Body Image Series: Resilience, Self Care and Body Kindness
For today's post and episode, part 2 of our body image series, I'm going to introduce you to the idea that the shame, hiding, negative body image moments, sad dressing room or morning scale moments, might not be a complete waste. Don't get me wrong, I don't wish these on anyone, and we're going to work hard through this series to prevent these from popping back up as frequently as they've been happening to you. What if I told you though, that the actual research shows that we can use these moments as a jumping off point to improve our body image? It's called body image resilience, a concept I found out about thanks to two of my favorite twins on this planet, two amazing women I'll be introducing to you today. A pair of identical twins who aren't only as eloquent as they get but who are body image activists, PhDs and experts on the topic of body image resilience and self-worth. Lindsay Kite, PhD and Lexie Kite, Phd have made it their life's mission to scientifically study how to help women and girls stop the self objectification, and see their bodies as more than objects to be looked at, teaching us how to re-wire the way we see our bodies.
Last week in part 1, I shared the story of my rock bottom moment and the tools that helped me climb out of that space, and that's certainly the place to start when you're on this quest to improve your perception of your body and that negative self-talk, but I know how hard this can be. It can feel like an uphill battle in which you have one good day and then 5 bad ones back to back. You can feel totally confident and appreciative of your body one day, and then have a body bashing fest in front of the mirror the next morning. It's why I created this series, to share the tools that have helped me. I can honestly say that for me it was a lot harder to un-learn the cultural parameters I had been absorbing since childhood, than it was to learn about a new perspective, hence the difficulty in walking down this path. We can read about body positivity endlessly, but it still feels tough to apply and internalize, so if this is you, I hear ya! I can tell you however, that it is a dual process of acknowledging those internalized messages that are glued to our perception of our bodies AND learning a new paradigm. It's impossible to do one without the other. First we must feel and accept where we are and the countless messages we've been taking in, then we must find the concepts and perspectives that will shine a light on the previous ones and slowly pave a new way. That's why today we're learning about what the research on body image says, the wonderful research-backed concept of body image resilience, and the role that self-care can have in feeling happy and joyful in our own skin no matter what our body looks like. Slowly but surely we'll be walking past the old body shaming road, and into a bright new one.
Part of the problem we have with our own perception of our bodies is that now we not only live in a culture that glorifies unrealistic standards of beauty, what's even worse, is it has slowly but surely taught us to focus so much on our appearance we have become masters of self objectification. In Lindsay and Lexie's words, self-objectification can be defined as "the process of monitoring your body from an outsiders perspective". Sure, this beauty obsessed culture has created fear mongering, the need to buy endless products and diets to tuck, tweak, and change, but it has also changed our psyche into thinking that we need to be constantly aware, constantly careful and perfecting what our body is doing (or how it looks) on any given moment of the day. When we think or talk about our bodies we are actually describing how we feel about our bodies as if we were on a casting call. Outside viewers looking, analyzing, and finding things to correct.
Imagine becoming judge and jury over ourselves, based solely on the way we look. Add on years of societal constructs as to how bodies "should" look, and imagine practicing this self objectification daily over time. It's serious business! Now it's not only about unfair comparisons or feeling we have a responsibility to be beautiful, it's about the automatic impulse to objectify ourselves, and the aftermath in today's world is never good.
Before we continue with today's topic, I want you to think about the following phrase, which you'll get to hear countless times throughout this post and episode:
"My body is an instrument, not an ornament"
This is a line from the wonderful TED talk I'll be sharing today by one of these remarkable sisters, based on their research on body image. This sentence was so powerful to me I've been repeating it as a mantra to make decisions lately. It's powerful when you think about it. We are not a vase at a home decor store that we look at and circle around or inspect before buying it to see if it's chipped or scratched or has any flaws we need to be aware of. We need to start seeing ourselves as more than objects to be looked at. When self objectification has taken the reigns, what happens is we forget that our purpose in this life is not to look perfect in the family photo, it's to live our life fully. To live our life fully we need to be present in it, we need to take care of our bodies, not push them to their limits. We need to make sure we're sleeping enough to feel rested, not waking up after only 5 hours of sleep to burn the cookies we ate yesterday on the treadmill. We need to eat for fuel and nourishment as well as pleasure, not trick our bodies into eating less so that we can squeeze into a smaller size next time we go shopping.
These past few weeks when I've repeated this phrase when making decisions "my body is an instrument, not an ornament", my confidence started skyrocketing, I started making choices that made sense and made me happy, and believe it or not I started looking after myself better. When you notice it's an instrument, not an ornament, you want to also keep that instrument working as strongly and as happily as it can, and in order to do so, self-care comes in and sits in the front seat, and rules and "shoulds" created by diet-culture are left at the curb.
