Today I was sitting opposite my friend in a coffee shop, chatting with her about her upcoming trip home to visit family and friends. Midway through our conversation she paused, her eyes welled up, and she admitted, “I’m scared of going home and seeing everyone. I’m so fat at the moment”.
I felt a pang of pain in my heart for her. How could it be that she felt scared to see the people she loved most, and who loved her most, because she was feeling fat?
While this concept seemed senseless to me, I could also totally empathize with how she felt.
In fact, I think we all can.
We all have things we‘d like to change about our bodies: Thinner thighs, flatter tummies, bigger boobs, skinnier arms, the list goes on.
We struggle to have an accepting and loving relationship with our own body, instead spending most of our time jabbing, prodding and criticizing it. And generally, we have developed this seemingly logical belief that if we change these things about our bodies, we’ll be happier.
And why wouldn’t we? The weight loss industry alone made over $60 billion last year by selling the idea that we should be thinner, prettier, more perfect versions of ourselves. To put that figure into perspective for you, according to the United Nations, we could solve world hunger twice over.
Yet is changing our body actually predictive of happiness?
One would assume so, as we all feel good when we lose a little inch off here or there.
Jackson and colleagues from the University College London, who followed 1900 participants for four years, found that those who maintained their weight or even gained weight were actually less depressed than those who had lost weight.
Our body image is based on our perception. That’s why changing our physical appearance rarely has long-term significant impacts on our perceived body image or levels of body satisfaction. Otherwise, people with eating disorders would all be stoked. By the way, they’re not.
The scary thing is, that how women feel about their weight and appearance does in fact play a major role in how satisfied they feel with their lives. Dr David Frederick, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Chapman University, found that body image was the third strongest predictor of overall life satisfaction among women. Yikes.
So what do we do if changing our physical appearance doesn’t actually lead to greater happiness?
Well, we work on how we relate to ourselves.
Dr Ellen Albertson and colleagues found that listening to a 20-minute self-compassion meditation, 3 or 4 times a week for just 3 weeks, significantly decreased body dissatisfaction and improved body appreciation.
That might sound too good to be true, but the more you practice self-compassion, the more it just becomes naturally the way you respond to yourself. So if you want to love those thighs, check out these meditations.
If you want a bit more on how to use self-compassion to improve how you feel about your body, here are some more skills. Kristin Neff, the lead researcher in the field of self-compassion, suggests that there are three components to self-compassion. Below are ways that you can utilize these three components of self-compassion to improve your body image.
Mindfulness: With mindfulness, we want to practice just noticing our experience, rather than getting totally swept away with it. When we get stuck in that deep hole of self-criticism about our body, mindfulness can help us let go and come back to the present moment.
It’s about simply noticing “Aha, I’m deep in shaming my body right now”. You can then instead try doing something like following your breath in and out of your body, observing your thoughts, rather than being totally preoccupied with them.
Another thing you can do is to include some gratitude in your mindfulness practice. Gratitude is a significant predictor of happiness, and it turns out that your body can be a great source of gratitude, but how often do you stop to thank your body for all the amazing things it does?
It’s actually mind-blowing to the think of all the things your body does for you. Do you ever stop to thank your legs for helping you to walk? Or your arms for doing, well, everything? Do you thank your bottom for making sitting comfortable or your stomach for protecting your internal organs? What about thanking your thighs for storing your fat so that you have a healthy heart?
Acknowledging the function of your body parts rather than their appearance allows you to relate differently to your body and focus more on health and function. Ultimately, our bodies were designed to work, to help us to survive, not to look perfect. And relating to them from this place of gratitude rather than self-criticism can really help you to change your relationship with your body.
Common Humanity: Next time you find yourself in the work elevator obsessing about how the girl in front of you has better legs than you, consider this… She’s probably doing the same thing about you and your magnificent lashes.
Body dissatisfaction is extremely common in women, and we all share that same struggle to truly love ourselves just the way we are.
In fact, body dissatisfaction is so common, that on measures of eating disorder pathology, body dissatisfaction in “normal” populations versus those with an eating disorder overlap. Therefore, it’s considered normal to hate on your body.
Common humanity allows us to recognize that imperfection is the essence of being human. Acknowledging that we’re not alone in our struggles can be very reassuring and comforting, so next time try to focus on how she’s probably fighting the same battle.
Check out this commercial which highlights the common humanity found in body dissatisfaction.
Self-Kindness: If you were sitting opposite my friend in the coffee shop, how would you respond to her?
Would you get your judgy face on and say to her, “Well babe, if you just went to the gym more rather than being so lazy” or “If you didn’t eat that donut at lunch time and had more self-control, then none of this would be a problem”? Doubt it.
But, I’m almost certain you’d be saying some version of this to yourself.
And after you’ve laid into yourself, how do you feel? Beaten down? Disheartened? Depressed?
We can learn a lot from how we choose to treat others. Think of what you would say to someone else in the moment, and turn that compassion inwards. Why not try by starting off with apologizing to yourself for being so harsh in a moment of suffering.
Embrace those body’s beauties, they’re your greatest gift.
Albertson, E. R., Neff, K. D., & Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2015). Self-compassion and body dissatisfaction in women: A randomized controlled trial of a brief meditation intervention. Mindfulness, 6(3), 444-454.
Frederick, D. A., Sandhu, G., Morse, P. J., & Swami, V. (2016). Correlates of appearance and weight satisfaction in a US National Sample: Personality, attachment style, television viewing, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Body image, 17, 191-203.
Jackson, S. E., Steptoe, A., Beeken, R. J., Kivimaki, M., & Wardle, J. (2014). Psychological changes following weight loss in overweight and obese adults: a prospective cohort study. PloS one, 9(8), e104552.