When the War Zone is You: The Battle of Body Image
I work with bodies — which means I work with people, of course. But people have the unfortunate habit of climbing up into their thoughts and beliefs, and cutting the connection to their bodies in the process. My job is to teach them to come back to their physical experience. Bodies and minds clash for numerous reasons, but one of the most common is body image.
Very few people resist when I ask them to drop their shoulders. Most are interested in learning to relax their jaws. But 9 times out of 10, when I ask clients to let go of their lower bellies, it’s as if I’m suddenly speaking Chinese. If I can eventually cajole them into releasing their abdomens a little, they seem appalled. In their expressions of shame, disgust, impatience, or embarrassment, I hear the tom-toms of war: I can’t walk around like this! It’s disgusting. I look fat. I am fat. Look at this flab! I’ll never lose weight. It’s a lost cause. I hate my stomach.
It’s the same for butts and thighs, noses and toes, hair, skin, height, weight. And I’m not talking about people with clinical depression or eating disorders or the tendency to self-harm – although negative self-talk can lead to those problems, especially in the case of young women. I’m talking about basically healthy people who consistently say nasty things about themselves. If it hasn’t already occurred to you while reading this, take a second to think now: do you have a battle zone? Which part of yourself are you on hostile terms with?
Join the crowd
It would seem a majority of us are engaged in an ongoing battle with our bodies. According to a 2014 survey of 2,000 American adults, 60% of women and 36% of men have negative thoughts about their appearance every week. A whopping 77% of the adult women who took part in the survey had complained about their appearance to someone at least once in the previous month. The number one body part that both women (69%) and men (52%) worried about was…yes, the stomach. Skin came in second (43% of women, 23% of men), followed by thighs and butt for women, hair (facial and body) for men.
Now, obviously nobody’s perfect, and it’s entirely possible that you really do need or want to change something about your body in order to be healthier and/or feel well. But negative self-talk isn’t action or a solution; it’s mental sniping that depletes your energy undermines your self-confidence. And though it may seem like a contradiction, the inability to accept what’s there right now makes change difficult, superficial, or short-lived. The effects of self-criticism were the subject of several studies over the past five years, which concluded that negative self-image encourages rumination and procrastination, and therefore hinders a person’s ability to make progress towards a goal.
Meanwhile, in the trenches…
What happens when you badmouth your body? Try it out for yourself. Think about that part of you that you’re unhappy with or embarrassed about. Notice all the things you’re saying to yourself. And then, without changing anything, turn your full attention to your body. Do you feel like you’re holding your breath? Are you contracting? What’s happening physically in the war zone?
There are different styles of self-bashing. Maybe you give yourself orders, maybe you recite a litany of worries, maybe you berate yourself, or make fun of yourself. Whatever the technique, your attitude is not just in your head. Your thoughts and words absolutely affect your physical way of being. If you hate your teeth and are constantly telling yourself negative things about them, for example, it will alter your way of talking, eating, or smiling. You’re likely to make unnecessary efforts with your lips, tongue, jaw, throat, and neck, which in turn will make it harder to breathe deeply, swallow correctly, and digest properly, which in turn will feed a feeling of anxiety and/or lower your energy level, and so on.
By demonizing certain areas of the body, we literally become our own worst enemy. There is no part of you that isn’t you. So whether you’re conducting a full-on battle with your belly or a cold war with your calves, you’re reinforcing messages and sensations that can lead to chronic symptoms. Many of my clients with complaints such as bloating, constipation, acid reflux, water retention, sciatica, and lower back pain turn out to have a very unfriendly relationship with the corresponding body parts. What’s more, the effort and breathing patterns that you create (often unconsciously) through negative self-image give your body the impression that something is wrong, which means it operates in survival mode for much longer than it’s designed to. This can provoke a whole range of symptoms – headaches, insomnia, irregular hearbeat — that fall under the general label of “stress.” Do you really want to do that to yourself?
We have everything to gain from identifying and stopping negative self-image. There is an abundance of information and opinion out there about how to establish a friendlier relationship with your body. In my own experience, both professional and personal, I’ve found it worthwhile to write down exactly what you’re saying to yourself. It’s essential to get some distance from self-criticism, to make it conscious rather than automatic. Then you can decide if you really want to be repeating it. Writing it out gives you this clarity. It will also help you to distinguish between what you can change and what you cannot, and to be specific about your goals, rather than feeding a huge, vague cloud of dissatisfaction about You and Life.
And of course, it helps to remember to be physical. To breathe and bring your awareness into your difficult spots. To simply feel them, without judgement, comparison, or commentary.
We only get one body in this lifetime, and while it’s true that we now have the technology and pharmacology to lift, stretch, replace, lengthen, pulp, and anesthetize most of it, I believe that the ability to deal compassionately with your own “flaws” is an important part of being human, and a necessary ingredient for a satisfying life.
Join Elaine on Saturday, May 28th for Make Peace with Your Body Image, a 2-hour workshop open to anyone who would like to feel more at ease with their body.