In today's world, we have not only put so much of the focus on constantly being aware of our body and how to perfect it or what it's doing, but we have associated this with a sense of pride, and any flexibility and enjoyment with laziness, not caring, or letting ourselves go. If we believe our body is an ornament that exists for the sole purpose of being there to be looked at and admired by others, nothing in our life will be fulfilling or joyous to ourselves.If we realize our bodies are an instrument for living a life though, a whole new world opens up, and to me, the only path to achieving self acceptance, a positive body image and self-worth no matter what our bodies look like. It's also, in my opinion, the only path to real health and true self-care. If you read part 1 of this series in which I describe my rock bottom moment when it comes to body image, you'll understand why in my experience, the focus on changing my body to meet beauty standards took me away from health and self-care.
Our body is not an ornament, it's an instrument.
It's the tool we use to love, laugh, move, learn, appreciate and experience the world around us, and we've been treating it like it's never enough.
It's time to change that.
Are there people who love their bodies? Introducing the concept of body resilience
Are there some people who love their bodies? The answer is of course yes, and this is what Lindsay and her team set their eyes on during their studies. What they found was astounding! They saw that most of the people who now had a wonderful appreciation and love for their bodies had developed this after having had moments of deep shame and pain when it came to their body image. They loved their bodies because of past moments of body shame and negative body image, not in the absence of them. They called it body image resilience, and through the subjects that participated in these research studies they realized that women developed this new body image resilience or a more positive body image with what they learned after going through that process of pain. These moments are what they called body image disruptions, for example, feeling deep shame after going to the beach or weighing yourself, gaining weight, being made fun of, seeing your body change after having a baby, being in an accident or getting ill, being bullied, having your boundaries violated as in the case of sexual assault, being body shamed at the doctor's office, etc. These body disruptions, acted as the rock bottom moments like the one I described last week, after which my life was never the same. What they found through their studies is that these instances can takes us down one of three paths, either into deeper shame, into hiding and fixing (that's where diets, products and services come in), or they can bring about rising through body image resilience. The question is, which of these three paths do we choose after experiencing a body image disruption, and how can we purposely start gearing ourselves towards the latter.
Almost every woman I know, and probably most men too (and often in silence), have gone through shame after a body image disruption. Most of them have gone through hiding and trying to fix (think of when you said no to an invite to a pool party or a vacation on the beach, or spent hours trying to manage living a life with a restrictive diet making you weigh, measure, portion out and count every morsel). I also know about taking the third road, the one in which we use those rock bottom moments or events to take a step back and realize it's time for a change, it's time for body image resilience.
We all have this power within us, and I think it's as uplifting as it comes to start using those body image disruptions to our advantage, as reminders of this journey to better self love that we've embarked upon together.
"The first step of resiliency is to identify the disruption. Name it. Shine a light on it. Call it what it is: a crappy, painful opportunity for positive change... If you will work to identify disruptions in your life and use them as opportunities for growth, you can cultivate a million strategies to make those disruptions happy. " - Lindsay Kite, PhD
One of the ways I did this with my own body when I went through my worst body image moment, was to focus on really taking care of my body and mind, finding joy in looking after it precisely as an instrument, not an ornament, I simply lacked the beautiful magical words Lexie and Lindsay so kindly share with us through their work. For me, after a body image disruption it was time for body image resilience, and with it, the easiest first steps came through self care and being kind to myself:
Self Care and Body Kindness
One of the traps we encounter when we try to love our bodies is we feel that unless they meet beauty standards, are fit and slim, we aren't taking care of ourselves properly. We've become careless or lazy. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can become masters of self care and body respect and yes, with that health, even when our bodies look nothing like what we see inside the magazines. Mastering self care was key for me in improving my body image, and whenever I find myself having a bad body image day I can almost instantly point to how I've been loosey goosey with my self care practices. It all boils down to this, when you practice loving self care and kindness to yourself, everything starts feeling better. Here are some essential self care tools that I found to be very important in my journey to body acceptance. In some cases I mention movement and exercise as these were a part of my journey, but they can easily be substituted with other self care tools if you have a disability, have limited or impaired mobility, or are ill. We'll also cover these topics in next week's episode of the body image series.
Movement that Feels Good!
When I exercise and move my body in a way I love, I feel the waves of self care rush over me and I can feel that my body is all well and good. I feel healthy, active, strong, even when my body doesn't change. When I feel happy after moving my body, knowing changes in my body aren't even an issue, I do exercises I truly love, and this brings me joy and an even better body image. I appreciate it as an instrument to live a joyous life, not an ornament for others to admire or judge.
