelihood of bringing about benefits to one’s life that are much more long-lasting.
4. Strive toward constantly improving your personal and spiritual relationships
We are relational beings. We thrive on connection. If you disagree, you probably need to read No. 2 a few more times. Obsessing about body image and altering our weight prohibits authentic connection to those around us. It builds a barrier and makes it impossible to connect in our most desired way.
Brown also wrote in her book "The Gifts of Imperfection," “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.”
To do this, we must actively and vigorously undo what’s likely taken years to embed in our minds by separating our bodies from our identity and worth. By doing so, we open the door to be much more of an active participant in our very most important relationships.
5. Decide, commit and fight to see your body as an ally versus the enemy
You know the whole “you need to eat healthy and exercise” mantra? How is that working for you? I wonder if you would have a different experience if you shifted it slightly to, “Give my body what it needs and then get out and use it.” It’s even more fulfilling if you pick something that you enjoy.
- "Intuitive Eating, A Revolutionary Program That Works" by Evelyn Tribole
- "Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything" by Geneen Roth
- Beauty Redefined: Taking Back Beauty for Females Everywhere (website)
- "The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks" by Thomas Cash, Ph.D
- "The Exercise Balance: What's Too Much, What's Too Little, and What's Just Right for You!" By Dr. Pauline Powers and Ron Thompson, Ph.D
Find a hobby that helps you learn about the incredible capacity of what your body can do. Your body is not the enemy. It is a fascinating instrument with abilities you cannot even imagine.
Start thinking outside the box. Have you ever wanted to learn how to rock climb? What about getting your groove on at Zumba? Take on your friend at racquetball? See how much weight your body can squat? Or maybe hike to that one lake deep in the very mountains you’ve lived next to your whole life? The list of possibilities is endless and it’s even more fun and rewarding to do with a friend or loved one.
Changing the way we think about our bodies, treating the body with respect and fueling it for optimal performance can open up a new world for so many people. If you are curious about how to exactly go about changing your relationship with food and the body, a great place to start would be picking up the book, "Intuitive Eating, A Revolutionary Program That Works." It is a great reference for many who would like to learn more about some of the ways so many people are changing their inner scripts to those that are so much more rewarding.
Here are some ways to fight back during the day-to-day grind:
- Get angry the next time you see a commercial that is pushing an unrealistic expectation and do something about it; turn it off, send an email expressing your frustration to the company, or maybe stop purchasing from it. It's empowering to believe in something and see our behaviors align.
- Promote better conversations with those of who you surround yourself. Stop making negative or critical comments about anybody’s body, especially yours. Next time you want to make that comment simply don't.
- Change the subject if your friends or family start talking about something that just reinforces feelings of shame and body inadequacy. Don’t participate. It's good to be compassionate to those who are going through radical changes, such as anything at all to do with pregnancy and child-birth process and it takes practice at knowing how to be supportive without reinforcing that same old script that's haunted her for years.
- Teach young people about what their bodies are capable of and promote their own personal journey in discovering it for themselves.
- Strive to eliminate in your home any negative body talk, shameful food talk, or anything else that promotes the idea that there is an unrealistic ideal.
- When you see people you care about, strive to compliment at least 5 to 1 times more about anything other than someone’s body or looks. “I’ve been so excited to hang out this week. I always have fun when we get together,” or “I can’t believe how hard you work. It’s very inspiring,” are just two examples of more meaningful interactions with those we care about and how you can feel you’re doing your part to fight back.
We are far more likely to improve our quality of life by focusing on the cultivation and deepening of the most authentic parts of ourselves than by repetitive attempts to alter our bodies to fit some cultural, irrational, and in many cases, ridiculous ideal.
Kristin Bennion, LCSW, is a therapist and founder of Intimate Connections Counseling, LLC, where she treats issues related to intimacy, sexuality, eating disorders, and other difficulties related to mood and stress. Visit www.intimateconnectionscounseling.com for information.