I just wanna feel better

Body image: it’s not all what you see

By LAURIE STUART
Posted 3/3/22

Previously on “I just wanna feel better,” we explored habits, those unconscious behaviors that we have the ability to disrupt if we think about what triggers them, how we respond, and …

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I just wanna feel better

Body image: it’s not all what you see

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Previously on “I just wanna feel better,” we explored habits, those unconscious behaviors that we have the ability to disrupt if we think about what triggers them, how we respond, and what we get from the response—the cue, the routine and the reward. From there, last month, we explored the mind/body connection that when our habituated thinking is disrupted or challenged, we feel it in our bodies and respond in a flight, flight or freeze response to danger.

I am intrigued by the thought that when our belief system is challenged, our brains register it as a threat to our physical body. And that we move into fight, flight or freeze mode. As a people under stress, it puts some context to the bad behavior on planes, or at legislative and governmental meetings (fight). It helps us understand our need to isolate ourselves, to escape from endless chaotic news, general discontent, fear and frustration (flight). It’s a opportunity to cut ourselves some slack as we find ourselves like deer in the headlights (freeze). And it makes me wonder how many other unconscious things are going on in my brain and how it all relates to the my sense of well-being.

I open myself to dig deeper and examine this unconscious, internal messaging so that I feel better. Because truly, I just wanna feel better. I want us all to feel better. Big things hover all around us. We have got to be our most resilient selves.

So today, I’m taking a leap and talking about body image and the negative critical voices in our heads.

Full disclosure: I have never particularly felt comfortable in my body and have maintained a fairly negative attitude toward my physical appearance. In junior high and high school in the ‘70s, in the age of super-model Twiggy and long straight hair, my incredibly curly hair weighed heavy on my self-perception. The size of my nose and my thighs were an issue to me. I ate frugally, and being slim and fit became an obsession.

I am envious of people who seem to have no self-consciousness about their bodies. I am claustrophobic in tight clothes. As a teen, I hugged an androgynous line, in overalls, boys’ jeans worn low and turtleneck cotton shirts. I have never been comfortable in something tight on my waist, no matter how small and flat it was (past tense!). My introduction to the Flax Design’s barn sale, and the colorful loose linen pieces that I could purchase there at great discounts, greatly improved my relationship to feeling comfortably dressed and suitably hidden.

Not surprising, I have always wanted to have a better relationship with my body. In cities, I try to catch a glimpse of my reflection in a store window, so as to see my image, set in the landscape as if I was a stranger. I look around in a crowd and try to find someone who I think is my size. All of this is an attempt to see beyond my own self-perception and discomfort.

So where does a body image come from?

Mostly, it comes from the normative message that we receive from everywhere on what constitutes an ideal body. It comes from what we learned as children about our gender, our race, about how power moves through the world. How attractiveness counts and how you look matters. It comes from the internalization of our perceptions and experience of being judged. It comes, quite naturally, from an inherent negative bias that we then use to harshly judge ourselves.

According to behavorialscientist.org, “teens are frequently judging themselves based on the body types of their peers and the body types of those seen in media. Studies have shown that comparison to unrealistic body ideals can lead teens to develop body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, and disordered eating behavior. Teens are also arguably the most susceptible group to body image disturbances and eating disorders in the U.S.”

According to Connie Sobczak, author of “Embody: Learning To Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!)” and co-founder of The Body Positive, a nonprofit organization—with the ultimate goal of ending the harmful consequences of negative body image: eating disorders, depression, anxiety, cutting, suicide, substance abuse and relationship violence—there are steps that we can take to counter our negative bias. She calls these exercises of self-love. She advises us to counter negative messages with an appreciation of the wonderful things that our bodies do.

Can we, in the moment when we are criticizing some small piece of ourselves, remember how amazing our bodies are? The very act of taking a breath, the exchange of oxygen and the expelling of carbon dioxide, is quite miraculous when you think about it. To enhance that she suggests a simple breathing exercise: imagining that with each breath, we are inhaling kindness and exhaling self-criticism.

She does not recommend replacing every negative thought with a positive one. Rather, she asks us to dig deep for the courage to face our strong emotions and negativity. She asks us not to rid ourselves of our false perceptions about our body image, but to acknowledge that reality, to comfort ourselves as if we were a toddler having a tantrum, and “love our flawed selves even when we blow it.”

She asks us to pay attention to media and the messages that bombard us. She asks us to take steps to improve our health, not our weight, not the shininess of our hair, nor our perceived—or not-perceived—attractiveness in the world.

These are not the measures of our self-worth. These are the measures of a complex being becoming aware of unconcious habit, recognizing the interconnections of our mind, body and spirit and taking steps to more fully inhabit our unique lives. It’s an act of feeling better about ourselves. Of inhabiting our unique lives and what we can offer to the world at this moment of peril.

Speaking of unique lives: yep, I rowed for about five days, enjoying every moment, making progress and halting suddenly on day six. I gotta love my weirdness and resistance to change. How about you?

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