When I take the time to get back into my body and out of my head (where body shame loves to make a cozy home for itself), I can start to see how my body is much more than just the way it looks or an object to be looked at. Feeling embodied is that great sensation you feel when you do that extra long stretch in the morning upon waking that feels so good. It's that moment after you finish a walk, a run, a bike ride, a dance class or however you like to move, when you feel that little tingle because of the extra circulation, or that feeling of tiredness and energy at the same time. It's the glorious feeling you get after meditating or doing a breathing exercise, or the feeling you get after finally lying down after a long day at work. These moments feel like relief because we've escaped the endless banter of our minds and are deeply connected to our bodies in a positive way. By doing activities that help me get in touch with my body I appreciate it as an instrument to live a joyous life, I appreciate all it can do other than sit pretty, and not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
When I feel rested and make sleep and relaxation a priority I feel energy to really participate in my life, to run with my dogs in the park, to walk and take in the beautiful natural world In the woods I love near my house. My mind is clearer and I can not only focus on my work and projects but enjoy myself in the process. I can read, study and engage with other people in more meaningful ways because stress and feeling tired aren't the common denominator of my day. Feeling rested helps me be mindful about all the other choices I have to make in my day including food choices, the choice to move and to eat mindfully. When I sleep well, the negative body image voices quiet down, and the ones that see my experience as a whole and with kindness, take the front seat. I start appreciating my body as an instrument to live a joyous life, not an ornament for others to admire or judge.
Delicious, nourishing, fun, pleasurable and mindful eating
When I'm able to quiet down and make eating a special moment, one in which I can not only feel pleasure and delight over the foods I'm eating but also fuel up and use it as an opportunity to get centered. When I notice what my body is feeling (is it hungry? Is it full? Is it tired? Is it thirsty?) so I can give it what it needs without punishing it, I start appreciating my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
Relaxation and being mindful
When I notice myself getting restless or anxious, feeling the need to slow life down a little, I give myself the time for some down time. Time to just relax, meditate, or sit for a few minutes with nothing to do. Time to read a good book, to watch a fun movie, or to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and just breathe. When I give myself the pleasure of relaxing, I see my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not an ornament for others to admire or judge.
Being social with the people that truly make me feel good!
When I make time to see the people that always make me smile, that make me feel I'm part of a community, that there's a place for me, and only dedicate this time to the people I truly love to spend time with, not out of obligation or habit, I also start appreciating my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge or where shoulds are part of the equation. Do you have a usual commitment you dread going to, a friend who doesn't make you feel like yourself or you need to impress, a person in your life who puts you down instead of lift you up. Time to change that, and yes, this is part of self care, and yes this can have a positive impact in your body image.
Spending time within ourselves
When I reserve time for me and me, time to write in my journal, or do the things that I call my "refuels", aka the activities that make me feel like I spent some precious time on making my life better: reading a book I love, spending time in nature, just sitting with my dogs in the park with no distractions, looking at old books I love, dancing, writing, watching ridiculous Christmas movies, knitting, getting into comfy clothes and doing nothing all day, making pies or cooking a new recipe with no time limits. These moments within myself that help me feel my tank is full, also make me start appreciating my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
Fun and funny
Never underestimate the re-fueling power of a good laugh and getting in touch with that kid inside you that loves to play! When I make fun a priority, and do things that make me giddy, everything magically seems to come into perspective, I stop taking everything so seriously, and what immediately follows is flexibility and relief. I also start appreciating my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
Wearing clothes that fit the body I have now
This is one of my favorite tools of self care. When I buy clothes that fit my body comfortably and not the body I might have some day, not the clothes the magazine tells us are appropriate for the season or my body shape, but the clothes I love and that feel good on me (whether that means I have to go up a size or not), my body image gets an instant boost. There's nothing like a tight waistband or jeans you need to do plyometrics to get into to completely make you focus back on that self objectification, that looking at your body as if you were witnessing it from the outside. Stop putting yourself through that. Wear the clothes you love and that make you feel comfortable, ask your stores to carry more sizes. If you have a larger body, tell your stores that baggy t-shirts or sweaters with funny cartoons just won't fly, that you also want stylish clothes you love in your size. Buy what makes you feel like strutting, and pay no attention to the size on the tag. When I wear clothes that help me live my day and move through it feeling great, I appreciate my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
When I take myself out of a body shaming space, and into a space of feeling grateful, everything changes. Suddenly eating past fullness at Thanksgiving when we've been trying to eat more mindfully (a normal part of eating, and a normal part of being a human being!), can go from a guilt-trip to feeling grateful that we have a belly full of nourishing foods when so many people don't have that privilege. Suddenly deciding to rest when you need to and skipping the gym that day goes from self-punishing thoughts to feeling grateful that you have the privilege of having time to rest and practice some self-care. When you make the body kind decision to exercise in a way that brings you joy, you can feel gratitude for the fact that your body can do so when the bodies of others may not have a choice (more on this topic in next week's episode). Gratitude is like a shot of tequila that quickly widens your eyes and gives you a crazy little jolt, but without the alcohol or the hangover. It's almost an instant cure for negativity, but we must practice it frequently to remember that it's there in our tool box whenever we need it. When I feel the wonderful waves of gratitude wash over me, I appreciate my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
Practicing body kindness and self-compassion
When I have moments of feeling that I'm not enough, when I've made a mistake, when someone comments on my appearance or I have a body image disruption like the ones I mentioned at the top of the post, I feel my feelings! We've been taught to suck it up, swallow it down and power through, but with body image, science now tells us this isn't working. By trying to hide or fix we only dive deeper into shame. What sounds like a better plan to me is to feel the blow these bad body image moments have brought, and then climb out of them with all the new tools we have in our body image tool belt, especially the one we need to focus on the most: being kind to ourselves, personifying that kind voice we would offer a friend, a daughter, our dog, or our 5 year old self and turning that voice around towards ourselves. Start making this a practice of not hiding the negative body shaming voice, but looking them straight in the eye, noticing that these feelings are painful, then realizing that we have the tools to climb out of that space, with kindness, not a promise to alter or fix or bodies. When I treat my body and my mind with kindness, I can turn a bad body image moment into loving self-compassion and begin to use my other body kindness tools to find a new and better place for myself in this world. I remember to appreciate my body as an instrument that deserves to live a joyous life, not as an ornament for others to admire or judge.
