"This is a call to arms. A call to be gentle, to be forgiving, to be generous with yourself. The next time you look into the mirror, try to let go of the story line that says you're too fat or too shallow, too ashy or too old, your eyes are too small or your nose too big; just look into the mirror and see your face. When the criticism drops away, what you will see then is just you, without judgment, and that is the first step toward transforming your experience of the world." --Oprah Winfrey

Being different can result in thinking about your body in a negative way. We often tend to think that everyone is watching us, as if we are on a stage. Social scientists call this an imaginary audience. It seems like the imagined audience is particularly present for people who struggle with body image. For a time, I too struggled with the imaginary audience and I think we all struggle with it to some degree. For example, I remember struggling in middle school when I had to take off my shirt to change into my gym clothes. I felt like everyone was staring at my fat stomach and thinking "That guy needs to lose some weight!" In reality, probably few if anyone really even looked or cared, but I felt like it was a big deal.

Another example of this phenomenon was experienced by Elena who shares her struggle with feeling self-conscious about her ear deformity: “When I wear my hair up, sometimes I feel like people are staring, but with my friends that I’m close with, I often ask, ‘Can you notice it?’ and they say, ‘No, I really can’t, I didn’t even know until you mentioned it.’”

This is a great example of an imaginary audience because Elena thought that others were paying attention to her ear and yet they really didn’t care much about it. We think that people are watching us closely; watching what we wear and what we do, but the truth is that most people are too busy thinking about themselves to really notice or care. Nevertheless, thinking these negative thoughts about our bodies can result in negative self-comparisons, feeling distant from others, feeling flawed, lacking self-acceptance, and feeling a lack of physical ability or power.

The rest of this post has now been published in my book Standing up for Standing Out: Making the most of Being Different in Kindle or hard copy.The book includes experiences from 74 people I interviewed who share their struggles and coping strategies on the topics of relationships, belonging, standing out, self-acceptance, working against labels, gaining understanding and compassion, and personal growth. Check it out!

“You are not a mistake. You are not a problem to be solved. But you won't discover this until you are willing to stop banging your head against the wall of shaming and caging and fearing yourself." --Geneen Roth

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