How you perceive your own body can have a large impact on your emotional wellbeing. In episode 260, I received a question from a listener who has struggled with having a negative body image from around the age of 10. In this post, I touch the surface on what is a very complicated topic and offer my thoughts on what you can do to help improve the relationship you have with your body.
Hey, I haven’t seen any episodes on body image issues and was wondering if you could talk about this issue more.
I remember having body image issues since about ten (maybe earlier). I have worked really hard on my mental health in general but I can’t seem to escape this issue. My body image has been progressively getting better as I’m getting older and working on myself. This has recently changed since I had my second child who’s now one. That pregnancy really took a toll on my body. I’m left with a body I don’t recognize. I do all the things I can do to help make myself feel better, but I know there are some things that can’t be fixed. Every time I look in the mirror I just want to cry (and sometimes I do). My husband says I have body dysmorphia. There’s no way I can tell if I have it, cuz I really think I look a certain way, so how could I know if I actually don’t lol. I do feel like it’s a possibility because when I look back on old pictures I realize I don’t at all look like how I thought I did at the time. I always wonder how some women can be so proud of their imperfections post-pregnancy, but I obsess over mine. Honestly, I don’t think I can ever be at peace with my imperfections but would appreciate advice on how to not obsess about them.
Thank you so much. I absolutely love your podcast. It has helped my mental health immensely. I listen whenever I feel anxious because it helps calm me down.
This is a huge and complicated topic. I’m not going to be able to do it justice here, since my experience in life is so different than yours, but I will try to give some helpful thoughts.
The first thing to talk about, I suppose is the question of is this body dysmorphia. That’s a tough one because the definition is a little vague. It’s basically about being very concerned about a perceived flaw in your appearance that other people would find minor or not even notice. That leads a lot of room for interpretation. I think what is more important is how this is impacting you. If you are crying into the mirror, obsessing about the appearance of your body, and feeling anguish because of it, it’s worth paying attention to regardless of what you call it.
Not has, but why?
The question here isn’t has your body changed as much but why it matters if it has changed. I don’t know how different you look and I’m not too concerned about that point. You have had two kids – your body should change. Human gestation and childbirth are f**king crazy when you think about it. Like it works, but just barely. And the bodies of people that give birth and carry children are so cool in the ways that they adapt and transform to make that happen. If someone looks exactly the same as they did prior to having children, they would be an outlier. So again the question isn’t do you look a certain way, it’s why does that question hold so much power over you. And I’m not going to pretend like it’s easy. There are so many forces at work here from the media to your own previous life experiences that have taught you that there is a specific way you SHOULD look and a certain type of appearance that you SHOULD consider attractive.
One piece of advice that can be helpful, but is sometimes unreliable, is to consider how you feel about other people. When you look at others and see variations that you would consider imperfect or bad on yourself, do you get the same negative feelings from them? Do you find them to be unattractive because of it? Many times the answer is no, in which case it can be good to spend time noticing and reflecting on that. Noticing the people that you still find hot, worthwhile, sexy, interesting, etc. regardless of the various ways they look. The reason I say that it is unreliable is that sometimes when you are struggling so much with these aspects of yourself, you do indeed become more judgmental of others. It’s similar to the way that people with social anxiety are afraid that everyone is analyzing and criticizing them, but they are also way more observant and critical of others than people without social anxiety.
The brighter side of social media
Something that I find awesome about social media is the representation of different body types. I love that on my feed I can find people of different shapes and sizes, people with scars or speckled skin, stretch marks, people with limb differences, and without fail there are always people underneath in the comments talking about how beautiful they are. But with social media, you can sometimes accidentally fall into your own echo chamber. If your feed is simply fueling the fire of being upset that you don’t look like some unattainable standard, maybe that’s something to pay attention to. It might seem silly, but simply seeing more representation and positive reactions to different types of people can subtly train your attention to be less of an asshole to yourself.
Ads and media are getting somewhat better about this, but there is still work to be done. I love how Savage x Fenty is authentically including all sorts of bodies in their ads. I feel like they get it and I see the reactions. I’ve been seeing ads for their boxers and the ads feature a bigger black guy and there is so much love for him in every comment section. Both people who are thirsting over him and people who are so thankful to have someone that looks like them in an ad. But again, this isn’t all of the ads out there. There are also ads that make gestures about being inclusive, but everyone has a perfect shape with flawless skin, and all of that. We still have a ways to go, so it’s totally understandable if you have some programming to unlearn here.
Further notes to consider
Therapy is perhaps an obvious suggestion as well. There are different approaches that could be helpful for you. If you were to work with someone with more of a CBT focus, they might have you track negative thoughts related to your body and work toward challenging them. If you work with a different kind of provider, you might be looking more into your past and the origins of your negative feelings toward your body.
On a different note, some people find that the focus on body positivity is not helpful for them. This is totally understandable. To recite mantras and try to convince yourself that you are beautiful can sometimes be putting way too much emphasis on the need to be beautiful in the first place. In a way, it’s still feeding into being judgmental. You are putting a value judgment on yourself that you should feel beautiful and then trying to convince yourself that it’s true. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with confidence bodily or otherwise, but some people find that focusing more on body neutrality is more helpful. There are undoubtedly a bunch of books and videos about this, which you can look into. But essentially, you are trying to de-emphasize the appearance of your body. Your body is useful and amazing for many reasons and it’s basically irrelevant what it looks like. Your ability to feel well and live your life the way you’d like to are so much more important. So you don’t work to convince yourself that you are beautiful. Instead, you work to remove the value judgment about how bodies look in the first place.
Mindfulness can play an important role here as well, as that asks you to be more curious and descriptive while being less judgmental. This takes practice, but it can really help. It will also help you not be so caught up and derailed by stray negative thoughts that you have about your body, which can really get in the way of enjoying yourself in public or even things like having sex.
I mentioned therapy before, but I’d really like to suggest it for your case. Mainly because it’s so hard to know exactly what to suspect without being able to really dig in there and get a feel for what’s going on. In some cases, you may want to work toward limiting your sort of “checking” rituals like looking in the mirror, combing over photos, or weighing yourself to break those habits. In other situations, you might need to do something like the downward arrow exercise, which has you keep asking why an issue matters until you get to the underlying issue. For instance, why does it matter if you have stretch marks?
Regardless, I think this is super important to pay attention to you because you deserve to feel comfortable and less burdened by this.
You can listen to this on Episode 260 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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