The Body Kindness Spiral
The wonderful dietitian nutritionist and author of the book Body Kindness, Rebecca Scritchfield, who I introduced you to last week, has the wonderful concept of spiralling up. It's at the core of many of the exercises in her must-read book, and if you're a very visual person like me, you're going to love it! Her concept of spiralling up states that as soon as you notice that the opposite is happening, spiralling down into negative town because you had a bad body image moment (what we now know as body image disruptions), it's time to shift gears and start spiralling up through loving acts of body kindness and self care. Every time you take a little turn in that upward spiral (imagine going up a funnel or a twister), by journaling after you've had a burst of body shame, or getting a massage when you're feeling out of your body and anxious, or by moving in a way that feels joyous instead of going to a fitness class you don't really like, you are climbing up the upward body kindness spiral, for every little arm of the spiral you climb, more and more opportunities to be kind to yourself start unfolding in front of you and the spiral gets bigger and bigger, wider and wider as you reach the top. As you can see, the experts are all pointing to the same thing: we take those bad body image instances and turn them into opportunities to re-train our brains into a more positive and less objectifying space, where we accept ourselves as more than just bodies to view, and as the capable, unique, loving and compassionate people that we are.
Today's TED Talk
How can I not follow this post and episode without the wonderful work and words of Lindsay Kite, PhD, co-creator (along with her sister Lexie), of Beauty Redefined.
We're going to start using our body image disruptions as a jumping off point to increase our self-worth as separate from what our bodies look like, and for that, we need to have some self-care tools right at our fingertips. Use your journal, a blank piece of paper, a note on your phone or a document in your computer and write your own self-care toolkit. This is the page you will revisit whenever you have a bad body image moment. A moment we can now use as an opportunity for body image resilience. It can include activities and projects that make you feel good, sane, joyous and capable, for me these are things like writing, trying out a new recipe, watching a film with my dogs on the couch, reading a body positive blog or book (include the name of the websites and book titles), sitting in a café to journal or watch people walk by, knitting, walking in nature, making soup, making pie, catching up with a friend who I can confide in and talk to about these issues, watching a TED talk, doing a guided meditation, going to a dance class, etc. My list is LONG, and it's in my journal, always at my disposal. You can include the URL to our body image series, or to some of the resources I've been sharing. This week, all you have to do is make a list, keep it handy for building body image resilience whenever those disruptions come up. The following paragraph and resource will also be of tremendous help:
Remember our friend Emma, the inspiration behind this series? Emma recently came to me after seeing a photo someone took of her (a photo I LOVED and thought was probably my very favorite picture of her!). She told me about the horrible words and thoughts that came into her head when she saw herself in that picture (all things I couldn't see, which is a lesson on how hard we can be on ourselves when it comes to our body image). Today, besides the body loving list in the exercise above, I want you to read this fantastic article on using the body image disruption of being tagged in a photo you hate of yourself, as the perfect example of how to come out of these difficult moments and cultivate resilience. It's a kind of step by step process from body shame to resilience, by the very own Lindsay Kite, PhD.
We finished last week's episode with the wise words of Dumbledore to Harry Potter when it comes to mirrors, this week it's this little gem on why it's not only important to focus on portraying all kinds of bodies as beautiful, its about learning to see bodies as more than carriers of beauty alone:
"Instead of fighting for more women's bodies to be viewed as valuable, let's fight for women to be valued as more than bodies to view."
- Lindsay Kite PhD
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